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Raising the bar: selling soap for a living

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Genelle John's first attempts at soap making were disasters.

The soap kept getting stuck in the Pyrex bowl. She went through a couple of bowls before she realised she had to use something more flexible like silicon.

“That was a few years ago when I was living in Canada,” said the 42-year-old. “Soap making was something I wanted to try.

“I didn't want to throw away my first efforts so I put some waxed paper around it and put it away. Before I moved back to Bermuda in January, I put the bowls in storage, so who knows, maybe the soap has come loose by now.”

Soap making started as a hobby while she pursued a master's degree in Interdisciplinary Human Development at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. Once she figured out the process, she fell in love with it.

“You have to do a lot of Googling if you don't have someone standing there telling you what to do,” she said. “You are going to make some mistakes your first time.”

Still, she never expected she would one day be selling soap for a living.

“I thought I'd probably come back to Bermuda and work in the human resource department of a law firm or start my own consultancy business,” she said.

But six weeks ago, she opened Salt Spray Soap Bermuda on Water Street in St George, selling natural soaps, body butters and other beauty products.

“I came home with a new husband, Robert Watson, and a toddler, Shannon,” said Ms John. “I also have a ten-year-old daughter, India.

“My husband and I wanted to invest in Bermuda. At first, I thought I'd just make soap part-time. I was looking for a workshop because I didn't have the space to make it at home. I thought I'd just find somewhere to make it and store it, but in St George I found a location with retail space in front and a workshop in the back. It was perfect.”

She introduced her products at a pop-up tent in Hamilton at the Louis Vuitton America's Cup World Series events in October.

“I sold a lot more than I'd expected,” she said. “People were buying it up. Natural soap is very popular abroad, so it's surprising that there's not much on offer in Bermuda. I was on a high when I finished with that event.”

She opened her store in St George six weeks ago during the Art Walk. Since then, the shop has proven popular with locals.

“I meet people in town and tell them about it and they come all the way down to St George to buy my soap,” she said. “That makes me very excited to think what the summer tourist season is going to be like.

“I have two large moulds at the moment, and I'm ordering more. I'd eventually like to see my soaps in stores in town.”

When making her soap, she kits up in a respirator, goggles and plastic-lined lab coat.

“Sometimes I think I must look very strange to the tourists walking by outside,” she said with a laugh. “I look like a mad scientist in a laboratory.”

But the equipment is necessary as sodium hydroxide (lye) gives off toxic fumes when it is first processed. She uses a hot process which means the soap is ready as soon as it hardens in the mould. In cold process soap the soap must be aged for a time before it is safe to use.

“You mix sodium hydroxide with butters and oils and get soap,” she said. “There is no other way to make soap. The commercial soaps you buy are actually detergent. If you look on the label it probably says ‘beauty bar' unless it is made out of sodium hydroxide, butters and oils.”

It is believed that soap was first made accidentally by our prehistoric ancestors. As they cooked meat over an open fire, the fat dripped on to the burning hard woods. Rain washing through the mixture of burnt wood and fat created soap bubbles.

Ms John uses seawater when making her soap to harden the bar and make it last longer in the shower.

“That's why I decided to call the shop Salt Spray Soap Bermuda,” she said.

She believes the advantage to using natural soaps is that there are fewer chemicals.

“I am not a medical person, but I believe a lot of the illnesses we are looking at are related to chemical sensitivity,” she said. “A single exposure would be one thing, but there are chemicals in the food we eat, the air we breathe and what we put on our bodies. I feel as though using natural soaps and lotions is a way to scale back on how many chemicals our bodies are exposed to.”

Her soaps are available in “Bermudaful” neon colours. Think pink, orange, green, black and grey. She also offers body scrubs and butters.

Her store is open 10am to 6pm on weekdays and 10am to 4pm on weekends.

“So far, the hardest part about it has been learning the retail aspect,” she said. “All I know is I don't want to go broke doing it so I am learning as I go along.

“The other store owners in St George have been very supportive. As I get more settled, I'll be adding more products.”

She's a long way from the field of human development, but she doesn't feel her degree is wasted. “I don't feel I'm off that path,” she said. “I think I'll discover down the road why I did that degree.

“I use skills from my degree every day in the store when I'm talking to people. I love talking about health with my customers. From there the conversation often veers in other directions, to their lives and children and how life takes unexpected turns.”

And for her, there have been several sharp career turns. Before going back to school five years ago, she was working as an optometrist technician.

“I thought I'd go back to school to study optometry,” she said.

But she decided optometry would take too many years, so she switched to speech language pathology. When she got to college, however, she realised it wasn't for her.

“I wanted something more independent,” she said, “so I switched to interdisciplinary human development which was learning about stress related to minorities.

“Being back in Bermuda it gives me a fresh perspective on politics and our issues here. I don't quite know what to do about our issues, but I see them. Perhaps I can contribute to the health of Bermuda in some small way through my products.”

For more information see her Facebook page under Salt Spray Soap Bermuda or call 707-6449.

The natural way: Genelle John perfecting natural soap at Salt Spray Soap Bermuda in St George
I look like a mad scientist: Genelle John working on soap in her laboratory
Some of Genelle John's packaged soap products at Salt Spray Soap Bermuda (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Salt Spray Soap Bermuda products (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Raising the bar: Genelle John outside Salt Spray Soap Bermuda (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Soap made by Genelle John (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

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Published December 09, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated December 09, 2015 at 1:22 pm)

Raising the bar: selling soap for a living

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