One day in 2010, Ken Stopinski decided to read the ingredients on a bar of commercially-made soap.
“I was about to take a shower and I must have been incredibly bored,” said the 48-year-old Alexandria resident . “But that day changed my life.”
After reading a long list of unfamiliar chemicals and additives, Stopinski — a retired 20-year Army veteran who continues to work for the Army as a civilian — decided to go into the natural soap business.
Today, his company, Alexandria Soap Works, makes and sells a variety of handmade bars to retailers across the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.
“In 2010, I began researching and discovered that a lot of commercial soaps don’t call themselves soaps at all,” he said. “They will call themselves ‘beauty bars’ or something similar. I discovered that technically many are not really even soap. They are more like ‘detergent cakes.’ They share many of the same ingredients used in laundry detergents.”
In his spare time, Stopinski began learning all he could about traditional soap making, and eventually began attempting to make his own in the kitchen of his high-rise apartment.
“There was a lot of trial and error,” he said. “Eventually I found an all-natural formula that worked and I began achieving some success.”
According to Stopinski, manufacturing natural soap requires few ingredients.
“You have to have water and Sodium Hydroxide,” he said. “That’s a combination more commonly known as lye. And then you need some essential oils, each one bringing a different property to the process. The oils combine with the lye in a process called saponification, to produce soap.”
Stopinski said he essentially uses three natural oils in his soaps.
“I use coconut oil, which is a cleanser and creates lather when you use the soap,” he said. “I also use Palm oil, which hardens the bar and olive oil, which conditions the skin.”
According to Stopinski, after whipping up a batch, he pours the liquid soap into large wooden molds that produce 22 bars each after they take nearly two months to “purify” and harden.
“As the water evaporates, the soap hardens and then I cut it into bars,” he said.
Stopinski began supplying his soaps to friends and aquaintances, who after using it urged him to start selling it.
Today, with Stopinski still the sole proprietor, Alexandria Soap Works produces five varieties of 5.75-ounce soap bars, all still made in his kitchen. There is gardenia, citrus, garden lily, oatmeal milk and honey and unscented. Each sells for $7.99 and is available at various retailers throughout the area.
Billie Thomas, the owner of The Pickett Fence retail store in Burke, carries Alexandria Soap Works soap.
“We have carried it for about eight months and the unscented bar seems to be a big seller with repeat business,” she said. “Men especially seem to like that one and we get lots of repeat business on that one.”
Thomas said she likes the idea that Stopinski’s soaps are made locally, and that across all varieties, she sells about 20 bars per month.
At The Virginia Store in Alexandria, owner Bob Lorenson said since Christmas, his specialty store in Old Town has so far sold in excess of six dozen bars of Stopinski’s soap.
“I think people like knowing that it is not loaded up with chemicals,” he said. “Also, since they are made locally, I suspect many are purchased as gifts and sent to friends and relatives in a way to say ‘look what they make in my town.”
Stopinski said he is a little ambivalent about his soapy success, but welcomes it.
“I am a guy’s guy,” said Stopinski, who as a soldier completed three tours in South Korea.
“At first it was a little strange making scented soaps, but I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and it’s clean, honest work,” he joked.
“But seriously, I’m making something there is a need for. I really think that America is a little shaky right now and in need of more entrepreneurial innovation in any form possible, you know? I always had a dream to be an entrepreneur and now I’m doing it. I think more people need to stand up and not just accept what’s out there if it isn’t what they really want. That’s the spirit that America was built on.”
To learn more about Alexandria Soap Works, go to www.AlexandriaSoapworks.com