SPECIAL GREEN- Skin deep: C'mon, baby, do the local lotion

Brigitte Rau soaks calendula in olive oil for four to six weeks before using it in her lotions and skin care products.

The old National Linen building on the corner of Meade Avenue and Market Street has a rusted-out industrial aesthetic– not exactly the home one imagines for the creation of a luxurious line of organic skincare products. Yet that's just what's happening inside, where German-born Brigitte Rau and her team have converted 2,000 square feet of warehouse space into a laboratory of sorts where they whip up an assortment of soaps, hand creams, lip balms, and other herbal concoctions. The products have already become a staple at local boutiques and health food stores, and they've also begun making a splash further afield.

Dubbed "Brigit True Organics," after both Rau and the Celtic goddess Brigit, the products are created and packaged entirely on site by Rau, a former business consultant, and her staff of four. Rau says a lifelong interest in herbal remedies led her to launch the business in 2002, soon after she moved to Charlottesville from southern Germany.

Initially, Rau says, she sold her line at the City Market on Saturday mornings and online at brigittrueorganics.com, but as demand grew, she discovered several local businesses interested in stocking the line. Immediately, small local stores including Petit Bébé, Transient Crafters, Foods of All Nations, and Rebecca's invited her in. More recently, Rau scored a bigger outfit with Whole Foods, which now carries her products here and in D.C. and Pennsylvania.

But even placement in Whole Foods can't trump one of Rau's proudest accomplishments: an invitation to participate in the 2007 Harvard Medical School's Global Environmental Citizen Award ceremony, hosted by Meryl Streep and Al Gore in January. This year's recipient: Prince Charles, who, along with the award, accepted a sample bag of the Brigit True Goodies from Mr. Inconvenient Truth himself.

Much of the line's appeal is its purity, says Rau, who uses organic products including food-grade olive oil, herbs such as calendula, lavender, and sage, and natural extracts. All of the products are vegetarian, she says, and many are vegan, using candelilla wax in place of bee's wax, and excluding ingredients like goat's milk. She also avoids known allergens such as peanut oil. 

The downside: because there are no chemical emulsifiers or preservatives, the products are less durable. A day in a hot car, for instance, might cause the texture or scent to change. In addition, because they have no chemical preservatives, the potential for microbial growth is higher, though Rau says she sterilizes instruments and packaging and keeps the water content low to preclude such problems.

The products' relative fragility is a small price to pay, says one enthusiastic convert to Brigit True: architect Carrie Burke, who uses almost the full line.

 "I'm always looking for ecologically sound and nontoxic products, especially things for the skin," says Burke, who adds that she's tried many organic skincare products, but none have beaten Rau's, which she calls "consistently great." Despite the intensive labor that goes into creating the product without machinery, the prices remain reasonable, says Burke. Lip balms are $3 or less, while all of the other oils and lotions are under $20.

The other benefit, says Burke: Rau is here in Charlottesville.

"One time I ordered something online," Burke recalls. Rau "was kind enough to drop them off so they wouldn't melt if they were shipped."

Rau says she's ready to expand and hopes to see Brigit True in stores across the country. One thing she won't do: create a wrinkle cream.

"That's not what I'm about," she says. "I want people to be comfortable in their skin."