It's safe to say Lei Lei with L3O Soaps keeps busy - she's a small business owner, physician, and mother of two. Soap making allows her to be creative and unwind after a shift at the emergency room. Her cold process designs are bold and creative. Learn more about how Lei Lei got started, what inspires her, and her soap making tips.
How long have you been making soap and how did you get started?
My first experience with soap making was about 3 years ago when my husband bought me a Bramble Berry cold process kit for Christmas. I remember watching all the Soap Queen cold process series and rereading the instructions over and over again. I was missing one of the oils that wasn’t in the kit but I figured, what the heck, I’ll just replace this oil with all this castor oil that was included in the kit. Needless to say, the soap accelerated like crazy and I was left with this interesting high castor oil content soap, which was surprisingly lovely to use! The experience left me intrigued with soap making. I was a biochemistry major in undergrad and absolutely loved lab work with all its beakers and pipettes and titrations; I felt like I was in a potions class. But at heart, I’m a maker - I’ve always enjoyed putting hands to materials and making something new. At that time I had just had my second child, and as any mother knows, a 10-minute shower can seem like an amazing break from the chaos. A beautiful bar of soap feels like a unique luxury to an exhausted mom. Both of my children also have eczema and the idea of making them something so wholesome and knowing all the good ingredients that went into it gave me fuel to keep developing a recipe that their skin would love. To this day, all my kids use is my cold process soap, and I love that I can provide that for them.
What advice would you give to makers just starting their businesses?
The most important thing for any makers looking to sell their product is to make a lot of what you love making and be sure you love that process. It may sound hackneyed, but in particular for customers looking to purchase artisan products, your love and passion for your art has to come through the product you make. Once you decide to sell your product, ask for feedback from people you trust: other artisans, family, friends - be open to positive and negative feedback. Ultimately you may not change anything, but you will never receive honest helpful feedback if you are not open to change.
What is your favorite type of product to make?
I love making cold process soap. I have made other products such as bath bombs and scrubs and lotion bars, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about cold process. The stages of going from inspiration to planning a design and scent, adjusting the design to fragrances that act as catalysts causing soap to seize or accelerate or rice, getting ready to make soap and setting out my supplies, and being ready at the drop of a hat to abandon all plans when something unexpected happens. This happens to me less now but whenever I use a new fragrance, I feel a small adrenaline rush of having to be prepared for whatever soapy disaster might strike!
What inspires you to create?
I can find inspiration from almost anything. In general, I find myself drawn to moodier inspirations. My initial designs are usually trying to recreate some sort of feeling, and it goes from there. In the last year or so, I’ve been trying to curate my inspirations into categories and have created themes around them in batched releases. I love creating a new little logo for every theme, and it really pushes my creativity. My most recent theme was a nerdy theme called 8Bit Love, and I had this idea of making a soap with heart embeds that disappear or appear while you are using the soap, reminiscent of old school games like Zelda or Super Mario Brothers. In the last year, I have had the joy of playing with a French bakery theme, a garden theme, and nautical theme and have more ideas than I can keep up with for the future!
How did you come up with the name for your business?
My husband and I brainstormed quite a bit on this one, and I really loved the idea of having some sort of reference to chemistry. Finally, we came up with L3O to stand for 3 letter Ls (Lei Lei Lye) and 1 letter O (Oil) - the make-believe compound that results in soap! I also like that it is not immediately clear what the name means and offers a bit of intrigue.
What is your favorite Bramble Berry product and why?
There are so many good choices! Bramble Berry is definitely my go-to for fragrance oils. I love that every fragrance’s behavior in cold process soap is described, and the fragrances are all phthalate free. I also appreciate that there are a lot of complex blends as well as simple note fragrances so I can blend my own. My favorite blends are Rose Quartz, Island Escape, and Flower Child. I go through large bottles of Orange 10X Essential Oil (honestly orange makes everything better)! My recent favorite is the Botanical Garden release, all the fragrances are knockouts and I look forward to planning some soap designs around them!
Tell us something unusual or unique about yourself!
I am a physician and specialize in emergency medicine, and though making soap is a hobby business, I feel that it is an essential part of my well-being. I love my speciality, and it is a genuine privilege to have taken care of countless patients in the worst times of their lives. I can never replace that with any hobby. However, clinical medicine currently does not leave a whole lot of room for creativity. I find that making soap is excellent therapy and a nice counterbalance to the occasional grief and chaos of the emergency department.
Another unique fact about myself is that we are also a maker family! My husband is also a maker, and founded his own company Wedgewood Rings, making and selling bespoke artisan wood/metal rings. In our house, it is not unusual for us to excitedly share what we made that day, knowing the other person understands precisely how it feels! He has been amazingly supportive and honestly my biggest fan.
If you were to give one of your products to a stranger, what would you choose and why?
No question, I would give them bars of soap. My favorite right now is probably a toss-up between the Spring Fern - made with the Greenhouse Fragrance Oil from the most recent Botanical Garden release by Bramble Berry, or the House Tyrell one from my 8Bit Love Release because it is such a beautiful home-brewed blend of roses, marjoram, and rosemary. Soap is simple and keeps well. It is beautiful and can be displayed; and it is ultimately what I’m most happy doing and I love sharing that with everyone I can.
What are some of your other hobbies and interests?
During my free time, I try to stay pretty active. I like to rock climb and do yoga. I love rock climbing for the adrenaline rush, and I think people are often surprised to learn that strength is less important than technique. There's nothing like getting to the top of a route that you know pushed your limits on; it is scary and exhilarating at the same time. Yoga keeps me balanced and mindful, and always grateful for what the mind and body can achieve together. We recently started taekwondo with our two boys (6 and 4) and I think it’s pretty cute to see us all in our doboks! The boys love it, and we get a workout as a family. I feel that it is very important to stay physically active, whether it means you are hitting the gym or just taking a walk with a friend, your body and mind will love you for it. There are so many different ways to get active. Do not give up, you will find something you love doing eventually and it will not feel like work! I promise!
My husband and I have recently started rewatching Game of Thrones in anticipation for the final season while painting dungeons and dragons miniatures. It is great how time flies when you are painting tiny wizards and orcs! Yes, we are huge nerds. I also enjoy photography, home DIY, drawing on my iPad Pro, and when I have the space, I promised myself I would get a kiln and get back to throwing on the wheel.
Have you ever experienced a soapy fail? How did you work through it, and what did you learn?
I would be SHOCKED if there were any soap makers that didn’t have any soapy fails. I remember one of my first soapy fails was a blend of two different new fragrance oils and this hanger swirl I had planned on doing. The fragrance hit the soap batter and immediately turned into a goopy seizing mess and the soap looked chunky and crumbly - not at all the look I was going for. Because I loved the fragrances so much, I decided to test a small batch with the individual fragrances and found that one caused ricing with no acceleration and the other caused acceleration. I had found a great fragrance blend for making a chunky solid mess. To this day, I use the jasmine fragrance that riced in an “orange jasmine nigiri sushi” soap, where I take advantage of the ricing appearance for the sushi part of the soap. The most important lesson I learned from this soapy fail is that maybe your original idea won’t work, but be flexible and sometimes a difficult ingredient can offer a more creative solution!
What is your number one soap making tip?
Don’t be afraid to try new techniques, stay lighthearted, and accept that even the best soap makers have surprises and failed batches. Sometimes a soap I had imagined does not go well, and my instinct is to be terribly disappointed and dejected, but now I try to take it as a learning experience. I retrace my steps and try to figure out where things possibly went south.
What do you love most about creating bath and body products?
I’ve dabbled and made a lot of things in my past, and the best part about soap making is taking good, wholesome ingredients and through the magic of chemistry, the marriage of triglycerides, and a strong base, making a product that people love to use and empowers people to control what they put in and on their bodies. My soaps are handmade in my home kitchen with a ton of love and care. The second best thing is the maker community, which emcompasses an amazingly supportive and empowering bunch of folk who love sharing their craft and open-heartedly teach their skills. I feel enormously thankful for all the support given to me all these years by complete strangers and am overjoyed to help others when I get messages or questions. Feel free to ask! I am terrible with video and editing, but if someone messages me about how I did a certain soap or created a certain look, I usually try to respond quickly and help my fellow makers.
Thank you Bramble Berry team for allowing me to share my story; I hope that other makers can take away something helpful or inspiring! I’m happy to share my story or help with soap making questions, just message me on Instagram or Facebook. -Lei Lei