SaltyGirl founders Leah Robert (left) and Sarah Kelly focus on helping cancer patients feel beautiful during a rough time in their lives.
A cancer survivor and her oncology-nurse sister create a line of natural beauty products.
By Bridget M. Burns
Photograph by Heidi Kirn
When Sarah Kelly lost her hair to chemotherapy in 2015, she started wearing bright, bold lipstick as a way to feel feminine and beautiful. She worried, though, about the ingredients in the cosmetics she was putting on her skin. Toxic substances — and whether they’d contributed to her illness — were uppermost in her mind, because her breast cancer, discovered when she was 32 weeks pregnant with her second child, had tested negative for the hormone receptors most commonly associated with the disease.
Her sister, Leah Robert, an oncology nurse in Scarborough, understood. Our mom never left the house without her lipstick,” Robert says. “Being redheads, we always wanted to wear mascara, because if we didn’t, people would think we were tired. Makeup has always been a part of our lives.”
Robert helped find cosmetics brands that felt nourishing and moisturizing to counteract the effects chemotherapy and radiation had on Kelly’s skin. Delivering new lipstick colors also allowed her to check in on Kelly.
“When you work in the medical field, you see the finances and how hard that is on families, but when Sarah was diagnosed, I saw the emotional distress a family goes through,” Robert says. “I realized I was meant to be there for them during the darkest time in our lives.”
In the midst of all this, Kelly and her family moved from Boston to Kennebunk, where her parents live. Looking for purpose as she transitioned to life after cancer treatments, she pitched Robert the idea of starting a company to help others find natural cosmetics. “When you’re going through treatment, you’re seeing doctors every day,” Kelly says. “Then you stop treatment, and they’re like, ‘You’re cancer free! Go back into the world!’ It’s really hard, that adjustment.”
Kelly and Robert started SaltyGirl Boutique as a natural-cosmetics retailer, and it grew into SaltyGirl Beauty, their own line of makeup and body-care products. The sisters rely on natural colorings — the mascara is colored with coffee, for example — and other plant- and mineral-based ingredients, such as butters, oils, and extracts. A manufacturer in New York produces their cosmetics, and they make the scrubs, soaps, and other body-care products themselves, with help from their mom.
Kelly wanted SaltyGirl to have a social mission, so she and Robert founded the nonprofit Foundation4Love, which grants experiences such as spa treatments and weekend getaways to cancer patients and their families to relieve some of their emotional stress. SaltyGirl Beauty donates 10 percent of profits to the foundation, which has so far helped 40 families.
Kelly is now four years cancer-free, has a third child, and is dedicated full-time to SaltyGirl Beauty, while Robert, who has a daughter of her own, continues to nurse as she manages Foundation4Love. Together, they hold workshops for cancer patients, where they share their story and give a “glow-over” tutorial on quick, easy makeup and skin-care tricks. “Women want to feel pretty without feeling ashamed or shallow about it,” Kelly says. “When your skin is a wreck and your hair is gone and you’re feeling your lowest and you’re not sure if you’re going to live or not, putting on something that brightens you up a little bit — it’s okay!”
“We’re not Kim Kardashian,” Robert says. “We have two minutes at the mirror, and we gotta get out. We have kids running around, we’ve gotta go to our job. We’re busy women. But after those two minutes, you feel beautiful. You feel like you can conquer the day.”