Linda Collinson isn't Revlon, Noxell or Procter & Gamble.

The founder of LaCrista Inc. natural skin care products in Davidsonville hasno laboratory, no marketing department and no Christie Brinkley. Collinson's lab is her kitchen. She is her own sales staff.

Still, up on the shelves at Giant Food, Peoples Drug Stores, DrugEmporium, The Cosmetic Center, Safeway and health food stores, LaCrista Face & Body moisturizer and cleanser sits side by side with big-name products.

The 40-year-old former housewife and substitute teacher never set out to take on the cosmetic giants, to invest thousandsof dollars in caps, bottles, advertising and almond oil only to be shut out again and again. Ten years ago, Collinson sat in her kitchen mixing jojoba oil with rose water, looking for a way to soothe her own sensitive, allergy-prone skin.

Had she known of the long, hard struggle ahead, the mother of two would have stopped right there.

"It's kind of like having a tiger by the tail," she says now. "You can't let go. When you get success quickly, you probably stand back and say 'Wow,' but what I've been doing has been so gradual and so hard, I haven't been able to stand back and pat myself on the back."

Consumers scanning LaCrista labels will find no mineral oil, the main ingredient in most moisturizers, the one that kicked off Collinson's manufacturing career.

Ten years ago, Collinson developed dry, itchy skin and frequent rashes. Moisturizers full of chemicals never helped, even those prescribed by doctors.

She began reading ingredients.She pored over skin care books in medical libraries, studying how mineral oil and other by-products of petroleum clog pores and rob the skin of vitamins, causing itching, swelling or rashes. The more she read, the angrier she became. Especially offensive to the animal rightsactivist were reports of cosmetics tested on animals.

"Women are really getting ripped off," she thought at the time, "spending billions a year for fancy packaging."

In her kitchen she experimented with natural ingredients from pharmacies and health food stores. She tested various combinations on herself for allergic reactions. Eight months passed before she found a formula that worked: sweet almond oil,rose oil and evening oil of primrose. Within a month, her skin cleared. She found the oil could remove eye make up and act as a sunscreen.

"Why don't you bottle that stuff?" her husband, Ron, suggested.

It seemed a good idea; the formula had helped her, surely it couldhelp others. Buoyed by her discovery, but with no training in eitherbusiness or chemistry, she formed LaCrista, which means "the best" in Latin.

She couldn't know then the trouble ahead. She spent weeksfinding the right bottle and designing the label. Investing a $30,000 business loan, she ordered 5,000 bottles and 5,000 caps. She thumbed through the yellow pages looking for a filler company to mix and bottle her product.

Nearly a dozen bottling companies turned her down. Most wouldn't consider such a small order. And she needed to startsmall. Finally, a Lynchburg, Va. distributor agreed to manufacture 5,000 bottles.

"I think the guy felt sorry for me," she says.

But getting her product on the shelves proved an even bigger hurdle.

"Giant, Peoples, Safeway, Drug Emporium, The Cosmetic Center, they all said, 'Who are you and what are you doing here?'" she recalls. "Unless you're a big guy, Noxell or Procter & Gamble or Revlon, the buyers arenot interested in talking to you. They want it sold before it's on the shelf."

Still, she persisted. Finally a Glen Burnie health food distributor ordered 100 bottles. Little by little, Collinson sold more. Two years later, she sold the last of her first batch.

Business picked up when Tree of Life, a Florida-based health food chain, bought 5,000 bottles. Collinson borrowed another $20,000, this time from herparents, and ordered 25,000 more bottles. Thank-you notes poured in from eczema sufferers who said the moisturizer healed their itchy skin. A Laurel general practitioner began prescribing Face & Body for his patients.

In 1986, armed with letters from the doctor and from satisfied customers, Collinson got a second chance from Giant. The grocery chain agreed to test Face & Body at 50 stores. But more than half the product would have to sell in 10 weeks. It did -- at $3.99 a bottle and with no advertising. Giant cleared permanent space on its shelves. Soon, Safeway, The Cosmetic Center, Peoples and Drug Emporium followed Giant's lead.

Since then, Collinson has developed a $4.99 cleanser, again in her kitchen, again with natural ingredients, again with no guarantee the product would sell. Eight months ago, she pitchedthe cleanser to Giant. The store said no.

Around that time, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged manufacturers to use a new"Not Tested On Animals. No Animal Ingredients" logo. LaCrista becameone of the nation's first manufacturers selling products through non-health-oriented outlets to adopt the logo.

That convinced Giant, whose customers were requesting "cruelty-free" products. The grocer hassold Face & Body Cleanser and Masque for about three weeks.

Collinson hopes to sell the cleanser to other drug and supermarket chains and to expand her line with a toner. Someday, she's convinced, LaCristawill become a money-maker, something she can leave to her 18-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. Last year she grossed between $85,000and $95,000 and funneled three-quarters of that back into the company. This year, she expects to manufacture 250,000 bottles of each product.

Someone else might have given up years ago, and Collinson has considered it countless times. Each time, though, she dismisses the idea.

"My company is like a child. It's part of me," she says. "I believe in it so strongly, it's hard to let go. Anything you do that you want to be a success, you have to believe in the product and have to believe in yourself. With hard work, I think eventually I'll make it.

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