Thursday, December 16, 2010

Palm Oil- The Dark Side of Vegan Soap

Palm oil really is an amazing oil. Take a quick look around your house and you'll likely see dozens of products that contain palm oil. It may show up in anything from chocolates, cookies, crackers and other snack foods, to dish soap, detergents, and a wide variety of personal care products. Palm oil is also widely used to make bio-diesel fuel and, of course, soap. It is especially popular in vegan soaps as an alternative for animal tallow. Unfortunately, with so many industries bolstering the palm oil industry (which is largely based in Malaysia and Indonesia), many palm oil producers have resorted to unethical practices to keep up with demand, the effects of which have been devastating on the environment and wildlife in regions where palm oil are grown.

report released by the UN illustrates just how large this industry has become: "Palm oil and palm kernel oil now make up one of the largest shares of global vegetable oil supply. Indonesia and Malaysia account for 83% of the global production of palm oil."

In this part of the world, the palm industry is largely controlled by multinational corporations with little regard for the horrific consequences of their financial pursuits. In fact,  rapid expansion of palm oil plantations throughout Indonesia and Malaysia is the primary cause of rain forest loss in the region and consequently the leading cause of  habitat loss for the already endangered orangutan. As palm plantations have encroached on and destroyed the orangutan's home, human and orangutan conflicts have increased, leading many plantation workers to kill orangutans on site. Other orangutans are simply starving to death as their forest home disappears. It is tragic to read about. Even more so when you know how uniquely amazing orangutans are. You can read more about them here.

What's worse is that much of the increase in demand for palm oil is being fueled by the increasing interest in using biodiesel fuels to reduce CO2 emissions. However, the grim irony is that because fire is often used to clear forests and establish palm plantations, these biofuel sources are actually doing more environmental damage than burning fossil fuels would.

With such a damning reputation, my initial response was to avoid palm oil all together... focusing instead on creating bastille type soaps at least until I could research the issue in more depth. When I finally did, what I found was a great organic, sustainable and responsible source from South America. Here is what our supplier says:

"The plants are grown in a mixed species environment with legume under story to provide nitrogen specific plants to host, and feed beneficial insects. Residue from the oil pressings is also returned to the groves to provide nutrients. The farm is in a region of the Amazon that was cleared by previous owners 30-40 years ago, and the reestablishment of a forest crop has brought back many species of birds and other plants and animals. While not as diverse as native Rain forest, it is a vast improvement over grasslands."

I am so happy to be able to use this amazing oil in Spotted Hippo Soap and to be able to say with confidence that no orangutans were injured or killed in the making of our soap :)

To find out more about the plight of the orangutan please, check out the UNEP Report: The Last Stand of the Orangutan

To learn more about these amazing, quirky animals and their culture (yes. culture), please check out this PBS show: From Orphan to King

And to find out more about the organic, sustainable palm oil used in Spotted Hippo Soap, please contact Soapers Choice

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Nature's Inspirations: The Amazing Cuttlefish

If you have ever seen a cuttlefish, then I assume you already know how awesome these magical little guys are. If you haven't... you, my friend, are missing out! PBS aired a great show starring the amazing cuttlefish, which I highly recommend and, luckily enough, it is available online! You can watch it right here...

How cool was that? I think it is totally awe inspiring that a creature naturally evolved to be able to change not only its color, but also its pattern, shape and texture in an instant. So quickly, that it can hypnotize other animals by pulsing stripes across its body!! It is absolutely amazing. Imagine being able to create a natural soap that could do all that! I saw a glow in the dark soap today... but it just seems banal in comparison. *Sigh* Anyway, soap aside, many other artists have captured the magic of the cuttlefish.

I was nearly giddy to find that a quick search on Etsy returned more than 200 pieces that place the cuttlefish front and center. From t-shirts to coasters, greeting cards to pendants, Etsy artists are giving a well deserved nod to this most amazing creature. And, with the holidays just around the corner, if you are looking for unique gift for the person who has everything  (and is well stocked with soap!), you just may want to consider the cuttlefish! Here are a few of my favorites:


Lemayhem is a great artist from New Orleans who captures the intensity and intelligent curiosity of the cuttlefish in her print "Dear Cuttlefish" I equally love her humor as she muses about her Dear Cuttlefish's intentions while offering a little background behind the cuttlefish's historic role in the art world!  


Easykeeper hails from Salt Lake City and does an amazing job of capturing the beautiful colors and magical skin of the cuttlefish with her Stuffed Cuttlefish Decorative Pillow Buddy. But this little guy is more than just a pretty face! Easykeeper's cuttlefish plush is printed on organic cotton and stuffed with all natural cotton fiber filling, making him a great natural addition to any home!


TypsyGypsy is another great "cuttlefish artist". Based in Philadelphia, she creates some of the most amazing sea creature tee-shirts. The best part is, if you read her profile you will learn, all of these great designs were inspired by her 5 year old son and his precocious interest in unusual sea life! I love it! And I love her intricate representation and adorable (without being cutesy!) play on words in this wonderful tee-shirt design: "Lets Cuttle"! 

The Bonheur Letters

Finally, The Bonheur Letters of Barcelona. What a magical little slice of Etsy this shop is! Each print comes to life as the quirky personalities and daily routines of the characters are revealed. Mr. Cuttlefish Sitting in a Wishbone Chair is certainly no exception. Find out all about Mr. Cuttlefish and his proclivity for daily news at The Bonheur Letters Etsy shop!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Fun for Free!

Green Clay from MRH
One of my favorite parts of soap making is experimenting with new products, from rich exotic oils, to fine spices and scrumptious essential oils. Yet, it always amazes me how much the same product can vary from supplier to supplier in price, in quality and in performance.

I've seen unrefined butters with dirt and grit embedded in the butters... french green clay that looks more like grey, brown muck... and essential oils that fade or have an off scent and could easily ruin your soap. This is when experimenting becomes less of a fun adventure and more of costly nightmare.

Colored with Turmeric from MRH
That's why I love give-aways! They are a great opportunity to try some new products for free! And I am so excited because one of my favorite companies is currently running a give-away on their blog.

Mountain Rose Herbs is a great company nestled away in the funky little city of Eugene, OR.  They offer an extensive selection of natural and organic products free from pesticides and many other toxic chemicals. And right now, if you go to you can find out how to enter for a chance to win some of their amazing products!

They have a french green clay of such high quality that it stays green in CP soap,  pesticide free essential oils,  and organic oils, butters, herbs, and teas at affordable prices! They are by far one of my favorite businesses!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Castor Canundrum: Miracle Bean or Toxic Curse?

Castor Oil:
Castor oil is a wonderfully unique oil, rich in glycerin esters of ricinoleic acid. It is widely used throughout the world in everything from industrial applications to folk remedies and, of course, in soap! It's unique composition adds many wonderful qualities to soap. It promotes a rich bubbly lather, is very soothing and acts as a humectant to draw moisture to the skin. But it is not without controversy.

Background: How did Castor Oil Get Such a Bad Rap?
  • Castor beans contain ricin.
  • Ricin is one of the most toxic substances found in nature. According to numbers released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one castor bean contains  enough ricin to kill 300 people (
  • Ricin has been a known biological weapon since WWI and is considered a category B threat by the CDC, meaning it is in the second highest category of agents
  • There is no known andecdote for ricin poisening
  • Castor plants are also highly allergenic
  • The majority of castor oil is produced in India, Brazil and China
Castor Oil itself does not contain ricin. It is removed during the extraction process, but it is in the waste "mash" that is produced. So although castor oil iself is not a toxin, people seem to have two main concerns:
  1. human rights concerns surrounding the factory and farm workers who harvest and process the beans
  2. the disposal of the ricin rich "mash"  
Castor and Human Rights: The Claim
Over and over again, people purporting to take a moral stand  use the same argument to demonize Castor beans. Word for word, that argument is this:

"Allergenic compounds found on the plant surface can cause permanent nerve damage , making the harvest of Castor beans a human health risk."

You can find this exact phrase here and here and here and here and, sadly, even here on one of my FAVORITE company's blog.

It is also written word for word on several forums, including:

And the list goes on and ON AND ON. 

I'd be willing to bet most of these people pulled this off of Wikipedia, which cites their source for their information as:  Go to this site and you'll see there is no further citation, no stats and no data to back it up. In fact, I can not find ANY hard stats or data on ANY of the sites that use this phrase.  

The Facts:

  • I found no substantiated evidence that exposure to the plant's leaves causes permanent nerve damage, in fact Castor plants grow quite readily throughout the United States (predominantly in Florida, Texas and California). They are even used as ornamental plants in gardens.
  • However, prolonged contact with the plant's sap, flowers, seeds or leaves may result in a rash. If introduced to the eye, conjunctivitis may develop (you can read more here). 
  • Also, like ragweed, the Castor plant (Ricinus communis) does produce a great deal of pollen, which can cause allergies. In severe cases, people may develop asthma.
  • Perhaps the most documented effects of Castor are seen in the factory workers where the oil is produced. Factory workers exposed to dust from the Castor seeds may develop allergies and suffer from asthma (you can read more here). 
So how bad is all this?

Well, the same risks and ailments are common among
So, in my view, the negative effects associated with Castor processing are really more of an occupational hazard than a call to arms or reason to boycott. This site published a fairly comprehensive table outlining a variety of biological agents that have been linked to occupational asthma across a variety of occupations.

I think some people like to target Castor because it is largely produced in developing countries. They argue that the workers are at greater risk because of laxed labor laws etc. But I think the above studies, which were conducted all over, from Papua New Guinea to Croatia to Tennessee demonstrate that the same occupational hazards exist everywhere.

The fact is, many of the foods we eat and the things we enjoy entail some level of occupational hazard for the workers involved. From firemen and cops to coal miners and crab fishermen, people risk their life every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the many things this world has to offer. It is simply ridiculous to target Castor oil and boycott it as if it were a singular offender.

Disposal of the Ricin Rich Mash
Another concern people frequently have regarding Castor oil is the waste mash that results from processing the beans. The mash contains all of the deadly ricin and is highly toxic, so can it really be disposed of safely? Yes! The "waste" actually has many wonderful uses:
So relax... don't worry. That Castor oil you buy isn't likely to be contributing to the development of biological weapons by terrorists... nor is it likely to be destroying the nervous systems of exploited workers in third world countries. Castor may be deadly, but it is a wonderful plant with hundreds of beneficial uses throughout the world. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Vegetarian atThanksgiving?!

Between traffic jams, family and the pressure of preparing a delicious multi-course meal for dozens of people, Thanksgiving can be trying enough without the added challenge of having to feed a vegetarian. But don't panic! It doesn't have to be hard. You don't need tofu, tempeh, seaweed or any other exotic ingredients. We vegetarians eat normal food too! Just last night, I made a delicious soup that would make a great, hearty meal for any vegetarian and most of the ingredients are things you'll have around on the big day anyway!

You'll need:
3 Yukon Gold Potatoes
A dash of extra virgin olive oil
1/2 an onion
2 carrots
2 stalks of celery
2 vegetable bouillon cubes+ 4 cups of water (or 4 cups of veggie stock/ broth)
1 can of diced tomatoes
1/2 cup of peas
1/4 cup tiny star pasta (optional)
And a dash of:
soy sauce
ground coriander
celery seed
...or anything you have laying around! These are just the things that I had.
In one pot, bring your peeled and halved potatoes to a boil. Cook until they just begin to soften, but are still fairly firm. When they are the right consistency, remove them from the pot and chop into 1 in pieces.

In a second pot, pour a dash of olive oil on the bottom. Add the onion, carrots and celery and saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onions begin to get tender. Add 4 cups of water and the bouillon. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the remaining ingredients (except the peas, star pasta and potatoes). Simmer for 30 minutes. Add the peas, star pasta and potatoes. Simmer for 10 more minutes.

Voila! Your veggie friend now has a delicious, hearty, healthy dish to enjoy with your rolls, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, salads, and all your other naturally veggie dishes!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

GMO what's the BFD?-- Part 2

Effect on Farmers

1970- The US Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) giving breeders up to 25 years of exclusive control over a new, distinct varieties of plants with a few important exceptions. Most notably, under the PVPA, farmers using protected varieties of seeds were allowed to collect seeds from their crop each season for planting the following year.

1980- The Supreme Court ruled that patents could be issued for living things if they have been altered by humans. This landmark ruling essentially cleared the way for companies like Monsanto to patent their GMO seeds and gain exclusive rights without being subject to the exemptions of the PVPA.

2001- The Supreme Court ruled that utility patents, like those issued for GMO seeds, supersede the PVPA, meaning that companies holding a patent on a seed could take legal action against farmers caught saving seeds.

Anyone with any business training might be wondering why this is a big deal. I mean.... business is business, right? So if the farmers want to collect seeds, they can find some other seed to use. On the other hand, if they want the benefits of GMO crops (like easier pest control, higher crop yield, etc.) then they can pay for the seeds each year. Unfortunately, things aren't quite so cut and dry when you are dealing with pollinating crops grown outdoors in a relatively uncontrolled environment.

Pollen can be carried on the wind, by bees, or any number of ways from one crop to another. Seeds may fall off a truck, pass through a turbine or be carried by birds. When pollen or seeds are introduced into a new crop, this is what is known as pollen flow or genetic drift... and there is really no way to prevent it.  Why is this important?  Well, if a farmer chooses to use non patented seeds, their crops may still be contaminated by pollen or seeds from their neighbor's GMO fields. A farmer may have no idea that their field acquired GMO material through drift, but once a patented material is introduced into a crop, that farmer automatically becomes legally bound to respect the patent holder's rights or risk legal action.

It might be hard to believe that a giant company like Monsanto would bother to spend the time or money to seek out and prosecute small time farmers, but believe it, because they do. In a press release Monsanto had this to say, "Backed by U.S. patent law, Monsanto is vigorously pursuing growers who pirate any brand or variety of its genetically enhanced seed..." They go on to point out some of the failed defenses farmers unsuccessfully used in court, including "forged signatures, ignorance, accident or mistake by farm employee, or pollen flow from neighboring field."

A 2007 report released by The Center for Food Safety documents the extent of Monsanto's aggressive tactics. According to the report:
  • By October 2007, Monsanto had filed 112 lawsuits against farmers
  • These cases included 372 farmers and 49 small farm businesses
  • The lawsuits span 27 states
  • The largest judgment was $3,052,800.00
  • The smallest judgment was $5,595.00 (Yup... they went after $5, 000!)
  • The number of suits filed increased every year between 2005 and 2007

It's likely that the numbers above (compiled from public court records) don't even begin to reveal the true picture. According to this same report:
  • The number of seed piracy matters reported by Monsanto is 20 to 40 times the number of lawsuits found in public court records
  • As of June 2006, Monsanto had instituted an estimated 2,391 to 4,531 “seed piracy matters” against farmers in 19 states
The bottom line is Monsanto, in their push to dominate world food markets, is employing ruthless tactics and deliberately destroying people's livliehoods even when circumstances (like genetic drift) are beyond anyone's control. You don't have to be a tree-hugging, earthy-crunchy hippy to realize this is wrong.

Monday, November 15, 2010

GMO What's the BFD?-- Part 1

When it comes to genetically modified organisms (GMO) there are few areas of our lives that aren't impacted. GMO's are frequently either touted as miricle food or cited as a potential hazard for the environment and human health, but they are having a huge impact on farmers, business and economics as well. Since they are such a huge part of our lives, I thought I'd take a closer look at the consequences of GMOs in a few different blog posts.

Health Concerns:
Did you know US grown long grain rice is banned in Japan because it was found to contain bacterial DNA that makes the rice resistant to weed killer, and isn't approved for sale in the US? ... or that 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the US contain a Roundup Ready trait designed to allow farmers to bath their crops in glyphosate (a chemical designed to kill plants). In fact, nearly everything from alfalfa to potatoes to corn, cotton and wheat have had bacterial, viral or other outside genetic material inserted in their DNA. In some ways this has been a boon for farmers since they no longer have the laborious task of tilling the soil in an effert to control weeds. Instead, they can simply drench their crops in herbicides. This alone can be unsettling for many consumers, but if it is not enough to know that a large portion of your food was awash in deadly chemicals like Roundup before arriving on your dinner table,  think about the effects of these transgenic modifications themselves. Studies are emerging that link GMO food to severe health effects.

A frequently cited study from the 1990's outlines the potential for transgenic alterations to introduce allergens like tree nuts into otherwise benign foods. Thankfully, the study, which looked at a strain of soybean containing a  gene from the Brazil nut, prevented the modified and highly allergenic soy from ever reaching the market. However, recent studies link GMO food that is currently on the market with a number of severe health effects.

This study, published in the International Journal of Biological Science in 2009 links 3 types of corn (manufactured by Monsanto) with organ failure According to the study, the 3 strains of Monsanto corn cause organ toxicity and are linked to liver, kidney and heart damage. And I'm not just picking on Monsanto here. Really, it should be no surprise that Monsanto is at the center of this controversy. Monsanto is the largest GMO seed producer in the world, contributing GMO technology to 90% of the world's GMO seeds. Nearly every controversy around GMO food can be linked in some way to Monsanto.

Of course, Monsanto vehemently defends their GMO products as safe. But, I'm sure they did the same thing when they introduced DDT, Agent Orange, saccharin, rBGH...

In my next post, find out about how GMO foods are affecting the farming industry... including organic farms.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Soap and Social Media

Facebook is a great place to
showcase your soap... but be
careful what else you're
Facebook is a wonderful tool to catch up with old friends, stay in touch with family and even promote your business. One of the things I like most is connecting with other soap makers to network, learn new tips and tricks and drool over their amazing creations! But as wonderful as all this is, Facebook can also lead to huge disappointments and even hurt your business if you let your posts stray too far from your page’s purpose. I’m sure none of your fans will boycott your page just because you post the occasional off topic tidbit, but it depends what that tidbit is…

I recently became totally disillusioned with one of my all time favorite soap makers after they posted a politically charged edict that, not only had nothing to do with soap, but was divisive, self-important and down-right antagonistic. It revealed to me their ideology, their values and how they spend the money they make off of customers (like me)…none of which I agree with.  

I will admit that there is nothing wrong with having opinions… even strong ones, but if you are going to try to grow or promote a business online, you better be careful about how and to whom you are revealing your opinions. I still love this persons soap… but I will absolutely NEVER give them another dime AND if they continue to use their soap page to push their political agenda… I will also “unlike” their page, essentially making them invisible to hundreds of potential customers hiding in my friends list.

My 3 rules for social media:

Keep it positive.
Keep it neutral.
Keep it clean

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Soap for Your Teeth!

Soap for your teeth!
Toothpaste is full of dangerous chemicals and harsh abrasives that can damage your teeth’s enamel. If you are looking for an alternative to traditional pastes, soap is definitely worth a try! You can make soap for your teeth without added fluoride, chemicals, glycerin or harsh abrasives. The result is a gentle cleanser that leaves your mouth fresh and clean.
I KNOW IT SOUNDS CRAZY!!! But really… I’m not crazy!  I first tried brushing my teeth with soap because I had suffered with very sensitive teeth for years. I read that the combination of abrasives and glycerin in traditional pastes slowly erode the enamel and prevent your teeth from re-mineralizing. After failing to find any relief in traditional toothpastes (even those specifically designed for sensitive teeth), I read a little about brushing with soap and figured, what have I got to lose? So I tried it… loved it! It DOES taste like soap…but you get used to it. I will never go back to paste again!

If you do decide to try making your own soap for brushing, I just have a few suggestions...
  • Use little or no coconut oil. Coconut oil is main culprit of that "soapy" taste. Sure it helps with bubbles... but do you really need a mouth full of foam?
  • I prefer unscented/ unflavored, but if you do add a scent make sure it is safe if ingested. You can use flavor oils or certain essential oils. Spearmint, cinnamon, and peppermint are popular, but check with your supplier to make sure the oils you are using are safe for use in your mouth.
  • Think about packaging... You can make a traditional bar or, if you want a great option for traveling, you can pour them into lip-balm tubes. Mountain Rose Herbs is a great source for these. I personally pour mine into tiny, little, ceramic finger bows that I found at a local restaurant supply store.
If you are looking for a great starter recipe, I like this one (of course you should run it through a lye calculator):
1/3 Olive Oil
1/3 Palm Kernel
1/3 Soybean Oil
Xylitol (I use about 1 T per pound of oils)

You can make this vegan by increasing the Olive and Palm Kernel and reducing the beeswax... you don't really need it to be rock hard.

Just keep in mind that while Xylitol is GREAT for our teeth it is highly toxic to dogs. If you have xylitol anywhere in your house (even a pack of chewing gum!) be sure to keep it away from your pets... it can be fatal. Also, most brands of Xylitol come from corn and are likely GMO. If you want a GMO-free alternative try Smart Sweet! I love it! It comes from birch trees instead of corn and  is guaranteed GMO free. You can find it here.

Happy soaping!

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Little Honesty Please

Again and again I read posts by soapers who seem to be on a one man or one woman crusade to de-bunk the "natural" myth. Soapers who like to use micas and lab colors and fragrance oils and constantly feel under attack from the "granola" crowd. I understand their frustration, but I think attacking others with alternate philosophies is the wrong tack to take... plus it is just plain mean spirited. After all it is our different philosophies, ideas and products that make us (and our products) unique.

What bothers me are those people and companies who exploit the "granola" segment of the market by capitalizing on the unregulated use of the term "natural." Soapers who use micas, SLS, parabens, lab colors and fragrance oils yet still have the audacity to market their product as natural. Companies who name their business "Organic this" or "Natural that" yet stock a majority of conventional products. It is these unscrupulous people who undermine not just our craft, but the consumer's trust across the board.

We need to stand up to these shady business people by educating ourselves and our customers about our products, whether we choose conventional or natural, but also by respecting other honest people for the choices they've made. If you build your foundation on anything other than honesty, trust and respect, don't be surprised when it crumbles under your feet.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Doomed! Soaping Disasters

As I began preparing for my first big show, I couldn't help but feel like this whole soaping endeavor was doomed! I had sunk a pretty big lump of money into starting this business, now it seemed like everything that could go wrong, did. With only a two week window for making all the soap for a 2 week long show, anxiety mounted as the clock ticked down and batch after batch was destroyed. First, I was using a new brand of lye and found out it wasn't dissolving. Dots of lye were peppered through the first two batches. So in the pot they went to be rebatched! Think anyone will buy a flesh colored soap that smells like peppermint and, as my dear husband pointed out, looks like refried beans? I guess we'll see :)
Once I realized the problem was with the new lye, I ran to the hardware store and paid the tremendously inflated price for a tried and true brand. Whew! Back on track...

Armed with my reliable lye, I made a small batch to pour in my PVC pipes for embeds. 16 oz should do it! Unfortunately, it didn't occur to me that the seasons had started to change. The air, the house...everything was MUCH cooler and a small batch like this would likely cool much faster. So I soaped as usual, and boy did it trace quickly! Wonderful, I thought! I can pour it in the molds and enjoy some free time this evening. Later that evening, I stuck my hand under the thick insulating blanket and realized that the soap was cool,  but I convinced myself that this was ok... it simply wouldn't gel... no biggy. The next day, when I went to remove the soap from the molds, to my dismay I  found a sticky, goopy mess full of lye pockets. All I can imagine is that the soap did not really reach trace the night before. Instead, it was a case of false trace brought on because it cooled too quickly. Ugh. So much for embeds.

Instead, I decided I would make a layered soap... good ol' layers. I'm practically a pro when it comes to layers ;) I'll use my new lye, soap at a higher temperature and everything will be all right...

Unfortunately, I didn't account for my own stupidity. After ruining the previous three batches and chalking them up to experience, I went on to ruin three more batches:
First, I poured the second layer too soon, so it mixed with the bottom layer in a most unattractive manner
Next batch, I colored both layers the same color (Don't even ask!)
Finally in my third batch (this is the epitome of stupid!)... I just completely forgot to add the shea butter... to BOTH layers!

So now that is 6, yes SIX ruined batches in 1 week! If that doesn't say DOOMED, I don't know what does.

On the plus side, I am now a master rebatcher! Plus, I did manage to turn out some decent batches:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dirty Laundry, Patience and the Art of Soapmaking

With all the anticipation and excitement that builds as we wait for our soap to gel, it is always a thrill to unmold a soap and reveal a beautifully formed, wonderfully scented bar that appears just as good or even better than we ever imagined. On the flip side, it can be utterly disappointing to unmold a soap only find that it partially gelled, or it is covered in ash, or otherwise malformed and unappealing. I was in this camp a few days ago...

I had been planning this particular soap for a long time... it would incorporate carefully crafted embeds, rich stout beer and  a wonderful spicy, musky, manly scent. I was SO EXCITED as it came time to unmold... so you can imagine my absolute horror as I uncovered the mold and the most pungent scent of dirty, wet laundry wafted through the house.. bleah!!! What a stench! Worst of all... it looked absolutely beautiful. It was truly a work of art, rendered utterly worthless by its offensive, disgusting odor. I was beside myself... headed straight toward a tizzy and trying in vein to convince myself that someone, somewhere might find this appealing.

Then, through all the confusion and fumes, came a voice of reason. It said, "be patient." I've made beer soap enough times before to know that the beer imparts an odor of its own at first... but it dissipates in a few days. Perhaps, my spicy scent simply didn't mix well with the fresh beer odor. So I waited... and you know what? When I checked on the soap this morning, the fowl stench of filth had all but disappeared and the spicy, musky scent I had hoped for was beginning to emerge. Whew! I think this soap is back on track and heading in the right direction after all, but, hell if it wasn't an exercise in patience!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Natural Exfoliants and Additives for Cold Process Soap Making - A Few of My Favorites

  • Ratio: 1-2 T. per pound of oil
  • Method: Use slow cooking or rolled oats for soap. Do not use instant or quick cook oatmeal (It absorbs to quickly and creates a gloppy mess). Grind your oats into a fine powder. A coffee grinder works great for this. Slowly, incorporate the ground oatmeal into your oils before adding the lye. You can use your stick blender or stir by hand, but the key is to add the oats slowly to prevent clumping. This creates a gently exfoliating soap.
  • Alternate Method: Pour your soap into the mold. Spread unground oats across the top then press gently down into the soap. This will create a beautiful natural layer at the base/top of your soap. This method creates a much more scrubby exfoliant that the ground method.
  • Benefits: Oatmeal is said to be moisturising and soothing for irritated skin. This is because oats are naturally rich in beta glucan and phenols. Beta glucan is a polysacharide that has been shown to aid in healing. Phenols act as antioxidants and anti inflammatory and are reported to be very soothing for dry, irritated skin. Because of these unique properties, oatmeal makes a great additive to soaps designed for sensitive skin.
Poppy Seeds-
  • Ratio: 1/2-1 T. per pound of oil (depending on how scrubby you want it)
  • Method: Stir in the seeds at trace.
  • Alternate Method: If you don't want seeds speckled throughout, you can sprinkle them across the top, but this is more for decoration as they wont last long as an exfoliator.
  • Benefits: Poppy seeds are rich in linoleic and oleic acids, both skin nourishing fatty acids, but the real benefit of poppies in soap is simply that they make great scrubby exfoliants.
Calendula Petals-
  • Ratio: 1/3- 1/2 cup per 2.5 pounds of oil
  • Method: Gently stir in the petals at trace.
  • Alternate Method: For smoother look, try infusing calendula in a little oil rather than putting flowers directly into the soap. For infusions, I usually combine the oil and herb in a container then let them sit for 3-4 weeks (at least). Use 1/2-1 cup of petals per 16 oz of oil.
  • Benefits: Like oatmeal, calendula contains complex polysaccharides and has been shown to have a healing effect on rashes, wounds and other skin irritations. It is great for people with sensitive skin, or who are prone to outbreaks of eczema or acne. It is also good if you are suffering from poison ivy, diaper rash, or other irritating skin conditions.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Suicidal Soap Syndrome

Many of us have at least one favorite recipe. One that we've made time and time again, knowing it will make a good bar of soap. Then one day it surprises us... and it doesn't behave! It seizes or overheats or finds some other way to self destruct. The worst part is, suicidal soap syndrome can strike at any time, without any warning, for any number of reasons or for no apparent reason at all. As you drop it in the trash, it's hard to forget all of the time and money wasted in making a now worthles batch of near-soap. But, it IS just one bad batch and it is usually not worth giving up on an otherwise tried and true recipe just yet. When your favorite batch of soap lets you down, I think the best thing to do is :

1) Check Your Process- Make sure you did everything correctly. Were your measurements accurate? Did you forget to add one of the oils? Was your scale set to ounces while your recipe was in grams (boy, I hope not!)?
2) Think Critically- If you are sure that you did everything correctly, what else could it be? Did you change brands? Get a more powerful stick blender? Was it unusually hot, or humid?
3) Evaluate Your Options- Can it be saved? Be honoest. If not, you gotta accept defeat, but if you can take that siezing mass of soap and resussitate it by rebatching... go for it! But do it quick, the fresher the soap the easier it is to rebatch. At the end of the day, you may not have a beautiful bar of soap, but at least you will have soap.
4) Persist- Even if there seems to be no rational explanation for your botched batch... try it again. It's been good to you in the past so there's no point in giving up on it after just one incident. But moving forward, pay extra attention to your actions and any outside factors that may affect it. Take good notes and basically, don't take it for granted any more.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Rose Hip Powder- Cold Process Do's and Dont's

Why Use Rose Hip Powder In Soap?

Rose hips contain high concentrations of vitamin C as well as A, D and E. They are also rich in antioxidants. All of this makes rose hips great ingredients to combat aging.

Without resorting to micas, oxides, or lab colors, creating a red soap can be challenging to say the least. There are several natural options for creating an orangy/ peachy/ reddish color, but few options for creating a really red soap.

This is where rose hip powder comes in. While far from cherry red, rose hip powder can create a beautiful deep brick red color, but there are some important Dos and Dont's when coloring soap with rose hips:

  • Insulate!- The rose hip powder turns its beautiful earthy brick red color after going through gel phase. If you prevent gel, you will likely end up with a pinkish tan color. Below are pictures of two soaps made from the same batch of rose hip colored soap. The soap on the left did not gel. The soap on the right did.
  • Use Sparingly!- Rose hip powder is scratchy. A little makes a nice exfoliant, but too much just feels like washing with sand paper.

  •  Swirl- I know this sounds weird, but seriously I don't recomend swirling with rose hip powder. I once thought that I would use rose hip powder to create red peppermint scented swirl soap. Bad idea. The rose hip powder is too granular. Rather than looking like red peppermint swirls, it turned out looking like a speckled mess. I personally think rose hip powder works best as a layer, but I'll let you judge for yourself.  Here are some pics of my peppermint mess:

  • Get Greedy!- As I mentioned above, large quantities of rose hip powder can turn your soap into sand paper. I like to use about 1 tsp per pound of oil, any more than that is pushing it.
  • Make it Complicated!- One of the best things about using rose hip powder to color soap is that it is so easy. Simply bring your batch to light trace and remove a small amount. Stir the rose hip powder into the small bit of soap, then add it back into the rest of the batch and stir until combined. Easy peasy! There is no need to mess with infusions or other complications.

I LOVE using rose hip powder to color soap. If you want to try using rose hips in your soap, some great sources for organic rose hip powder are Organic Creations or Mountain Rose Herbs

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Soaping for the Season- Seasonal Soaps Without the Cutesy Kitsch

I've never been one to adorn my house in cutesy holiday decor. You won't find American-flag-themed chairs on my porch during summer, or four leaf clovers on my front door in March. So, I will admit, the idea of making soaps to fit each season did not immediately appeal to me. I had visions of pilgrim shaped molds and I could not imagine a situation where I personally would EVER be inclined to purchase such soap, so why would I make them?

Then, one morning this fall,  I had an everyone mulled around the farmer's market, decked out in their long pants and high turtle necks to ward off the bite of the crisp autumn air, I realized we were surrounded by pumpkins, and gourds. The air was thick with the smell of spiced nuts and cider. It felt like fall. It smelled like fall, and undoubtedly, it looked like fall. And, as with every change of season, there was EXCITEMENT in the air! People were done with the hot days of summer. At this moment in time, they were looking forward to cool nights, colored leaves, trick-or-treaters and holiday feasts. It was palpable... and contagious. And it made me realize that anybody who sells anything, from soap to real estate, would be a fool not to tap into this collective energy that seems to enrapture us all at the turn of each season. That is not to say that I will run right out and purchase a pilgrim shaped soap mold... but there is no reason not to create a soap that captures the energy of the season while still reflecting your own personal artistic intuitions. And there are so many natural options!

For Halloween, why not make a purple and black swirl with alkanet root powder and activated charcoal? For general fall colors, turmeric creates a great yellow; rose hips make a nice brick red color; beer makes a nice earthy tan; and cocoa makes a beautiful shade of brown. Layered or embedded, swirled or solid... there are so many creative ways to capture the colors and scents of autumn while still making a versatile, beautiful soap that doesn't compromise your artistic integrity or look ridiculously out of place at other times of year. In finding that balance, I realized that working with seasonal inspirations doesn't have to limit your creativity or compromise your artistic vision, and it can, in fact, expand your versatility and marketability.

Monday, October 4, 2010

To Gel or Not to Gel? Gel Phase and Cold Process Soap

When I first began making cold process soap, I was convinced that proper insulation was the key to making good cold process soap. It seemed like every book I read, every site I visited and every person I talked to had 3 golden rules to soap making:

1) Insulate, insulate, insulate!
2) Let it sit for 24 hours

I was absolutely CONVINCED that improperly insulating or jumping the gun and removing it prior to that magic (if not a bit arbitrary) 24 hour mark would some how irreparably ruin what would have otherwise been a perfect bar of soap. Imagine my surprise when I found out soap makers have options!

Why do soap makers insulate?
The method of cold process soap making naturally generates heat as the lye reacts with the oils. As it heats up, the soap goes through a process called gel phase. Basically, during gel phase the saponification process speeds up, the oils begin to harden and the color usually becomes a bit darker or otherwise morphs (depending on the colorant you are using). Since the gel phase does change the appearance of your soap, it is important that the soap is heated evenly throughout. If the soap heats unevenly, you may end up with what is called a "partial gel." In a log mold, this usually looks like a odd colored oval running through the center of your soap. This is because, naturally, the soap in the middle will retain heat better, while the soap near the edge will lose heat more quickly. As a result, if left uninsulated, the edges of your soap may not reach gel phase, while the soap in the middle of your mold will. A partial gel is not dangerous, but it may look funny and, if you've spent a great deal of time creating a beautiful pattern in your soap the uneven coloring can be quite disappointing. Insulating your cold process soap helps ensure an even color throughout.

So why would anybody NOT insulate? Well, it goes to reason that if you can get an even appearance by ensuring that the soap HEATS evenly throughout, then you should be able to get an even appearance by ensuring that the soap stays evenly COOL throughout. But there's more...

Preventing Gel Phase
There are a variety of reasons why people prevent gel. Many argue that the colors are richer, the texture is creamier and the scent stronger in ungelled soap. But preventing gel phase isn't as easy as you might think. Cold process soap naturally wants to heat up. If you simply do not insulate, you will likely wind up with a partial gel. You can put your soap in the fridge or freezer, but depending on your recipe and mold, you may still end up with a partial gel. I find that it is easiest to prevent gel phase when I use smaller, shallow molds. I have yet to successfully prevent gel in my log mold! But it can be done! If you are going to try it, there are some important things to remember:

1) It should stay in the fridge/freezer for at least 24-48 hours
2) Forcing the soap to stay cool slows the saponification process. This means it may take several days before it passes the "zap test" and should cure for a full 6 weeks
3) Let it come to room temperature before cutting, or it may crumble

Pros and Cons
Based on my experience, there are some pros and cons to preventing gel:

  • Creamier looking texture
  • Some colors are more vivid
  • Uncolored soap usually appears whiter
  • Some scents come through stronger
  • Can be difficult to fully prevent gel
  • Some colors, like alkenet, look worse
  • It takes longer to saponify
  • It does not seem to last as long in the shower
I personally am an insulator, but I love that there are options and I love to experiment! I always make my batches 10 oz larger than they need to be. The majority goes into a loaf mold, which gets insulated, then I pour the leftover into my ELF massage molds, which go straight into the fridge.  The next day, I can compare the texture and color of gel vs non gel with every recipe I make. I thought ungelled beer soap was a disaster, but turmeric made for a beautiful buttery soap when left ungelled. For me, the fun is in the experiment... and the thrill of breaking all the rules!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Choosing Natural

There are plenty of reasons to choose organic products, from environmental and animal rights benefits, to reasons for personal health and safety. But even for people who do not feel strongly about incorportating organic products into all aspects of their life, there are good reasons to choose all natural beauty and skin-care products.

Many soap makers add synthetic compounds to boost lather, create a harder, longer-lasting bar, or to add vibrant colors or scents.  None of these additives contribute any beneficial skincare qualities to the soap. Instead, they are usually added to reduce cost or add sensory appeal and they often contain a number of toxins.

I WILL admit that when it comes to coloring soap,  my artistic side WAS drawn to the vibrant colors and  irredescent shimmer that can be achieved with micas, oxides and lab colors.  It was definitely tempting to play with these and, as many people are quick to point out, these types of colorants are used in nearly everything we encounter, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear. But rather than easing my concerns, it was THAT sentiment... the idea that we are surrounded by artificial colorants and toxins every day... that made me realize that this is the exact reason I shouldn't use them in soap.

It is no secret that many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives do in-fact contain toxins. Many ingredients are recognized by the FDA as toxins, but approved for use in such small quantities that they are deemed "safe." But when you think of everything we consume and use that contains a small quantity of toxins, it really begins to add up. Why should our skincare routines contribute to the unnecessary toxins that are already creeping into all aspects of our lives?

Apart from my concern about unnecessary toxins, I choose not to use synthetic fragrance in my soap for a couple of reasons. For one, I am cursed with hyper-sensitive skin and many synthetic fragrances irritate sensitive skin. This is what got me interested in natural skincare in the first place. I find that the fewer things I put on my skin, the better off I am. Then, when I found out that fragrances are governed by trade secret laws and that nobody really knows what is in them and that many contain pthalates and other harmful ingredients... well, that sealed the deal! I definitely am not going to put something in my soap if I don't know and can't tell others what it is!

In the end, creating soap as an artistic endeavor without the sensory appeal of synthetic fragrances and beautiful bright colors, definitely can be challenging. But, who doesn't love a good challenge?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What is Fragrance?

Fragrance oils are those delicious smelling, scrumptiously tempting oils that allow you to create a soap that smells like fresh baked bread, strawberry cheesecake or a cool ocean breeze. They are absolutely a treat for the senses… but are they safe?

What are fragrance oils made from?

Fragrance oils may contain a percentage of natural essential oils, but due to cost and availability, most fragrance oil manufacturers use synthetic ingredients. There are more than 3,000 materials that can be used to create fragrance oils, yet because fragrances are protected under “trade secret” laws, manufacturers are not required to disclose those ingredients… so they don’t!

So, what is a fragrance oil made from? Your guess is as good as mine!

What we DO know:

Many fragrance oils contain phthalates.
·    Phthalates are group of synthetic chemicals with many purposes, from making plastics more flexible to creating long lasting fragrances

·         *Phthalates pose the following risks:
o   Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive)
o   Endocrine system
o   Reproduction and fertility
o   Birth or developmental effects
o   Persistent and bioaccumulative
o   Brain and nervous system
o   Immune system (including sensitization and allergies)


·    Since fragrance manufacturers do not need to disclose their ingredients, those lusciously scented soaps may contain phthalates, but you will not see it in the ingredients list.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Are Micas and Oxides Natural?

What is mica?

Online, some soap makers will tell you…

·   “Mica pigments are mineral colors that lend themselves beautifully to any soapmaking process. They are non-toxic.”

·   “Mica is the name of a group of naturally occurring Earth's minerals which are mined from around the world, purified, and crushed into fine powders.”

So… are the micas used in soap making and cosmetics really non-toxic, naturally occurring minerals?

Unfortunately, NO.

Some mica colorants begin with naturally mined mica, but the beautiful colors you see in cosmetics and soaps are created by coating the mica with oxide colorants or FD&C lab colors.

What’s more, many micas have been deemed unsafe for use in cosmetics. However, since the FDA does not consider soap a cosmetic, soap makers are free to use these micas to color soap. With that said, a reputable soap maker is not likely to use non-cosmetic-safe micas in their soap, but a reputable soap maker will not label mica-colored soaps as "all natural" either.

What are iron oxides?

Online, some soap makers will tell you…

·   “These pigments are mined from the earth (inorganic) and approved for use in soap, mineral cosmetics and toiletries.”

·   “…color additives which are derived from the earth would not be considered "Natural". Rather, mineral pigments are called "Inorganic" ("non-living"). There are a number of inorganic color additives used in soap and cosmetics: iron oxides (browns, blacks, reds, etc.), ultramarines, chromium oxide green, and a variety of whites such as titanium dioxide.”

So… are the iron oxides used to color cosmetics and soap mined from the earth, and are they as safe as any natural colorant?

No. Due to high levels of toxic contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, lead and selenium found in naturally occurring iron oxides, the iron oxides used in cosmetics and soap have been manufactured in labs since the 1970’s. The purpose of this was to make these colors safer by manufacturing a product with fewer toxins. As a result, iron oxides may contain fewer toxins, but they are certainly not natural.
What’s more, manufacturing these oxides in a lab does not eliminate the toxins, it merely reduces the toxins to an amount deemed “safe” by the FDA. * The FDA considers the following amount of toxins safe:
·         Arsenic (as As), not more than 3 parts per million.
·         Lead (as Pb), not more than 10 parts per million.
·         Mercury (as Hg), not more than 3 parts per million
Some iron oxides may still be mined naturally, but they are often high in toxic metals and are NOT approved for cosmetic use in the United States. ONLY synthetic iron oxides are approved for cosmetic use in the United States.