This month, I’m giving you the lowdown on soap. It’s an often-misunderstood product and that’s because - as with many things - there are vastly different products and qualities available. The mass-produced soap you buy in the supermarket isn’t the same product that you buy from Soap Kitchen Wanaka, just as any beautifully handmade food is usually completely different to its cousin produced in a factory.
How we hand make cold process soap:
So, let’s start with how I make soap. I take hard fats (like cocoa butter and coconut oil) and liquid fats (like olive and castor oils). I melt the hard ones and combine them with the liquid ones. In the meantime, I’ve dissolved lye in water. I get those two mixtures at the same temperature (around 30C) and then mix them together really well. Just before I pour the mixture into moulds, I’ll add the final ingredients - botanicals, spices, essential oils.
Once it is in the moulds, it gets wrapped in blankets and a duvet for 24 hours. If I’ve got everything right, the soap will then heat up - way hotter than the 30C it is made at, this is the chemical reaction of saponification - and turn into a kind of semi-clear gel until it cools down again. The next day it can be turned out and depending on the bar, it can be cut and stamped either that day or the next. This is ‘cold process’ soap, as opposed to ‘hot process’ which is actually cooked as it is made (usually in a slow cooker). Hot process is normally a bit lumpier and more rustic, cold process produces a beautifully smooth bar. I dry the new bars on racks for a month (or six weeks for Savon de Wanaka) before selling them, reducing the water content, making the soap bar harder, and longer lasting in your shower.
Is there really a difference between handmade and commercially produced soaps?
Most commercially produced soaps are milled and extruded, creating a hard bar with a polished appearance. But there is no way you could put my soap through this process - with lots of good oils and naturally occurring glycerine, it would be far too sticky. Glycerine is created in the soap during the saponification process and is a major moisturising component. Mostly, commercially produced soaps have synthetic chemicals added to give them plasticity so they can be extruded and sometimes the glycerine is stripped out and sold off separately because it’s good stuff!
Then there is the question of fragrance. I only use essential oils in my soap. Commercially produced products often use artificial fragrances and I personally think these are evil. I’ll explain my reasons for saying this at greater length in a future blog, but suffice to say for now that many people react very badly to artificial fragrances. My partner is one - he breaks out in rashes when exposed to most things on his skin, but can happily use everything I make. I’m always a bit dubious when people tell me that they are allergic to soap - I’m sure some of them are, but I bet some of them are allergic to artificial products such as fragrances in cheap soap. It’s frustrating to hear people put my soap and the worst quality soap you can get in the same category. I’m not a fan of artificial colour either, I use botanicals and spices for colour. I have no desire to wash with something that is bright pink!
Beware the hidden plastics in soaps and scrubs...
For the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone would buy a commercial ‘scrub’ product that contains small plastic particles as the coarse ingredient. By all means buy scrubs, but there are plenty of coarse natural ingredients, so choose them. I make scrub soaps using spices for a fine scrub or dried herbs and poppy seeds for a chunkier scrub. Other producers use ground olive pits and walnut shells. There is no need for plastics in any scrub, please avoid them.
Bar soap vs Liquid shower gel ‘soap’
I’m commonly told by people that they prefer liquid soap in their shower as it doesn’t create soap scum. It is true, that when water has a reasonable mineral content (ie hard water) the soap effectively grabs those minerals as well as the dirt on your body and because they’re insoluble in the solution they create soap scum. Detergents (such as body washes) make these minerals soluble, so they don’t end up as a ring around the bath, but what price are you paying for something that strips clean? Only very harsh synthetic detergents clean everything in all conditions and generally we don’t need such powerful cleaning. Unless you have hard water, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue, but how about using a squeegee after you shower? Your shower will always be pristine then. Our skin is an organ and it acts as our other organs do - constantly absorbing light and moisture and ridding the body of impurities. Since our skin will absorb both beneficial and harmful materials through our pores, we should be careful about what products we are exposing it to.
The general health of our skin is directly related to its moisture content. Diet, temperature, pollution and synthetic chemicals can all affect the skin’s ability to retain moisture. When you use a good quality soap on your skin you are cleaning it gently, at the same time leaving a thin layer of quality oil which will help to retain moisture while still allowing it to breathe.
Because good quality soap is a gentle cleanser, you can use it to clean more than just your face and body. The gentler it is, the more things you can use it for. My new Savon de Wanaka is a great example of this - being 72% olive oil you can use it for you or your dog or hand washing your delicates. Some people talk about using soap for their hair, but I’ve spoken previously (in my December blog) about why I don’t think that’s a great idea (short reason - it’s the wrong ph).
How to properly store bar soap
No matter what you are using your soap for, it is really important to store it properly and the most important thing is to make sure your bars can dry out between uses. If your soap dish in the shower is under the spray, your soap is never going to dry out. It’s possibly going to make a mess, it definitely won’t last nearly as long as it should. Wherever it is, make sure it can drain and dry out - invest in a soap dish if you need to.
If you’ve got a good supply of soap, why don’t you keep it in your linen cupboard or your underwear drawer before you use it? The essential oils will make everything smell divine, so you can use your soap for that before you use it to wash. I use good quality essential oils and I don’t skimp on them, so the smell of your soap should last for at least a few months in the open air. If you want to keep your soap even longer they will keep in an airtight container for up to a year.