When Linda Collinson couldn't find the right moisturizer, she did the natural thing: mixed up her own in the kitchen of her Davidsonville home.

Now walk into a local Wal-Mart, Giant Food store or Cosmetic Center, and you'll see her La Crista line of natural skin-care products on the shelf. Last year the award winning, 14-year-old company had sales of $1.5 million and shipped its products as far as Hong Kong.

"I never wore much makeup," said Mrs. Collinson, 43, who has renovated her garage and turned it into La Crista's headquarters. "I didn't like the skin-care/cosmetic business."

She only became interested in skin-care products when she couldn't find one for her sensitive skin.

The mother of two and former substitute teacher went to the library at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda and researched what was good and bad for skin. She discovered that most moisturizers use mineral oil, a petroleum byproduct that dries skin.

She searched for alternative moisturizers and started buying natural oils and vitamins from health food stores. She experimented with different concoctions until she found a mixture of almond oil, primrose oil and vitamins A and D that worked.

Friends noticed her improved skin and wanted to know her secret. Before long, she was bottling her homemade remedy and giving it to family and friends.

Her husband, Ron, thought there was a market for sensitive-skin-care products. In 1981, the couple incorporated La Crista.

Figuring New York City was the home of the nation's cosmetics industry, Mrs. Collinson picked up the Manhattan Yellow Pages directory and searched for bottle makers, cap makers -- anyone who could help her business. Then, with the packaging picked out, she hired a Baltimore artist to design the logo.

She took out a second mortgage on her home to pay for manufacturing and distribution, and persuaded a couple of local health food stores to sell her product.

Slowly but surely, the company grew. The big break came in 1989, when Giant finally agreed to sell the product after turning down the Collinsons numerous times.

Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant, said the company agreed to sell the products "to help a local entrepreneur."

Six years after being picked up by the grocery retailer, the Collinsons applied for Wal-Mart's "Support American Made" program. According to Wal-Mart, the program is "designed for American-made products that have at least one year of sales."

Mrs. Collinson spoke to Wal-Mart President Bill Fields and other executives at company headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., and won them over with her story of how La Crista started.

"After I spoke, [Mr. Fields] said, 'Your story ought to be told,' " recalled Mrs. Collinson.

Since May, Wal-Mart stores in Virginia and Maryland have carried La Crista. The company also is considering adding displays around the products that recount Mrs. Collinson's path to success, said company spokeswoman Nalisa Brown.

Today, Mr. Collinson spends the majority of his week as company vice president. He also works for the Balfour jewelry company.

La Crista, which now has five employees, has added Hydrating Toner, Dewberry Lotion, Tropical Body Soap and Oatmeal Scrub to the old standby, Almond Oil Moisturizer. New products are planned.

The one-time garage-turned-headquarters is getting too small for the growing company, which will move to an office in Baltimore or Annapolis within the year.

Two years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave La Crista Inc. its Blue Chip Enterprise Award, given to the Maryland company that has overcome the most obstacles and made the most growth.

Mrs. Collinson, who works seven days a week, hopes to expand both her line and its distribution.

"It would be nice if La Crista was a household word," she said.

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