Thursday, July 28, 2011

Vanilla Essential Oil?

At a recent show, someone asked if I made lavender/vanilla scented soap, to which I replied "no". I went on to explain that there is no vanilla essential oil and since I don't use artificial scents, there was, therefore, no way for me to get a vanilla scent.

She protested. Insisting that she used vanilla essential oil herself. I certainly wasn't going to argue with her since she was, after all, a potential customer, but I was pretty sure she was mistaken. Pretty sure...

So, when I got home that evening, I went straight to the Internet and googled "vanilla essential oil". Guess what? People sell something called "vanilla essential oil". But, there is no such thing vanilla essential oil. There isn't. So what are they selling and how is it legal?

I don't know about the legalities, but I'm guessing they can get away with it due to convenient vagaries in the legal code surrounding the definition of "essential oils". In fact, there actually is no regulatory standard governing the use of the term "essential oil".

However, it seems to be generally accepted that essential oils are, in large part, defined by the method with which they were extracted. More specifically, they must be either steam distilled or, in the case of citrus oils, cold pressed. The problem is, some plants, like vanilla, are too delicate and cannot withstand the heat involved in the steam distillation process. So, in order to extract the essence of these plants an alternative method must be employed. In regards to vanilla, this typically means solvent extraction or CO2 extraction.

CO2 extraction can actually yield a very high quality product. In this method, relatively cool CO2 is pressurized and pumped through the plant. When the pressure is released, the CO2 escapes as a gas, while the plant oils remain behind. There are no residues or solvents in the final product, so this is probably as close to a vanilla "essential oil" as you are going to get. However, if this is what you want, be prepared to pay for it. It is very expensive and downright prohibitive for me at this stage in the game. It will likely be called an absolute, but pay close attention to the extraction method. Absolutes can also be extracted with hydrocarbon solvents (like hexane), which you may not want in your natural products.

The other common type of concentrated vanilla that is available is called an oleoresin. Oleoresins are extracted with solvents. The solvent is then removed. During this final distillation process, some of the aromatics are lost, but a strong oleoresin (as determined by a higher "fold" number) can still give a pretty good flavor and smell. Oleoresins are commonly used in the food industry to make the extracts many of us cook with. Although it seems like oleoresins would be cheaper to produce than absolutes, they often are still very expensive. At least the good ones are.

If you have found a cheap source for vanilla "essential oil," I hate to break it to you, but you are probably getting a cheap product. More than likely,  it has been pre-diluted in a carrier oil or otherwise adulterated in some way. I'm not saying it won't work in lotions, balms etc... but these won't work in cold process soap and who knows what it is really made of.

Personally, I like to know that the products I use are pure and do not contain unnecessary solvents, chemicals or other miscellaneous junk. So for now, I think I will just avoid vanilla, but at least now I will be prepared to explain myself the next time I declare"there is no such thing as vanilla essential oil."

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Breaking the Rules- Going Rogue and Making Soaping Fun Again

If you've read my blog at all, you know by now that I don't do anything haphazardly. I research whatever topic has caught my interest until I feel confident that I can make a responsible, well reasoned decision, whether it is about which oils to use or which additives to avoid. So, as you can probably imagine, I was equally attentive to the soapmaking process when I first began... doing my best to follow each recipe to a T and panicking if even one extra gram of EVOO found its way into the batch. But honestly, that didn't last long!

In a lot ways, I find traditional methods a bit... well... a bit asinine. There. I said it! And its true.

As you read through the established rules of soapmaking, you see that conventional wisdom requires adding fragrance, colors and any other special ingredients at trace and mixing well. This all sounds fine, but then you read a little more and come to learn that once you reach trace, the soap will thicken quickly and you don't have much time to work... not only that, but some additives will clump; others will further accelerate trace and hasten the whole frantic process even more. Soon, it becomes a race against time and science to incorporate scent, color, and clump-free oatmeal in the few brief moments before the soap thickens.  Excuse my language... but what a freakin' nightmare!

I  know it goes against everything we've learned as soapers, but close your eyes, hold on to your hats and get ready for an earth shattering revelation: I don't add anything at trace... ever! I used to. And every time I did, I buckled under the pressure. It usually ended with me throwing my half mixed, thick and clumpy mess of a batch into the mold in a final hail Mary attempt to salvage the pitiful remains of my once grand vision.

Then I read about someone who adds their scent to their oils before adding their lye. And something clicked. If you can do this with scent... why not other things? Soon, I began adding everything to my oils before the lye, and you know what? It works!

I've never found any research to suggest that I should or shouldn't do it this way, but I suppose, in the absence of knowledge, I can let common sense prevail.

Friday, May 13, 2011

If Soap Were Superman

If cold process soap were superman then water, surely, would be its kryptonite. It seems like soapers are always reminding their friends and customers to use a well draining soap dish and to ensure full air circulation around the entire bar between uses... yet there is always someone lamenting the bar that turned to mush and melted away. They blame the ingredients, poor craftsmanship, or anything else they can think of. But who's really to blame?

The fact is, most handmade soap (even 100% olive oil soap) will last quite a while if it is kept dry between uses, but the reality is, it can be very hard to keep a bar of soap dry. It is hard to find a really good soap dish that allows for air circulation around the entire bar. It is hard to find a perfect spot in the shower that is both convenient and dry; and all of this is even harder if you live in a moist climate like New England where even towels (let alone soap) may never fully dry between uses.

I sometimes take my situation for granted. I live in the dry, arid land of Utah where 15% humidity feels muggy. I have a rain shower head that juts out about 15 inches from the wall and showers water straight down at a 90 degree angle rather than splashing water all across the tub, and I have a slatted shower shelf that hangs off the base of the shower head a full 15 inches from the nearest drop of water. My soap lasts FOREVER!

But for those who are not so lucky, what can you do? If you don't want to remodel your bathroom or move to the desert, really the best thing you can do is find a well draining soap dish. I know, I know... you already have one right? But, do you really?

Let me ask you this: Is it a shallow slatted dish perched atop a deeper non-draining dish? If so, how often do you empty the lower dish out? In my experience, it seems that no matter how careful you are, water will collect in that lower dish and if the soap is stored up above the water, the soap may be dry, but there really isn't that much room for air to circulate around it. So, these dishes can work, but you must be diligent in emptying the water out. You also have to keep it in a dry place. On the edge of the tub just outside the shower curtain is a great. Other people I know have tried dishes with spikes on them, which seem like a great idea, but only seem to work moderately well, maybe the problem is with location... I don't know.

I personally really like the idea of this dish, which I found on It attaches to the wall of your shower, allows water to completely drain away from the soap and  allows air to circulate all the way around the bar. People seem to have mixed luck with the suction cups, but when searching for the perfect dish, this is exactly the type I would look for.

Oh, and my final recommendation: If you have a little soap shelf built into the side wall of your shower, do not EVER use this for soap... EVER! For some reason, these little shelves always seem to be located in the one area of the shower that gets hit with water non-stop. And they usually have divots or ridges or other infuriating structural components that seem to attract and collect water. Maybe it is just me, but in my experience it is impossible to keep anything dry on these little shelves.

So, for the best, longest lasting bar, treat your soap like superman: accept that water is its kryptonite and and do your very best to keep it dry between uses. It is well worth it in the long run!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Felted Soap

I've always wanted to be one of those people who could find the one thing in life they are really passionate about, then work really hard to master their craft and excel in their field. Unfortunately, I lack that type of focus and I am quickly distracted by shiny objects and new challenges. Not just in crafts, but in all aspects of life. Even when doing chores around the house, I often leave things half done as I move onto the next task that catches my eye. Eventually, I finish all that I started, but if someone were to stop by while I'm "cleaning" they'd have a hard time determining whether I'm actually putting things away or pulling things apart.

Anyway, the point is...I like to keep busy and having a variety of things to do keeps me interested. In addition to soap making, one of my many  interests is fiber arts. I love knitting, weaving, spinning yarn and... you guessed it... felting! It is funny though... I have been watching fiber artists felt soap long before I ever knew how to make a bar of soap, but it wasn't until recently that I decided to try my hand at it. I have PLENTY of wool sitting around and a fair amount of ugly soap to boot. It seemed like a match made in heaven. But as the saying goes... jack of all trades, master of none... What a disaster!

I started out thinking it would make a great tutorial for this blog, but about 30 minutes into felting, I realized that I had made one major rookie mistake. At that point, I quickly abandoned the project and decided that I should leave the teaching to the pros! BUT, I decided to share my rookie mistake, which is a well known rule among fiber artists, but rarely mentioned on the soap blogs. Ready? Here it is:


What is super wash? Have you ever had a wool sweater that advertises that it can be washed without shrinking? THAT is super wash and because it doesn't shrink... it doesn't felt. Normally, I would never use super wash wool for anything because of the extra processing and treating it undergoes, but when I was learning to spin yarn, I bought whatever wool was cheapest...and I never labeled the bags. So there's lesson #2: label everything! Had I labeled everything, I could have gone back, grabbed some NON-super wash wool and created a useful tutorial. Instead, here is a link to somebody else's great tutorial :)

If you get the right wool, felting really is fun! And it is a great way to hide your less than perfect soaps!

One thing to keep in mind, if you are concerned about chemicals and/or your ecological impact, is that when it comes to wool, natural dyes are not necessarily a better/safer choice than synthetic. In the dying process, natural dyes are usually anchored by mordants. The type of mordant varies depending on the color used, but typically mordants are powdered metals or metallic salts and can be toxic (though not necessarily). But, if you want to play it safe and reduce your exposure to unnecessary toxins, I would simply use natural undyed, wool, which is available in many colors from white to beige, brown, grey and black... plus, you can rest easy knowing the color will never wash off in the shower!

Happy felting!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Lotion Bars- Who? What? Why?

With all types of luxurious oils like shea, and hempseed just laying around between soap batches, it wasn't long before I began wondering what else I could do with these oils. My first thought was lotion. It is SOOO hard to find a truly organic, all natural lotion, so why not make one myself!

Well, after reading about the ins and outs of making lotion at home, I decided that it wasn't for me for several reasons. First off, it is extremely risky. Even the most seasoned lotion makers seem to have a healthy concern for bacteria. As a precaution, most send samples of their lotion to labs for testing to ensure they are selling a safe, healthy product to their patrons. But even before you have to find a lab, send out samples and cross your fingers, there are several other stumbling blocks to making a truly natural lotion.

First, the nature of lotion (a combination of oils and water) requires an emulsifying agent.  Unfortunately, even emulsifiers that begin with natural ingredients are often heavily manufactured and processed to the point that the word "natural" can not really be used ethically to describe the polluted, processed product that results.

But, maybe one does exist. I will admit, it is possible that I just didn't look hard enough because I was looking ahead to the next hurdle. Preservatives. Anytime water is added to oils a preservative becomes necessary. And, there are no natural preservatives. Period. Many people will use grapefruit seed extract or vitamin e, but these are antioxidants, not preservatives. They will not prevent bacteria growth and are not sufficient for lotions.  This is where my hope and aspirations deflated. Bleh...what now?

Lotion bars! Unlike lotion, lotion-bars are made entirely of oils and waxes. There is no water added so... no preservative necessary! They are different though. For starters, they are solid... but they are pretty cool! You can rub them on the backs of your hands, or all over your feet, elbows or knees and as the natural warmth of your body heats them up, they begin to melt leaving behind soft, beautiful skin! Personally, I love them! But are lotion bars for you?

Here is my take:
Who- Lotion bars are great for hands, feet etc. no matter who you are. As an all over body moisturizer, they tend to be better for younger skin, or those who are committed to natural, organic products.
Why- There are several great benefits to lotion bars over traditional lotions:
  • Less messy, less greasy and more easily absorbed than many lotions.
  • Completely natural! No preservatives, no chemicals, no artificial anything!
  • Airplane friendly!! As a solid, these babies can be packed away and taken on airplanes with you anywhere in the world
So what is the big elephant size downside to lotion bars? Well, they can melt. During summer time shipping by mail is nearly impossible. But that's OK! That just means, if you get a sudden urge to try a Spotted Hippo lotion bar this summer, you will have to fly out to Utah for a visit!... Then fly back with your lotion bar in tow knowing it won't be confiscated and you wont be pegged as a terrorist!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What does natural mean?

In recent years, as the organic industry has expanded, the use of the word "natural" has come under increasing attack from all sides. Supporters of both organic and conventional foods argue that the term "natural" is little more than a deceptive marketing tool meant to take advantage of easily persuaded and poorly informed consumers...but is it really that bad?

How does the FDA regulate the use of the term "natural"?
The only industry subjected to increased government controls when applying the term "natural" is the meat and poultry industry. According to an article published on the FDA's website, natural meat and poultry must be free from artificial colors, flavors, sweetners, preservatives and any other ingredients that do not occur naturally. It also must be minimally processed and the label must explain what is meant by the term "natural" (for example, "no artificial ingredients").

Why isn't there more regulation?
The FDA contends that that the term natural has not been defined or regulated outside of the meat industry because it is not a priority. They have not seen enough evidence that the current situation has resulted in consumers being misled. Instead, they focus their limited resources on misleading health and nutrient claims and other claims that may impact consumers health and safety, such as allergy labels.

Does the FDA plan on regulating the use of the term "natural" anytime soon?
It doesn't look like it. However, it may come under review if they are presented with substantial evidence that consumers are being misled.

In the mean time...
It is important to take personal responsibility for the choices and decisions you make as a consumer. Personally, I wouldn't abandon "natural" products... just educate yourself. Read the labels and buy brands you trust.  Do your homework when you have to. Long, Latin words in the ingredients aren't necessarily bad just because you can't pronounce them. Some products (like cosmetics) are required to be labeled this way. If you are not sure what an ingredient is, throw it into google and find out if it fits your definition of natural. It takes a little time up front, but from then on out you will know!

What does "natural" mean to Spotted Hippo?
  • No artificial colors- we only use products that are derived naturally from the earth and plant materials
  • No micas or oxide colorants- while these occur naturally, the micas and oxides approved for cosmetic use are synthetically produced... so you won't find them in Spotted Hippo!
  • No synthetic fragrance- we use only pure essential oils to scent our soap.
  • No artificial flavors- Spotted Hippo lip balms use pure essential oils or certified organic flavor oils (flavors naturally derived from organic plant materials)
  • No petrochemicals or hexane- All Spotted Hippo products are free from petrochemicals and all oils are naturally extracted without the use of hexane or other chemicals
  • Ethically produced- We are committed to finding and using products that are:
      • Sustainably grown and manufactured
      • Certified Organic or wild crafted
      • Pesticide free
      • GMO free
      • Fairly traded
      • Have minimal impact on the environment
So... what does natural mean to you?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Disecting Dove

Spotted Hippo Soap's "Simply Soap"
People often wonder how handmade soap differs from the type of "soaps" they buy in the grocery store. I thought it would be interesting (if not a bit nerdly) to look at the ingredients of a mass produced "soaps" alongside the ingredients of a typical handmade, cold process soap. I decided to look at Dove for two reasons.  First, I think this particular brand has done an extremely effective job at branding themselves as a very moisturizing cleanser... so much so that when I talk to people about the benefits of cold process soap, often the first question they ask is "How does it compare to Dove?" Second, I happen to have a bar of it in my it is very convenient!  But, fair warning, there are a LOT of ingredients in Dove... so this may take a while ;)

First off. Look on a package of Dove and you will notice the word "soap" is never used to describe the product. That is not an accident. It is because Dove (like many mass produced bars) is not soap. The FDA defines soap in the following way:
  • The bulk of the nonvolatile matter in the product consists of an alkali salt of fatty acids and the product's detergent properties are due to the alkali-fatty acid compounds, and
  • The product is labeled, sold, and represented solely as soap [21 CFR 701.20].
Dove does not meet either of these criteria. So, if it is not soap, lets break down the ingredients in a bar of white Dove and figure out what it is:

  • Sodium Lauryl Isethionate: Well, there is not a lot of information available, but it is basically a synthetic detergent. It  is a synthetic chemical produced in a laboratory. Used as a detergent, wetting agent and/or emulsifier. Products containing synthetic detergents are not considered "soap" under the FDA's guidelines. Instead, it would either fall under the category of  a cosmetic or a drug, depending on how it is marketed.
  • Stearic Acid: This is a fatty acid, usually derived from animal fat. It is created in a laboratory by hydrolyzing the triglycerides in the fat (typically beef fat or tallow). It can also be derived from palm oil and a few other sources, but these types of stearic acid are very limited in the United States.  It is widely used in the soap industry as a hardener.
  • Sodium Tallowate or Sodium Palmitate: Sodium Tallowate simply refers to tallow (animal fat) that has been combined with sodium hydroxide (lye). Likewise, Sodium Palmitate refers to palm oil that has been combined with sodium hydroxide (lye). Many handmade soapers will list their ingredients like this as well. The theory being that no lye actually remains in the final soap, so rather than listing lye separately on the label (which may turn some consumers off)  they simply list the product that results from combining lye with the tallow or palm oil.
  • Lauric Acid: Lauric Acid is the main fatty acid in coconut oil and palm kernal oil. Because of their high lauric acid content, these oils can be used to add hardness to a bar of soap. In addition to these naturally occurring sources, lauric acid can be produced in a laboratory. It would be used to add hardness the "soap".
  • Sodium Isethionate: This is another synthetic detergent. Typically added because of its ability to bind to compounds not readily soluble in water. Also called a surfactant.
  • Water:  I'm going to assume everyone knows what this is ;)
  • Sodium Stearate: This is another synthetic detergent or surfactant. It is typically used as a cleaning agent, an emulsifier and as a way to increase viscosity.
  • Cocamido Propyl Betaine or Sodium C14-C16 Olefin Sulfonate: Cocamido Propyl betain is a synthetic surfactant that is used as a cleansing and foaming agent, but can also be added as a skin conditioning agent. Sodium C14-C16 Olefin Sulfonate is a synthetic surfactant used as a cleaning agent and foam booster.
  • Sodium Cocoate or Sodium Palm Kernelate: This refers to coconut oil or palm kernel oil that has been combined with sodium hydroxide (lye).
  • Fragrance: This refers to synthetic fragrance that has been developed in a lab. There are several thousand ingredients that can be used in fragrance yet because they are governed under trade secret laws, none of the ingredients need to be disclosed. To find out more about fragrance oils, check out my previous post.
  • Sodium Chloride: Common table salt. This is used in commercial manufacturers in a process to separate out and remove the glycerin that naturally forms during saponification. It can also be added to soaps to make a more lotiony feeling lather.
  • Tetrasodium Edta:  A synthetic chelating agent used to improve performance in hard water. (You may notice that soap does not lather as much in hard water... this is basically a synthetic ingredient that addresses that issue).
  •  Tetrasodium Etidronate: Another synthetic chelating agent, again used to minimize the undesirable effects of hard water on lather by locking the calcium and magnesium in the water.
  • Titanium Dioxide: This is a naturally occurring oxide, however it is produced synthetically for the cosmetic industry. It is used as a pigment to create very white colored soap.
Whew, that's a lot of stuff! Although there is indeed soap in Dove, there are several synthetic detergents and other ingredients that fall well outside the FDA's definition of soap. So what is Dove? In industry terms, Dove is considered a synthetic detergent bar, or syndet bar for short. (syndet is combination of the two words: synthetic and detergent). To find out more about syndet bars vs real soap, check out Gingers Garden's blog. (She also has some amazing products to check out while you're there!)

On the other hand, here are the ingredients from Spotted Hippo's "Simply Soap":
  • Organic Coconut Oil- Adds hardness and bubbly lather.
  • Organic Palm Oil- Sustainably sourced from South America, contributes hardness and a creamy, stable lather.
  • Organic Extra Virgin Oil- Used for its moisturizing qualities.
  • Organic Castor Oil- Used for its great moisturizing properties and creamy stable lather.
  • Distilled Water- Good ol' H2O
  • Sodium Hydroxide- This is lye. Although there is not actually any lye in the final product, I choose to list it this way so people know what went into the making of the product.
That's it! Rather than using a variety of synthetic agents and animal byproducts to achieve desirable characteristics, Spotted Hippo uses the natural qualities of simple, familiar vegetable based oils to achieve a balance of hardness, bubbles, cleansing and conditioning. In my opinion, that's the true art of soapmaking!