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When Yoki Hanley gave birth to her fifth child, a baby girl, on the beautiful island of St. Croix in 2000, she was glowing and beaming with pride. But after coming home, she noticed her daughter was unusually fussy — even for a newborn.

"I was literally in the doctor's office with her almost every other week trying to figure out what the problem was," Hanley tells InStyle. "I had gotten it narrowed to around her bedtime and thought it was her formula."

The busy mom swapped brands several times with no luck, and began to notice her daughter's skin was becoming increasingly red and blotchy. Appointment after appointment, doctors were unable to find the solution. So Hanley's father suggested she go back to her roots.

As a child, the U.S. Virgin Islands native didn't make frequent trips to the doctor. Instead, her parents relied on bush (as Caribbean people call it) as herbal remedies — and they worked. That's when she started to look into how plant-based solutions could curb her daughter's discomfort.

"It wasn't too long before I discovered that it happened only during bath time and it was the so called 'gentle' baby products that were causing her discomfort," Hanley shares. "Armed with that information — and also remembering the dressing down my father had given me about remembering how we grew up — I went back to my heritage and culture and started to relearn the different bushes and plants. I knew I would find my answer there in my father's yard and collected the necessary plants and fruits."

From there, the mother of six shopped for all-natural oils and other ingredients to make custom soaps for her daughter. Shortly after, both of them were able to sleep through the night.

Before she knew it, Hanley was making skincare products for her entire family, using soothing ingredients like aloe vera as the base. And with a little help from her husband, Itiba Beauty was born.

Here, we speak with Hanley to find out more about how her Caribbean roots influenced the ingredients incorporated in her product line, why she honors her husband's Taíno heritage through skincare, the hardships of being a woman entrepreneur in the clean beauty space, and more.

Yoki Hanley Itiba
Credit: PHOTO: Sharimar Y. Cruz. Photo Assitant: Tamia Williams. Jewelry: Ib Designs. Romper: Sweet Magnolia Fashion. Makeup: Mia Fredericks

How did you go from creating products for your family to turning Itiba Beauty into a full-fledged business?

I saw how much of a difference it [made for my daughter], and now the rest of my family — because I was now making soap for my household and my father's — that I decided to look at how using simple ivy (aloe vera) as the base instead of water for lotions and things grew from there. I taught myself how to process the gel from the plant and was making lotions that were soothing and lasted longer than regular lotions from the stores. I was quickly building an inventory, but it was for home mainly. I hadn't realized my husband was secretly giving away the products to his friends and basically to anyone he came across. It was when a mutual friend of ours stopped and asked for more lotion. I was like, "How do you know I make that?" She said Frank, my late husband, had given her a bottle and some soaps and they had helped her skin issues and her family as well and she wanted to buy some this time around.

Tell me more about the name.

When my husband had passed, I wanted to find a way to pay tribute to him, what he meant to me, and his belief in me and the products I was making. And to create a legacy for my children that was important. He was originally from Vieques, Puerto Rico, and was part Taíno, those are the original peoples of the Greater Antilles. I combined the creation story of the Taínos of their zemi, itiba cahubaba from whom they say she gave birth to two sets of twins who went forth and populated the Earth, hence she is Mother Earth, and the Sankofa, an Andrinkan symbol from Africa that means to go back and fetch it. It's also interesting to note that the Sankofa bears a very, very strong resemblance to an image found within our petroglyphs located on St. John. So we are going back to Mother Earth, itiba, to remember our culture, heritage and jewels of information and bring it to the present to be used for a better today and healthier tomorrow — the principle of Sankofa — and that is how and why I created Itiba Beauty.

You started off making soaps. What was that process like for someone diving into the beauty space for the first time?

It was a cold processed bar, meaning that I had to create the soap from scratch with figuring out the proper percentages of oil to water and sodium hydroxide — it was fun. I got to do something that I genuinely enjoyed and never quite figured out how I would use in my adult life much: chemistry! I have always been a fan of how things work, and chemistry allowed me a glimpse into the smallest, most inner workings of things and gave me an understanding of how things worked exponentially from there. A lot of blossom (basil), lemongrass, mango, and even passion fruits gave up their essences before I finally got the proper understanding and formula done before I finally got that perfectly made bar of soap when I started out. It was frustrating trying to figure it out, but I knew I had to get this done properly. Not only for my daughter, but also for me. I hate to have things leave me confounded. So I carefully looked at what my ingredients were, made adjustments accordingly and proceeded to make the soap — figured out the right mix of mango juice to water to use, coconut oil and the different palm oils. Decided to use the dried lemongrass and blossom in the soap and double-checked my calculations to make sure I had everything done correctly this time around. I was truly getting frustrated that this simple thing was getting the better of me.

When I poured it, I knew I had gotten it perfected this time around. I could tell by the creamy, smooth texture of the mix. As I watched as it began to slowly set up in the mold and the heat it was properly and perfectly generating as it went through its gel phase and the slight color changes it went through from initial pour to final stage. I was excited and couldn't wait until the 18 hours to un-mold it! When it was finally time to take the soap block out the next day, the smell alone told me that I had finally gotten everything done perfectly and I could not wait! Breaking the mold apart, pulling the wax paper from the log of soap and smelling the essential oils that I had combined for their soothing properties being released from the soap as the paper came off it. When I took the log of soap and placed it on the cutter and I saw the wires go through it with just the right amount of resistance and picked up my first, perfectly cut bar of soap, I was in awe!

Even today, when I make my cold processed soaps, it feels like the first time. My children, 20+ years later, still shake their heads at me because of how excited I get when I make, pour, un-mold, and cut my soaps. I am still in awe of the entire process!

Yoki Hanley Itiba
Credit: PHOTO: Sharimar Y. Cruz. Photo Assitant: Tamia Williams. Jewelry: Ib Designs. Cotton Knit Dress with Duster: My Girlfriends Closet. Makeup: Mia Fredericks

Making sure that this line was clean and all-natural wasn't up for debate for you. Why was this so important?

This line reflects my culture, my heritage, my island, and what the Caribbean represents. [It represents] how I grew up, how I lived, what I was taught and what I passed on to my children for them to use with their children, my grandchildren, and hopefully their children in the future. It is important for this line to be a green and all-natural line because that is representative of the life I live right now and one I try to show to others and explain to others as well. We and nature are one. It is so evident in how I look at the world and my environment and see how when we do not take care of it or respect it how the repercussions last for generations. In being clean and all-natural, I am hoping to remind people that nature gives us what we need to live a healthy and bountiful life, but we must show humbleness and respect to nature and remember how just as she gives, she can take. Be mindful and respectful of what she provides so that our lives may be long and fruitful within her gifts.

How do Caribbean and Taíno practices influence the ingredients you use?

Like many Caribbean people do today, the Taínos and the enslaved Africans practiced plant-based, herbal medicine. Their medicine men were respected, and we still treat those who have that understanding of bush healing, of the ancestral traditions, to a higher level of respect. Those traditions, that knowledge, had an influence in the brand as that is what I turned to when my daughter was suffering, and I could not properly identify a solution for her. Her being a newborn was also an important factor in me returning to how I grew up, knowing that different plants, even fruits, could be used to treat certain conditions be it internally or externally. In truth, from the time I had my first child, it was second nature for me to go back to my heritage and go to the bush to treat minor colds, cuts, and bruised with natural remedies that I remembered my parents either using on me or from their father telling me about a bush and its properties or how he used it as well. So to turn to "blossom" (what is called basil), fever grass (lemongrass) to cool the body, simple ivy (aloe vera) to help with bruising, sun burn, or wash hair, and even corn meal — which we fed to our children as a porridge to help keep the skin clear and smooth. Also, as the old people say, [we] would rub on the skin to help take away blemishes and scars. All of this knowledge and tradition and history is what went into the initial creation of the brand and influenced the ingredients that were and still are used in the products today.

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What product has been your best seller so far?

It varies during the season, but my Mango Hair & Body Butter has been my number one seller followed by the Carib Lime Body Spray. But I have noticed a nice increase for the Crucian Spice Body Butter. While I am happy with that last one, it just goes to show how many people are now suffering with some form of skin issues as that specific line is the one that gives some measure of relief for those who may have certain skin issues. It tells me that more and more people are being affected adversely by their environment and are seeking more natural, holistic ways for skin health and beauty. And both the Carib Lime and the Crucian Spice line come with a dermatologist recommendation for their therapeutic properties.

You've mentioned that part of the reason why you create these products is to honor your late husband. What do you think he would say to you if he was here?

Frank would be so proud. With what I have achieved and done and taken the business, in all of its iterations, to now doing this interview, he would be walking around like a rooster in the yard, chest push out and proud! It was when I would truly feel like I couldn't go on, I would think of what he would say to see how far I have come, what I have accomplished and remember the dreams he had for me for this company and what he would say right now to me, and that helps me to push forward. He would be sitting here, with tears in his eyes, and saying, "Mama, I am so proud of you!"

What are some of the hardships you've faced as a woman entrepreneur in the beauty space? What's helped you overcome them?

I have faced MANY difficulties, from the murder of my husband, the loss of my first company to partners who were hoping for it to fail and not succeed, two devastating category 5 hurricanes, and COVID — but I have made it through it all. I believe in this company and the products I make. I have those who have believed in it for me when my own belief wasn't strong enough. If you give yourself the grace of life, and the opportunity to fail, you will find that you are made of much more than you think and that nothing is truly impossible to you. Accept that there will be times you will find yourself in the valley of life, but that doesn't mean that you need to stay there. Look around, see what you can do to make it better and then do it. Listen, life is neither fair nor unfair. It just is. And it definitely doesn't come with a manual, but it gives us the opportunity to create the life we want and it gives us the tools to do so. We just have to remember to treat it — life and nature — with respect and we will see how in return, it will provide all that we need.

From non-toxic makeup and skincare to sustainability practices, Clean Slate is an exploration of all things in the green beauty space.