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From lawn clippings to — soap?

Unique, grass-based bars can protect, clean skin, owner says

SHARE From lawn clippings to — soap?

When Chris Carlson tells people what he makes, some think he must be smokin' something.

Namely, his product. It's a soap made from grass.

"People come back with the obvious, that when I say 'grass' I mean 'pot,' and that I'm making dope soap on a hemp rope," he said, adding that other people have expressed doubts about what else may be in the plants he uses.

"Some people think I'm insane, that I'm just melting soap and putting grass in it and then solidifying it."

Instead, Carlson uses a complex chemical process to turn grass and olive and coconut oils into bars and industrial-strength liquid hand soaps.

As the owner of Grassoap, operating from a small Salt Lake shop, Carlson understands the doubters. After all, don't people use tons of soap to get rid of grass stains on clothes?

"It's very counter-intuitive," he said. "But an analysis of grass fibers shows they are very soap-like in structure. Once processed, it makes for a very feisty herbal soap."

The process results in a product that leaves hands clean, soft and protected against rashes, sores and infections, he said. It's a cut above current industrial soaps that he said can dehydrate skin tissue and solvents that destroy the top layer of skin.

Its composition makes it highly effective against grease and oil. And Carlson's customers, mainly about two dozen mechanics in the Salt Lake area, are believers. When asked about the liquid Grassoap, they will climb atop a soapbox and come clean.

"I was skeptical," said Stan Bowen, manager of Downtown Radiator and Muffler. "It looked like raw grass, and it was slimy. I didn't want to use it.

"But I tried it, and it worked good. The more I used it, the cleaner my hands got. I've been a mechanic for 30 years and my hands are so clean, I can't believe it."

"The first couple of batches smelled liked a lawn bag after sitting there for a week, but he got that worked out," said Brice Cody, manager of the 3rd Avenue Car Clinic.

"But I loved it from the first day I used it. It keeps hands clean well and keeps them moist. A lot of soaps have chemicals or are alcohol-based and dry the hands out so bad that you don't want to use them."

Chris Draper, president of Neil's Pro Service, said it's the best soap he's used in his 25 years of mechanic work.

"I wash my hands 20 to 30 times a day," he said. "Lanolin soaps give me a rash. This takes the rash away. It makes my hands feel soft and doesn't dry them out like industrial cleaners do."

Carlson can relate. While working as an auto mechanic years ago, he developed hospital-treatment-level chronic dermatitis, which left cracks and open sores on his hands that were worsened by existing soaps.

"My hands looked like Freddy Krueger's," he said. Today, his hands are as soft as, well, a lush lawn.

So, how does a person make the connection between grass and soap?

Carlson said the seed for the concept was planted in late 1986. While an employee of the U.S. Department of Energy, he noticed at an oil spill cleanup site, the only thing prospering was grass. "I thought, 'That's kind of weird,' " he said.

A few years later, while fixing a Volkswagen bus engine, the greasy hulk plopped onto his lap. With no obvious cleaner nearby, he wiped his hands on the grass. "I noticed that they ended up not only clean but squeaky-clean," he said.

His "moment of clarity" came during a discussion about herbal soaps at a chemical engineering class at the University of Utah.

"I walked out of class, left the university, bought some chemicals and glassware, and I was experimenting that afternoon," Carlson said of that day in February 2000.

The next month, using basic equipment in his garage and on his kitchen stove, his grassroots efforts produced a prototype bar. "I was surprised. As crude as it was, it actually worked," he said.

Friends liked the soap and soon their word-of-mouth advertising yielded orders. But Carlson still was refining the product, and a $10,000 loan from the Utah Microenterprise Loan Fund — seed money? — covered the costs of a patent attorney and new processing equipment.

The details of the processing?

"Ancient Chinese secret," Carlson joked. But it's a complex path to get from Utah grass to soap, a process he refuses to hedge by using synthetic materials. He finds it easy bein' green, insisting his soaps remain all-natural, even if distributors who are interested in expanding his customer base into new turf question that stance.

Carlson acknowledges that the grass soap biz has hit a dry patch. Sales of the bars didn't take off as well as he thought they might, so in recent months he's been refining the liquid gel. He figures he sells about 25 gallons each month, which is not enough to pay for his business' overhead.

His wares cost only a little green: $20 for a single gallon, or a case of four gallons for $50. Bars cost $2 each, available with or without pumice. They can be ordered at www.grassoap.com or by calling 688-3377.

"I'm trying to not be one of the 99 percent of businesses that fail in their first year. I'm in full survival mode, trying to survive the storm, and it's a tough business climate right now," Carlson said.

But recent events may make the time ripe for his wares. "Maybe it's a good time to have a U.S.-made, all-natural, environmentally friendly product," he said.

Carlson remains confident that once people try Grassoap, they'll realize he is outstanding in his field. He should be. Apparently he's the only one in it, the only person who has started such a company from the ground up and is looking to blossom in the world of soapy sales.

"But this business is tough," he said. "When I got into it, I researched it and researched it, and nobody has ever tried this kind of thing before."

E-MAIL: bwallace@desnews.com