Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eczema and soap

Since my TV debut on the Channel 7 news, there's been a lot of interest in Edgewater Soaps.  It's kind of amusing that, having seen and heard me on TV, many of my new customers seem to feel they know me.  And I'm sure that feeling is reinforced by the fact that they also know something personal about me.  They know I've had problems with eczema.  And knowing that enables them to talk freely to me about their eczema and other skin issues, or to seek my advice on behalf of a friend or family member with skin problems. 

What I hear from so many of them is frustration.  I share it.  It's frustrating to deal with a chronic condition that may not be life-threatening, but definitely interferes with quality of life.  It's frustrating to research the condition you have and find, as with eczema, that the causes aren't very well understood and the remedies are limited.  And it's frustrating to have to use prescription products -- especially when, as I know from my experience and many others', they're often not very effective -- for something that ought to be treatable or controllable another way. 

I didn't start making soap because I knew it would help with my eczema.  I had no idea that it would.  But I know that ever since I started making and using natural soap products, I've never had a problem with eczema like I used to. You'll find the reasons why on my FAQs page.

Others have also found it helpful.  One of the people who saw the Channel 7 feature bought a Sensitive Skin Formula and a Lavender Oatnilk bar online a day or two after it aired.  She called me earlier this week and left one of the most remarkable voicemail messages I've ever received.  She had been using my soap for the past ten days, she said, and already her skin was starting to clear up.  She was thrilled.

It turns out she's had an eczema-like skin rash that she thinks was brought on by some medication she was taking.  She's seen five or six skin doctors about it and gotten a number of different prescriptions, and so far nothing has really helped.  But since she's been using my soap, it's starting to improve. 

"The places where it already existed are still there," she said, "but it's stopped spreading!  I'm not developing any new patches, and the old ones aren't getting worse." 

"Even my husband has noticed I'm doing better," she said.  "The other night when we went to bed, he said, 'Debbie, you're not itching!'  And I said, 'I know!'"  I could just picture her with her fingers crossed, hoping the improvement continues.

I know that a lot of my new customers are like Debbie, and I'll be following up with all of them to get their feedback and comments.  I'll share them with you here in future posts.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Living Green with ABC 7

"Hello, this is Sylvia Jones from ABC Channel 7, and we're interested in filiming you making soap for ______ . . . " 

Wow!  How cool!  And completely out of the blue.  The top-rated TV station in Chicago wants to feature me on something!  I didn't hear a thing she said from that point on, except that she wanted to schedule it in two days' time and I knew that wasn't going to happen.  Fortunately she was willing to schedule it a couple weeks later.

And when I say fortunately, I mean it!  TV cameras in my house?  Bright hot lights exposing every bit of dust, random scrap of paper, and smudged fingerprint?  Let's just say major housekeeping ensued.  Including washing windows and walls, and repainting woodwork. 

When the big day came, however, I was ready.  And everything went smoothly. 

We started with the interview, and then the cameraman filmed me making soap.  The producer had been very specific about wanting to film the entire process,from start to finish, and that's exactly what happened.  The cameraman frequently asked me to stop what I was doing for a moment -- measuring oils into the pot, for example -- so he could change positions and film it from a different angle.  Sometimes three or four different angles.  Fascinating. 

The result is pretty impressive, I think.  You can see it here: "Edgewater Soaps uses natural ingredients" on Living Green With ABC 7.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Scientific soap making part II: curing soap and water discounting

First, let's be clear that we're not talking about "curing" in the sense of helping to get over an illness or disease.  We're talking about curing in the sense of aging and mellowing: storing or keeping something under controlled conditions for a period of time long enough for it to develop certain desirable or unique qualities -- like complexity of flavor in an aged cheese or fine scotch.

With cold process soap making, the time spent actually making the soap is minimal.  What takes time is curing the soap once it's made, and that's four to six weeks depending on the soap.  Or is it?

Curing soap does two things.  It ensures that the soap is fully saponified, and it allows moisture to evaporate so the bars become firmer.  If the soap goes through a full gel stage, saponification will be nearly complete within 48 hours.  If it doesn't, it may take longer.  But in no case should full saponification take longer than two weeks, so after that it's just about letting it dry out and become nice and firm. 

With that in mind, it stands to reason that if you use less water to make it, there's less moisture to evaporate.  And that should shorten the drying time, right?

To test this, I tracked the weight loss of three different soaps over a six-week period, and found that the soaps made with a lower percentage of water (a solution of about 60 percent water, 40 percent lye) reached a stable weight in about 3 weeks.  Those made with a higher percentage of water (about 66 percent water, 33 percent lye) took about 4 weeks to reach a stable weight.  Clearly, using less water shortens the drying time.

Some soapmakers maintain that drying time is bascially immaterial, and that curing soap for six weeks or longer somehow makes it even milder and better.  One even suggested that a soap that has cured for a year is about as close to the ultimate as you can get. 

But what happens to soap in a year that doesn't happen within 3-4 weeks of having made it?  Soap isn't cheese, and the chemcial and biological processes that are key in aging cheese or wine are irrelevant when it comes to soap.  The only thing that really happens over an extended period of time is that the soap's scent tends to fade, and the bars themselves become extra hard.  That's about it.

My conclusion is that reducing the amount of water in the recipe shortens curing time and results in soap that is ready to use sooner rather than later.  To learn more about water discounting here's a link to a detailed description of the process.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blame it on the soap fairies

A customer who's interested in learning how to make soap recently asked how I dealt with the frustration of soap batches that didn't turn out right. 

That’s a great question because I’ve never been able to overcome the disappointment of having wasted valuable ingredients. Soaps that failed frustrate and disappoint me just as much today as when I actually made them, no matter how long ago that was. But that’s just how it goes. Some experiments work, others don’t. Usually when a soap fails it’s due to an error in the formulation. Something was left out, something was mismeasured, or something was calculated incorrectly.

I rarely have failures now, I'm happy to say. But I do have experiments that don't come out as well as I had hoped.  A new fragrance blend doesn't smell quite the way I wanted it to, for example.  Or something I tried to enhance the appearance of the finished soap didn't quite result in the look I had in mind.  Or one of the fussier soaps I make decides to be extra fussy and not gel properly, resulting in a soap that's just not up to par in terms of appearance or texture.  Most of these soaps I either use myself, sell at a discount, or give away.  

But I'm convinced that sometimes the real explanation is that it’s the work of the soap fairies.  They’re quiet and benign most of the time, lurking in the background, watching but not interfering.  When they decide to act up, however, there's no telling what will happen.  The result can be an unaccountable failure or a magnificent success. Both have happened to me. All I can do is scratch my head and wonder.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

DIY bath bomb making video

I made my very first video and posted it on YouTube!  It's me demonstrating how to make bath bombs with recipe details and step-by-step instructions.  The recipe is the same as that on the DIY page of my website.  It's just tripled for making a larger size batch.

I love it spite of its total amateurishness.  It was filmed with the video camera that's built into my cheap little laptop, and edited it with the "Movie Maker" software that was on the laptop when I bought it.  Neither can be described as high tech . . .   But I had great fun doing it.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Scientific soapmaking: sulfated castor oil

On a liquid soapmaking group list I subscribe to, someone recently asked whether other soapmakers consider sulfated castor oil a "must have" ingredient for liquid soap. 

Is it a "must have?"  No.  Is it an ingredient worth adding?  Yes.  Sulfated castor oil (also known as sulfonated castor oil or Turkey Red oil) is a water soluble form of castor oil that soapmakers often add to make liquid soaps especially mild and gentle to the skin.

The soap I make that uses sulfated castor to greatest effect is my liquid dog shampoo.  Dogs, much more than people, need oil for their skin and coat to be healthy, and the sulfated castor seems to be especially helpful in preserving the right balance.  The customer feedback has been 100 percent positive.  Glowing even! 

Castor bean seeds

When I decided to develop a bar version of the dog shampoo, however, I ran into a roadblock.  Sulfated castor can be added to liquid soaps without being figured into the lye calculation because it's water soluble.  Its saponification (SAP) value -- or the question of whether it has one -- doesn't seem to matter.  But it does matter with a bar soap because it will potentially ruin the batch if it's not included in the lye calculation. 

The simple question Does sulfated castor oil have a SAP value? was difficult to answer.  I searched for the information every way I could think of.  I checked a number of very reputable websites.  Some assigned it the same SAP value as regular castor oil.  Others gave it a SAP value of 0.  But I couldn't find a third party source to susbstantiate either one.  I left it out of the recipe.

Several weeks ago, I remade the dog shampoo bars, and before I did I searched once again and came up empty-handed once again.  So I took a chance and added it to the recipe without figuring it into the lye calculation.  I used a slightly lower lye discount just to be safe.  The soap came to trace nicely, went into a good gel, and the next morning I had what appeared to be perfectly good -- albeit a little soft -- dog shampoo bars.  (They are hardening nicely as they cure, I'm pleased to add.)

But I still didn't have an answer to my question and it was bugging the heck out of me.  Then it hit me.  There's one person I know who might actually have the answer. 

I know someone who's writing the most in-depth book on the science of soapmaking that's ever been attempted.  I'm on the list of soapmakers and others who've had the oppportunity to review drafts of the book, offer comments, look for typos, and generally be amazed (and, in my case, intimidated!) by the level of scientific scrutiny he brings to the process of soapmaking.  When it's published, I guarantee that no serious soapmaker will be without it.  An invaluable resource.

I met and talked to the author very briefly at a soapmakers convention a couple years ago, and on the basis of that very tenuous connection I e-mailed him my question.  I hoped it was something he knew off the top of his head and that it would only take 5 seconds of his time to reply.  What I received was considerably more detailed.

It turns out that he didn't have a definitive answer because he had hadn't yet had the opportunity to actually measure the SAP value of sulfated castor oil himself.  And he also hadn't come across anything in his reading or studies that substantiated it one way or the other.  But he had done a quick experiment, he said, that "led me to believe that sulfated castor oil is already saponified and therefore has a SAP close to 0."  In the following paragraphs he lead me through the entire process, starting with the premise for the experiment, the proven facts that formed the basis for it, the hypothesis he was working with, and the experiement itself.

Long story short, he found that the sulfated castor reacted the way saponfied oil would react in the test he performed, not the way unsaponified oil would react.  As he said, this is not a definitive answer, but it does suggest one. 

Shortly after that I found some tantalizing information to support his idea.  I came across several websites stating that once castor oil is treated with sulfuric acid, sodium hydroxide is used to neutralize the acid.  This quote, for example, is lifted from an online patent application: 
Turkey Red Oil is prepared by adding concentrated sulfuric acid (93%) to castor oil at 25°-30°C.  From about 15 to 30% sulfuric acid is added to the castor oil.  After all of the acid has been added and reaction is complete, the reaction product is washed with water and then neutralized with sodium hydroxide solution.
Isn't that interesting!  My author acquaintance may be right on the money.  Note that he said "a SAP value close to 0," not a SAP value of 0.  For my purposes, though, close to 0 is close enough.