Sudsing up is more than just a way to clean one’s self for some. And of all people, Brittany Williams-McNair, owner of The Body Cove, get’s that.
Williams-McNair started creating bath products and soaps out of boredom in but quickly realized that making bars of soap meant something more to her. Now, with just over 1.1k Instagram followers and a newly launched Etsy shop, Williams-McNair is ready to dive into Atlanta’s handmade community with her herbal-based products.
She sat down with The Creative Folks to talk all things soap and creative.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
Tell me about the beginnings of The Body Cove.
It started out as Ambrosia Body Co., and I was just making bath bombs, body butters, and things like that. I started it because I was really depressed, and I was in a really toxic relationship. I don’t know, it was just like an escape at the time, but I didn’t realise then. I just started doing it, and I had never done anything like it before. Something just sparked, and I just started feeling creative. And I think ultimately, I was channeling those emotions into being creative.
So I was doing it as a hobby, but then I was like, “I could like sell these things. People like bath bombs and body butter.”
It was just a lot of fun for me at first. It was fun, and I think it was stress relieving. But as time sort of went on, things got harder. My life situation got harder, I was leaving the Y, my relationship was ending, and I got this really big order that I fucked up. It was a disaster. I was going to just completely give up. But in the process, I also kind of started getting bored because I wasn’t getting challenged enough. I had really wanted to make soap, but it was just so complex that I just didn’t think I could do it. I was like, “there’s too much chemistry involved. There’s too much science.” I just wanted to do something that was quick, fast, easy, and able to use the next day.
Ultimately, I transitioned over from doing body butters and bath bombs to actually crafting soap, and I actually didn’t think I could do it. This whole journey kind of like helped me to discover that you really don’t know what you can do until you actually try it. You can surprise yourself. I didn’t realize I was as creative. I didn’t even consider myself to be a creative person, but, I don’t know, it just somehow happened. So, here we are! Now, I just craft really high quality organic, natural herbal-based soaps, and I am really, really passionate about it.
What kind of ingredients do you typically use or not use?
I always use organic, unrefined, and raw oils and butters. Some staples would be coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, hemp seed oil. I use anything that comes from the earth. That’s what this whole thing is about. It’s about natural beauty. It’s about Earth-based beauty. It’s about eco-beauty. Not destroying the planet to sustain ourselves. It’s about sustainable living. It’s about all of that, and I stay away from anything toxic. I don’t use artificial fragrances. I stay away from anything that’s created in a lab and that’s man made. The only thing that is going to be man made is me crafting the soap.
I’m trying to educate people. Doing this is also being an educator and teaching because not everybody knows that the things they use are toxic. They don’t realize that, “Yes, this smells like strawberries and cream, but it also has cancer causing chemicals in it.” It’s also harming the planet. I really, really want people to care about the planet more. This [planet] is sustaining our lives. We are alive because of it. And I feel like we should utilize what the earth gives us to nourish ourselves inside as well as out. And so, I always stay away from anything chemical based, toxic—none of that. If you can’t grow it or you can’t get it from a fruit, plant, or seed, then I’m not going to use it.
I’m also in school now studying to be an herbalist. So, I’m utilizing my knowledge from my classes to incorporate herbalism into making my soaps.
I go to the Herbal Academy, the international school of herbalism. It is the biggest online herbal school. It’s accredited, and it’s probably the top herbalist school. It’s highly reviewed, and that’s kind of what made me go, because I was looking for a long time. Sometimes finding schools online is really difficult, but I couldn’t find anything local to go to, like a physical place. But, it’s been pretty amazing. The instructors are amazing, and I’ve learned so much. I just can’t even believe that I’m where I am. I just never saw myself taking this path.
What is the process of making soap?
It starts as liquid oils and butters. If it’s a solid oil, like coconut oil, cocoa butter, or shea, I melt it down so that all of the oils are liquids. I heat the oils on the stove, and then while the oils are heating, I prepare my lye water.
So to create soap, you do have to utilize sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is an alkaline substance, and it allows the oils to, what’s called, saponify to create a hard, solid bar of soap. So while you do utilize a chemical substance (not man made, it comes from wood ash actually), it is a toxic substance that’s very dangerous. Also, I’m suited and booted. I have on goggles. I have on gloves. It’s like a lab.
I prepare the lye water. Once I put lye in the water, the water heats up to about 200 degrees [Fahrenheit]. I let the lye water cool, and eventually I take the oils off of the stove, and I try to get the oils and the lye water to be within 10 degrees of each other. So usually, in between 120 and 130 degrees. And once that happens, on the side I am preparing my herbs or any additives that I’m going to be adding into the soap—my essential oils (because that’s all I use as fragrance unless I’m making unscented soap). I prepare my essential oil blends on the side. Then once it’s ready, I pour the lye water into the oils, and I use a stick blender to blend it all together. This makes the water and oils saponify. Once that happens, I then put in the essential oils and I mix, mix, mix, mix, mix. Fun fact: mixing the lye water and the oils by hand would take about 12 hours. (The invention of the hand blender was a huge deal for soap makers because back in the B.C. days, they would like stir for hours and hours to finally get it to combine and mix.) Anyways, once that’s done and I’ve put in my additives, I then pour the soap into the mold. That’s usually what people see since I post it on Instagram. Then, I texture the top. I like to add texture to it and design the top. I maybe put some herbal toppings or floral toppings, salts, whatever. And then, it sits in the mold between two and four days. After all of that, I pop it out of the mold. So, it’s a solid, hard bar. So even though I’m using lye or sodium hydroxide, the beautiful thing about that is that once it saponifies, there is zero lye remaining. It’s literally just a hard bar of solid oils. There are no chemicals in it. You just need sodium hydroxide to bind the two, but once they bind, it dissipates.
After I take the soap out, I cut it into bars and it has to sit and cure for four to six weeks before I can use it or sell it. That’s because the water has to completely evaporate out of the soap. Technically, you can use the soap within a few days, but it would still be kind of soft and run out in a few days. The long process is to have the water evaporate so that you can get a really hard, long lasting bar of soap.
How many different scents and bars of soap do you have?
So far, I have about 14, and I am trying to get up to 20. I said I was going to stop at eight, and now I’m at 14. And now, I said I was going to stop at 14, and now I’m going to stop for 20. Everything is interchangeable.
What is the biggest challenge between either making soap or being a grassroots business person?
I have a couple of challenges. One of the challenges is having to wait for the soap to cure because I have to always have stuff made ahead of time. If I don’t, I don’t have anything to sell. The waiting process is hard.
Sometimes, it’s a bit challenging when your recipes don’t come out the way that you planned. It takes me two to three hours to make a loaf of soap, and then I spent that two hours and then a couple of days later when I pop it out of the mold, it’s either messed up or the scent didn’t take, and I just get really frustrated. That’s challenging when you have something in your mind and it doesn’t turn out the way you want, but it’s also kind of reflective of life. Like sometimes, shit just does not happen, and you just have to keep moving. You either decide to fall down, or you keep moving. And I just make another loaf of soap. I’m pissed about it, but I do it.
The creative process is a challenge—having to be patient, having to wait—but the business side is a huge challenge for me. I’m not business-minded at all. I’m not business oriented. I don’t have a business bone in my body. I just love to create. I love the feeling that it gives me. I love the therapy and relief that is has provided me and continues to provide me, but the business aspect is a challenge because I’m not a salesperson. I’m not really just doing it to get people to buy it, I’m doing it because I am passionate about it. And I think people who are really on the creative side, usually tend to struggle with merging their creativity with their business or what they’re passionate about because you have to use a completely different side of your brain in a sense. Marketing, analytics, and numbers, all of that is a challenge to me, but I’m forcing myself to learn it because I don’t have a choice if I want to run a business. So trying to find that balance of creativity and management is a challenge.
From the very beginning until now, how has your experience with social media been in regards to The Body Cove?
I started with 34 followers. It’s actually really interesting because I know a lot of businesses, and I see it all the time where they buy followers or use bot systems to generate likes on their page, or they do this thing where they follow and then unfollow just because they want you to follow their business. So, they’re all these different tactics that different businesses use on social media to appear that they have more success than they do.
I feel good about that fact that I organically generated a following the way that I have. And it’s not a massive following, I’m just a little over 1k, but these are all real people. I did not follow and then unfollow folks. I didn’t use a bot system or anything like that.
It’s really been interesting because I didn’t see that ever happening. I remember it just slowly creeping up. I went from 34 to like 86. It’s a very slow progression when you’re building naturally and sometimes, you’ll see businesses that just get on Instagram and they have four pictures posted and already have 18,000 followers, and it’s just like “c’mon.”
I like to be honest. I like to be organic. I like to be authentic, and I don’t want to appear to be what I’m not. I realized that you can gain a following or you can gain support, what I like to say, by just being yourself and constantly improving. I study what I like, and I think to myself, “If I saw a photo, would I like it? If I saw a product, would the packaging make me buy it?” And then, it allows me to challenge myself because I realized that Instagram is about visuals. People like beautiful things, and for me, it was all about improving my content so that people would naturally support what I was doing.
It takes a while, but I’m okay with that. I’ve gotten to the point where I know that I have quality content because I work really hard to do that, and I don’t need a whole lot of followers to do that. I just want people to get why I’m doing what I’m doing. I want them to want to be a part of this with me. It’s not so much about likes. I noticed that when I started caring less, that’s when I started building a little more of a following.
What’s your best piece of advice for taking really cool Instagram pictures?
Angles. Kimisha, the owner of Posh Sugar, actually gave me that tip. I was always admiring her work, and that’s the one thing she said to me. She actually took my first picture when I was still making bath bombs.
Setting, lighting, and angles. Those are my three top tips. Natural light is always the best light. It always reflects well no matter what kind of camera you have. Even if you have a not-so-good angle, natural lighting can make a difference. A nice, clear, crisp setting is also key. Let the product be the focus–not the background. You want it to accent whatever you’re selling, but not take over.
Who inspires your craft?
I follow a lot of other soap pages, and that’s what I love about the handmade community. It’s really supportive of one another. I actually learned a lot of what I know from other makers. When I would get frustrated and post about it, pros would reach out to me and tell me about certain tips and tricks. But yes, I follow a lot of people that inspire the f*ck out of me.
Let’s talk about the future of The Body Cove. What does that look like?
I’ve had a couple of different visions for The Body Cove. At one point, I wanted to be on the shelves and in different stores and things like that. I wanted to be in retail, like in Target, and Whole Foods, and things like that. But since then, my goals and aspirations have changed. I want to keep things intimate and small. I want to keep that handmade touch. I want to develop a relationship with people who buy my soap. I want to hear their stories about how the soap affects them. I want feedback, and I want to always be accessible to people who buy from me. Ultimately, I would like to run my business full time from home and have a large enough space with lots of windows and lots of plants with loud music. (If you see my Instagram stories, you’ll see that I’m always blasting music because it helps me focus. It’s a meditative thing.) And honestly, I don’t want employees because the moment I let somebody else touch it, they’re going to mess it up. I’m very particular about my business. But I also want it to be able to sustain me. I also want people to understand that handmade and handcrafted goods are a lost art, and I would love to one day teach soap making classes. Passing on my knowledge so that one day someone else could start their own business is invaluable.Sharing is caring!