St. Louis has a rich community of artisans who are creating their own natural soap and body care products right here in town. We talked with Kathleen Behrmann, of Buddha Body & Bath, about how she got her start in this booming field.

What did you do before you started your bath and body business?

I was an elementary school principal for the Brentwood School District, so it was quite a change. I started soap-making out of curiosity, to see if I could do it. When I made the first batch and it turned out, I was hooked. I was making it as presents, and people kept wanting more and eventually started paying for it. I did it on the side until I retired, then started doing it full-time. It’s been successful: I’m living my dream, doing my passion, meeting people and having fun—and I’m making enough money to cover my hobby.

Did you deliberately set out to make your soaps all-natural?

Yes. I’ve had relatives who used nicotine patches, which made me realize anything you put on the skin does go into the body. That made me more aware of what I was putting on and in my body. There are a lot of people who think similarly…plus the natural scents are so wonderful and pure, and you can’t get those scents any other way.

What is involved in the soap-making process?

Soap is pretty basic: Fat plus lye equals soap. It’s a chemical process. The sodium hydroxide molecules in the lye bond with the fat and the oil to become soap. What’s unique about handcrafted soap is that one of the byproducts is glycerin. Commercial soap-makers remove the glycerin and use it for skin moisturizers and hair conditioners—they take the good stuff out of the soap and sell it back to you.

My recipe includes olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil (I’m trying to get away from that, but I haven’t developed a recipe I’m happy with yet), avocado oil and castor oil. And then I add other things like ground oatmeal, or botanicals and herbs. I also add natural colorants—things like dried powdered parsley or black walnut seed. You can do beautiful designs like marbling to make it really attractive.

Is soap dangerous to make if you don’t know what you’re doing?

It is, and that’s why a lot of people take classes when they try it for the first time. Lye is caustic and it will burn you—it hurts like heck. You have to use proper precautions; you have to respect it and know how to handle it. I was making beer soap—I add the beer to the lye because it makes a lot more lather. It’s sort of a novelty item, but men like it because of the good lather it creates. Apparently, some of my beer wasn’t completely flat, because I added the lye and it was like those volcanoes you make as a kid! I had to jump out of the way real quickly and there was big cleanup job to do! So you do have to be careful.

What do you like most about having your own business?

My real goal was to have fun and do what I enjoy. I did love being a teacher and a principal, but you’re not autonomous—I am now and I love it. I really do like the farmers markets and craft fairs, because you can talk to people about life experiences and ask them what they like. To me, it’s such a pleasure to share it with people. There’s an airline stewardess who says the only thing she’ll use is my soap and deodorant. She looks me up whenever she’s here.

It’s a full-time job, but it doesn’t feel like it: I work in the day or evening; whenever I can. And I turned my basement into a workshop, so I can roll out of bed and go to work!

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