Sabbatical Beauty’s Adeline Koh on Hand Sanitizers, Self-Care, and Pandemic Shaming

The local indie beauty business owner shares how her team is staying afloat and pivoting to new products amid the coronavirus crisis.

Hops, Ylang Ylang, and Lavender hand purifiers from South Philly based Sabbatical Beauty. | Photograph courtesy Sabbatical Beauty.

For Philly’s small businesses, the coronavirus crisis has made staying afloat incredibly difficult, and, in some cases, untenable. However, our small, locally owned fitness studios, restaurants, beauty brands, and shops are exactly what makes Philly everything it is. In addition to applying to grants and loans, many small businesses have pivoted to selling or offering masks with purchases, donating masks to hospitals and shelters, and increasing hand sanitizer offerings.

Some, like Sabbatical Beauty, a skincare and self-care brand based in the Bok Building, have pivoted to making new longterm products they will continue to sell as part of their line after the crisis: a botanical hand purifier that fits in with the rest of the brand’s natural products. We caught up with the owner of Sabbatical Beauty, Adeline Koh, Ph.D., to chat about how her team is managing the pivot while dealing with online harassment, and also, her new “Philly Self Care Box” (a gift box composed of items like Vietnamese coffee, CBD gummies, and soy candles from five Philly women-owned businesses.) Read all about it below.

Adeline Koh, founder and owner of Sabbatical Beauty, Philly’s Korean-inspired skincare company. / Photograph courtesy of Adeline Koh.

Adeline Koh creating Korean beauty products in the Bok Building. | Photograph courtesy of Sabbatical Beauty

Be Well Philly: How did you start pivoting to hand sanitizer? 
Adeline Koh: I had already been getting glimpses that I should do it before I had committed to doing it. I didn’t realize the need would be so dire, and then it was. I didn’t just want to make something though. I wanted to make something that would make me happy looking at it because right now we’re so anxious and upset. I wanted to make Botanical Hand Purifiers ($10 to $35, depending on size)— something artful that would be fun to use, that could make you feel a little bit of joy and peace and also keep you safe.

What was the process of creating the different botanical mixtures? 
I looked at all the herbs and the essential oils I had and played with combinations. I’ve used dried rosebuds in some of my products before. The funny thing is I’d been trying to make my own plant extracts for a while, and this is a natural way to do it. The botanical ingredients will slowly infuse and the mixture will take on more of their scent, character, and quality. When combined with essential oils, it’s supposed to give you this aromatic, therapeutic boost, because it doesn’t smell like usual hand-sanitizer — that kind of sterile smell. You feel calm, peaceful, and uplifted instead. That’s why I’m really proud of it — I made something I’ll continue to sell even after COVID is over.

And you’re donating hand sanitizer to homeless shelters and refugee organizations as well?
Yes. I’m working with a lot of homeless shelters. We donated to grocery stores also. We gave masks and hand sanitizers to the Bethesda Project. We’re planning to give some to St. John’s Hospice, a homeless men’s shelter. We gave them a bunch of masks, and we’re giving at least 200 hand sanitizers to SEAMAAC, a refugee-founded organization that focuses on Southeast Asian people in Philadelphia. We’re adding to care packages for low-income elderly Southeast Asian refugees. That’s been really significant for me because I’m from Southeast Asia, so it’s especially important to me to donate to them.

It seems like there was a lot of vitriol online. How do you deal with that?
When I launched the hand purifiers a few people started complaining about “price-gouging.” At the beginning, what happened is I just froze and just didn’t want to say anything, and didn’t want to do anything. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I saw other small business owners getting harassed the same way I was. It was funny because I shared on my personal Facebook page about another small beauty brand doing hand sanitizer. They were doing it a lot more cheaply than I was. I was trying to be helpful, and pointed out, “If you guys want hand sanitizer, this is a cheaper option than the one I’m making…” Then, I had someone tell me CVS was selling it for cheaper than that other small business. And that’s just not the point. I had a lot of customers and friends jump in and say that it’s obvious that economies of scale are not applicable to small businesses — it’s just not the same when you’re talking about big companies in a factory versus a very small company using natural ingredients. There’s also a reason why I can pay living wages to my staff — because we charge higher prices. It’s not productive to keep spending energy fighting. I’m being as transparent as I possibly can. If you’re not happy, then we’re not going to come to any kind of agreement here.


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Tell me about how the local Philly Self Care Box box came together. 
The local box is made up of products from five Philly women-owned small businesses, from indie beauty to restaurants to wellness shops. I’ve done a lot of collection boxes before. I usually do them in terms of seasons. I did an “Autumn Moon” box previously. I thought this concept would be a good idea to see if I can garner support for other businesses, too. I wholesale the products from them and give their companies a revenue-boost, and we make a little money as well as supporting one another.  All of the elements are to soothe your mind, spirit, body. I use Judy’s Baology blend for chicken wings — cook it in a 400-degree oven for about 45 minutes. It gets super crispy.

So, what all is inside the Self Care box?
Cocokitty CBD gummies (3 gummies, 20mcg CBD per gummy, $15) made with organic fruit.
Baology Hot Pepper Rub (2 oz, $6)- amazing small batch local Taiwanese American goodness to spice up your meats and proteins or add some kick to soups!
Càphê Roasters Vietnamese Coffee (10 oz, $16) – Thu will be fresh roasting and custom grinding the coffee right after our cut off order date of May 1st, meaning you’ll get the freshest coffee possible in your box!
Wilde Gatherings Delicate Cleanser (1 oz, $14) – a lovely Ayurveda-influenced small batch brand and this dry cleanser is good for travel and for comforting reddened skin and inflammation. Suitable for the most sensitive of skins.
Retrograide Gemstone Candle (3 oz – $12) – made with soy wax, this candle contains a surprise mystery healing crystal at the bottom of the candle.
Sabbatical Beauty Lavender & Chamomile Flower Hand Purifier (10ml) – this mix of contemporary science and apothecary vibes hand sanitizer is our most popular scent, and is particularly pretty because of the chamomile flower which slowly infuses in the hand purifier over time
Sabbatical Beauty After Sun Face Balm Rescue (5ml, $20) – This balm works wonders on all irritations and inflammations, and also doubles as the perfect weight summer moisturizer.

A locally sourced self-care box from Philly women-owned businesses, available here. | Photo courtesy of Sabbatical Beauty.

It’s a cool idea. How else can we encourage community spirit and not bringing other people down out of fear?
I think that talking about this shaming is important — it’s something that people want to talk about and that nobody’s really talking about it. There’s also the Asian aspect of all the online shaming. Because, you know, right now, in an epidemic, or anything that causes people a lot of trauma, you need a scapegoat. And Trump has been making Asian people his scapegoat. This underlying racism used to be my area of study; I focused on race and gender studies when I was a professor. I knew that within white supremacy, Asians often feel “honorary white.” But I always knew that that designation was very tenuous. I think that it’s been a very uncomfortable realization of how tenuous your existence is within a broader community.

How do you think people who want to can continue to help combat pandemic shaming and racism?
Besides talking about it, I think the way around it is to show — to highlight — spaces where you have people of different races and ethnicities working together. I reached out to Jenea Robinson at Marsh + Mane about working together and we talked about racism in the beauty industry. When I released a hand sanitizer I asked her if she wanted to just take them on consignment to see if they worked for her. They sold out fast, so she just started the second order of them. I think instances like that — black businesses and Asian businesses and all types of organizations working together. That’s the way to try to resolve things — work together.

Do you think people are becoming calmer now that the initial shock is passing? 
I definitely see it cooling down. I don’t think it’s just online. I think the grocery store is a good metaphor for people’s mental state. Because two weeks ago, the grocery store was so anxiety-ridden. I just went this morning and I felt a lot less anxiety in general than I did before. I think if the grocery store feels okay, people are okay. It’s bizarre how the grocery store has become a space of anxiety for so many of us, because it’s an almost primal place we have to go whether we like it or not. And so, when it becomes so fraught is because we really feel like our deepest needs are being taken away and we’re scared — and that’s when we’re the most crazy.

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