Big life changes led to Small Keys beauty products

Michelle Lloyd Eastridge

Single mother Toni South quit her job & downsized her life. The decision led her to entrepreneurship and more quality time with her daughter.
Single mother Toni South quit her job & downsized her life. The decision led her to entrepreneurship and more quality time with her daughter. Brooke Hudgins

Toni Ridge South, 40 of the Elizabeth area, began Small Keys, a bath and body care line, in 2013. Since her arrival at the 7th Street Public Market, she has seen her business really take off.

She is currently discussing the possibility of expanding her space even more, as well as adding more products to her line of soaps, facial and body oils, body moisturizers, bath salts, scrubs, facial masks and scrubs, bath bombs and lip balms. Keep reading to see what all Small Keys does!

Q. How did Small Keys get started?

A. My entrepreneur venture really started about 2 ½ years ago. My previous job was with a local catering company as an event planner. It was a great job with great pay and benefits, but I was killing myself. We did weekday caterings and I worked in the office “normal” daytime hours, but we also did weddings and special events every weekend and many weekend nights.

I would send my daughter to afterschool care, fly to pick her up at 6pm then fly home to get online to finish working. The very reason I was working around the clock was to support my daughter, but I was barely seeing her. The little time I had with her wasn’t quality time because I was so burnt out and overworked.

I had also really let my health decline, and it was just a matter of time before my stressful habits created a dangerous health situation. I put in my notice at that job with zero plans for my next job. All I knew was that I needed a mental break.

I downsized my life, got rid of some unnecessary things and took a little time to just seriously consider what I wanted out of my life. Around that time my grandmother’s health declined, and my daughter and I were able to spend the last days of her life with her.

During this “finding myself” period of time, I became obsessed with the toxic ingredients in products. It started with searching for remedies for acne, which had been brought on by stress. I began testing out different oils and natural remedies.

After a couple of months of washing my face with raw honey and washing makeup off with oils, I saw a drastic change in my skin. Then my hobby started becoming an obsession. I started making my own deodorant, toothpaste, cleaning products and threw out most of the store bought products in my house when I looked at the ingredients.

I never planned on this becoming a business - I was simply trying to live a healthier life. I didn’t initially get into better food habits. I started with cleaning and beauty products, then food changes came later. That Christmas, December 2012, I made natural gifts for everyone including some mom and baby baskets for some friends and family that were pregnant.

After Christmas a couple of different people asked me what I would charge to make similar baskets for friends. Things progressed from there.

Q. Where did the name Small Keys come from?

A. I’ve always had an obsession with keys and the symbolism of new doors and new beginnings. When I started thinking about a company name, I knew it had to have the word key or door involved because this whole business was a totally new beginning for me.

The second part of the name decision is because the entire journey towards a more natural lifestyle can be overwhelming. One of my biggest goals through the changes in my life was to make small steps and not try to totally change everything at once. So “Small Keys” seemed like the perfect name for my business!

Q. How was it starting a business as a single mom?

A. I hate to call myself a single mom since my ex-husband is very involved in my daughter’s life, but she does live with me and I’m the primary parent.

The scary thing about my business was that I didn’t have a backup plan and there was no secondary income to support my hobby-turned-business. That’s good and bad…bad because it’s frightening but good because there is no safety net and I’m forced to give it my all, not give up or slack off.

I don’t get to relax or take as much time for myself as I’d like, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I enjoy pushing myself and the challenge of this cliff I have jumped off.

Q. How has it improved your relationship with your daughter ?

A. The main reason I was frustrated with my last job is that I never got to see my daughter or spend quality time with her. That has completely and utterly changed.

When I’m at the market, she’s there too. She helps me sell and has learned a lot from the other businesses in my life as well. She even started her own little business that she calls “Tiny Keys” selling handmade jewelry. She contributes half of her sales to local homeless organizations, and she is always learning new jewelry techniques from the other amazing small business people who are now in my life.

I get to take her to school and pick her up every day now. She helps me with deliveries and some production, and even if she’s not helping she’s observing this new life we’ve created together. I’m able to be a more active parent now. Even though I work a lot of hours she’s a part of it all.

Q. What all do you make?

A. I make soaps, facial and body oils, body moisturizers, bath salts, scrubs, facial masks and scrubs, bath bombs and lip balms. I also make lots of gift items and favors. Recently, my customized soap favors have been very popular for weddings and showers.

There are no synthetic fragrances or colors in any of SmallKey’s products.

Q. What makes your products different?

A. I decided from the very beginning that I wouldn’t’t use any synthetic additives. Synthetic fragrances are what you find in store bought soaps and body products as well as many products labeled as “natural”. They are lab-created versions of popular scents.

Instead of synthetic fragrance I use essential oils. This limits fragrance combinations sometimes, but I really want to be able to list out my ingredients so that people know exactly what is in my products. The problem with some synthetic fragrances is that you don’t know all the components so you can have possible allergic reactions or there can be potentially toxic ingredients that you know nothing about.

I also don’t use preservatives. Many preservatives are also very questionable, but they are necessary in any products that contain water to avoid having mold. You will notice that the first ingredient in lotions is water so you are paying for a product that is mainly made of water. So what I make instead of traditional lotions are body mousses, lotion bars and body oils. These are simply more concentrated than traditional lotion so you only need a small amount of product.

I also don’t use any synthetic colors so any colors in my soaps come from the oils, clays or other natural products like cocoa powder.

Q. What types of ingredients do you use?

A. My ingredient list consists of natural oils, butters, essential oils, clays and a variety of botanicals. I don’t use animal fats in my soaps, but instead use Organic Sustainable Palm Oil. Animal fats are what traditionally gave soaps their hardness but Palm Oil is a great replacement.

Many of my soaps and products are vegan, but I do use beeswax, honey and goat milk in some products. I’m constantly trying out new ingredients in soaps. When I go to the grocery store, I am always scoping out ingredients for soap that “normal” people would consider food ingredients.

Natural sugars add great bubbles so many fruits are awesome in soap. Unlike other products, soap does have water without the need for preservative because of the high pH. So fresh fruits and milks add great properties to soaps and create fun experiments.

Q. What ingredients are locally sourced?

A. One of my big goals is supporting and promoting other small businesses and using local ingredients. I use local honey, goat milk, beeswax and even craft beer from Triple C Brewery in my beer soaps. I also enjoy using local produce occasionally in soap.

Rejuvenate Oil Small Photo
Rejuvenate facial oil

Q. What is a common personal care ingredient that people should avoid?

A. One of the first products I threw out once I started down this natural course was deodorant. With breast cancer running in my family, I just couldn’t’t ignore the possibility that aluminum and products that prohibit sweat are not the best thing for my body.

I am also really wary of facial products now and the potentially toxic ingredients. I read my personal care ingredients just like I read my food product lists. If I can’t pronounce it or if I know it’s a questionable chemical, I avoid it.

Q. Where can our readers find your products?

A. I have a full time shop at the 7th Street Public Market. You can also find my products in over 20 stores mainly in NC.

Q. Can they buy online?

A. Yes, I currently sell on Etsy – I’m also in the process of setting up a shop on my own website which is under construction will be up and running soon–

Q. What is your personal favorite product?

A. The product I use the most personally is my Rejuvenate Facial Oil. I use it daily as a facial moisturizer morning and night, and as a makeup remover, but I also use it as a hair serum and as a hand moisturizer. It’s very multi-purpose!

Q. What is y our go-to product to give as a gift?

A. I have a small gift set with lip balm, small soap and sample facial mask in a clear bag with seasonal ribbon that is my “go-to” hostess/teacher/friend gift.

You can find more info:

Toni South - Handmade All Natural Bath & Beauty

7th Street Public Market 224 E 7th Street Charlotte, NC