Three women who battled skin problems for years tell Lorraine Wylie how they developed their own creams, balms and salves using natural ingredients — and the amazing cleansing and healing results they’ve enjoyed
A nurse for over 20 years and more recently a Sister in one of Belfast's busy accident and emergency departments, Carol Rowney, from Crawfordsburn, knows first hand what nurses have to endure. And she doesn't mean the long hours. As recently as 2017, reports revealed that over 46% of nurses and other healthcare workers suffer some form of occupation-related skin dermatoses, including sanitiser and latex allergies.
Carol explains how disappointed she was with conventional treatments - and that this inspired her to explore the ingredients in nature's pharmacy. She soon came up with a balm to soothe and heal damaged skin.
"We take healthy skin for granted," Carol says. "I suppose, like everything, we don't notice it until something goes wrong.
"I was just 12 when I developed psoriasis so I know what it's like to live with painful, itchy skin. I spent years trying to get rid of it, taking prescription after prescription of various drugs, lotions and potions. I even had light therapy - the whole works - but nothing helped.
"In the end, fed up and worried about the long-term effect of the drugs, I began looking for a more 'natural' treatment. However, as I began inspecting labels, I was horrified by some of the 'nasties' I found and so it was time to make my own."
Carol then began researching, turning her kitchen into a science lab.
"When I cook, I work by the method of 'a handful of this and a sprinkle of that'. But essential oils can be powerful stuff so I had to follow measurements exactly. Eventually I came up with a formula that I called my 'rescue remedy balm'. There is no cure for psoriasis but I was delighted by the improvement in my skin.
"For me, the most important thing was that I had taken control of my condition and knew exactly what I was putting on my skin."
As word of her rescue remedy balm spread, people began asking Carol for help.
"I suppose my balms are the result of the stories people share with me," she says.
"But I don't make a balm if there's something else I think is just as good! For example, someone asked about an organic skin cleanser but, as I explained, there's nothing better than 100% organic coconut oil!
"One of the stories that really moved me was the problem of contact dermatitis, especially among health workers.
"For us, it's an occupational hazard and not one the public know a lot about. Honestly, the state of some of my colleagues' hands is unbelievable. The constant washing, the use of cleaning chemicals etc, takes its toll. So I decided to come up with a balm to help.
"I used an oil base infused with chickweed which is great for itch, and added chamomile and marigold which are both known to soothe pain and promote healing. The result was a lovely, light, easily absorbed product that I called Nightingale Balm - after Florence Nightingale of course!
"I never claim my products cure, but the feedback has been incredible. I like to think I'm helping to solve a problem."
As Carol's products began to sell - including balms, oils and scrubs - her company, Mrs R'ganics, was born. How did she come up with the name?
"I wanted to play up the word 'organic' because my products are 100% organic and I'm fanatical about that. I even go to an organically registered farm to pick my own chickweed, herbs and flowers. My husband Andrew, who works for the Environment Agency and is my biggest fan, gave me the nickname, Mrs R. So I put them together and, Mrs R'ganics seemed a perfect fit."
Now 50, Carol has decided to take a career break to concentrate on developing new products. So far she's added a few, including Rascal Rub for children over the age of two. But she's particularly excited about the latest research.
"Have you ever suffered from a flaky, itchy scalp?" she asks. "Well, if you had, you'd know how irritating and sore it can be. I've come up with something I think will help. Its called Sea Spray and I'm already getting great feedback. I'm very excited about this one."
There's nothing new about acne. As far back as 1332BC, King Tut was treated for the condition with a combination of sour milk and patchouli leaves. In 753BC Roman physicians were prescribing sulphur baths, while their Japanese counterparts believed nightingale droppings were a cure-all for pustules and pimples.
Fortunately, dermatology has moved on. The effectiveness of ancient remedies remain unknown but Belfast journalist-turned-entrepreneur Andrea Morrow (49) was unimpressed by what modern products have to offer. Ironically, a trip to the library resulted in not only help for her acne but a new business venture.
"I'd always had a bit of acne but I had a really bad breakout in my 30s and 40s," she reveals. "I must have spent a fortune on remedies to try and get rid of it but it was a waste of money.
"Then one day I happened to pick up a book in the library. It was about homemade cosmetics and it brought face creams right down to the basics. I decided I might as well have a go at making my own.
"I chose jojoba oil, which is light and doesn't clog pores; some essential oils; and an emollient. I was amazed at the improvement in my skin. Now I only get an occasional spot."
Fired up by success and encouraged by husband Jonathan, who works in a fibre optics warehouse, Andrea put her new know-how to work and came up with the perfect moisturiser.
"I'd always wanted to use a night cream but because of acne it hadn't been possible," she says. "Once my skin improved, however, I began to formulate a lovely cream to use at night."
As she lists some of the ingredients used in her products, it's obvious that, where skin is concerned, only the best will do.
"I use cocoa butter, mainly for its anti-inflammatory properties, but I also use mango and shea butter - they're all anti-ageing," Andrea says. "Initially, I thought the butters would be the most expensive but it's the oils that cost most.
"Admittedly, I prefer to use some of the most expensive, including rosehip, which is great for scarring. Jasmine is another top-of-the-price-range oil but is really worth the money. Pure rose oil is equally pricey but it's simply gorgeous. I love expensive things on my skin!"
It comes as no surprise that the water in Andrea's products isn't from the tap.
"All moisturisers need water but I like to use local spring water," she explains. "I get mine from Belfast's Cavehill, quite near to where I live. The water there is wonderful - very clear, cold and refreshing."
Where did the idea to turn her homemade products into a business originate?
"I'd given a little pot of cream to a work colleague," she recalls. "One day she came rushing over and in her excitement practically pinned me against the wall! She went on to explain that she'd been suffering from stress and hadn't had a good night's sleep in ages. But since using my cream she'd started feeling more relaxed and, to her delight, was sleeping soundly. She told me that people suffering from insomnia would love my cream. That's when I decided to explore the idea of a business venture."
Andrea, who has set up a crowdfunding appeal for her work (www.crowdfunder.co.uk/sustainable-packaging-for-sleep-
cream-and-serum) is careful to point out that her products aren't intended as a cure for insomnia.
"No, I'm not claiming my cream is a cure for sleep disorders," she affirms. "But it does help people relax and my customers love it. In fact, jasmine is well known for its relaxation properties."
In recent years, argan oil has taken the beauty world by storm.
In fact, its popularity has prompted the Moroccan government to increase production from around 2,500 to 4,000 tonnes by 2020.
Perhaps less well known is that olive squalane, often referred to as 'a facelift in a bottle', is said to retain moisture and promote soft, supple skin.
"Olive squalane is like a fine olive oil that doesn't clog pores and is easily absorbed by the skin," Andrea explains.
"It helps to give a lovely dewy complexion. I've included both argan oil and olive squalane in my Sleepy Serum.
"Yes, they're expensive but, as I said, I love expensive things on my skin."
Deborah Anderson of Broom Cottage, on the Ards Peninsula, makes soaps, lip balm and hand cream.
Fifteen years ago, she was working as a care manager for the NHS when she, together with husband Philip and their six children, moved to a small farm, known as Broom Cottage in rural Co Down. There, as well as growing produce to feed the family, Carol began creating products to nourish her skin.
"Before moving to Ards, we were living in Bangor," she says. "We had an old Victorian house with a back yard where I began growing fruit and vegetables in pots - I had around 100 of them.
"I'd always dreamed of moving to the country and producing our own food. I was passionate about it. As it turned out, the farm was everything I'd imagined. I loved being out and about, seeing to the animals, delighted to be living the dream. But it can be freezing cold and very windy on the peninsula. The harsh weather was playing havoc with my lips and hands. They were chapped, dry and very painful.
"I bought a variety of salves and balms but my lips were no better. I thought about making my own. I'd done a few courses in aromatherapy and the therapeutic use of essential oils so I had some background knowledge.
"Plus, I already had the most important ingredient - beeswax. It really is the most incredible thing. As well as vitamins and minerals it has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties.
"It is nature's own remedy for skin. I love bees - and my name actually means honeybee!"
It wasn't long before Deborah spotted a niche in the market.
"Suddenly everyone wanted my lip balm," she reveals. "I went on to develop a super hand cream, using ingredients like sweet almond oil, cocoa butter, geranium oil, evening primrose oil and, of course, beeswax.
"When it came to making soaps, I wanted something that cleanses but doesn't strip natural oils from the body. Using an old fashioned process, known as cold press, we used ingredients like vegetable oil, milk from our goats, honey from our bees and added essential oils for fragrance. We even grow and dry our own flowers, marigold and camomile, to use in our 'sunflower and honey' range. With a pH similar to skin (between 6-7) our soap couldn't be gentler."
Does she have a favourite soap? "I love them all but I particularly like the goats' milk soap. It has such a creamy, silky texture that feels very luxurious on the skin. I'm also partial to the oatmeal and honey variety. Oatmeal is a natural exfoliator so there are no chemicals, beads or any other harmful ingredients."
All Deborah's soaps are tested and certified.
"It's a long process. The Northern Ireland microbiology plant that we used to test our ingredients has closed so we have to send everything to a branch in England. Once tested and certified, you can't change a single thing. Even if you simply reduce the amount of an ingredient, the verification is void and you have to start the process again."
Business has been booming and Broom Cottage has recently opened a coffee shop and retail outlet in Newtownards.
For Deborah it's a dream come true but she couldn't have done it without the support of her family - her husband Philip and children Joanne (41), Alan (36), Matthew (34), Jenny (30), Michael (29) and Becky (23).
"The children have all been great," she says. "Matthew works full-time in the business while Jenny and Becky help at weekends. My husband Philip has no real interest but he has financially supported the business through all its ups and downs. He's also had to put up with my overwhelming passion for farming!"