Saltwater Portrait

Kate Bonnema: Awash in creativity

Knee surgery leads to new enterprise for Rehoboth couple
June 4, 2019

Kate Bonnema is always creating something.

Wooden shelves stocked with photos and houseplants line the living room walls of her Rehoboth home; a table crafted from pallets sits in the backyard. She once used PVC pipes and garden hoses to fashion a sprinkling tunnel for neighborhood children to run through.

But, as a softball catcher from Little League through college, Bonnema was due for a knee replacement. She wanted something to do during weeks of recovery at home. As a respiratory therapist in Christiana Care Health System’s emergency department, Bonnema said she noticed many elderly used fewer medications than younger people.

“I had a 100-year-old patient who was only on two meds,” she said. “I thought, why not stop adding so many chemicals to our bodies?” Bonnema thought she’d try her hand at making natural soap during her recuperation. For fresh ingredients, she started an herb and vegetable garden from seed, and enlisted wife Amy Hughes, a home care nurse, to help.

“Yeah, she got the garden started, then had surgery and got to sit there and tell me what to do,” Hughes laughed.

The garden boasts lavender, cilantro, lemongrass, chamomile, sweet mint, peppermint and spearmint along with tomatoes, lettuce and popcorn. Bonnema dried fresh herbs to put in her own soap recipe. “Six bars of soap took an hour to make, and then they had to sit for a month to cure,” she said. “The better they cure, the longer they last.”

Bonnema said she held the cured soap to Hughes’ nose and asked her what it smelled like. Hughes sniffed the soap and said, “It smells like a summer day!” which led to the soap’s name, Summer’s Day.

After more research into the natural healing effects of herbs, Bonnema decided to make a cream for a skin rash she had that was resistant to a prescribed medication. “I read that coconut and tea tree oil helps with rashes, so I made a little concoction,” she said. “The rash went away in a week.”

Bonnema said she then made a coconut and tea tree oil soap for a friend who suffers from rosacea. “She doesn’t use anything else now, and her face is much less red,” Bonnema said.

Family served as guinea pigs as Bonnema created more soaps. A friend encouraged her to sell them on the internet site Etsy. “We never expected it to turn out like it has,” Hughes said. “We thought we’d just be making Christmas and birthday presents.”

After soap and cream, Bonnema ventured into lip balm, body butter, shampoo, body scrubs, white sage smudge sticks, essential oil inhalers and muscle rubs - 90 different products, including pet soap and paw wax, are now available online and locally. Rehoboth Beach Balm officially launched March 1, 2018. “We had to meet FDA criteria for skin care products to sell on Amazon,” said Bonnema, who originally made products from found recipes, but now creates her own recipes for a consistent, original formula.

Products are all organic, with no pesticides, chemicals, or artificial colors or flavors. Nearly all ingredients are homegrown or locally sourced. Coffee soap, lotion and lip balm are made from Swell Joe Coffee in Lewes. Notting Hill tea flavors green tea mint items. Honey from local beekeeper Nectar Collector is used in soaps. Shea butter from Buddhas and Beads in Rehoboth came straight from Ghana.

Reducing waste is important, said Bonnema, who makes shampoo bars, rather than a liquid, to eliminate bottles. They eat or drink any leftover tea, coffee or herbs, or feed them to Harry the pet rabbit.

Bonnema said many products can help people with health issues. Peppermint and eucalyptus are anti-inflammatories and helpful to people with asthma, so she made an essential oil inhaler. Bonnema uses coconut oil in lip balm instead of alcohol, which dries lips, and grows cayenne pepper for her muscle rub. “The capsicum in them helps with sore muscles and is used in muscle rubs and pain patches, but this is all-natural and simple,” she said. “I want to try turmeric because it’s also good for muscles and inflammation. I got into muscle creams because of my knee pain.”

Hughes and Bonnema said they like to give back to the community by featuring a local business on their social media pages every Thursday. They donate baskets for fundraisers or products to people with cancer and leukemia. “We’re sensitive to medical issues, so it’s nice to be able to help,” Bonnema said.

Hughes added, “Although our products work for us, we don’t diagnose or recommend treatment with the products. Anyone with serious skin conditions should consult a physician.”

Rehoboth Beach Balm can be found at Vintage Violet in Lewes and at Taco Reho Nite Market on Thursday, June 20. Order through or links on Facebook, Etsy, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube.

  • The Cape Gazette staff has been doing Saltwater Portraits weekly (mostly) for more than 20 years. Reporters, on a rotating basis, prepare written and photographic portraits of a wide variety of characters peopling Delaware's Cape Region. Saltwater Portraits typically appear in the Cape Gazette's Tuesday edition as the lead story in the Cape Life section.

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