Health & Fitness

Sacramento soap-makers tout local ingredients, less processing

Sudz by Studz owners Tyler Robinson, at left, and Preston Tillotson smell a recently made batch of their brand of soap with local ingredients at their garage in Curtis Park.
Sudz by Studz owners Tyler Robinson, at left, and Preston Tillotson smell a recently made batch of their brand of soap with local ingredients at their garage in Curtis Park.

ChapStick users should think twice about pulling out the little stick this winter if they’re anywhere near Preston Tillotson and Tyler Robinson.

If they had their way, the skin-care artists who own and operate Sudz by Studz would swipe it and trash it, before it gets anywhere near your lips. Then they’d give you something in exchange.

“Most of the things that are traversing around on people’s lips nowadays should be criminal, really,” Tillotson said. “Every time someone calls our lip balm a ChapStick, I want to just faint. Have you read the ingredients? … We throw it in the garbage; we give them one of our lip balms … and we get emails later about how people just loved the fact that we did that for them.”

Their Lip Intervention Program, as it was dubbed at its launch this fall by the artisan soap-making duo, is one way to say no to detergents, alcohol, petroleum and a lengthy list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients typically found in the bath-and-body aisle.

Since 2013, Tillotson and Robinson have been pioneering what they call the “Farm-to-Soap” revolution, extending the emphasis of the food movement toward locally grown ingredients, minimal processing and away from chemicals or preservatives that they consider harmful.

“You wouldn’t use your laundry detergent to clean your skin,” Tillotson said. “This gives our consumer what they want, which is something that was grown somewhere near their backyard and is now not only in their bodies but on the outside of their bodies as well.”

When not persuading individuals to trade in a mass-produced lip balm for a Sudz by Studz beeswax-avocado-cocoa-shea version, Tillotson and Robinson can be found foraging for rose petals at Capitol Park, or perusing farmers markets for lavender and peppermint. Neighbors swing by their Curtis Park soapery with offerings from an almond tree or herb garden. Homecrafters provide beer, and baristas at Chocolate Fish Coffee Roasters supply brew – all for the pair’s carefully conceived product line, which started with soap bars and has expanded to include lip balms, body butters, liquid soaps, solid lotion and a beard-friendly shampoo bar. A retail location is on the wish list for 2015.

Tillotson, 26, a philosophy graduate with a newly revived knack for chemistry, handles the business side while Robinson, 24, manages an inventory of nearly 300 ingredients and a stock of goggles, lab coats and manuals needed to safely make soap from scratch. He and Tillotson first encountered the craft in a Groupon class at Sacramento’s soap-making hub, The Soap Salon, and have been learning the ins and outs ever since.

Robinson, former employee at socially conscious cosmetics company Lush – he was also a finalist on NBC’s “The Voice” – more frequently wears the chef’s hat in the company’s garage-turned-lab, where he practices a method called cold-process soap-making.

He starts with a combination of sustainable palm, coconut and pomace olive oil, occasionally adding one of many herb-infused oils that soak for weeks in the sun. That base reacts with a solution of sodium hydroxide and water (or coffee, or beer, or goat milk), also known as lye, initiating a chemical process called saponification. Robinson then uses essential and fragrance oils and natural colorants to tinker with shade and scent before pouring the batter into the mold, where it “sleeps” for 24 hours under one of his childhood blankets. After that, the soap is cut into bars and left to cure for four to eight weeks to create a longer-lasting product.

Sudz by Studz makes small batches – 18 or 20 bars at a time – that sell for $5-$10 a pop at farmers markets, craft fairs and at Good Stock Boutique in the Arden Fair mall, as well as through its website, It marks a two-year anniversary next month. Interest continues to grow, Robinson said.

“Sacramento has always had this really strong gravitation toward art and music and high-quality dining,” he said. “Why can’t high-quality soap be part of that?”

For some of their soaps, Robinson and Tillotson also make use of the “melt-and-pour” method, which involves ordering pre-made glycerin soap base and melting it down for decorating or mass production. The method allows a quicker turn-around than most of their soap-making.

In the personal care industry, organic products are the fastest-growing sector, according to Transparency Market Research. In terms of revenue, organic skin care is expected to grow by 10 percent between 2012 and 2018.

Feleciai Favroth, certified cosmetician and president of the Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetic Guild, said she’s seen membership, now 3,000 globally, grow and diversify in recent years. She attributes the change to the increasing accessibility of soap-making supplies and tutorials through the Web.

For April Meszaros, founder of online soap boutique Birthday Suit, cold-process soap-making started as an experiment in gifts for her family and friends. After successfully teaching herself the craft, she started selling soaps made from Sacramento’s Track 7 Brewing Co.’s beer last year.

“Having access to markets and small local shops up here was an experience I’m not used to, coming from Los Angeles,” she said. “I think that’s the draw for a homemade soap in Sacramento, because it does have such a great focus on local businesses.”

While local sourcing is a big deal for many Sacramento soapers, they have to look farther afield for some of the rarer ingredients, such as shea butter, which comes from nuts of trees most commonly grown in Africa.

And some essential oils – aromatic compounds extracted from plants – are favorites among small-batch soap-makers for their believed therapeutic benefits.

Wherever their origin, oils and butters – most important – moisturize the skin and help it replace the natural oils often stripped by commercial lotions, said Dr. Andrea Willey, a Sacramento skin care specialist.

When humidity levels are low, as they are in Sacramento winters, the skin does a poorer job of producing the layer of natural oil that protects it from irritants. On top of that, many detergent-based soaps and lotions remove that natural oil, drying the skin out while also introducing toxins and carcinogens, she said.

So while rubbing yourself with fruits and vegetables might seem odd, it’s safer for your skin than the standard bar, she said. And contrary to popular belief, most people don’t need an antibacterial to get clean.

“What soaps do, it’s a physical process of removing dirt and grimes,” she said. “Most of the bacteria on the skin are OK. … If you’re going to strip yourself of all your oils in an attempt to get clean, then that’s where dermatologists say you have to replace that layer with a cream.”

Shawn Ramos, whose company Shawn’s Soap Shop has made the semifinals of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s Calling All Dreamers competition for the past two years, said she started experimenting with the craft when her niece was suffering from eczema. Her own soaps, which she makes from farmers market veggies, local honey and homemade kombucha (a brew made of tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast), among other things, kept the itching in check better than the physician’s recommended steroid cream, she said.

“Our skin is our largest organ,” she said. “We need to take care of our largest organ. Why slather a bunch of detergents and chemicals on our skin when we can have the best in our soaps?”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.