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Bag Balm: the sticky, slimy skincare that stands the test of time

Bag Balm has been used to soothe everything from chafed hands to irritated tattoos. Tucked away in Lyndonville, Vermont, the 125-year-old moisturizer business’ origins may surprise you.

It’s an early spring day in the Northeast Kingdom and a small staff is keeping a close eye on the production line. More than a century since the company was founded, the focus has shifted.

Bag Balm is one of those products that, if you’re from the Northeast, you probably grew up with — but probably didn’t give the green tin in your bathroom a second thought.

Until recently, the often 8-oz tin featured cow udders and red clovers, the state flower. The petroleum and lanolin-based mixture is used for all sorts of skin irritation and moisturization.

In 1899, the Norris family started the business as a treatment for udder edema or “cake bag,” when cow udders become dry and crack during milking. Today, that process is largely automated, but Bag Balm lives on.

Libby Parent, the company’s president, says the jelly initially intended for cows made the jump to households more than half-a-century ago.

“Legend has it that you know farmers have been using it for decades,” Parent said. “In the 1960’s, farmers’ wives are like, ‘why are my husband's hands softer than mine? Something's not right.’ And they realized it was Bag Balm so they brought it in the home and it's been used on two legged and four-legged family members since.”

Parent says over time, the product has grown to fill specific needs. It has since retired livestock-focused products, but remains committed to skincare.

“We've always stayed true to time tested skin moisturizing ingredients. And I think, having started from a true consumer need, and just like staying true to that, I mean, for over 100 years, that's all they made,” Parent said. “And then, you know, sort of evolved in some to some other livestock items. But I think the core Bag Balm product was just, it works.”

The company was sold to a private equity firm in 2013 and now solely serves as a human skincare product.

The 8-oz tin and 1-oz tins are produced in a tiny factory with hardwood floors. A distribution and packaging room are cozy with a breakroom and office on the side.

Bag Balm employee Nate Lowrey hand placing lids on freshly produced tins
Samantha Simmons
Bag Balm employee Nate Lowrey hand placing lids on freshly produced tins

Half a dozen employees are doing work that is now automated in most factory settings, such as lining the tins up to be filled with the petroleum, lanolin, paraffin, water, and 8-Hydroxyquinoline Sulfate mixture and hand-placing the lids on each individual tin. An employee then boxes the tins to be shipped. Until the end of 2023, the employees would hand shovel the lanolin and petroleum into the mixing pots. Now, a pump helps the team spit out roughly 9,000 8-oz tins a day.

In recent years, the company has come into the limelight with skincare gurus and influencers using the product as part of their daily routine and sharing it on social media.

Parent, who took over in 2021, says as a Vermont native she understands why sales spike during the winter. Parent says COVID played a part in its recent boom.

“We were fortunate in that everyone was washing their hands, like had a lot of dry skin,” Parent said. “So, we actually got a lot of new trial and usage during that time. And a lot of brands and companies had a hard time getting supplies and like, we're a simple formula. And we were in a position where we could plan for like getting enough in house.”

Parent says the company is grateful for the boom because:

“We're like a pass down family, which is awesome,” Parent said. “But it's hard to really see growth when you're relying on that same base.”

Vermont has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, 2.3 percent in February, compared to the nationwide rate of 3.9 percent. Parent says the company is lucky that most employees stay.

“I'm so grateful that we have a committed team that we haven't had a ton of retention issues, we also are really good at flowing to the work,” Parent said. “Like if there's people out like, the office team comes up. I mean, obviously, it is a skill to run those that equipment that we don't all have, but we can box, we can do things to chip in if we need to. And there have been years that we have definitely needed to more than others.”

A shrine of vintage Bag Balm packaging in the company's original building
Samantha Simmons
A shrine of vintage Bag Balm packaging in the company's original building

Mark Perkins, the plant manager, and his son, Logan, both work out of the Williams Street location. Perkins has worked at the company for 26 years and considers Bag Balm a second family.

“It's always been a good place to work,” Perkins said. “They've cared about the employees and from when it was privately owned business to where we are today and it's grown, you know, over the last few years. It's been nice to see.”

His son, who graduated from high school last year, is following in his father’s footsteps.

“Right now, we're filling the cans onto this table they go out in eight and they just get filled right over there.”

The product then moves to a cooling belt where another employee tops the tin and moves it through a shrink wrap machine that prepares it for packaging. The finished product will sit in the factory for at least 24 hours before being shipped out.

Bag Balm has also tested CBD products, but Parent says that effort was ill-timed.

“The minimums required. And that sort of thing. It was really challenging to a new direct to consumer base, but like a lot of retailers at the time weren't taking it. And so, you know, it has a best by date,” Parent said. “So, we just had challenges with supply chain and inventory.”

For now, Bag Balm plans to stick to tradition, one tin at a time.

Samantha joined the WAMC staff after interning during her final semester at the University at Albany. A Troy native, she looks forward to covering what matters most to those in her community. Aside from working, Samantha enjoys spending time with her friends, family, and cat. She can be reached by phone at (518)-465-5233 Ext. 211 or by email at ssimmons@wamc.org.