Interesting things I’ve learned about soap…

an empty Topo Chico box with parchment paper

I ditched the pans and went with a Topo Chico box as a mold. I’d like to say I had a good reason for this, but, no, it’s just that my devotion to Topo Chico runs that deep.

Soap is what happens when you mix melted fat (animal or plant) and lye (either sodium or potassium hydroxide). The original lye used in soapmaking was ashes from a hardwood tree (although I’m guessing what you buy at the store isn’t made that way anymore). If you make soap correctly, during a process called saponification a new substance is formed that no longer contains lye. Read the ingredients on your soap, and you’ll likely see something like “Sodium tallowate” or “Sodium palmate” which means lye plus tallow (beef fat) or lye plus palm oil. If you see sodium laureth or laurel sulfate, you have a chemically derived surfactant, a soap substitute, likely made from coconut or palm oil.

For those thinking….EW! BEEF FAT! How do you clean yourself with fat??? (I had a little of that reaction myself.) No worries! Saponification also converts the fat into soap, so it’s not like you’re rubbing lard all over your body. 🙂 Also know two important things…

1) Palm oil does come from a plant, but anyone who cares about rainforests, endangered species (such as orangutans, pandas, white tigers, and elephants) global warming or, oh, massive human rights abuses, should think twice before using it. The palm oil industry is a major offender in all of these. And palm oil/palm kernel oil is not just in soap, but also in food and cosmetics, sometimes sneakily labeled as simply “vegetable oil.” Palm oil is one more reason I’ve gone off the deep end and started making my own things. Oy!

2) Soap has been made with animal fat–using cooking scraps that would otherwise get tossed–since ancient Babylonian times. By using animal fat, you save something from entering a landfill, create a quality bar of soap and save money. It’s a win-win-win situation. Don’t just take my word for it. At Humblebee and Me (an awesome blog for DIY soap, lotions, perfumes, etc), the vegetarian author explains why she uses animal fat in her soaps.

An inch of lye water in a big jar. Lye makes a terrible supervillian (as I discovered when it not once attacked me) but dandy soap.

An inch of lye water in a big jar. Lye makes a terrible supervillian (as I discovered when it not once attacked me) but dandy soap.

You may have heard that you can make a good quality, very gentle soap from olive oil and lye (called castile soap). This is true. The problem with it (if you’re making bars as opposed to liquid soap) is that it takes years to properly cure. You can mix lye with any fat, plant or animal based, to make soap. But have you ever had an all natural soap that you paid a hot bundle of cash for and then it dissolved in, like, two uses? That’s because you need a hard fat–i.e. animal fat or palm oil–to make the soap hard enough to stand up to repeated uses. OR you need 3-5 years of storage time for it to harden. And I don’t know this, so don’t go quote me, but most essential oils and even nut butters like shea have a shelf life shorter than that, so it seems like you’d have to be careful about your ingredients or risk your bars going rancid (or at the minimum, lose all benefit from everything except the saponified lye). But again, that’s a musing on my part, not a fact I’ve researched.

My First Batch (You never forget your first time 😉 )…

So, anywho, armed with much new knowledge and a desire to take control of my cleaning routine, I made soap today! It was fun and, after lots of internet reading up on the process, surprisingly easy.

Soaping set up with my sexy welding mask on the grill. No, I didn't get a picture of me in it. Sorry. (No, I'm really not sorry.)

Soaping set up with my sexy welding mask on the grill. No, I didn’t get a picture of me in it. Sorry. (No, I’m really not sorry.)

First off, there seems to be a general terror of lye. Even TheScott, who plays with electricity for a living, was a little aghast at me using it. He had me in gloves and a face shield. Most websites say gloves and goggles. Not me. I was in a fishbowl-sized face mask designed for welding. SEXY! *sigh* But here’s the thing, after warnings from here to Sunday about the destructive power of lye and noxious chemicals and whatnot…it wasn’t that bad. I mean, I’m not saying we should start drinking lye or anything–because that would kill you–but those tiny little pellets failed to leap off the table and attack me like a properly dangerous substance would. I even got a little on my finger during cleanup. After the initial panic that my finger was going to, I dunno, dissolve or something, I went to the faucet, washed it off, then sprayed vinegar on my finger. (Vinegar neutralizes lye.) That part hurt. Not because of the lye but because I had a scrape on my finger from the day before that I sprayed vinegar into. This was the big incident of danger and intrigue in my first soap-making venture.

As I was waiting for my ingredients to come to temperature, I got to thinking about fear (or worry if you prefer the term) and how so much of our lives is ruled by it. This applies to really basic stuff like how we take care of ourselves. We live in a society where it’s normal to eat packaged food and slather ourselves and our homes with packaged goop. I’m not deriding anyone for doing this; I do it, too. But when talking to people I regularly hear variations on the idea that we need companies to do these for us because we’re not capable of providing ourselves with a safe, high quality product, be it lotion or lunch. I think it’s terrible that industry has convinced us we’re so inadequate and need them so desperately. But we don’t have to be dependent. We can make our own soaps. And toothpaste. And makeup and counter cleaner and…everything. We can be successful at it and won’t ruin our teeth or our skin or our counter tops. In fact, we’ll probably do a far, far better job at a far cheaper cost than that company who, for example, charges $30 for an ounce of eye cream.

You may not want to make things for yourself, and that’s cool. Hey, I’m finally giving up on the idea that I will EVER raise a suitable herb garden…not because I can’t but because as much as I hate admitting it, I don’t like gardening. (If anyone in the Austin area wants to trade food for soaps, lotions or cleaners, I’m all ears.) But nobody should be afraid to DIY or think that they can’t create something of equal or greater quality than a corporate conglomerate. It’s not hard, modern conveniences like stick blenders make it nowhere NEAR as time-consuming as it was for your great-grandmother, and, well, we are just totally that capable.

Exit rant for the day. 🙂

Now I have to wait three weeks (ooooh the pain!) for the soap to finish curing before I can test it out. I can’t wait!

The soap is ready to dry! I made the green swirls by pouring some, adding spirulina to the remainder and then swirling that in.

The soap is ready to dry! I made the green swirls by pouring some, adding spirulina to the remainder and then swirling that in.

Jax’s Detox List (as of 1/19/2014)

Still Curing

  • Soap
  • Laundry stain sticks (a second soap batch)

Have you ventured into DIY cleaning and beauty products? What are your favorite resources?