Sunday, September 20, 2009

DIY soap making

When I first started making soap seven (eight?) years ago, my soap mold was a shoe box.  I'd line it with plastic grocery store bags that I'd cut down both sides and try to make fit into the box so the loaf of soap would have nice edges and corners.  It never really worked.  The bottom edges were always rounded and the corners were even more so.  And the bottom of the soap loaf was always wrinkled and crinkly.

In time I got more particular about it and made a form out of styrofoam planks that I cut to fit snugly inside the shoe box.  I wrapped the form with duct tape so the edges wouldn't crumble off.  Then I folded freezer paper around the form and taped it into shape so I could just slip it into the shoe box to make bars with sharper edges and corners.  It worked pretty well.

The shoe box, along with all the things with which I experimented and the many lessons I learned along the way, is part of my soapmakng roots.

And it's a good thing I still have it. 

Just the other day a customer told me she really loved my Luxury Bar soap, and wondered if I could make it for her in a larger size.  I said, "Yes, of course!" not having any idea how I would actually do that.  When I got home and started to think about it, however, I remembered the shoe box.  I got it out, dusted it off, took measurements and made calculations, and figured out that it would work perfectly.  Voila! 

I just think there's something charming about the idea that my old beat-up DIY shoe box mold is being brought back into service.  Thinking about it even as I write this is already bringing back many fond memories!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The shower head study

Doesn't that title sound like a must-read blog entry?  NOT.  But you should read it anyway.

A story that recently made a splash in the news isn't much of a story for most of us.  But it is a story for people with compromised immune systems.  It's about shower heads that serve as incubators for bacteria and result in people literally being sprayed with bacteria when they step into the shower.  You can read it here if you haven't heard about it already.

The story was picked up from the newswires and run with headlines like "Is Your Shower Making You Sick?"  That kind of headline followed by highlights from a study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder make it sound like SARS all over again.  Except this time it's not Chinese people who are the carriers, it's the shower head in your very own bathroom!

Most people can just relax.  For one thing, the study was based on an analysis of 50 shower heads from nine U.S. cities, and the bacteria of concern was found in just 30 percent of the shower heads tested.  Significant, but not exactly cause for panic.  For another, healthy people have nothing to worry about. 

The article goes on to say, however, that people with compromised immune systems due to HIV or immune system-repressing drugs or medical treatments are the ones who may be at risk.  That's critical information, and it should have appeared within the few paragraphs of the story.  But you have to go about two-thirds of the way through it before you find that out. 

I understand that journalists need to sell the story to the widest possible audience, but they also have an obligation to inform the public.  Or in this case, to target the message to the segment of the public that most needs to hear it.

Having said all that, however, it seems to me that there's a very simple solution for anyone who is or should be concerned about this, which was not even mentioned in the story.  Every few months take your shower head off and rinse it out thoroughly with bleach.  Problem solved, right?  Or am I missing something?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Urban wildlife

Pic of the day. Sixteen years living in Edgewater, and maybe three times -- always at night of course -- I've seen an opossum on our back porch deck. They're very unnerving, as they look at first like enormous rats, and the Lord gave them the ugliest tail of any animal on earth. They're relatively benign creatures, though, so I've always just let them be.  But this is a first.

This one was apparently feeling a little too tired to go home last night -- maybe a few too many cocktails? -- and decided to crawl up into one of our potted purple fountain grass plants to sleep it off.  Been there all day, too, completely unfazed by the workmen who are going up and down our back stairs all the time as they rebuild our chinney. Kind of cute, in a way, but find somewhere else to crash tomorrow, buddy!

There's another part to this, however, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.  Chicago's urban environment is overrun with animals that have no natural predators.  Squirrels.  (Rats with bushy tails.)  Pigeons.  (Rats that fly.)  Opossums that spend the day sleeping in people's potted plants.

But on the other hdand, if natural predators were around, that would be a huge issue.  Foxes in the park?  Coyotes in my back yard?  No way.  We've got peregrine falcons for pigeon control downtown, but that's clearly ineffective.

So we have a quandary.  We have animal pests we need to control but we don't have an acceptable natural solution.  Suggestsions anyone?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

I just love this video.  It's an ad, but it's very clever and fun.  Enjoy!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Milling soap

At one of my markets the other day, a woman politely but firmly told me that she only uses triple milled soap. 

I wanted to ask whether she had any idea what milled soap really is. But instead I smiled politely and a little wistfully, as if to say, "Oh well, I guess you've got me on that one!  I only make natural handcrafted soap!"

Milling soap is one thing for a handcrafted soapmaker, and a very different thing for a commercial soap manufacturer.

For a soapmaker, milling or hand milling soap is rebatching.  You take soap you've already made, grate it up, add some liquid, heat it until the two have uniformly combined, add whatever extras you're going to put in, and pour it into molds. 

Personally, I've never seen the sense in making soap twice, but rebatching has its uses.  Its greatest asset is that you can add certain ingredients without exposing them to the chemical reaction between the lye and the oils, or the heat that the reaction generates.  Milk added to rebatched soap will not discolor it.  Rose petals will retain their color instead of turning brown and ugly.  Essential oils (eucalyptus, for example) whose fragrance would otherwise be evaporated by the heat during saponification will be unharmed and delightful to the nose.  And you can pour rebatched soap into individual molds that would be difficult or impossible to use with standard cold process soap.

(Rebatching is also a technique for salvaging a failed or improperly formulated batch of soap, but I'm not even going to touch that.  If it's bad soap, dispose of it properly.)

Commercially milled soap is an entirely different matter.  Briefly, french or triple milling is a manufacturing process that involves extracting the moisturising, skin-softening glycerin that's naturally in the soap, and drying the soap into pellets.  Inexpensive chemicals are usually added to make up for the loss of the glycerin, and the pellets are then passed several times through a rolling mill, producing a paste that can be compacted into nice hard bars.  The extracted glycerin is much more profitable to the manufacturer when used in lotions, creams, and other cosmetic products. (And if you have any doubts, check this out!)

In essence, the notion that triple milled soap is somehow better or of higher quality than soap that's milled twice or -- oh my god! -- a soap that is NOT EVEN MILLED ONCE is simply advertising spin.  A process that adds to the manufacturer's bottom line and significantly decreases the benefits to the consumer is touted as one that increases it.

It's . . . what was that phrase that caused such a flap during the 2008 Presidential campaign . . . ?

Also, check out our December 2009 update, Milling soap part II.