This interview is with Robyn French Smith, my partner in all things bath bombs and bubble bars at Bath Fizz and Foam. She is a guest author at Bath Fizz and Foam and runs a fun company called Scandalous Soap Co. I love her creativity and her clear and to-the-point way of providing directions for making bath bombs and other bath treats. She’s also fun to watch on Facebook Live!
Let’s dive in!
Amanda: Tell us about how you got your start in soap making.
Robyn: I have always had sensitive skin. I get hives at the drop of a hat, so while I lived in Texas I loved using products like Lush’s Angels on Bare Skin, or A Perfect World from Origins. When I moved to Alaska in 2009 I quickly discovered that the cost of shipping even small items was astronomical. If I wanted natural skin care, I was going to have to make it myself. So it started with balms, salves, moisturizers, scrubs and things of that nature. Plain soap was the next obvious step. Utility and practicality were the driving forces back then.
Describe your first batch of soap. What do you remember about it?
I actually started by making Hot Process, and my first loaf was just a plain uncolored bar with lavender essential oil. Pretty basic. My first Cold Process soap didn’t happen until 2016. It was a beautiful naturally white loaf with a wonderfully textured top and a great big gel ring in the middle. That was also my first fragrance oil–Bramble Berry’s Crisp Cotton! I’ll never forget going from HP to CP and feeling those silky smooth bars for the first time. It was true romance and I’ve never looked back.
How would you describe your style of soap making?
I would say above all else that my style of soapmaking is FUN! I tend to gravitate toward bright, bold colors, and every soap has a story, or theme. I love laughing and making people laugh. My personality is mildly mischievous, slightly irreverent, and always curious. I like my soaps to reflect that!
Where do you find inspiration for the soap that you make?
Being a creative, curious person, I tend to find inspiration all around me. Sometimes it’s pop-culture–a tv show, movie, catch phrase. Sometimes it’s literature, plays, music, or dreams. Sometimes a fragrance, color or ingredient reminds me of a specific person, time or place. I think the most important thing for finding inspiration is not forcing it. When I’m stuck or find myself trying to be creative it doesn’t work. It’s not until I do something random like walk the dogs, go for a drive, do dishes, or any of those meditative-type of tasks that allow Delta Waves to flow. When I allow my mind to wander or daydream, I find the ideas simply come to me, often fully-fledged.
How has your soap making evolved from when you first started?
When I first started making CP soap I was lucky enough to have lots of happy accidents. That’s a great boon to an early soapmaker because there are so many things that can go wrong. However, I really wanted to be able to replicate designs! As a trained artist, I know how important it is to discipline and harness creative energy. That way you can have variation, but within predetermined bounds. My early soaps used so many crazy speciality oils. I had so many recipes and additives! Now everything pretty much has the same recipe and I meticulously plan my designs. It doesn’t mean I don’t still wing it or make changes on the fly, but there’s definitely a method to the madness that wasn’t there in the beginning.
Have you ever had any big-time soaping fails? What did you learn from it?
Oh boy have I! Once I made a soap with Ghee. It has lots of Lauric acid and I was trying to replace Palm and Coconut–the most common source of that fatty acid. So I researched and read and googled and decided Ghee was where it was at! When I was finally able to use the soap I loved the bubbles it provided, however a few minutes later I noticed a smell. I checked the dog beds. I checked everyone’s shoes. And still I smelled it. Finally I realized it was my hands. “Oh,” I thought, “I must have touched something nasty.”
So I washed my hands again. Nope, the smell was still there. That’s when I discovered how badly the internet had failed me. Ghee also contains high levels of Butyric acid. This stuff is used to make government level stink bombs, and is found in body odor, vomit, and poo! In essence–it’s everything terrible that you can smell in one special molecule. To this day I gag when I think of that soap. And then I laugh. Some lessons you only learn by doing!
What is your favorite soap to make for yourself?
My favorite soap changes pretty often, but the attributes I gravitate towards are woody/earthy scents, like cedar, and birch–sandalwood is my straight-up jam! I also love creamy dense bars made with lard. Finally, at the risk of sounding too millennial, I’m a sucker for adding avocado puree, or Kombucha to soap. The creamy lather makes such dreamy bars!
Where do you soap? Do you soap in the kitchen or do you have a dedicated space?
Don’t judge me too hard, but my kids share a room, while my soap has its own room! Ha! What started as the “soap corner” in my house, turned into the soap room, and now it’s taken over half of my house. I’m looking forward to moving the entire enterprise into a full studio in the near future, and was looking at locations as recently as last week, when social distancing became necessary.
When did you decide to turn soap making into a business? And what was the process?
Before my husband and I got married he had a medical emergency and we ended up needing to use a lot of the money we had saved for our wedding on medical bills. To make up the money we needed, I made sugar scrubs and sold them. While I know many people simply bought them because they were our friends or family, many people asked about buying more. In fact, I still have people who ask for those original scrubs! After that, I started an LLC with a friend, and in 2019 I left that company and started my solo venture, Scandalous Soap Co. I went to school for art, so entrepreneurship isn’t something that I was super knowledgeable about. At every step of the way I researched, and learned as much as I could. I talked to other small business owners and had to be willing to take risks, but seeing something you create succeed is the best feeling in the world.
What’s a typical day by day in your soaping business week?
I try to stay on a schedule, especially as I currently work from home. Once my kids are off to school I start my morning off with yoga and meditation, then spend at least 30 minutes writing. I like starting the day off with these balancing quiet activities, because once I get going the whole day can get crazy! I try to have a social media post prepped and posted by 9:30 am at least 5 days a week. Mondays are generally spent filling orders from the weekend, updating inventory, assessing parts and updating my to-do list for the week. The rest of the week I have a checklist to help me stay on track of keeping soaps and bath bombs made, items packaged and labeled, laundry, dishes, general cleaning, website maintenance and more. Some days I can only make one batch of bath bombs and some days I make 100 lbs of soap. As long as I can check at least one thing off my list each day, I consider that a win. I also make sure that nothing is more important than my family and the time we spend together. Staying organized and on top of things really helps me feel less stressed about setting down the stick blender and helping with homework, running errands or just having an impromptu Nerf war.
What is your best-selling soap? Please tell us about it.
LMAO! My best selling soap is called SEXY MAN! It’s one of the first fragrance oils I ever ordered and while it smells great, I really think the lure is that I add a banana to every batch. You can’t tell me that’s not funny! Every label for my brand has the item’s title and a tagline. For Sexy Man Soaps the tagline is “A banana in every batch,” and for Sexy Man Bath Bombs the tagline is “Banana not included.” Seeing the light turn on when the joke hits a customer for the first time is priceless.
How did you establish your line and keep yourself limited to a manageable amount of varieties within that line?
I generally make a pilot batch and keep track of how well it sells, and since I use Shopify to run my website, it has some powerful analytics to make that super easy. If an item is a slow mover I try to give it a couple shots before I give up on it. If changing the name, changing the design, or changing it’s product placement doesn’t work, then I know that for whatever reason, that fragrance isn’t working for me.
What’s interesting is that geographics/demographics make a difference in sale-ability. While Sexy Man is a big seller no matter where I go, the area of Houston known as The Heights actually has higher sales for my Fallen Angel line. For established fragrances I will occasionally do special editions so that I don’t get bored.
As far as keeping it manageable, I honestly think it’s ok to run out of product from time to time. Running out means people are excited when you bring something back, and it makes the item appear more desirable. Not feeling pressured to have 60 fragrances fully stocked means I’m able to feel like everything’s under control without killing myself or feeling chained down!
Who is your all-time favorite supplier and why?
What?! That’s not a fair question! Lol. If I really had to choose just one it would be Muddy Soap Co. Several of my best selling fragrances come from them and they have beautiful Micas! I know they are under new ownership and I’m really hopeful that they keep up the excellent products and service laid down by the founders! My second supplier–is that allowed? Ha!–would be Soapers Choice! Believe it or not great base oils mean more to me than colors and fragrances!
What base oils could you not do without and what properties do they give your soap?
Lard: I’m a simple girl and I don’t need anything fancier than some good lard soap! It makes creamy, white bars and my skin loves it! It also contributes to a swirl-friendly batter, and we can all use a little extra time for swirling!
Canola: I know Canola gets a bad rap, but it makes beautiful naturally white soap with a long-lasting lather. If you’re really worried about it, there are non-gmo and high oleic options available, but I use it at 30% and have never had DOS since switching to a bulk oil supplier like Soapers Choice.
What is your favorite soap making additive and what does it contribute to your soap?
Silk, in particular the Mulberry Silk from Muddy Soap Co, although I also use Tussah Silk from Bramble Berry. It adds a really beautiful glide and slip, and contributes to the overall velvety feel of the bar.
What is your favorite fragrance oil or essential oil blend?
I mean I wouldn’t kick you out of bed if you were doused in Sandalwood! Definitely anything woody, smoky, or earthy is going to ring my bell. I also enjoy a good citrus when the mood strikes me, and grapefruit and lemongrass top the list there. I also think you can add vanilla to anything and make magic happen.
Who are your favorite soap bloggers or YouTubers to binge on?
Well in addition to the big names like Royalty Soaps, Ariane Arsenault, Ophelia’s Soapery, and Vibrant Soaps, I also love watching the smaller channels like Etsuko Watanabe, Fraeulein Winter, Shalebrook Handcrafted Soaps and Moringa Rose. I’m like a toddler with a tablet. Put it in front of me and I’ll watch it! I like to hear people talk about what they are making, and I enjoy FB or IG lives as well.
What advice do you have for those just getting into soap making?
Take notes! You think you’ll remember how many scoops of what mica you used, but I promise you that you won’t! Also, read, read, read! I can guarantee you that most of the basic soapmaking questions have already been answered in some form or another. If you can’t find the answer, then you might have to be the person who comes up with it (ahem, like my Ghee story! Hahaha!), but you’ll learn and retain so much more when you do the research on your own versus being handed the answer! I know this from experience!
Find Robyn Online:
(Be sure to like Robyn’s Facebook Page. She goes LIVE and I LOVE watching!)