When Sara Damelio was young, her grandmother took her to a spa for a facial, and the little girl decided that she wanted to work in such a pleasant place someday.
She never forgot that desire. After graduating from college with a communications degree, Sara supported her unpaid internship at National Geographic with a sales job at a beauty salon and thought, "I belong here," she says.
Sara had always enjoyed experimenting with makeup, so she relished trying beauty products at the salon. But "I have sensitive skin, and it was doing more harm than good," she says. She began to visit the National Geographic library to research cosmetic ingredients and the beauty regimens of other cultures. She learned that people in Central Asia, who, she says, have beautiful skin in a harsh climate, use natural ingredients such as yogurt, honey and spices on their skin.
Sara, now 32, thought she could concoct a natural product that would help her own problems with blemishes and redness. After finishing her internship, she trained to be an aesthetician and began tinkering with ingredients in her kitchen. "My first goal was to create a facial moisturizer that had no chemicals in it and used natural and organic ingredients," she says. It didn't always go well: One time a Pyrex dish full of hot coconut oil exploded. But after two years of experimentation, Sara had a product -- with ingredients such as apricot kernel oil, coconut oil and black spruce -- that she thought was ready for the market. She called it Miracle Cream and in 2002 started selling it at a salon in Dupont Circle where she was working.
Sara soon learned that clients found her lotion too heavy to be a facial moisturizer. But they reported something unusual: When they used the product on other areas -- over bug bites, sunburn, dry patches, eczema, even diaper rash -- their condition improved.
Sara renamed the product Combat-Ready Balm and started getting a few media mentions. She found fans in a small town in Pennsylvania, where word of mouth started with her physician father, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, where troops to whom she had donated the product raved about it.
In 2007, Sara realized, "I've got something viable here. I need to go with this and dedicate myself to this." Using her communications skills, she started marketing the salve in earnest. Combat-Ready, which retails for $25 for a two-ounce jar, is now sold in 30 businesses nationwide, including George at the Four Seasons Salon in Washington. "I thought we'd give it a shot, and it's blowing off the shelves," salon coordinator Rick Raines says, adding that a television personality had just purchased a jar.
In 2008, Sara sold $35,000 worth of Combat-Ready, with $15,000 in profit; her goal is to double sales this year. She continues to work about 15 hours a week as an aesthetician, now at the Still Point, a salon in Takoma Park, but has also relied on money she made in real estate to help support her and her business.
The Silver Spring resident has expanded the line with a lip balm and a soap. She's on her second campaign to get the public to donate jars of the balm to soldiers overseas at the wholesale price of $12.50. And she has hired an intern. But she still makes Combat-Ready in her kitchen twice weekly, using her KitchenAid mixer. She can make 50 jars in two hours and says "it doesn't feel like work to me."
"It's just something I like to do," she says. "There's nothing like owning a product."