When a skincare line boasts just one product, you know it’s a powerhouse performer. Primal Derma is just that: An all-in-one balm that utilizes grass-fed beef tallow as an emollient, recognizable ingredient that speaks to skin in a way plant-based ingredients don’t. We chatted with founder Matthew Stillman about why he leaned into the animal connection to create Primal Derma and how important it is to not just love the products you use, but also to understand their place in a larger story.
You call your balm the “Swiss Army Knife” of skincare. Tell us more about what that means to you, and why you created it that way.
Often in the industry you will find day creams, night serums, eye balms, lifting toners for oily skin, lip buffs, exfoliators for dry skin, and so on. And then these companies will attempt to convince you that you need some or all of these products. This is just too much and preys on people’s sense of lack.
A Swiss Army knife does just about anything you need—it’s in there. If you need something highly specific, then perhaps you don’t use a Swiss Army knife, but for the vast majority of people, that tool will do. Similarly with Primal Derma, for most people with skin and issues with it, it will help. Primal Derma should be able to lower your skin care product load because it just works and it just works for most people. Scrapes, burns, chaps, irritation, uneven skin texture, rashes, dryness, oiliness. Grass-fed beef tallow is nutrient dense and virtually bio-identical to human skin so it is always easily absorbed and delivers all that nutrition right into the skin.
As for why did I create it that way… I didn’t. I am reclaiming what indigenous people all over the globe have done for tens of thousands of years: Use tallow as a general skin conditioner and protection agent. Admittedly they might not have known they were using the best general skin conditioner, but their ceremonial approach to using every part of the animal placed them deeply in the relational web of the world and place. That has been forgotten by people in the west in the last 150 years, by and large, but it is worth remembering.
Lots of brands have gone the vegan route with their skincare—why do you lean into the animal connection?
I understand the perspective of the ethical vegan. Veganism is many things, but among them is a critique of industrial meat production. I agree. Industrial meat production is horrific and can not be defended in any way, shape or form. From its impact on the ecology to distancing us from our meat sources to carbon pollution to unneeded suffering, it is the worst. But industrial agriculture is just as horrific in many of the same dynamics. Ecologically, industrial agriculture is just as devastating. Also, there is amazing research that shows that plants have relationships towards their kin, can register pain and respond to it.
All cultures worth the title of culture have known that death feeds life. The very soil itself in every dimension—biologically, mythologically, poetically—is the collective reservoir for everything that has died before.
So to try to escape that is an exercise in futility. Tallow as skincare has an at least 17,000 year pedigree and probably older. It made sense to me to try to do some remembering of this ancient tradition and to support the farmers who are making the ecologically wise, but economically hard choice of raising cattle in a way that doesn’t maximize growth but works to develop the soil and the environment.
Primal Derma is an expression of this attempt at memory of older ways that put our well-being in close relationship with animals and place.
Tell us about the historic significance and use of tallow.
The Inuit of northern Canada, the Saami of Greenland, the Hazda of Tanzania and the Hamer of Ethiopia, the Tuareg nomadic pastoralists of the Sahara, the Berbers of Northern Africa, the Kyrgs of the Asian steppes, and virtually every Native American tribe from North America all have continuing usages of tallow of deer, buffalo, moose, reindeer, antelope or other grazing animals or animal fat (as in whales) in their traditions that are thousands to tens of thousands of years old. Whether it is used specifically as skincare, or is part of body decoration, or is processed ceremonially, people have seen the value of this fat and have worked to collect it, process it, store it and use it.
Your great-great-grandmother likely had access to a cow or a sheep and when slaughter would happen, I can guarantee that the tallow was processed and saved and stored for cooking but also for use around the house as a beauty product as well. Lipstick used to be made almost entirely of tallow. The oldest makeup we have found in archeological digs are Roman containers for tallow with other ingredients mixed in. We know the Egyptians used tallow as a beauty ingredient too. This is material that has been close to humans for a very, very long time and is bound up with the expression of culture.
Are their any secret uses of Primal Derma you can share with us?
Secret? Well, some people have used Primal Derma as a non-black mascara. Others have used it as a mustache/beard wax or conditioner. And others run their hands through their hair after rubbing Primal Derma into their hands. But we were surprised when a notable porn site reached out to us for a sample to test its… um… slipperiness. They liked it. A lot.
What trends are you seeing in the natural beauty realm right now?
The ethics that have grown around the food industry are definitely showing up in the beauty space now. Sourcing, provenance, ethics, smallness and tradition are all showing up. But there are more trends out there than any beauty blogger can ever keep up with.
The fact that we have one product in three sizes is dictated by at least three reasons:
- We believe that telling the story of one very different product matrix is plenty
- We don’t believe that having lots of products makes you more viable. Often to financially justify the dozens of products in a line, a company will have to stoke an unnecessary hunger in their customers.
- Primal Derma is small. I mix the product and pump every jar. My basement is full of freezers. In order to have a bigger line would require me to have a) more capital for jars, fat, wildcrafted essential oils, labels, boxes, etc., and b) more freezers in my home.
That just isn’t possible to do right now. While we certainly have other plans for products and have even tested them—an ancient Egyptian, tallow-based mascara, lipstick colored by insects or clays, or Primal Derma in other scents—it takes space and capital to make that happen. We believe strongly in the ecological economist E.F. Schumacher’s vision, “small is beautiful.”
But we don’t consider ourselves to have hero products. Or heroines either. We consider Primal Derma as an expression of our attempt towards village-mindedness. Those home-making skills that put us in a deep relational space with place and life itself. Heroes emerged as a break from the village, ones who had to stand apart as bigger or stronger or more capable than every one else so that they might conquer or kill monsters that weren’t monsters at all until heroes came along. We can grow a bit and still be small while we do our work of remembering the old trails rather than striving to make our name and try to be remembered.