The beautiful etched butterfly that adorns a large window at the entrance to Suzanne’s Organics Salon, at 254 E. Michigan Ave., is symbolic of the transformations that can occur within the shop.
“This is our logo, ‘The Spirit of Beauty,’” says salon founder and owner Suzanne Huffman-Chamberlin. “It’s about the soul, the evolution of the soul. We are always changing, transforming, becoming more beautiful internally and externally.”
The butterfly, however, is also symbolic of Huffman-Chamberlin’s own transformation over the years. Having started to “do hair right out of high school,” 28 years ago, she became accustomed to using the methods and products that permeate the beauty industry — products laden with chemicals.
Then, in 1990, she took a trip to India that immersed her in Eastern medicine. There, she was introduced to the book Rejuvenation: A Wellness Guide for Women and Men, written by Horst Rechelbacher, founder of the organic cosmetic line Aveda and acclaimed “father of safe cosmetics.”
Inspired, Huffman-Chamberlin began to incorporate yoga, meditation, massage, aromatherapy, daily journaling, diet, nutrition and the use of natural cosmetics into her cosmetology profession. “That was the very beginning of my deeper personal spiritual and professional life,” she says, and of her efforts to practice “safe cosmetology.”
In 2006, Huffman-Chamberlin attended what she describes as an “eye-opening, life-altering” workshop hosted by Rechelbacher in Minnesota. “He introduced us to a book, Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, by Stacy Malkan,” Huffman-Chamberlin says. Deeply motivated, she returned to Kalamazoo determined to practice her craft differently.
“I was a partner in another salon at that time,” she says, “but once I had this new information, I felt compelled to go all the way into this realm of safe cosmetology, not just compromise by bringing in a few safe product lines. And I wanted a clean, enriching environment to work in.”
On her own
She found an optimal location in a building nestled into one of Kalamazoo’s historic commercial districts, customized the interior and then opened Suzanne’s Organics Salon in 2011. The salon’s interior is a reflection of Huffman-Chamberlin’s desire for simplicity and naturalness. It incorporates the building’s history via exposed red brick walls that offer a sense of warmth while serving as a neutral backdrop for locally crafted artwork. There’s a modern Asian light fixture over the door created by an artist in Holland and reclaimed from the former Journeyman Café in Fennville.
“I and my husband, Rob Chamberlin, designed the space. He did all the furniture and woodwork and built the cabinets,” Huffman-Chamberlin says. “We keep our space simple and clear, making it pleasing to the eye. And when clients lean back in a chair for a shampoo, they look up at this beautiful, original, embossed tin ceiling.”
Even the products used and sold at the salon reflect Huffman-Chamberlin’s belief in natural beauty. Made from essential oils, they contain no ammonia, parabens, sulfates, artificial dyes, synthetic fragrances or other toxic substances. “We don’t do perms or traditional relaxers. Primarily cutting and coloring. That’s why we don’t have a strong chemical fragrance in the air,” Huffman-Chamberlin says.
But she practices what she believes not just at her own salon; she has also become a strong advocate for safe cosmetology within the salon industry and the Kalamazoo community.
“In truth, we shouldn’t even be having this discussion,” she says. “All salon owners and stylists and consumers should be sufficiently aware of what we’re putting on our bodies.”
She emphasizes that stylists who perform chemical services every day are especially at risk, and she hopes that by educating them they will, in turn, educate their clientele.
“A greater degree of information creates the opportunity for consumers to choose,” she says. “Some of our clients are pregnant women who want safe alternatives because chemicals go through the umbilical cord and can harm the fetus. Some of our clients come from as far away as Detroit and Grand Rapids because they have physical reactions to chemical-based products used in other salons.”
Education is key
Consumer information and education is necessary, Huffman-Chamberlin says, because cosmetic manufacturers in the United States are self-regulated. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, according to a brochure for Suzanne’s Organics Salon, “only steps in after the product has caused (consumer) complaints.” The brochure also quotes the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization, and its claim that “98% of all products contain one or more ingredients never publicly assessed for safety.”
“The dilemma for us in the U.S.,” says Huffman-Chamberlin, “is that the cosmetic industry’s self-regulating authority, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, has banned only 11 toxic ingredients in products like shampoo, soap and sunscreen while regulators in Europe have banned 1,100. The reviewers in the U.S. say their research shows the products are safe, so consumers assume they’re safe. But I don’t think they are. If the ingredients are safe, why are they banned in Europe?”
In addition to informing their own clients, Huffman-Chamberlin and her staff also provide health information through the salon’s website, social media, public workshops and conversations with other salon owners and stylists. Interaction with cosmetic consumer advocacy groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (formerly the Breast Cancer Fund) help keep the staff up to date on the latest research and consumer advocacy, Huffman-Chamberlin says. She has also created a highly informative brochure that displays the salon’s healthy product lines as well as toxic cosmetic chemicals to avoid.
Huffman-Chamberlin acknowledges that influencing consumers is a challenge, especially when they are accustomed either by culture or economics to buy the cheapest soaps and shampoos. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how to approach the community at large,” she says. Her answers, which she is still formulating, include coordinating public-service campaigns with Kalamazoo-area social justice, medical and holistic health groups as well as area citizens and students associated with environmental studies and women’s studies.
“I’d like to advance the discussion of what’s happening with cosmetic chemicals, then really initiate a grassroots effort for change, because it’s going to take all of us getting out there and talking about these issues,” she says.