Despite hand sanitiser shortages, good old-fashioned soap, made right here in the Hunter Valley, is still easy to find.
Michelle Waite of BARE Nature'sKin makes her own sustainable soaps and skin products at an olive grove in Broke where she lives with her mum, Marian Waite. Covid-19 caused them to temporarily close the shop on their property (though, we understand they have now re-opened on weekends), but she continues to make soap, stock other shops and sell online.
Since 2007 Waite has been making soaps the natural way on their 106-acre property.
"It's a lovely spot. We have a natural swamp and bird sanctuary which backs on to the Wollombi Brook, a little creek which meanders its way into the Hunter," Waite says of the land, called River Flats Estate.
Waite loves being creative, cooking and growing things. Olive oil is the chosen fat for her products. Pomace oil is the oil, which particles at the bottom of the virgin olive oil tank. It is technically edible, though you wouldn't put it in your salad. That's her number one ingredient.
"I started making a bit of soap for mum. She had an outlet for chutneys, pickles and olives. I'd come up here and help her do the olives and pickles," she says.
After living in Sydney and travelling overseas, Waite decided to move to the Estate and start a soapmaking business.
She applied for the government's NEIS program, an investment scheme that teaches basic business fundamentals. The course gave her the confidence to get started.
It grew from there. These days she uses every oil she can get her hands on, but olive oil remains key. She makes soap in a cold-process method, which means the soap has to cure for months but doesn't require extra chemicals.
"A lot of commercial soap makers have agents added to them, they're called lauryl phosphates. That's a foaming agent," she says. "With the cold-process soap making, it's naturally better for your skin, better for your body, better for the sinks, better for the drain."
The curing process is vital. The water evaporates and the soap shrinks; it becomes denser and longer lasting. Curing takes six months, but Waite has cured soap for years. She has soap from 2017 she's still cutting up.
The soap never expires, and she makes them in big 13-kilo slabs.
"It's a workout," she jokes.
Of the 13 kilos, three kilos is goats' milk, or the "water component" in many of her soaps. The milk comes from the goats on her property; she milks them by hand. She mentioned goat milk soap can be good for people with eczema, psoriasis and dry itchy skin.
Beeswax from her hives is another common ingredient, although it's not included in the vegan soap. She creates different varieties of shampoo, creams, bath scrubs, candles and more.
She also has pigs that she raises and eats.
"They're role in the soap-making isn't really much. They just go where I go because I love pigs and I've always had pigs," she says.
She sells her soaps in bulk strips that are 30-centimetres long, and the buyer can slice it to their liking.
Her best sellers are lemon myrtle or the plain goat's milk. She makes her dog shampoo with flea-repelling oils like tea tree oil, lavender and citronella (it's safe for humans too). Often her products have essential oils which also have antibacterial qualities.
"I love the scrubs, they're sugar-based, they're really moisturising and get rid of the dead skin. Simple little thing to do, but it feels so nice," she says.
Each creation is different. Some are aloe-vera based and moisturising. None have synthetic scents or artificial ingredients. The soap takes the longest to cure.
The creams are made faster, but she infuses them with olive oil which extends the production. She also makes crystal deodorants from minerals and salts, and her hemp shampoo comes in a bar instead of a bottle.
Olive oil is the main ingredient, but uses other bases including hempseed, shea, and coconut oil.
She supplies them to a few outlets in Newcastle including Your Food Collective. It's also at the Wollombi general store and a pharmacy and wineries in Polkobin. They're sold up in Byron and also Alice Springs.
Waite sources her herbs close to home. She harvests Stinking Roger and Stinging Nettle on their land. Her neighbours share their vineyard roses and flowers from nearby weddings.
"The less mileage the better. Practice what you preach and get stuff from here and around. We've got a lot we can use around. You don't have to go too far," she says.
Neither she nor her mum drives, keeping them very local. They work hard and her partner Patchy Tinder supports everything she does.
"My boyfriend, Patchy is part of my heartbeat. He's an amazing creative person. He helps me build shops and make spaces where I can make and create in a safe way. He's an instrumental part of me doing what I do," she says.
River Flats Estate host workshops with Muswellbrook-based naturopath Pat Collins on the benefits of different local plants. Ironically the one they just had to cancel was on respiratory and immune system.
"She knows a lot about different weeds and plants in the bush and how to incorporate them into skincare and diet. She taught me a lot when I started; she taught me the fundamentals in making tinctures, moisturizers, fusions, the basics. These workshops we do teach the same," Waite says.
Each season they cover the different weeds and plants growing nearby. Students show up at the shop, grab a basket and go walking all over the property picking different plants. The workshops last all day and at the end they do a big vegie feast and split up into groups and start pounding up herbs.
Waite is excited to bring these workshops back when it's safe to do so.
The pandemic has slowed things down, but curing soap takes a while anyway. Waite and her crew continue to work hard on the land, despite it all. They're not afraid to get their hands dirty.