WINTERPORT, Maine — Michelle Byram’s home soap-making business is located off a quiet rural road that is more heavily trafficked by wild turkeys than vehicles.
But inside her cozy workshop, it’s a different world altogether — one that is gently perfumed by the scents of lemongrass, rosemary, lavender, calendula, rose geranium and the other essential oils that give her SoulShine Soap Co. products their panache. Since 2013, Byram, 36, has been making simple bar soaps in her kitchen and selling them to a growing clientele in Maine and beyond. The simplicity is intentional, she said.
“I look back on my great-grandmother, who was eating real food and using real soap,” Byram said. “I think people are so used to body washes and all this advanced skin care technology. … We have too many options for things. It is overwhelming. We have aisles of skin care products that are overpriced, with ingredients that have numbers in them.”
But while many people now are paying much closer attention to the food they put in their bodies, fewer place the same emphasis on what they put on them.
“People are getting the hang of the local food movement now,” she said. “But they don’t realize that your skin is our biggest organ.”
Byram, who previously worked as a farmer and a waitress, did not learn to make soap from her great-grandmother. In fact, she had never dabbled in soap-making until 2012, when a couple of major events happened that changed her life. That year, her mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and her daughter entered middle school with all its clubs, sports and other busy options that can require parents to do an extra shift as a chauffeur. Byram felt stretched thin, and when she became her mother’s main caregiver, she knew she needed a way to stop working outside her home.
“I sat down and made a list of the things I knew I wanted in a business,” she said. “I wanted something that involved creativity and flexibility. I wanted something that I could sell retail or wholesale. I wanted something with a low price point.”
Soap fit the bill, she decided, and she launched into research. She went to the library and read everything she could on soap-making and then contacted a Winterport homesteader she had met through the Hampden Farmers’ Market, Betty Hauger, who knew how to make soap.
“I was a little scared. Lye, which is used in soap-making, is scary stuff,” Byram said.
But Hauger helped her to get the hang of the process, and Byram liked it. By 2013, she officially started her company, after making lots of trial batches and tweaking her recipes until they were just right. Her cold-processed soaps are all plant based and are made with olive oil, coconut oil and organic, sustainably sourced palm oil. They are colored with natural clays, scented with essential oils and were sold at first through her shop on the online retailer Etsy.com.
As the business grew, Byram expanded to her own website and also to retail stores including Good Soul in Bangor, Tiller and Rye in Brewer, Kot in Ellsworth, Good Supply in Pemaquid and the Green Store in Belfast.
It’s still a one-woman show, and she wants to keep it that way. But she is busy all year making, curing, shipping and selling thousands of bars of her soaps.
Sometimes the business surprises her — such as when she has received emails from would-be customers who wonder how, exactly, bar soap works — but mostly it is exactly what she wants to do and where she wants to do it.
“My mission statement for farming and my soap business has remained the same,” Byram said. “Just to educate people on self-care and using more natural products and trying to simplify our lives.”