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Five Questions: David Melis, Edgewater Soaps

David, Soaps

David Melis grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, but became a true Illinoisian when he graduated with a degree in Library Science from the University of Illinois-Champaign.  An Edgewater resident since 1993, David has worked in Public Libraries around the state, including in Niles, Wilmette and Des Plaines.  He began making soap in 2001 after a battle with severe eczema left him with few commercial options for soap that was not filled with skin-irritating chemical compounds.  Through a lot of experimentation, David found formulas that soothed, rather than bothered, his sensitive skin.  Turns out David was not the only one in search of soaps that were not ‘perfectly engineered’ with chemicals. This labor of love turned from a hobby friends and family appreciated into a business when Edgewater Soaps was incorporated in 2001.

1)      How has your business evolved since 2001?

When I started Edgewater Soaps, I offered five ‘regular’ bars: one for sensitive skin that was scent free and had no color additives, a castile soap for face that is 80 percent olive oil (which makes it creamier, with less lather), one soap for oiler skin, a soap specifically made for shaving that included cornmeal, rosemary and lemon, and a soap for dry skin that lacked chemical additives commonly found in commercial soap.

I’ve learned a lot since then, and have enjoyed experimenting with different oils and ingredients.  I now offer a soap made with coffee grounds that many people use in the kitchen, because coffee is a natural deodorizer.  I love the challenge when a customer requests an ingredient or specific scent – for example, one customer asked me to make a soap that had the highest possible percentage of aloe vera.  Another loved grapefruit and wanted grapefruit soaps to put in gift baskets for friends and family at Christmas.  I am happy to oblige these requests!

I use as high of quality ingredients as I can find.  I am very conscious of my soaps being socially responsible, and I purchase most of my ingredients locally from a reputable supplier in Des Plaines.  I use organic ingredients when possible, and although not all ingredients have organic versions, I am exploring the possibility of adding an all-organic soap to my line.  I’m also trying to keep costs down of course.

2)      In those 13 years in business, what has been the biggest surprise?

I think it’s that I still love this!  Soap making hasn’t gotten old for me, and it truly is a source of joy in addition to a supplementary source of income.  It makes me so happy when customers say how wonderful the soap was and how they feel better after using it.

When oils are converted into soap, you get two things – glycerin and soap.  Commercial processes often include milling the soap to mold and pressurize it into a uniform size and shape bar and indefinitely increase shelf life.  This removes most if not all of the glycerin, which is often added back in later in the process.  I keep the glycerin in so it doesn’t have to be added back in later, which means there is no filmy residue.

If you’ve ever tried to wash your glasses with commercial soap, you see the film that it leaves behind – my soaps don’t do that.

3)      On your blog, you note the importance of those who suffer from skin issues to use chemical free household cleaners. Do you have any ‘do it yourself’ tips?

My best advice to anyone looking to lessen chemical impact in their home is to read labels.  If you don’t know what any of the ingredients are, or if you need to be a chemist to understand them – think twice before you purchase that item.

A lot of us read labels on food to check for calorie count, or fat content, but many of us don’t read labels beyond that.  Your skin is your body’s largest organ and we absorb a lot of things through the skin.

Especially for folks like me who suffer from eczema, which causes dry and itchy skin where scratching can lead to open scabs, that junk has a direct entry point into the body through the broken skin.  Washing with soap or applying cream with irritants in it only makes this cycle worse.  Even if you don’t have skin issues, if you cut yourself shaving, that’s another direct entry point for chemicals to get into your body. We have to stop the cycle.  That’s why I started making soap.

4)      How do you see locally grown/handmade products impacting our Edgewater community?

The Edgewater community is really great about supporting local artisans!  I really appreciate that my neighbors understand why it’s important to do business locally and support small businesses.  I’ve taken part in both the Local First Chicago and A Fresh Squeeze Chicago initiatives, as reducing my carbon footprint is important to me personally and professionally in my products.  For many years, I was one of the leaders of Chicago Craft Mafia, a DIY trunk show which used to take place at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse – but we received little cooperation from local government, so now it will be moving to the Broadway Armory.  Alderman Osterman has been very helpful. I couldn’t ask for an Alderman who is more receptive and cooperative to local artisans.  The group is now being led by Rebecca of Blue Buddha Boutique. She’s great. The next show will be in November at the Armory. Editor’s note: If you are interested in purchasing David’s soaps but don’t want to wait until November, you can order via his website or friend him on facebook, where he posts what craft shows he will be attending. If you are a local artist that may be willing to share a vendor space at Andersonville Galleria, please email David at info@edgewatersoaps.com.

5)      What is your favorite thing about Edgewater?

My favorite thing about Edgewater is definitely the diversity.  I also love the tree-lined streets and the architecture.  I’m thankful for my neighbors and customers, who are incredibly loyal and find me wherever I am, no matter which craft show or where – and I try to return that favor by hand delivering soaps ordered via my website whenever I can, so as to save their shipping costs.

I also loved the old Edgewater Public Library, it was so well-used by our community.  Kids used to be crammed in after school hours.  The new space feels a bit sterile to me, but I am hopeful that more print resources will become available post-expansion and redesign.  Libraries play such a critical role in our community, especially for those of a lower economic status.


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