Growing up with eczema was not easy. I was a toddler when I began losing my hair to scalp eczema. Large, knotty clumps would leave my scalp every time my mother would try to style my hair for school. I remember wearing multiple, asymmetrical pony tails to hide my bald spots from other kids. The last thing I wanted was for other kids at the daycare to find out I was balding. The thing about eczema is that you never quite figure it out. Shortly after we found huge bows and barrettes as a temporary fix to my balding little head, eczema began to make its appearance on my arms, legs, and chest. The only thing really on the market back then (in the early 2000s) for eczema was steroids. So, that’s what my mother was forced to resort to. The steroids held back annoyingly itchy and personally embarrassing flare ups but the over-reactivity of my skin remained. And boy do I mean OVER reactivity. I would have adverse reactions to EVERYTHING. Japanese Cherry Blossom Body Wash and Lotion? Reaction. Spraying perfume before church? Reaction. Going outside on the pine straw covered playground? Reaction. Washing the laundry with the weekly household choice? Reaction. New Makeup for Dance or Color-guard shows? Reaction. It SUCKED. My skin would revolt in bumps, rashes, flare-ups, burning, itching, peeling, you name it. Having skin issues had become a part of my daily life and I went all the way through high school never finding relief.


When I went to college, I wanted to be a part of something better for skin care. Following in my grandparents' agricultural footsteps, I fell in love with the world of herbalism and plant science. I loved seeing a plant grow to become something impactful. I would tell all of my agricultural professors that I wanted to work for a natural skin care company. I wanted to be on the communications side and tell the stories of people like me who struggled every day with their skin.


As a freshman in college at The University of Georgia, I was a resident in a CURO (Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities) dorm. The UGA Honors College focused this living/learning community on introducing new students to research. We were each promised funding for a research project under the condition that we found a professor to work with. I was not sure what kind of professor would enter into a project on “skin care for eczema” so I began to ask around. One of my agricultural professors introduced me to Dr. David Knauft, an esteemed professor over in the horticulture department. Truthfully, I had never heard of horticulture before. I had no idea what it was but the guy seemed nice over email so I asked to set up a meeting with him. He accepted.


Meeting Dr. David Knauft was like meeting someone who held a key to your future. I still remember how early I had to wake up to get across campus to the basement of the plant science building where his office was. It was only October and I still did not know my way around the entire campus yet. The professor who introduced us told me that if it seems like I am about to enter a “broom closet” then I had found the right door. So shakily I walked in, sat in a wooden chair, and waited for the conversation that truly changed my life.


Dr. David Knauft and I pioneered a horticultural research project to develop a deeper understanding of medicinal plants and their healing properties for eczema. We identified calendula (Calendula officinalis L.) and chamomile (from genera Matricaria and Chamaemelum) as anti-inflammatory botanical alternatives for commercial skincare through in-depth literary research. That fall and spring we had an entire greenhouse to ourselves and we grew every genetic variety of calendula and chamomile that we could find. Dr. Knauft had seeds shipped in to us from all around the world.


Through that project, I fell in love with herbs, but more specifically calendula and chamomile. (So much so that I have them both tattooed on my ankle). I was enchanted with the ways that I could mix and match their aromatic qualities to create something new, something powerful. This was only the beginning. At the end of the growing season we had so many bags of dried calendula and chamomile that we decided it would be a shame if we did not do something with it. Dr. Knauft thought it would be a spectacular idea if we made a product with it. How did I choose soap? A google search of DIY skincare…and that was the first thing that came up.


Dr. Knauft started looking for people who could help me with product formulation and I was soon connected with UGArden staff. Noelle Joy was the then herb program manager and she gave me a foundation in herbalism that I could never thank her enough for. I took this knowledge and expanded on it in my dorm room to create a new way of infusing the aromatic properties of plants and herbs into personal care products. I try to give Dr. Knauft and Noelle the credit they deserve for giving me the bones of what is now Gently Soap. They won’t accept it. Dr. Knauft told me that even if he did give me some tools and a toolbox, he still did not teach me how to build. That man is literally such a blessing. To this day, he will not let me send him free bars of soap. He insists he pay for everything…as if he was not the person who purchased me my first soap mold.


I ended up making mini calendula and chamomile soap bars to give out at research symposiums. They were being grabbed up like hot cakes. People would come to my poster talk just because they knew they would get free soap at the end. Multiple people asked if I had an Etsy or a shop. I told them no and said that I wasn’t a business person. That was 2019.


Of course, the story of Gently Soap does not end here. There is a lot to say about what went down between 2019 and launching in October 2020. But I’ll save that for later.

- Kristen

July 24, 2022 — Kristen Dunning


Janet Smith said:

Awesome, didn’t get to speak to you the last time you guys were in De but I did see you and your sister the basketball star.

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