How Our Founder Literally “Grew” A Business

My name is Kristen Dunning and I am, among many things, an eczema warrior, a plant and herb science lover, a 22-year-old graduate student at The University of Georgia, and the founder of Gently Soap - an award-winning line of herbal soaps that aim to bring the joy of bathing to those with extra sensitive skin types. 

I was born with eczema. My parents always say that I was born looking like a “baby alligator” because of how bad my skin would scale and peel. My mother would alternate between TMC lotion, creams, oatmeal baths, and topical eczema treatments for years while I was a toddler. When I turned 3, my hair began to fall out due to over scratching as I dealt with scalp eczema (SD). This set off a chain reaction and my eczema horror story went on for years. I remember being teased throughout daycare and elementary school. The other children my age did not understand what eczema was and their curiosity got the best of them. 

It was because of this that my parents made the decision to place their child on steroids. My parents and I also started to learn what foods caused my  flare-ups and we began creating a “no eating list” that would stay with me for life. 

At the end of elementary school, I ended steroid treatment. It was then that my experience with TSW - a common acronym for steroid withdrawal in the eczema community - began. My skin became SO sensitive and everything I used was painful or just plain wrong. While other middle school girls became fascinated with the world of beauty products, I dealt with it all: burning sensations, itching, flare ups, peeling, lesions - you name it. I hated my skin and my doctor-prescribed skincare routine was overwhelmingly boring. 

The bar soaps that I was being recommended were chemical filled white bars that were one size fits all, and had limited to no variety. I woke up every morning to a bathing routine that did not spark joy. I would walk through aisles at my local grocery or drug store dreaming of the imaginary day that I would be able to use the scented body washes on the shelves. It was from that experience that I decided that no one should have to feel oppressed by something so ingrained into every part of our daily lives - our personal care essentials. 

By the time I started applying to colleges, I knew I wanted to make a change to the sensitive skincare and personal care industries, in the most natural way possible. I was heavily influenced by my father’s side of the family in picking a major. My family has their roots in the agricultural industry. In the summers growing up, I would go visit my grandparents on their 84 acre farm/homestead in Dixons Mills, AL. It was there that my grandmother shared with me her knowledge of the land and the power that plants had in healing so many issues, spiritually and physically. I knew that I wanted to use plants to redefine the way that we look at personal care and from that I chose my undergraduate majors in Horticultural Science and Agricultural Communications (because I figured that science meant nothing if you could not communicate it to the general public). 

As a freshman, I pioneered a horticultural research project to develop a deeper understanding of medicinal plants and their healing properties. With the help of my faculty mentor, Dr. David Knauft, I identified calendula and chamomile as anti-inflammatory alternatives for chemical ingredients in commercial skincare. However, this was only the beginning. I took this research and expanded on it for years to create a proprietary way of infusing properties of plants and herbs into personal care products. At the end of the research, we had an entire greenhouse full of medicinal plants and Dr. Knauft suggested that I do something with all of them. At this point, I had only seen myself as the scientist who would go work for a natural or sustainable brand, not as the creator of one. That all changed as I spent a whole semester at UGArden Student community farm and in my dorm room making soap for fun. I really fell in love with creating products. I loved the ways that I could mix and match the qualities of herbs to create something new. That is when I began to look at my horticulture work and herbal knowledge as more than a research project but rather a strong foundation for an impactful brand.