February 14, 2011 | last updated March 25, 2012 7:50 am

All-Natural Success In Leominster | Former PR exec runs business from her dining room

Photo/Amanda Roberge
LIGHT TOUCH: Melanie Downey of Leominster had a child with delicate skin. In response, she developed her own line of skin creams, which she's translated into an online business (www.wilava.com).

Most people don't have a problem with stuff getting under their skin, but others are a little more sensitive. It's the latter crowd that Melanie Downey targets.

Wilava, a skin and body care business that is built around the sole principal of using the freshest and most effective ingredients available, was born of necessity nearly a decade ago when Downey began seeking ways to provide her eczema-riddled baby with something to ease her discomfort. The evolution from a hobby shared with friends to products marketed to a national audience took two years when Downey officially became a sole proprietorship and started putting her business plan into action in April 2009.

"At that point, I had relationships with over 200 potential customers already," she said, adding that after eight years of making small batches of everything from lip balms to soaps to body butters, she was already known for her luxurious and high-quality offerings.

"I knew those people would be excited to tell other people about my products."

Picking Up Steam

Still in its infancy, Wilava has garnered much attention over its two-year lifespan. In September, Downey's Sugar Luxe Body Polish was named one of the 12 Must-Have Skin Products on SheKnows.com, and the accolades have rolled in since then.

"I've received hundreds of e-mails from customers I've never met telling me my products are the first things they've ever tried that worked on their skin," she said.

Wilava is still a home-grown endeavor, with raw ingredients dominating what once was her dining room.

But the products are conceptualized far outside her home-based workshop. With a soft spot for science and a passion for research, Downey begins each morning with some in-depth studying. This time has led her to some ingenious creations, like beer-scented soap, to more practical ones, like her eczema lotion.

"There are always new products coming out, even if they have not been evaluated by the FDA," she said, adding that she will keep her eye on them until they have a long history of safe use before she even considers them. "In my opinion, smaller micro-businesses take the research more to heart than larger companies."

For example, Vitamin C had been on the forefront of dermatological research for months before Downey considered using it. Now with a complete best-selling line of Vitamin C-based products — including a toner, serum and cleanser — she is secure in knowing that it is safe and beneficial for her customers. And in fact, it took her nearly as long to find a way to deliver the important nutrient — the only known ingredient proven to reverse sun damage — to skin as sensitive as hers.

Downey, for one, is happy to be a home-grown enterprise and has no real desire, at this point in her life, to be anything but a one-woman show. She had spent her early career in public relations, most recently with Monster.com, but motherhood has slowed her down to a much more family-friendly pace.

"My kids are used to me being able to attend their events at school," she said. "And if they are home sick, it's no big deal — I just do some writing for the blog or get paperwork done."

She takes a distinct pride in the fact that her batches are handmade and she knows a vast majority of her customers by name. Like many women who have found creative ways to return to the workforce following a sabbatical of stay-at-home-motherhood, she is only willing to give up so much in order to achieve her dreams.

"It's a feel-good job without having to sacrifice what I consider to be a good, solid family life," she said, "and I am fulfilled because I feel like I am doing something important."


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