Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Archive for September, 2014

Handmade Soap is Hard on Your Skin

imageNo, actually it isn’t. I’m going to immediately qualify that statement…A well made bar of handmade soap is not harsh.

This summer we have been supporting a new local Community Market by selling our products there. It has been an extremely valuable experience, as it has allowed me to meet our customers face to face, which doesn’t happen very often when you only do online and wholesale orders.

Aside from hearing what people would like to see in our lineup, the most valuable thing for me has been hearing what their concerns are. The most prevalent concerning handmade soap is the belief that it is harsh and hard on your skin. First I’m going to talk about why so many people believe this, then we’ll look at why this belief is incorrect.

When most people are asked about handmade soap, they think about the lye soap that our grandmothers (or great grandmothers) made at home. The ingredients were rendered fat from the cows or pigs that they butchered for food, and lye made from wood ashes produced by the wood stoves used to heat their homes.

The process was simple: throw wood ash into a pot, fill it up with rainwater, let it soak until an egg dropped into the water floats with about 1/4 of its surface above the water. Strain the ashes out and use the remaining solution to make soap.

The difficulty in making soap with homemade lye is that there was no way to measure the strength of the lye. Let’s do a quick and easy review of basic high school chemistry….I promise it will be quick, hang in there! This is a molecule of water:



Each hydrogen atom has the ability to attract and hold two oxygen atoms, giving water the chemical formula of H2O.

In this same fashion, when we make soap, the individual atoms of fatty acids that make up the vegetable oils pair off with the sodium (NA), oxygen (O), and hydrogen (H) molecules that form a molecule of lye (NAOH), forming two new molecules, soap and glycerin. If we used olive oil, we would have roughly 1 molecule of glycerin for every 3 molecules of sodium oleate (olive oil soap).

Still with me? Back to our grandmother making soap. With no way of measuring how strong the lye was, ie how many molecules of lye were in the lye and water solution, there was no way to measure how much animal fat she would need to add to pair off with, thereby neutralizing or consuming, each molecule of the lye. More often than not, the end product contained free molecules of lye within it. Lye is a caustic substance, so this active lye would sting and burn the skin when the soap was used.

So it wasn’t the handmade soap that was harsh, it was the unneutralized lye suspended within the bar of soap that caused the problems.

Fast forward to now: lye is commercially produced by passing an electrical current through either sodium chloride (salt) to produce sodium hydroxide, or through potassium chloride (potash) to produce potassium hydroxide. The end product is 100% pure lye (plus some other substances that aren’t used in soapmaking), which allows us to calculate precisely how much of any individual vegetable oil or animal fat is required to consume one molecule of lye. Each oil has a different chemical composition, so the amount of lye required to saponify (change to soap) one gram of olive oil is different than the amount required for one gram of coconut oil.

Modern soap makers use special lye calculators to create our recipes. Each type of vegetable oil contributes different qualities to a bar of soap, and we spend a great deal of time coming up with the perfect blend. Once we have that blend perfected, the lye calculator will tell us exactly how much lye and water we need to add to our batch of oils to convert every molecule of oil to soap and glycerin, and leave no lye in the finished product.

However, we don’t stop there! We add extra oils to each batch. This is called ‘superfatting’. Superfatting our soap does two things: it ensures that we never have any lye left in our soap, even if our scale is out of balance resulting in small discrepancies in the amounts measured, and it leaves a small amount of unsaponified oils in the finished product, which leaves your skin feeling lightly moisturized after your shower.

So that is why modern handmade soap is not harsh. This is not your grandmother’s soap!

If you purchase a bar of handmade soap that irritates your skin, there are three possible explanations:

1) You are allergic to one of the ingredients;

2) The Soapmaker has produced a lye heavy soap. Natural and handmade products are a growing industry, and when there is money to be made, you can be sure there will be people who try to cut corners to maximize their profit. Rushing to get product ready for sale can result in errors. Sometimes beginners will run out of an oil in their recipe, and replace it with another without running it through a lye calculator thinking that ‘it’s just a small amount, it won’t make a difference’ ;

3) You may have extremely sensitive skin. While most people with skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea etc can use a fragrance free handmade soap, there are some who cannot. Try a bar of authentic Castile soap made with 100% olive oil, which is the gentlest soap,and if that doesn’t work you should probably stick with synthetic cleansers such as Cetaphil.

One final comment on lye: there are two types of lye, potassium hydroxide, which our grandmothers made, is now used to make liquid soap, sodium hydroxide is used to make bar soap, and a blend of the two are used to make cream soaps and most shaving soaps.

Dr. Oz, what have you done?

I feel a wee bit of a rant coming on, but I’ll try to keep it under control 🙂

This week my inbox has been inundated with emails from ‘Dr.Oz-News’ and DrOz-Press Release’ among others. This week they are touting the weight loss benefits of green coffee beans, last week it was raspberry ketones.

Now if you bother to read the email you will notice that it does not come from Dr. Oz, but from some random company looking to get rich quick off of desperate people by tying their product to Dr. Oz’ popularity and reputation. I’ve heard that Dr. Oz has lawyers working overtime trying to prevent this, but the problem is that they are using his name because he did feature these products on his TV show.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Dr. Oz as much as the next person, and I think he has brought a lot of really useful information to light, both on his show and during his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, he is a cardiologist, not an expert on all things relating to health and medicine. When he began a daily talk show, he entered the ranks of those vying for the almighty ratings, and his credibility is suffering because of it.

I stopped watching The Dr. Oz show because every week there was another “Top 5” episode. The Top 5 Cancer Fighting Foods, Top 5 Weight Loss Supplements, Top 5 Belly Busters…and on and on. Now Dr. Oz, and his lawyers can preface these shows with as many disclaimers they like about him not personally recommending them, or claims have not been scientifically proven, etc. The minute he gave these people a forum to showcase their foods, juices, teas, pills etc, he was seen as promoting them, and he has no business trying to disassociate himself from them once he has moved on to the next hot ratings winner. Not to mention, as a doctor, he has no business featuring unproven supplements, foods or drinks at all. Being a doctor brings with it a much higher degree of responsibility than the average person is held accountable to, because the average person will believe everything a doctor tells them.

Seriously, if you watch Dr. Oz daily and incorporated all of these things into your daily life you would be so far from eating a healthy balanced diet….Does he not understand that there are people who are so desperate they will incorporate every single one of his suggestions into their lives? What about interactions between these disparate items?

Contrast the snake oil he promotes on the show with what he actually promotes as being responsible for his health and wellbeing in his March 2013 article in Men’s Health. Not a green coffee bean or raspberry ketone in sight! In fact, he only mentions 3 things to add to your diet: green tea, nuts, and a Vitamin D supplement.

This appears to be a case of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’, and not in a good way….

What’s the deal with Castile? Buyer beware!

Image These days it seems like you can’t turn around without tripping over someone claiming to sell “pure Castile soap”. What exactly is Castile soap, and why is it such a big deal?

The origins of Castile soap can be traced back to the Eastern Mediterranean regions, where soapmakers produced a bar of soap known as Aleppo soap from olive oil, lye, and laurel oil. Although it cannot be proven, it is commonly believed that the Crusaders brought Aleppo soap back to Europe with them in the 11th century, where manufacturing of the soap spread throughout the Mediterranean. Since laurel oil was difficult to come by, it was dropped from the recipe, and the soap made from 100% olive oil and lye became known as Castile soap in Spain, and Marseille soap in France. Historically, the use of the names Castile and Marseille soap were restricted to those soaps manufactured in and around those areas, using olive oil produced in the region.

These laws have since been changed, allowing Castile and Marseille soap to be made from oils other than olive, and apparently, unbeknownst to me, the term ‘100% Castile soap’ is now used by many people to identify a soap made entirely from vegetable oils, containing no animal fats or synthetic surfactants. Who knew?

This is where the confusion happens. Authentic Castile soap made from olive oil is revered for its extreme gentleness, and is recommended for use on children and anyone with sensitive skin.

Most consumers who are aware of Castile soap believe that it is a 100% olive oil soap, and that is what they want to buy. However, finding that elusive 100% olive oil soap can be as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in the haystack.

One of the best sellers is Dr. Bronners 18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap – Not sure what the deal is with the 18-in-1, but this product claims to be Pure Castile Soap. How many people actually stop to read the ingredients when faced with a label that says ‘Pure Castile Soap’?

Ingredients: Water, Organic Coconut Oil*, Potassium Hydroxide**, Organic Olive Oil*, Mentha Arvensis*, Organic Hemp Oil, Organic Jojoba Oil, Organic Peppermint Oil*, Citric Acid, Tocopherol

Dr. Bronner is not trying to hide anything, their ingredients are clearly listed, and they provide the following explanation:

“In earlier centuries, an all-vegetable-based soap was made in the Castile region of Spain from local olive oil. By the turn of this century, “Castile” had come to mean any vegetable oil-based soap, as distinct from animal (tallow) fat-based soap. “Pure-Castile” is now also your guarantee that what you are using is a genuinely ecological and simple soap – not a complex blend of detergents with a higher ecological impact due to the waste stream created during manufacturing and the detergents’ slower biodegradability. Unfortunately, many synthetic detergent blends are deceptively labeled as “Liquid Soap” despite the fact that they contain absolutely no real soap whatsoever.”

Dr. Bronner’s seems like a perfectly nice soap, although potentially a bit drying with coconut oil being the first on the list, and an ecologically sound choice, but not what many people are looking for when they set out to purchase Castile Soap.

So, as I keep stressing (are you sick of hearing it yet?) read the labels and ask questions.

Personally, I’m going to be changing our labels from ‘100% Pure Castile Soap’ to ‘Authentic Castile Soap – Made with 100% Olive Oil.

Mike Michalowicz

Thoughts from The Queen Bee


Thoughts from The Queen Bee

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