The reason the main character of my Home Crafting Mysteries, Sophie Mae, makes her living by selling handmade soaps and bath products is because for a brief time I did just that. I began making my own soap because I learned a few things about the commercial soaps I’d been using on my skin. Things I didn’t like at all.
Most commercial soaps aren’t soaps at all – can’t even be labeled as such. They are detergents. They contain lathering agents to make them act like soap, along with some other nasties best to avoid, and are anything but good for your skin.
When soap making was industrialized, the most efficient way to make it involved heating it to the point where the glycerin that’s naturally formed during the saponification process separated out. That worked out fine for the soap manufacturers, as glycerin is highly profitable by itself and can be sold to other companies to make lotions and moisturizers – which are now desperately needed since our skin is all dried out by washing it with harsh detergents. Glycerin has a ton of other uses, too.
And those lathering agents? Not great for humans or the environment. Antibacterial and antimicrobial soaps sometimes contain a chemical called triclosan, which is also used in some pesticides and is known to cause cancer. The manufacturers claim the active ingredient continues to work up to twelve hours, so once it’s on your skin it’s staying for a while.
Not just on your skin, either. The ol’ epidermis is a breathing, living thing, after all, and what you put on it is absorbed into the body. This is great if you’re using therapeutic body oils, but not so hot if you’re slathering on products that contain things like phthalates (linked to reproductive disorders in animals and humans but often not even listed on soap and cosmetic labels) and/or parabens (preservatives which have been linked to cancer).
Guess what else? Over time these chemicals have started to leak into the water supply, and they aren’t always effectively filtered out.
This is the kind of stuff that made me start making my own soap. That, and my natural freakish inclination to figure out how things work. Of course I went overboard at first, saving ashes from the woodstove and making my own lye (it sort of worked, but was hard to tell how concentrated the resulting alkali was). And I also started when you could simply wander down the supermarket cleaning aisle and pick up a container of Red Devil Lye. Not so any more. Now you have to order it online.
If you’re interested in making your own soap, I’m planning a simple recipe in an upcoming post. If you’re not a soap making sort and still want to use the good stuff, you might spend some serious money. Like Sophie Mae, lots of people sell luxurious, high quality cold-processed soap online (Handcrafted Naturals is a good example). Farmers markets are also good local sources for handmade soap.
However, whenever I run out of my own soap, I confess to heading straight for Dr. Bronner’s products. They’re easy to find, cost effective, smell great (the peppermint is a real wake up!), are made from simple, organic ingredients and still contain that wonderful glycerin.
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