Have you ever really stopped to think about what’s in the soap you wash with day in and day out?
Every time I grow curious and investigate these things, I find myself paramountly offended by the blatant lengths companies are willing to go to in the hopes of making a dollar—often at the expense of the common man.
It’s often been said that this is the most expensive time to live in, because the cost of everything is externalized. The real cost is never displayed—and really, it can’t be. Would you pick up anything, even if it was $4.99, if it also said Caution: use of this product supports poverty, and extended use of some of these ingredients is suspected to cause cancer and respiratory difficulties.
You’d cringe and pass it up, wouldn’t you?
As you should! Consumerism is the ultimate service industry (as in serve us). Now, most of the time, the industry tries to tell us what it is that we should want, so we have to show them that we already know! We will be given what we demand, so it’s time we start demanding some things.
Naturally, some soaps are better than others. Before you buy (because chances are you still have some at home), use your trust camera phone to snap a picture of the ingredient label, head home and fire up your computer. Check out everything on that label. If you cringe even once—next!
I live with some non-greeners, so I’ve taken over facilitating the purchases of a lot more of the household items—I’ve discovered they’ll go green if the stuff is readily available, but in general, they’re not that inclined to do the research themselves—recently, I found the not so eco-friendly packing of their last bulk-soap purchase, and I decided to try something:
Pentaerythrityl tetra-di-t-butyl hydroxyhydrocinnamate is probably the biggest offender, as well as the one no one will even attempt to say. It’s an eco-toxin, and triggers broad systemic effects, at large doses, in forms of life. If you think the doses you’re getting aren’t large enough to be worried, I have one word for you: bioaccumulation.
Titanium dioxide is another offender. Studies have shown that it causes genetic damage in mice—leading scientists to classify it as a carcinogen.
I used an ingredient list from Irish Spring, so the following is a colourant:
Chromium oxide greens is, again, guilty of bioaccumulation. It’s an eco-toxin that is readily absorbed by the skin. It causes cancer and organ system failure.
A good rule of thumb is to avoid anything with a heavy colourant, and avoid things where all you get for the smell is “parfum”—lord knows what chemicals the smell comes from.
Basic Vegetable Soap
This is a simple soap without any additions, so you can practice this recipe a few times until you feel confident enough to add perfume, nutrients, and color. Be prepared for the odd failure; very few soap makers get it perfect on their first attempt. If your first batch or two don’t work and you have to throw them away, at least you haven’t wasted oils and nutrients, which can be expensive. This soap is also lovely to use and is especially suitable for people with sensitive skin, as there is no fragrance or color—and it will be an excellent thing to use for our next post!
• 16 oz (455gm) distilled water
• 6 oz (170gm) of caustic soda
• 12 oz (340gm) coconut oil
• 12 oz (340gm) light olive oil (not extra virgin)
• 20 oz (567 gm) soya bean oil
Step 1 Place the water in a lye- and heat-resistant container with a good pouring spout. Wearing rubber gloves and safety glasses or goggles, slowly pour the caustic soda into the water.
Step 2 Gently stir the mixture until all the soda has dissolved, being careful to avoid splashing. The temperature of the lye will soar to well over 100°F (38°C) , so leave to one side to cool.
Step 3 Place the coconut oil, olive oil, and soya bean oil in a lye-resistant saucepan and heat gently, stirring to mix thoroughly and to evenly distribute heat. When the temperature is approximately 99°F (37°C), remove from the heat.
Step 4 Keep measuring the temperature of both solutions, and adjust if necessary by using a water bath. When both solutions are exactly the same temperature, ideally 97°F (36°C) Although anything between 95°F and 100°F [35°C-38°C] should work), slowly pour the lye into the oils. You should pour slowly but steadily stirring gently and often.
Step 5 Once all the lye is combined with the oils, continue to stir constantly but slowly; avoid creating air bubbles. Be sure to mix thoroughly enough to incorporate the two solutions.
Step 6 Watch carefully for signs of tracing--when the mixture turns opaque and thickens. As soon as this happens, pour the soap into greased molds. Seal the mold with plastic wrap, cover with blankets, and place in a warm, dry spot for 48 hours.
Step 7 After 48 hours, remove the plastic wrap. You now must assess the soap. Remember to wear rubber gloves as the soap is not yet cured and is still caustic.
Step 8 Gently touch the surface of the soap. If it is still quite soft, leave it to sit unwrapped for another 48 hours. If the soap is firm to the touch, but still soft enough to leave an imprint, then unmold the soap carefully.
Step 9 If you used one large mold trim off any rough or uneven edges, and place on waxed paper to cure. When the soap is quite firm to the touch and pressing on it no longer leaves any imprints, it’s time to cut it into individual bars. Start checking after a week.
Step 10 If you used individual molds, once the bars are removed from the molds, place on wax paper to finish curing.
Step 11 In both cases, you need to leave the bars of soap to finish curing in a dry, draft-free place for two to three weeks. After the final curing period, the soap should be hard, just like a commercially bought bar of soap.
Step 12 Scrape off any surface ash that may have come out and trim the bars of soap to make them neat. The soap is now ready to use.
Time for some chemistry:
Measure carefully! Measurements need to be as close to exact as possible or you won’t get the desired chemical reaction and the recipe won’t work.
You need to be careful what you use as the vessel to make the soap in because you are combining an acid (oils) and base (lye). The two must be the same temperature when you mix them, or they will cool at different rates and partially separate, causing uneven tracing and often, a soap that just won’t set--use a thermometer if at all possible. Both the oils and the lye can be harmful on their own, so please, please, please do not use an everyday cooking pot/bowl! Invest in two pots/bowls to be used exclusively for soap making. They can be really cheap, it doesn’t matter, because they don’t have to withstand high temperatures.
Note for step 6: when making soap, make sure you have all day. Tracing can take between 15 minutes and a couple hours, depending on the oil to lye balance. They say tracing can take up to 48 hours, but as a rule of thumb, I use the 5 hour mark, just because any longer starts to get to the point where it’s really not feasible to stand and mix. (Family is starting to prepare dinner, you have to go to bed, whatever the inconvenience may be.) After five hours, the chances it’s going to trace are slim, so don’t waste with a mixture that has decided not to work. Wrapping the mold in blankets slows the cooling process and stops the oils and lye for cooling at different rates and separating. (Your lye heats fast and it also wants to cool fast, causing it to fall from the mixture and leave sediment. This is also the reason for the ash described in step 12.)
Water bath: an basin of room temperature water that you can lower the lye or oil vessel in to cool them, drawing the temperature down to the desired 97°F so that they can be mixed.
Also: when you feel confident enough to use additives: warm your additives, cold additives can shock the soap mixture, and fall out, or even ruin the entire batch.