FACETIME- Hope in soap: Local woman behind bars

At age 21, Marie Skylark's patented chef's soap is hitting shelves in stores across the country.

Mention suds to most college students, and they might think about beer. Marie Skylark is different.

Back in 2005, when her boyfriend complained that a bar of "chef's soap" he'd brought back from a trip to France was used up, Skylark– then a first-year biochemistry major at UVA– decided to get him a replacement of the product popular among chefs in bistros and cafes for its long lasting and non-astringent qualities. But when she started looking, she realized no such product is manufactured in the United States. A eureka moment soon followed.

"I realized I could use my major to make my own," says Skylark. Now 21, she left UVA in 2007– half-way through her third year– to pursue her soap invention.

Two years and more than $50,000 of investors' money later, Marie's Chef's Soap has hit the shelves of local stores including The Happy Cook in Barracks Road and Whole Foods on Seminole Trail. The patented formula contains 100 plant oils and no synthetic chemicals. It's also unscented, Skylark says, assuring chefs that the flavors of their dishes won't be affected by the scent of their soap.

And it already has local fans.

"Your hands get clean but don't feel oily or slick," says Bill Dandridge, a family physician who has been using the soap in his home for the last four months and expects his single large bar to last– as the label promises– for a year.

Hassan Kaisaum, owner and chef at Aroma's Cafe in Barracks Road, became a fan of chef's soap– also known as Savon de Marseilles– when he trained in France. "I'm so happy it's available in Charlottesville," he says.

Although the two-pound bar currently retails for $28.95– a hefty sum for a bar of soap– Skylark points out that because it's designed to last a full year, the cost averages to less than $2.50 per month, more economical than purchasing single bars of other high quality soaps. She adds that a high glycerin content leaves hands moisturized, and the soap is listed as both non-toxic and biodegradable.

With local stores already carrying her product, Skylark says has turned her focus to getting shelf space in stores across the country. In the last month, she says, she's had her soap picked up by stores in seven states.

"It's something we're hoping goes up and up," says Skylark, who would have graduated last year had she not leapt into business.

"I'm someone who didn't expect she'd be going into soap," says Skylark. "But I'm glad I did."