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!