- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Fizzing bath salts and lotion turned into solid bars. Candles made of soy wax instead of the more common paraffin or beeswax. Face color made with powdered mica that gives a glitter to the skin.

These are among the latest items available in the field of custom-crafted products for the home and body that, being largely plant-based, are known as botanicals. Advocates, who believe in the value of natural or organic products over commercially manufactured ones, are as adept at finding new ways of using these wares as they are at inventing new forms.

Such an everyday product as soap has acquired a great deal of pizazz in the process. Soaps these days can be cleansers or home beautifiers, depending on how these attractively wrapped toiletries are displayed. Dressed in fancy gift paper, complete with ribbon or string, they are as decorative as they are practical.

"Handmade soap is a religion," says Leslie Plant her real name of Riverdale Park. She makes and sells hand-crafted bars for $4 each, using herbs from her garden. Each bar lasts a month, on average, for a person who showers daily, she says.

"It's creating community again a way of bringing people together," she maintains. The personal touch involved adds a positive health-giving factor, she says.

Clients whom she and others in the business encounter at craft fairs and flea markets react in amazement when they see her selling handmade soap, surprised that she has made it herself. Then they often end up telling stories about their favorite scents. Individuals are drawn to different scents, she says. It's memory-sharing through association.

The story of how Millette Miller of Frederick, Md., ended up making soap in her kitchen signals how the advent of global trade contributes to the trend. The Internet makes it possible to spread the word as never before.

Mrs. Miller, a native of the Philippines, found out almost by accident a few years ago that her grandfather had made and traded soap on his coconut plantation to survive during World War II. When, two years ago, she decided to turn her soap-making hobby into a business using his recipes, she had to import the coconut oil that, like shea butter, is a basic emollient, or softening agent.

In doing so, she became part of a burgeoning American cottage industry whose members rely on time-honed craft skills as well as modern conveniences and customs to create products based mainly on natural ingredients. In addition to soaps, Mrs. Miller makes lip balm, hand salves, lotions and creams under her Gambrill Mountain Soap label, which boasts of "All Natural Animal-Friendly Earth-Friendly Products."

"My husband was convinced that my efforts were worthwhile when he found the salves helped cure his chapped knuckles," she says with a knowing grin directed at skeptics who might regard people such as her as well-meaning hobbyists taking advantage of the popular back-to-nature movement among the environmentally aware.

Spend some time with members of the Bowie-based national organization called Handmade Toiletries Network, to which Mrs. Miller belongs, and the whole of the natural world seems different and unusually compelling if only for the delectable scents associated with the various products network members sell under such exotic names as cranberry fig soap, Opium bath and body gel, and Jazzy (for jasmine) shea butter lotion.

"Lavender is a relaxant, very therapeutic," Mrs. Miller says about one of the most common plants to be found in both handmade and mass-produced personal products. Probably less well known, she adds, is the fact that "grapefruit seed extract is a preservative."

Incense and other hand-crafted aromatics, such as scented candles and an herb-and-flower potpourri, are far more powerful than what is available in stores, members say. Chemical and synthetic preservatives and the petroleum offshoots used in great quantities by major manufacturers are anathema to this group, which includes the likes of sisters Lindsey and Amber Jaxel of Gaithersburg, 13 and 14 years respectively, who make and sell soap under the Linden Tree Island label. Their mother, Susan Jaxel, insists she is just their driver and overseer.

In addition to discussing the wealth of good they feel their plant-derived toiletries can impart, the members are willing to pass along tips on the care and use of such products.

One obvious tip is not to leave these items exposed to heat. Many of them will start to melt at a relatively low temperature. Shea butter, for instance, which is used in many soaps and lotions, comes from the nut of the karite tree and is imported in great numbers from Ghana by Charles Herbert Jr. of Silver Spring, co-owner of the Epicurean SoapCompany. He advises keeping toiletries away from a sunny window, because the butter melts at 72 degrees.

Mrs. Miller suggests using a small bit of hand lotion, especially one that contains coconut oil, on hair ends. "It makes hair shiny and is good for the scalp," she says.

"Anything with oil and beeswax is good on baby bottoms," says Donna Maria Coles Johnson, founder and president of the Handmade Toiletries Network, which she runs out of her home in Bowie. A lawyer who worked previously in the general counsel's office at MCI, she also is mother of 7-month-old Vanessa and, under the professional name of Donna Maria, is author of several books, including "Making Aromatherapy Creams & Lotions: 101 Natural Formulas to Revitalize & Nourish Your Skin."

At home or on the road, be sure to keep available a spritzer solution made with essential oils, volunteers Sydney Vallentyne, also of Bowie. "That way you can spray your pillow and sheets. It perfumes the air, and some people think it helps them sleep better," she says. "Take an aroma ring with you to put on a light bulb to freshen the room."

She is a founder and partner in the 30-year-old St. John's Botanicals, which is primarily a wholesale supplier and distributor of raw materials to other firms and individuals in the field. St. John's compounds the essential oils that are imported from all over the world. Herbs and flowers grown on the 10-acre property surrounding her 1824 home hang in abundance from the ceilings in every room.

"You can't really dry them outside because of the heat and humidity," she cautions. "Otherwise you risk losing their color."

Herbs and spices are stored and packaged separately, Ms. Vallentyne notes, so the more pungent aromas of one don't influence the other. "Spices pick up odors of oils," she cautions.

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