MARQUETTE - Gwinn native Colleen C. (last name withheld by request) is an experimenter by nature, so when she started making her own homemade soaps, she realized she had more than she could give away.
She founded Native Sister soap in 2004 and now, her more-than 45 all-natural soap varieties can be purchased throughout the central Upper Peninsula.
"Twenty-seven years ago, I read a book entitled, 'The Cure For All Cancers..'" she said. "Included was a recipe for bar soap containing three ingredients: lye, water and lard. I tried it, and it worked. Thus began a journey into soap-making that continues to this day."
Handmade all-natural soaps pictured here include Organic Olive & Honey, Cedar Sauna, Triple Mint, Patchouli, Chocolate & Italian Orange, Robbers and Lavender, as well as Gentle Baby Calendula, Goats' Milk, Super Citrus Poppy Seed and more. (Photo courtesy of Tim Trombley)
Native Sister soap is made in-home with food grade or organic oils, essential oils, pure well water and pure sodium hydroxide (lye).
To add color and texture, Colleen uses products like local honey and beeswax, local goat's milk, organic oatmeal and organic cucumbers. Foods like blue-green algae, ground annatto seed, alkanet root, organic cocoa and organic poppy seed add beautiful, subtle color and texture, she said.
"Over the years I've experimented with lots of different ingredients, and I still experiment and make changes, add new ingredients or delete others to keep improving my product," Colleen said.
Along with soap, Native Sister also makes body butters and one mosquito and fly repellent called Don't Bug Me Butter, which uses catnip essential oil as a natural alternative to Deet. Catnip oil was found by researchers at the University of Iowa to be as or more effective than Deet at repelling mosquitoes, flies and other insects.
"Don't Bug Me Butter can be used on babies, pets, those who are immuno-compromised, the elderly - everybody," she said.
Native Sister soap will not melt in the shower or sauna the way regular soap often does, Colleen said. The reason for this is major soap manufacturers remove the naturally-occuring glycerin after the soap is made and add cheap fillers instead, which leaves soap water-hungry and ready to soak up moisture, she said. By contrast, Colleen found that leaving her soap submerged in water only resulted in some discoloration, and it wasn't water-logged or slimy, she said.
"The advantage to leaving (glycerin) in the bars is that glycerin acts as a natural humectant, drawing minute amounts of moisture to the skin from the air," she said. "This is one reason naturally-made bars comprised of superior raw ingredients feels so different on your skin and leaves your skin so much healthier than commercially-made bars."
Soap-making involves a lot of initial formulating with attendant mathematical processing and knowledge of different base oils and their fatty acid make-up, Colleen said. She has learned exact proportions to produce bar soap that is well-balanced - cleansing, moisturizing and sudsy, with a long shelf life.
Kristen Erdmann of Gwinn said her favorite is the Cedar Sauna soap.
"Every time I smell it, it brings me right into that relaxed state of mind that I'm in when I take a sauna. I just love it," she said. "I use the soaps on a daily basis and love how they leave my hands and body feeling soft and nourished."
Colleen does not use synthetic or soy-based fragrance oils, but purchases her essential oils from Essential Oil University, whose oils have been tested and contain no pesticides. The majority of the oils she uses are therapeutic grade.
"Remember, your skin is your largest organ, and everything that goes on your skin, goes into your body," Colleen said.
Prices for Native Sister products are as follows: body soap is $5; shampoo bars are $5.75; body butters except Don't Bug Me Butter are $8.25; Don't Bug Me Butter is $10; and soy candles are $7.50.
Native Sister Soaps can be purchased at the Gwinn Furniture Outlet, the Marquette Food Co-op, Art Up Style in Marquette, Great Lakes Wood Products in Negaunee, Keewenaw Co-op in Hancock, Fisherman's Daughter in Copper Harbor and at the Marquette Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
Colleen can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.