A Cohasset resident’s homemade soaps, lip balms and salves capture the healing powers of herbs and flowers.By Maria Allen | Photography by Jack Foley
Sunlight pours through the antique windows of Hortense McCarthy’s elegant home on Jerusalem Road in Cohasset. The light casts a warm glow on a swag of herb bundles hung to dry over the kitchen sink. Several canning jars containing different types of dried flowers and aromatic herbs sit on a nearby table. McCarthy opens one of the jars and pours a handful of delicate, dried yellow blossoms into a bowl.
“One of my favorite herbs is calendula because of its anti-inflammatory and healing properties,” says McCarthy, who has grown herbs for over 35 years. Raised in Germany, she started learning about the healthful uses of many common plants at a young age and remembers foraging with her mother for mushrooms, berries and blossoms. When her own children were young, she began researching skincare products and soaps that would be safe and beneficial, without added fragrances, preservatives and other harmful ingredients. Frustrated by the selection of products she found in stores, she decided to try making the products herself.
“I had always grown herbs for tea,” says McCarthy, who stepped up her gardening efforts to include a variety of herbs known for their soothing and medicinal properties and began incorporating these ingredients into handmade soaps, salves and skin toner. “My friends and family loved my products, so I started selling them at farmer’s markets and on my website,” says McCarthy, who founded Back to Basics Soaps, in 2011. All of her products are all made from natural ingredients like organic coconut and olive oil, shea butter, oatmeal, honey, essential oils, and herbs grown in her garden by the sea.
McCarthy’s hillside garden features everything from delicate pink rose bushes to dusty purple Provence lavender and it changes with the seasons. She harvests calendula blossoms throughout the summer, but only on dry, sunny days between 10 and 11 a.m., when the essential oils are activated but not evaporated by the sun. She brings the flowers into the house and spreads them out on platters away from direct sunlight and they stay that way for about two weeks.
“When the blossoms are dry, I tincture them with other herbs in raw organic apple cider vinegar to make a facial toner,” says McCarthy. Some of the calendula blossoms are put into jars filled with olive oil, which McCarthy then puts outside in the sun every day for five weeks. “The sun heats up the oil and the medicinal benefits of the calendula herb are slowly extracted,” says McCarthy. “This infused oil is then worked into a healing calendula salve and a calendula soap. Both are amazing products for people who are looking to heal their skin or are sensitive to commercial products.”
McCarthy’s products are all free of detergents, surfactants, artificial colors, parabens and fragrances. They are biodegradable and eco-friendly. Her soaps are formulated to gently clean the skin while also softening and moisturizing. Handcrafted using a traditional cold-process technique, the soaps are then cut by hand and cured for at least four weeks before sale.
Some Back to Basics products are especially appropriate for the winter months, such as rich body butters that help provide extra moisture and skin protection. McCarthy has also designed a daily rejuvenating skin care regimen that she follows religiously. To begin, she washes her face with lavender soap to clean and exfoliate and then applies Hungarian water to give her skin a healthy Ph and help even out the skin tone and minimize pores. Next she uses rose petal oil to nourish and help build collagen, and last, but not least, she uses rose salve to keep the moisture in her skin and help protect it against the harsh winter air.
She uses freshly picked Rosemary to make Back to Basics herbal shampoo, hair rinse, scalp oil and Hungarian water. “Rosemary is an effective hair treatment that stimulates the hair follicles and relieves dandruff and dry, itchy scalp. Even if your hair is perfectly normal, rosemary leaves it soft and shiny,” says McCarthy.
The Hungarian Water contains a beautiful herbal mixture combination of chamomile, rosemary, sage, lavender, calendula, lemon balm tinctured in organic raw apple cider vinegar plus lemon peel, rose water, witch hazel and rose oil.
For McCarthy, the act of gardening is meditative and she enjoys the creative process that goes into crafting new products. “Every fall I shake out the seeds from the flower heads so that I can have a beautiful new crop the next year,” she says. Her production slows down during the winter, but she continues to sell her products at the Plymouth Farmers’ Market and the Marshfield Farmers’ Market, while she keeps warm with a cup of herbal tea and patiently waiting for spring.
HERBS WITH BENEFITS
Here’s a small sampling of ingredients found in Back to Basics products and their medicinal properties.
Jewelweed – A natural preventative and treatment for poison ivy and oak. Jewelweed also works well on insect bites.
Calendula – Praised for its anti-inflammatory properties, calendula helps heal cuts, sunburns and bruises faster. Calendula cream is also used to treat hemorrhoids and dermatitis and is a safe and effective diaper rash remedy.
Plantain – Plantain salve is an effective remedy for insect bites, rashes, bruises and cuts. Its antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties help speed up wound healing and it works well for itching and pain associated with skin problems.
Comfrey – In folk medicine, comfrey was once referred to as “knit bone” or “knit-together” for its ability to speed up wound healing and to penetrate so deeply.
Lavender – Known for its pleasantly herbaceous scent, lavender is often used in aromatherapy to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety and to relieve stress and tension headaches. It also has antiseptic properties.
Lemongrass – Lemongrass is known for its invigorating and antiseptic properties.
Eucalyptus – The oil of this plant has antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It is often used to help alleviate respiratory problems.
Rosemary – A woody herb with needle-like leaves, rosemary has antioxidant qualities. The scent can help reduce stress and there is evidence that rosemary infused in an oil and applied to the skin can help stop hair loss. It can also be used to treat muscle pain and arthritis.