Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Posts tagged ‘handmade soap’

When the soap gremlins swarm

If you do a google, etsy, or Facebook search for “handmade soap”, you’ll find thousands of gorgeous bars, each lovingly handcrafted by soap artisans around the world. Unfortunately, not every soap we make turns out the way we envisioned it.

Mica can morph from pink to blinding orange, fragrance oils can discolour the soap (hello vanilla) or accelerate the process so fast that you end up with what we Soapmakers lovingly refer to as “soap on a stick”. We blame these mishaps on the soap gremlins that sometimes move into your house and wreak havoc on everything you touch.

So today I’m showing you the dark, dirty, hidden side of soapmaking….the fails!

This fragrance oil turned my beautiful blue soap into an ugly grayish purple, and also accelerated it so much that I had to plop and push it into the mold.

It eventually turned back to dark blue, but the bar was full of air holes, so I chopped it into cubes and added it into a new batch.
This pile is what happens when you wait too long to cut your salt bars. You have to cut them when the soap is still so hot that it almost burns your finger, which for me is about an hour after pouring in the molds. With this batch I was 15 – 20 minutes late, and this crumbly mess was the result….still fantastic soap, but destined only for my own shower, not for customers.
 Here for your viewing pleasure is the aforementioned “soap on a stick”. Many fragrance oils, especially some florals and spices will react when you add them to your raw soap batter, causing them to seize almost instantly.

INSERT PHOTO (Okay, surprisingly I don’t seem to have a picture of this! If any of my Soapmaking cohorts would like to add one into the comments below, that would be great.)

Then we have an example of what happens when you soap too hot when using honey. Anything that contains sugar, be it honey, milk, beer etc, heats up like crazy in the soap causing cracking, volcanoes (yes it does exactly what it sounds like!) and other messes. Usually when I make my oatmeal and honey soap, I premix my lye solution and let it cool down completely overnight before mixing the soap. This time, I forgot and poured it in while it was still around 200 degrees F. Oops. Totally unsalvageable.

For comparison, this is what it should look like!

Finally, we have my newest Christmas soap. I had such a vision for this one: just enough fir needle to make you think of the holiday without feeling like you’d been slapped in the face with a Christmas tree. A touch of frankincense and myrrh for warmth and depth. Just a kiss of vanilla to brighten the blend. It smelled divine. Unfortunately I made two mistakes with this one: I didn’t stir my palm oil well enough, which left small spots of undissolved stearic acid in the soap (you can see them easily because the vanilla formed little circles around them), and I didn’t use enough colorant to cover up the rather unattractive beigey green caused by the vanilla and Frankincense & myrrh fragrance oils. Sigh.

The good news is that one of my guinea pigs (er, I mean good friend and valued consumer tester) just PMd me that this is her favourite fragrance of all my soaps, and believe me she’s tried most of them! I happen to agree….it smells divine, so will make its debut this Christmas as Winter Solstice, without the spotty complexion, and a beautiful deep green, I think. Watch for its unveiling soon!

So the next time you see a beautiful handmade soap, think about not only the hours spent on formulating the perfect recipe, and envisioning the design, but also the dozens of test batches and disheartening fails that led to that gorgeous bar. Behind every bar of handcrafted soap is a soapmaker who puts his or her heart and soul into every batch.

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.

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.

Don’t believe everything you read (Part 1)


Women’s Health magazine posted this little tidbit of “information” on page 50 of their July/August issue, and it has generated a lot of comments in the handcrafted soap industry.

Lets break it down, shall we?

“Bar soaps are more drying than liquid because the chemical sodium hydroxide is required to create the cleansing system.”

This is a quote from a chemist, who should definitely know better. Leaving aside for the moment the idea that bar soaps are drying, liquid soaps are made using the synthetic chemical potassium hydroxide. Both sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide are commonly known as lye. Bar soaps are not more drying than liquids.

“The upside is that most of today’s bars contain synthetic detergents (they’re easier to manipulate than natural ones which can be unpredictable), making them more skin-softening than they used to be.”

Today’s commercial bars contain synthetic detergents (syndets) because they are cheaper, resulting in higher profits for the manufacturer, and because they produce massive amounts of lather and less residue, not because they are easier to manipulate, or better for your skin! You can read more about synthetic detergents in my earlier post, What is Natural, Part 1.

As far as their “skin-softening” abilities, the only way that you can actually generate softer skin is by eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water, exercising, and using a sunscreen daily. There is no beauty bar, soap, lotion, cream or expensive serum that can give you softer skin. Soap is designed to cleanse your skin by removing dirt and dead cells, which may make your skin look softer. Lotions and creams make your skin feel softer, but the results are temporary, which is why you have to keep reapplying.

A carefully crafted and cured bar of handmade soap is usually “superfatted” which means that the soapmaker has included more oils in the soap than is required to fully neutralize all of the lye, leaving no active lye in the soap. These extra oils are then available to leave a light occlusive barrier on your skin to shield it from the elements. This also helps your skin to look and feel softer. Also, real soap does not strip your skin of its own natural oils. Synthetic detergents are also known as degreasers, and are designed to clean very well.

Some syndets will advertise that they have added moisturizing cream or glycerine, which supposedly gives you softer skin. If you look at the ingredients you will not find any exotic ingredients…..moisturizing creams are made by emulsifying oils and waters, the same oils that are already in handmade soaps. Syndet bars need to add them.

Real handmade soap does not need to add glycerine. Glycerine is a by product of the chemical reaction that makes soap (saponification), and we leave the glycerine where it belongs, in our soap. Commercial manufacturers remove the glycerine and sell it separately to manufacturers of glycerine soaps, thereby increasing their profits.

While we’re on the subject, lets take a look at the Dove Truth Files campaign that was seen everywhere last year, and which claimed that Dove was gentler than other products. They placed cute little pink paper dolls on a Dove bar, and on their competitors, a variety of synthetic bars, liquid cleansers and body washes. In their commercial, the paper on their bar remained intact, while the others disintegrated, supposedly proving how harsh the other products were. The website, and the Facebook page are no longer active, but according to what I’ve read, they did not try this comparison with handmade soap, only with other syndets. Here is a picture from one of their PR events, and not a single bar of handmade soap in sight. What a surprise.


Okay, back to business…

“Look for formulas that contain hydrating oils, such as sunflower seed oil and olive oil. Try Kiss My Face Olive Oil Bar Soaps.”

Now this is where I get really steamed! They start off their comments by saying to avoid bar soaps because they contain sodium hydroxide, then finish by recommending that you go ahead and buy a particular brand of bar soap, leaving the impression that this bar soap is better because it does not contain lye! WRONG!

Kiss My Face, like every other bar or liquid soap out there, is made with lye.

Bottom line is this. Consumers need to be aware that every manufacturer, whether they are a large commercial operation or a small handcrafted soapmaker, is ultimately trying to get you to open up your wallet and buy something, and many of them will go to outrageous lengths to do so. Every magazine is trying to fill their pages with content to make you buy the issue. You must educate yourself. Just because you read something on the Internet or in a major magazine, it doesn’t make it true. Don’t believe something just because its a major company giving you the information, or because its featured in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign.

Also, keep in mind that any fool can write a blog. Don’t believe everything you read. Many bloggers will simply regurgitate something they read on someone else’s blog, without doing any independent research. This is how misinformation gets distributed so thoroughly that eventually people start believing that it is definitive and proven.

Be skeptical. Ask questions.

(Unfortunately, Women’s Health is not the only one guilty of repeating misinformation. Two other websites that drive me crazy are Skin Deep, a database administered by the Environmental Working Group, and Livestrong. However, this post is already long enough, and your brain is probably full, so I will take a look at these organizations tomorrow in Part 2.)

The difference between men and women…..

….in soap, that is!

You could write an encyclopedia on how different men and women are, but recently I have seen some interesting discussions on how differently we look at soap and other skincare products.

Most women love to slather creamy, luscious goodness on their skin. Just look at the buzzwords in commercials for your favorite products….creamy, moisturizing, hydrating, emollient…you get the picture. I love getting out of the shower after using one of my luscious all natural salt or sugar scrubs and feeling the softly moisturized skin it left behind. My soaps are also generously super fatted to leave that same creamy feeling behind, and are full of yummy cocoa butter and shea butter. Love it….

Men? Not so, much….

I remember the first time I gave my business partner a bar of my soap to try. After a few days,, I asked him what he thought, and he complained that it left a film of something on his skin. I explained that it was not so much that it was leaving something behind, but that it was not over cleaning his skin, thereby stripping away the natural oils that protect the skin as commercial cleansing bars do. He got used to it, but still complains once and awhile.

Men don’t like lotions and potions and creams. They want to feel clean and fresh with nothing left behind.

So how to formulate a bar for men, that will give him the gentle cleaning of handmade soap without making him feel like he needs another shower? One solution I’ve found is adding kaolin clay to my recipe, either the white China clay, or French green (stay away from pink or rose, or you’ll defeat your purpose!). The clay seems to counter the superfatting and leaves a slightly less creamy feeling on the skin. Be careful with the amount you add to your recipe, as too much clay can kill the lather.

Another good option for men is a good salt bar like our wham! citrus salt bar. The salt added to this bar also cuts down on the creaminess, while gently softening the skin like a swim in the ocean. The punchy citrus scent doesn’t hurt, either!

I would also suggest a good scrubby, exfoliating bar, but one word of caution. Men who are blessed with a nice, hairy chest do not want to have things get caught in it while they are soaping up, so make sure you are using very finely ground ingredients that wash away easily!

So ladies, if you’re shopping for your man, clays and salts are the things to look for in a good bar of handmade soap.


“If you can’t pronounce it, it must be bad for you!”

imageAlong with the proliferation of ‘natural’, Eco-friendly’, ‘organic’, ‘green’, ‘earth-friendly’ and other declarations appearing on product labels over the past few years, I’m also seeing this catchy phrase more often on blogs, Facebook posts and websites.

Often enough that I felt compelled to take a closer look at this statement. There are several assumptions that are being made here:

a) natural is always better for you
b) natural things have simple names
c) chemicals always have long, unpronounceable names
d) all chemicals are bad for you

So lets take these one at a time.

a) Natural is not always better. The world is full of natural things that are very bad for you, and could kill you, starting with nasty germs, mold and fungi, which will appear in your lovely natural water-based lotions if the manufacturer is irresponsible by not including a possibly unpronounceable preservative. It is lovely to buy a lotion that waxes on eloquently about including fresh fruits and berries….have you looked at fresh berries forgotten in the fridge for a couple of weeks? Eewww! That is exactly what may be growing unseen in your unpreserved lotion.

Other natural things that could harm you: belladonna, wild mushrooms, comfrey, snake venom..the list is endless.

b) c) and d) Natural things do not always have simple names. Salt is really sodium chloride. Water is dihydrogen oxide. Steviol glycoside is also known as stevia, and thiamine mononitrate is good old Vitamin B1. Everything we eat or drink is a chemical, and has a complicated name…we just don’t use them.

So why are there so many long, complicated, unpronounceable names on products? They are there because the government says we have to put them there. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re either synthetic, or bad for you.

Next time you find yourself assuming a product is full of synthetics, (which is what you really mean, not chemicals), just because the ingredients are hard to pronounce, stop and take the time to ask yourself “what is sodium bicarbonate, anyway?” It’s plain old baking soda. In the end, it’s not about being able to pronounce the ingredients, it’s about understanding what they are, and why they are there.

Personally, I’m not too worried when I see unpronounceable names…a quick Google search will help you figure them out. What worries me more is when the list is a mile long, and its just a bar of soap! BumbleBee Lane SoapWorks, as well as many other amazing soap and cosmetic makers I’ve come to know, believe that it’s better to have fewer, higher quality ingredients than to throw in the kitchen sink just because you can!

Something to think about…..

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!
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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