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Shea Alchemy: Natural Handmade Skincare

Shea Alchemy founder Sally Mumford talks about her gorgeous skincare creams, all of which are based on fairtrade shea butter from Ghana.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Shea Alchemy by Cat Palairet
Shea Alchemy by Cat Palairet.

I am a big fan of cottage industries – after all, I am one myself. In the first of an ongoing series that will profile ethical skincare and makeup brands, let me introduce you to Shea Alchemy founder Sally Mumford. Having discovered her creams some years ago (at a market) I can indeed testify that they are very yummy… Here she talks about how she set up her business and why it is possible to avoid spending a fortune on good quality natural skincare.

Shea Alchemy founder Sally Mumford by Charlotte Hoyle
Shea Alchemy founder Sally Mumford by Charlotte Hoyle.

What did you do before you set up Shea Alchemy?
I was marketing manager at Random House publishers. Absolutely nothing to do with skincare. After having my kids I wanted to be around at home more so I went freelance from home as a graphic designer and copywriter. This all sounds totally unrelated but has actually helped me set up the business as I haven’t had to pay designers or marketing people which would have cost a fortune and I did know about running a business.

Shea Alchemy pots

What prompted you to set up shop? Where did you learn how to make skincare products and where would you recommend that budding skin magicians go to train?
I went to stay with a friend in the States when I was a freelance designer and met a woman who was really into natural skincare who told me all about all the rubbish that is in so many commercial skin creams. I was pretty horrified and bought some ‘natural’ creams made by a company called Arbonne. I loved them but they were INCREDIBLY expensive. When they ran out I looked at the ingredients list and, being a practical kind of person, (and miserly), I thought I’m sure I could make this myself and save myself £100’s. So, I bought a natural beauty recipe book from Amazon and with Claire, my daughter, I set off to Neal’s Yard and spent a fortune on natural ingredients (far more than £100 in the end) and came home and had fun in the kitchen. We squashed beetroot through sieves, blocked the sink with melted beeswax and made all kinds of weird and wonderful concoctions. That was just the beginning but I got hooked on it. I did loads of reading, experimenting and talking to various chemists and toxicologists. I researched ingredient properties and finally, once I had decided I wanted to sell my creams, rather than just giving them to friends and family as I had been – I went on a course run by Aromantic in Fulham to find out how to make sure they didn’t curdle or go off and to learn about the legal side of things.

Shea Alchemy by Alison Day
Shea Alchemy by Alison Day.

Why Shea Butter? Do you ever feel tempted to throw another substitute product in the mix?
On that first Neal’s Yard trip in 2003 we bought some shea butter just because it was in one of the recipes I fancied making. I really liked its texture and the feel of it on my skin. When I read about its properties I decided to make it the theme of my creams. Shea butter is fantastically good for the skin and has been used for centuries in Africa as a natural skin moisturiser. It helps heal scars, offers natural sun protection, soothes eczema and a whole range of dry skin conditions and is also used as a hair conditioner. We mix it with other ingredients though as in its basic unrefined form it is hard and wax like and needs warming before use.

How do you source your shea butter? What led you to Ghana?
We get our fairtrade, unrefined shea butter via a child rights organisation in Ghana called Afrikids and it is made in a woman’s fairtrade cooperative. Ghana is the main place for Shea butter and as a friend of mine had some Ghanaian contacts it seemed the natural place to head for.

Illustration by Jess Gurr.

What other products do you add to the shea butter and where do you find these?
We use organic oils such as olive, apricot kernel, thistle and avocado, aloe vera, horse chestnut extract and cocoa butter. We use spring water which we get from my cousin’s farm in Northants where they have a natural spring. They bottle and sell their water and I am sure this is why our creams are so good for sensitive skins because our water is SOOOO pure. We use an emulsifier – cetyl alcohol, which comes from coconut oil – to blend the fats and the water together. We scent the creams with organic essential oils. All our ingredients are sourced from different companies.

Can you explain a bit of the process behind the making your products?
It’s a cross between cooking and chemistry! Lots of heating, cooling, whisking and stirring. Heating has to be very precise and timing is crucial. In the early days we had loads of disasters with curdled messes in saucepans but now we have it down to a fine art. The cooks in the company are Prue (my sister), Emma (my oldest friend) and me. Emma has a science background and that helps a lot.

Shea Alchemy by Karina Yarv
Shea Alchemy market stall by Karina Yarv.

Why is selling in markets so important to you, and which markets do you sell in?
Selling at markets is great because it really keeps you in touch with the people who buy our stuff and what they want. We love the feedback and because we are a tiny company we can actually act on it. If people say they love the smell of geranium for example – we go and get organic essential oil of geranium and add it to stuff. If people show interest in hemp oil for example or blackcurrant seed or blackseed oil etc (as they have done) we can add it to products. We do have to get every recipe toxicology tested though before selling it so its not totally ad hoc. We sell at Broadway Market in London Fields every Saturday and Brick Lane Upmarket in the Truman Brewery on Sundays. We also do one off markets in York (we are there loads over Christmas), Suffolk, Brighton etc. Our website is regularly updated with our plans for the next month and every Friday we confirm our venues via twitter. I chose Broadway and Brick Lane as regular markets because they are GREAT venues and I love being there! Lots of people, lots of great stalls and really friendly stall holders. If I am going to spend my weekends working I want to make sure I am going to enjoy myself.

How do you work between Crouch End and York?
I am based in Crouch End and make stuff in my kitchen and sell at markets in London. Emma makes it in her kitchen in York,  services most of the web orders and sells at York markets. My sister, Prue, makes creams in her kitchen in Northants and brings batches of cream up to me on a weekly basis.

SheaAlchemy by Reena Makwana
Illustration by Reena Makwana.

What are your new products?
Our new products are Cyclists’ Sore Bits Cream and Cyclists All Weather Face protection because we have had loads of cyclists asking for specialist creams – particularly on Broadway market. We also do a blusher and tinted moisturiser because it is simple to just add mineral tints to our existing creams. We don’t have plans to extend the make up range but these two products fit comfortably with the rest of our products.

All your products come in distinctive little tins and pots – why have you decided to package them in this way and what inspired the distinctive bright design?
I just liked the idea of tins because they are really practical, unsquashable and have a kind of basic honesty about them – no fake bottoms here. I did some basic market research before becoming a Ltd company and the results of the survey I did showed that people wanted something a bit different that would stand out from the endless white boxes. I design all our packaging myself and I love bright colours. I looked at lots of Ghanaian batiks for inspiration and the borders of all our tins are based on a batik I liked.

Shea Alchemy Stall by Charlotte Hoyle
Shea Alchemy Stall by Charlotte Hoyle.

Why are gift boxes such a good idea for a small brand like yours?
I think people like to buy presents that are packaged in some way so it made sense to put combinations of creams together. I have to admit I love little bags, boxes, tissue and ribbon so it gave me a great excuse to go and spend loads of money at the packaging factory!

What are your dreams for the future of your brand?
Oh wow … Well, I think we want to stay small. This company is a lifestyle for us rather than an ambition to make mega bucks. We like messing around in the kitchen and making lovely products. If we were to go into shops and get big, our recipes would have to be made in a factory, we would need a distribution network and a production line and who wants to spend their days dealing with all that hassle and the stress of borrowing large amounts of money? If we just sell online and at markets the other great thing is we can keep our prices very competitive because our overheads are massively reduced.  We do want to make a bit more money than we do at the moment though … I think online sales are the way to go. So check out our website and start doing your christmas shopping!


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2 Responses to “Shea Alchemy: Natural Handmade Skincare”

  1. Fantastic interview. I have been looking for ethically sourced shea butter products and these sound great. I shall check out the recommendation!

  2. Alice Harper says:

    I use Shea Alchemy’s tinted moisturiser and I swear by it. I don’t look like I’m wearing make-up and yet it gently covers any blemishes. And I love the fact that it doesn’t have anything nasty in it.

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