Interview with Susan Houlihan of Alpenglow Skin Care
We're kicking off our Kenai Peninsula box with Susan Houlihan! Her company is Alpenglow Skin Care and shes makes a ton of cool and varied products for your hair, skin, and more. We talked a bit about her belief in natural products, her love of the outdoors, and more. Here we go!
Tell me a bit about yourself, Alpenglow Skin Care, and how you got started?
My husband Patrick and I came to Alaska in 1995 and worked as Interpretive Park Rangers in Denali National Park for 6 seasons. A strong interest of mine which began in college is ethnobotany, the study of cultural traditional use of native plants – for food, medicine, healing skin and this is what I focused on in Denali. Native Alaskan’s are very resourceful people. So Patrick and I really embraced the ‘do for yourself’ spirit and became attuned to living a simpler life.
We learned to can food from our garden, to fish, hunt, sew, make candles and chop wood.
Incorporate that with the fact that I really struggled with my skin in my twenties. I had bad acne, uneven skin tone and a whole cupboard full of products that did nothing but make my skin breakout despite claiming to be hypoallergenic and good for sensitive skin. This caused me to become label reader. I started researching toxins and carcinogenic ingredients found in many products marketed as “all natural”. This is still a passion of mine and my education continues.
With a degree in science and a meticulous, detail oriented personality, it’s no surprise these factors lead me to start making soap, balm and cream from recipes I found in books from the library. I just wanted healthy ingredients and for my skin to clear up. I had no intentions of going into business, but I received such positive feedback on my skin’s improvement, and from the friends and family that I shared my first batches with. So my formulation goals were and continue to be on health and healing skin with quality organic ingredients. I’ve never been driven to business as a money-making venture, it’s more about right-livelihood.
When I look back on all the things that came together to create this business back in 1999, it’s no wonder I feel like I have the best job in the universe. It’s really a perfect fit for my skill set, lifestyle preferences and fabulous for our family. I feel utterly grateful that I have the opportunity to continue to provide truly natural and entirely handmade products all across the globe today. I am rewarded daily by emails and phone calls from customers that LOVE Alpenglow products. I have had many customers since the beginning! Honestly, I feel like I have the best customers in the world.
That's so cool to hear about your journey and how things sort of naturally progressed and that it's such a perfect fit! You mentioned that going into business wasn't the original plan and that seems to be a pretty common theme when I talk to people about how they started. Were you a little hesitant at first? Or was the feedback so amazing that the transition ended up being a pretty easy decision to make?
It was all very organic. I was never hesitant to transition my craft into a business and my livelihood but it has always been at a pace that allowed family first. I think being organized is really key to achieving the balance of work/play/family life because being super organized equates to a reduction of scrambling/overwhelm. I know I need to order packaging and ingredients about a month before I need them because of the lengthy shipping time. I need to work with my graphic designer on labels a good 6 weeks before I run out…. So I’m juggling a lot of variables to ensure I’m not out of inventory of any of my 52 products. That’s a lot of labels, bottles, jars, caps, pumps, essential oils, nut butters, carrier oils and wildcrafted plants to manage.
When it comes to your lotions, shampoo, soaps, etc., what can you tell us about your process in regards to extracting what you need for each of them?
I draw the analogy that skin and hair care products is food for the skin and hair. So think of a lasagna. The”lasagna” I make, starts in the garden. I harvest the organic tomatoes and herbs I started as seeds deep in winter and have loved and cared for all summer. I milk my cows to make the cheese. I use moose meat which took hours of preparation before it hit the skillet. This type of lasagna is incredibly time consumptive to make – not just the time in the kitchen, everything done meticulous by hand, from scratch. But hours and hours of work has occurred in the field before the mixing and cooking and making. This type of lasagna is so much healthier, tastes so much better, is ecologically so much better than what you find in the store. The frozen lasagna at the grocery store has feedlot beef, nothing home grown, made with trans fats and way too much salt. It was made in a factory months before it ended up in your hands and it has consumed heaps of fossil fuels for its shipment and continual freezing. They are both lasagna, but there is a huge difference. Alpenglow products have the same name as commercial products – shampoo, lotion, soap, cream, but they are worlds apart from the commercial products in terms of their benefit, healthy ingredients, scent and sustainability.
We start by harvesting wild plants and grow many herbs and flowers organically. There is an inordinate amount of labor that occurs before these ingredients enter the workshop ready to add incredible benefit and scent. We start our lavender and calendula seeds in February. We wildcraft botanicals from March – October. We hand pick rose petals one by one. We dry herbs and botanicals and freeze cottonwood tree buds. We make infusions and extracts, all entirely by hand, from scratch using the most beneficial, nutritional plants that our pure Alaskan wilderness grows. It’s an enormous gift I don’t take for granted – being able to harvest clean, pure botanicals and make the most wholesome products. I am grateful every day for what I am blessed to be able to create.
I really like the lasagna analogy! How did you decide on exactly what you wanted to use in your products? I know you mentioned doing a lot of research and discovering recipes that way but is there a bit of experimentation involved as well?
The foundation of all of my formulas has been 100% natural since the very beginning because as a consumer I was sick and tired of being greenwashed – seeing a label that touted Natural and then not being able to decipher the ingredient list and knowing there were synthetics in the products. I also have used many products that had decent ingredients but I found them to not work great. There was always a compromise – short shelf life, difficult to apply, required refrigeration, didn’t smell good, didn’t lathe, and I knew to have a successful product line I needed to make products that really worked and were not a challenge to use. To figure out what ingredients and plants to use to achieve this goal has meant an enormous amount of research and understanding the chemical constituents in every ingredient. For example – in my goat milk bar soap I use what I consider an ideal ratio of organic olive oil for moisturizing benefit, coconut oil for lather and palm oil to make a hard bar. It’s the different fatty acids in these oils that contribute to the different properties. Another soaper may use these same ingredients but in a different ratio or processed in a different way and our bars are completely different. I am a research-aholic and meticulous in my formulating so I can provide consistent results. It’s not just the ingredients I use, it’s the process – temperature, blending time, cooling, how I extract infusions from botanicals. The exact way I make each product is half of the picture, not just the ingredients I use.
Can you tell me more about how your operation has evolved over the years?
When Patrick and I moved to Homer/Anchor Point 20 years ago from Interior we bought our land with a small cabin without water or a driveway. We spent years building a house, gardens, high tunnel, then workshop on our property for Alpenglow. The building and maintaining of our homestead/farm/life has been Patrick’s main work. When I started making soap and face cream in the 16x16 cabin we had 1 table. If I didn’t finish a batch of whatever I was making by meal time, we ate dinner on the couch. Liam, our first born lived in that tiny space with us, along with our dog and Alpenglow for 2 years. Boy it was crowded. Like living in a ship. We moved into the house Patrick built next to the cabin the week before Alana, our daughter was born and then turned the cabin into a dedicated Alpenglow space. It felt enormous and like a huge step to have room for just business. Within 6 months we were drawing up plans for the workshop, 16x16 wasn’t cutting it any more. Patrick designed both our home and workshop to be energy efficient and super insulated. We really consider our impact on the planet in all decisions on running the business. This fall we are installing solar panels. The evolution and growth of Alpenglow has been very organic. Every year it gets bigger and I have to work harder to balance family/personal life with the demands of having a very successful business. I love what I do and I’m good at time management so I plug family time in as much as possible. I don’t want to regret not having spent time with my kiddos. They are now 14 and 16 years old and won’t be here much longer.
I’ve had a part-time employee for 16 years. And my daughter helps a fair amount with labeling, filling bottles and jars, capping, wrapping soap…she’s awesome. So is my employee. But it’s never been a wish of mine to have a store front nor to get a larger workshop/space away from home. I’ve always wanted to work from home. So as the business has grown, I’ve needed to become very efficient with my space and time to be able to manufacture to the level required to meet my wholesale and website sales. I used to sell at more venues but I’ve cut back on that. I vend at Girdwood Forest Fair (July 4th weekend), Arts and Crafts Emporium (Anchorage mid-November), Kenai Craft Fair (Black Friday and Saturday). I was a vendor at the Homer Farmers Market for 18 years and on the board of directors for over a dozen years. I love our Farmers Market, it is really amazing. But I wanted my Saturdays back, as it was a big commitment to be there every Saturday from May – September. I think one of the best things about having your own business is making sure you are continually assessing what works for you and making sure you stay true to yourself.
I agree with you totally on having control over your time being one of the best things about having your own business. Letting it dictate your life entirely, especially with a lot of growth, seems like it can be an easy trap to fall into if you're not careful. You also mentioned the family/work balance. Do you have any tips for making sure that you're able to dedicate time to both?
My number one tip for anyone starting out is to make sure you are making decisions in your business that lead you towards where you want to be. Obvious but unfortunately a lot of folks are doing work they are not passionate about. I never wanted a store front so I didn’t open a brick and mortar. I have always wanted to work at home so I wasn’t away from my family so we built our large workshop here. Don’t get yourself over-committed where you never get a day off all summer. Make sure you are allowing time for yourself. You make better decisions and work more productively when you get enough exercise, rest and love/connection with others. The other thing I find really important is hiring help where needed. You can’t do it all. So if web design or graphic design or accounting aren’t your cup of tea, pay an expert instead of suffering. Use your strengths and don’t use your weaknesses if that makes sense. And listen to your customers – they guide you towards improving your business.
What has been the best part of the journey that you've made with your business?
I know my teenagers don’t appreciate what we do as a family very much right now but I hope and suspect that they will look back one day at how cool it is that they spent hours of their childhood harvesting wild botanicals and gardening to turn plants into skin and hair care products. I love that my kids have seen me attempt to balance work and play and I hope to be a good role model to them in this regard.
The other awesome part of this business journey has been my customers. Honestly, I love them. I make connections with people that have been utterly grateful for the products I make, some of them using my products for 20 years now. They tell me the ways I have improved their life. How much better their dry, itchy skin is with my lotion. How their hair actually looks and feels so much better with Alpenglow than the high end chemical-laden products they’ve been buying for years. Teenagers write me and tell me their acne has cleared up from using our facial cleansers. Even the most cynical hardened fisherman and hunters let me know my natural Alaska’s Best Insect Repellant REALLY WORKS! This connection with people is very meaningful to me and I feel without a doubt I’ve found the right calling for my work. I am honestly grateful every day for what I do and that I make a living doing what I love. It’s so awesome that people support that.
I saw on your website that "Work hard, play hard" is your family motto and you've done a bunch of cool things around Alaska. Any cool stories that you'd like to share? What's been your favorite thing that you've experienced?
My husband finds me exhausting. Especially in summer when I don’t want to stop. I do very little sitting around. I work work work, cram in just a little bit more work…and instead of sitting down and watching TV, I try to build in as much family fun time as possible. We ski, bike, hike, swim, paddleboard, canoe, beach, camp, backpack, and travel as much as we can. I am ceaselessly amazed by Alaska for the nature lovers playground that it is. So we take advantage and venture out a bunch. With the amazing summer weather we’ve had this year especially, we do something fun almost every evening after work. And every weekend we do an expedition. I love living on Kachemak Bay and so enjoy the beach and water and the hiking trails in the state park. It’s definitely my happy place. There are just too many trails I’ve enjoyed (I especially love hiking and backpacking) to pick a favorite. Being with my family outdoors is my favorite, no matter the place or season.
Are there any events that we can find you at throughout the year? (I know this sort of reiterates on your answers from before.)
Girdwood Forest Fair over July 4th weekend. Arts and Crafts Emporium at the Dena’ina Convention Center mid-November. Kenai High School Craft Fair, Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving. I sell to about 65 stores, lodges, salons, B&B’s – mostly in Alaska, and a handful outside. There are also a bunch of restaurants and cafes that use my Hand & Body Wash (liquid soap) in their restrooms and I get compliments all the time on that!
Out of all of your products, do you have a favorite? Which ones are the most popular?
I couldn’t live without two of my products. Cottonwood Balm and Alaska Herbal Hair Rinse. And my Face Cream, so that makes 3. The Cottonwood Balm is just so incredible. I make it with cottonwood tree buds we harvest in spring before leaf out and our home grown organic calendula flowers. It promotes cell growth, skin regeneration, is analgesic (pain killing) and anti-inflammatory. Native Alaskan’s have used this balm for thousands of years for it’s healing properties. And the scent – favorite thing ever! Alaskan Herbal Hair Rinse is so much better than a conditioner. It removes build up and strengthens hair instead of conditioner that can weigh hair down and cause it to damage and break easily. The infusion I make from nettles, horsetail and yarrow flowers we wildcraft is incredibly beneficial to hair and scalp. It just leaves your hair feeling so naturally healthy. I sell more gallons of this product than any other Alpenglow product. My face cream and lotion are my top selling items – incredibly beneficial to dry skin, really effective, without being greasy. I formulate all of my products for maximum effectiveness, using only natural ingredients, nothing synthetic or artificial and they are all concentrated. So product lasts a very long time as you only need a tiny bit. Our family uses every single product I make and I just can’t imagine buying synthetic product instead of making it myself where I’m ensured of its purity and wholesomeness.
Any products on the horizon that you can tease for us?
Not right now. Well, a new scent of deodorant in the fall will come on board. But not sure of the next new product. It’s a lot keeping inventory in stock for the 52 products I currently make!
What was it about The Bear Box that made you want to be a part of it?
I love Alaska and can’t imagine calling any other place my home. Patrick and I have been here for 25 years and I love Alaskans for their resourcefulness and the way they take care of each other. I love supporting other local businesses and I love that Bear Box highlights local businesses. It’s a win-win.
Anything else that you haven't mentioned yet that you'd like to? Words of wisdom?
I think I’ve talked your ear off enough!
A big thank you to Susan for this wonderfully informative interview and for being a part of our Kenai Peninsula Bear Box! If you're interested in more of what she has to offer, check out her website and connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.