Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Archive for April, 2013

Natural Preservatives

Sorry for teasing you with this post. I was just about to publish it on April 19th when a fellow soaper commented on a Facebook forum that she has been using a particular natural preservative that I had not heard of for 5 years with great results. Apparently it is certified organic, and product preserved with it has passed challenge testing for mold, bacteria and fungus.

I’ve decided to put my post on natural preservatives on hold until I hear back from some people who are looking into it.

Is Castor Oil poisonous?

Castor Oil

In the wake of the tragic bombings in Boston this week, many soapmakers are wondering if customers are going to be wary of buying soap that contains castor oil, since both the vegetable oil and the deadly toxin ricin are produced from the same castor seeds or beans produced by the castor plant, Ricinus commonus

The answer to this question is no. Ricin is a naturally occuring protein which is present in the seeds, but the extreme heat used during the oil extraction process denatures or deactivates the protein, leaving it harmless.

I personally was not given castor oil as a child, but if you ask your parents or grandparents you will probably find someone who was, as it was for many years a traditional remedy for constipation.

So, no need to worry if you check the label of your favourite soap and find castor oil on it…it’s perfectly safe.



Which bar of handmade soap should I buy?

(To my followers….my apologies if you receive this post twice. I accidentally deleted it after posting…should have had another cup of coffee!)
Hmmm….good question!
All you need to make soap is lye and an oil. However, if you make soap with only one oil, you won’t necessarily get what you’re looking for in a bar of soap. Each oil brings different things to the party.
For example, classic castile soap is made using only olive oil. This makes an extremely gentle soap, which is often recommended for children and those with sensitive skin. Sounds lovely, what’s the catch? Soap made with just olive oil is extremely soft, so it must cure for a minimum of 6 months to ensure that enough water evaporates from the bar to make it hard enough to last in the shower and not melt away into a puddle in your soap dish. Secondly, because olive oil is a very heavy oil, the lather may have a somewhat oily feel to it, which some people dislike, and there will not be a lot of lather.
A 100% coconut oil soap will be very cleansing, but using coconut oil as more than 30% of your total recipe will give you too much cleansing power, and your skin may be left feeling tight and dry. An all palm oil soap will be a very hard bar, but low on cleansing power and bubbles. Handmade soap recipes are carefully formulated to achieve the perfect balance of cleansing, lather, and hardness.
So how does the choice of ingredients affect the price of a bar of handmade soap? If you do a quick Google search for handmade soap, you will find literally thousands of soap makers from all around the world, with very little to distinguish between one and the other. The question I get asked most often is, “Why are some bars so cheap and some so expensive?”. There are a few things which contribute to the cost of a bar of handmade soap.
While doing your Google search, you will come across bars as small as 3 oz to some as big as 7 0z. The first thing you should do is divide the price of the soap by the number of ounces in the bar to get the cost per ounce for the soap. This ensures that you are comparing apples to apples.
The second thing to consider is ingredients. The list of possible oils to use in soap range from those at the lower end of the scale, such as corn oil, soy oil, canola oil and cottonseed oil, high end oils such as coconut oil, palm oil, and olive oil, and luxury ingredients such as cocoa butter, shea butter, babassu oil etc. The cost of a bar of soap is directly affected by the cost of the ingredients.
Next, take a look at fragrance. Are the bars scented with pure essential oils, or more inexpensive synthetic fragrance oils? If the soap maker has used essential oils, there can still be variations in the cost. For instance, the more expensive essential oils, such as patchouli and ylang ylang are available in 4 grades, and many oils, including lavender and rosemary can be sourced from many different countries. Bulgarian lavender is much more expensive than lavender grown in South Africa, and this price difference will be reflected in the final product pricing. Are the essential oils steam distilled or extracted with solvent?
How about botanical extracts? The best botanicals are grown on family farms, without pesticides and herbicides, harvested the old fashioned way and hung to dry. These botanicals will cost the soap maker more per pound than the alternatives that are grown on factory farms,  cultivated using chemicals and mechanically harvested and processed.  This will be reflected in the price of the bar of soap.
Lastly, look at packaging. You will find just as many different types of packaging as you will ingredients. There are bars wrapped in fabric and tied with twine; bars wrapped with a “cigar band” of cardstock, bars in boxes, shrink wrapped bars and those wrapped in fancy paper. All of these are good alternatives, the choice is a matter of personal taste, both on the part of the soap maker and the consumer.
The intangible that goes into the cost of a bar of soap is the time and effort on the part of the soap maker. Is the bar of soap simple and unadorned, or are there multiple colours, embeds, swirls and mounded tops? Each step added to the process should add to the cost of the final bar, as it decreases the number of bars that can be made during a given period of time. Most handmade soap makers do not take their time into account when calculating their Cost of Goods Sold, which means they set their selling price too low. While this seems like a great deal for the customer, ultimately if the selling price is too low, the business will not survive.
Some large retailers are now trying to cash in on the increasing popularity of the “all natural” movement by offering a line of handmade soap at a price which undercuts the small retailers. Don’t be sucked into this: look at the ingredients. Most likely you will find that they use one or two of the cheaper base oils, and you can be sure that they will have chosen the cheapest essential oil or fragrance oil they could find. Unfortunately, many people will buy this bar of soap, and will be left with the impression that handmade soap is nothing special.  On the contrary, a well balanced soap, handmade in small batches using quality ingredients is a purchase that you will never regret. Try it….you’ll never go back to commercial soap!
So better ingredients = more expensive bar of soap, right? Not always. Many artisans who create beautiful bars of soap using only the best ingredients price their soap too low in an effort to complete with the lowest priced product on the market, and some large brand name soaps are sold at exorbitant prices to cash in on the segment of the consumer market that believes anything expensive must be better.  So do your homework, read the labels, and if you find a bar of soap made with quality ingredients at a bargain price, do yourself a favour and buy regularly, or in quantity,  to ensure that your soap maker stays in business!

What is Natural (Part 3)

This is the final post in this series….promise!

The last topic in this series is additives, which is anything added to the soap other than the lye, oils, fragrance, and colour.

The first one I’ll touch on is exfoliants. This is anything added to the soap for the purpose of gently removing, or exfoliating, the top layer of dead skin. Our skin is constantly shedding epithelial cells, but sometimes not quickly enough, and skin can begin to look dull and unhealthy. Gentle exfoliation will polish off the dead cells, revealing the fresh, glowing skin underneath.

There are two types of exfoliants: physical and chemical. Examples of chemical exfoliants would be fruit acids and lactic acids.  Due to the rinse off nature of soap, chemical exfoliants are not widely used in handmade soaps, as most of the benefit would be washed down the drain with the water. You will find them more frequently in scrubs and lotions.

Physical exfoliants are anything that makes the soap “scrubby”. Some of the popular natural options are sea salt, sugar, poppyseeds, colloidal oatmeal (just a fancy way of saying it is finely ground), jojoba beads (hydrogenated jojoba oil), or ground walnut shells.

Beneficials such as essential oils and natural clays – this is a matter for much discussion in the world of handmade soap, and we’re probably pretty evenly divided! Many will tell you that the essential oils added to their soap will help clear acne,  balance your skin, remove excess oils etc. Others will go further, and claim that their soaps can clear up your acne, and heal your eczema, rosacea or psoriasis. Claims for clay additives include their capability to draw and absorb toxins from your skin.

The  issue  with these statements is that in Canada and the U.S., handmade soapmakers are not allowed to make any claims that their products will treat or cure a condition. If such claims are made, then their soap is no longer just soap, or a cosmetic in Canada, but is considered a drug, and must be submitted for testing and receive a drug identification number.

Until someone is willing to take the time and go to the considerable expense of doing clinical trials on these ingredients, it will remain illegal to make any such claims on soap.

If you are shopping for a bar of soap,  my advice is to take it all with a grain of salt, and don’t favour one brand over another based purely on the presence or absence of these claims.

Some soapmakers aren’t aware that making these claims are illegal, while others really don’t care. The reality is that there are so few people with Health Canada or the FDA whose job it is to administer the legislation, and so very many soapmakers, that the chance of any one soapmaker getting caught is very slim.  Also, don’t think that just because a company is well known and popular, that means they are in compliance. Many of the largest and most successful players in the “all natural” category are fully aware that they are not complying with the regulations, but know that even if they do get caught the penalties are so low that it is worth the risk when stacked against the revenue to be generated by making the claims.

So where does this leave the consumer? Buyer beware. Do your homework.  There is a wealth of information on the internet, but be aware that much of it is issued by the people who are trying to convince you to buy their products! Look for neutral parties. I will post a list of some useful websites during the next week. If, after doing your research, you feel that some of these additives would be worth trying in a bar of soap, by all means go for it.  If it helps you, then that is all that really matters.

What is natural? (Part 2)


Sorry for the delay in posting. Life gets in the way of all of our best intentions!

In my last post I talked about what soap is: Lye + Oil = Soap

I’m not going to spend time discussing the myriad of options for oils to use in soap, and the properties each brings to the party. This has already been done extensively, and far better than I could! Here is a link to one fairly comprehensive but not exhaustive list:

All of these oils fall into our ‘natural’ criteria, the only issue is whether or not they are organic. This is a subject that definitely calls for its’ own post, so watch for that in the days to come.

Today I’m going to look at some of the ingredients that get added to the basic bar of handmade soap: fragrance, colour, and additives.

In order to add fragrance to soap, you have 3 options:

1) No added fragrance – this means that the scent of the soap will come from the base ingredients used to make the soap, and nothing else. If none of your ingredients are strongly scented, you will end up with an unscented bar. Examples of some scents that may survive the saponification process are honey, oatmeal, and cocoa butter. You shouldn’t expect strong fragrance from those, but there may be some, depending on the amounts used and the other ingredients in the soap.

2) Synthetic fragrance oils – These are compounds which may or may not contain essential oils as the base, mixed with various chemicals to duplicate their natural counterparts. For example rose essential oil, or absolute, requires somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 pounds of rose petals to extract one ounce of the pure oil. Rose absolute sells for around $250 per oz, which means a single bar of soap would have to be priced at between $50 and $60 just to cover the cost of the rose absolute with no profit margin at all! So chemists analyze the essential oils to identify the individual components, then synthesize them in the lab to produce more cost efficient alternatives.

3) Essential oils – Some essential oils are very strong in the finished bar, such as peppermint, lavender and patchouli, while others, such as any of the citrus oils, may be faint and fleeting, depending on the amount used. The issue with essential oils is two-fold: how it was extracted from the plant, and whether or not it has been adulterated after extraction.

There are 3 methods of extracting essential oils from plant materials:

Steam distillation: Employs steam to convert the volatile liquid (essential oil) into a vapour , condenses the vapour back into a liquid, then separates the oil from the water (hydrosol). This is the most natural and cost effective method of producing essential oils, however the heat involved in the process means it cannot be used on fragile materials which are easily damaged by heat, such as citrus oils.

Expression: Most nut, seed and citrus oils are extracted using a “cold pressed” method, which means the oil is forced from the material under high mechanical pressure without heat. The process is natural, but cold pressed oils may contain phthalates leached from the plastic tubing used to collect the oil.

Solvent: Solvent method is used to extract oils from plant material that has a very low yield of essential oil, or contains mostly resinous components that are difficult to extract using other methods. I won’t go into a full explanation of the process, however it involves adding the plant material to a liquid and shaking vigorously to disperse the essential oil into the liquid. The most common solvent used is hexane, however it could also be benzene, petroleum ether, methanol, or ethanol. The issue with solvent extraction is that a small amount of the solvent may remain in the essential oil after the process is completed. When hexane is used, the solvent residue in the finished product is about 10 ppm (parts per million). Solvent extraction is generally used for delicate florals such as jasmine, hyacinth, narcissus, and tuberose, and for highly resinous material such as amber.

4) Botanical extracts – Some soapmakers soak or infuse plant materials into vegetable oil or water in an attempt to transfer the scent and properties of the material into their soap. Some examples of this would be citrus peel or green tea. The amount of fragrance that can be obtained from this would be very faint, as it would be highly deteriorated after exposure to both the chemical process of saponification, and the heat produced by the process.

Of these methods of fragrancing soap, the two that may not be considered natural are synthetic fragrance oils, and essential oils which are produced using the solvent method of extraction. This is why you will often see soapmakers stating that their essential oils are steam distilled, or cold pressed, or stating that their fragrance oils are phthalate free.

When it comes to natural or not, fragrance is pretty clear.

Colorants, on the other hand are a murky subject, and what is natural is very subjective. Soap colourants generally fall into the following categories:

Plant based colourants – Many plants have been used for centuries to dye wool and cloth, and these same plants are being used today to colour handmade soaps. Some examples are annatto seeds for yellow/orange, woad for blue, and spirulina for blue/green, but there are many more. The plant material is soaked in a vegetable oil base, which allows the colour to infuse into the oil, which is then strained and added to the soap as part of the base oils in the recipe. This infusion can be done with the application of low heat, or by the cold infusion method which involves leaving the oil and plant material mixture at room temperature for several weeks, or until the desired colour is achieved.

Inorganic colourants – There are 3 sub-categories which could be present in your soap, and all of them were originally mined from the earth, which is why many consider them to be “natural” as opposed to “manmade”.

Mica is defined as “A shiny silicate mineral with a layered structure, found as minute scales in granite and other rocks, or as crystals.”

If left in its’ original state, ie uncoloured, mica is a natural additive. The only thing that can be listed as mica in the INCI ingredients list of cosmetics, including soap, is the natural, uncoloured form. Every coloured mica, whether it be in eye shadow, lipstick, or soap, must list the colour separately in the ingredient list. For example, if the mica is coloured with oxides, you may see “Mica, tin oxides” in the list. If it is coloured with synthetic colourants it may appear as “Mica, FD & C3” . (FD&C is an acronym for Food, Drug and Cosmetic, and indicates the presence of a synthetic dye approved for use in those products.)  This does not guarantee that the ingredient will be listed properly. Many soapmakers do not realize that mica could be coloured with synthetic colorants, or they are relying on their supplier who may not have disclosed the full ingredient list for the product.

Ultramarine is a mineral pigment which occurs naturally, however the ultramarine pigments used in cosmetics today are synthetically produced from kaolin clay, sodium sulfate, sodium carbonate, sulfur and powdered charcoal.
Oxides, including iron oxides and titanium dioxide are naturally occurring mineral deposits, however, oxides for cosmetic use have been synthetically produced in a lab for decades, due to the concern over trace amounts of heavy metals present in the mined product. Synthetic oxides are identical in chemical structure to their natural counterparts.
If you are extremely sensitive to chemical additives, you may want to stick to unscented products or those using only verified natural fragrance and colour, however, before you make that decision, consider that the amount of any additive remaining in a bar of soap is very minimal.
For example, the maximum recommended amount of fragrance oil added to handmade soap is 1 ounce per pound of oils. This translates to approximately 4.5% of the total batch, which results in approximately .2 of an ounce of fragrance oil in a bar of soap.
However, this is the amount present in the raw soap batter. This then goes through the chemical reaction known as saponification, which also subjects the additive to high temperatures, further degrading it. Then, consider that soap is a rinse off product. Our skin is designed to protect us against pathogens, such as bacteria, and prevent dehydration through water loss. What this means is that it is not easy for foreign substances, including essential oils and other botanicals to penetrate this layer. I am not saying that no penetration occurs, only that absorption through the skin is minimal even when pure essential oils are applied, therefore the amount absorbed from soap will be extremely minimal.
(The subject of how much essential oil is absorbed through the skin is hotly debated by aromatherapists, naturopaths and manufacturers of bath and body products, and deserves a separate post….look for that here in the weeks to come.)
Okay, that’s fragrance and colour, and this post is long enough, so I think we’ll leave other additives for tomorrow’s post!


Mike Michalowicz

Thoughts from The Queen Bee


Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Indie Business Blog

Leadership and Personal Development For Small Business Owners

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