No lye

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Soap-making, a 2,000-year-old craft, gets a fresh start

By Sandra L. Walsh ~ St. Joseph News-Press


eople are throwing convenience out the door and replacing it with a 2,000-year-old craft -- soap making.

When St. Joseph resident Wanda Fisher isn't bottling homemade elderberry wine, harvesting honey, making candles or catching 7 1/2-pound bass, she's making soap.

It all started two years ago when hog prices were down and Mrs. Fisher's son, Michael, and her husband, Gene, decided to buy and butcher seven pigs. They didn't want to waste a scrap of fat, so they asked her to make some homemade soap. With no prior experience and Internet directions at hand, she managed to make a stink.

"I'll never render (lard) again in a house," she grimaces, "because of the aroma."

Despite the pungent smell of charring flesh, the end result was a surprisingly gentle and creamy soap. Since then, Fisher has sold many homemade batches of soap to family and friends. She also makes a vegetable-based product for customers who don't want animal fat in their soap.

"Homemade soap is great for your skin," she says. "I have found that since I started using it that the wrinkles around my eyes started diminishing."

Fisher says one reason she prefers homemade soap to store-bought soap is glycerin. All soap, she says, is naturally glycerin soap. However, many commercial soap-making companies extract most of the glycerin from their bath bars to add it to other products or sell it to tobacco companies, which use glycerin as a humectant to retain moisture in tobacco.

"Also, foaming agents are added that are more economical than other natural ones," says Debra Hendron, a third-generation soap maker and owner of Botanical Earth.

"Handcrafted soap does not have to contain 'all natural' ingredients though most do."

Botanical Earth is a year-old, environmentally conscious company based in Winfield, Mo. Its workers make natural body care and pet care products. Their products don't contain animal fats or synthetic fragrance oils. They also make a wide variety of vegan soaps that don't contain animal byproducts like honey, beeswax and lanolin.

"Most consumers assume that natural ingredients are little plants -- natural ingredients can include animal fats," she says. "People need to read the labels, as with all things."

When listing ingredients in soap, she says, wording can be potentially misleading.

For example, a soap made with beef fat, coconut oil, water and lye can have the ingredients listed as: oils of tallow, saponified oils of tallow and coconut, water, rendered beef fat, coconut oil and lye; or sodium tallowate and sodium cocoate.

The bottom line: Right now it's almost impossible to know exactly what's in your soap. Soap is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, unless it claims to have cosmetic value, she says.

Some people in the natural personal care business are trying to have a petition approved that would have body care products claiming to be organic held to the same requirements as food.

But don't let all the controversy scare you away from making your first homemade batch -- let lye do that.

Gloria Nichols has been making soap for about three years. The White Cloud, Kan., resident started making soap after a year of research.

"It seemed a little complicated," she says. "I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing before I jumped in."

Her biggest fear -- lye. She had heard horror stories about husbands and children burning their esophagi because they drank unattended glasses of lye water left on kitchen counters by careless, soap-making wives.

"Don't be afraid of lye," she says. "If you give it the respect it deserves, everything should be fine."

Respect includes wearing protective eyewear, gloves, pants, closed-toe shoes, long sleeves and having a bottle of vinegar handy -- a neutralizer in case lye makes contact with the skin. And never leave lye water unattended because it can reach temperatures of 170 degrees Fahrenheit and be deadly if ingested.

Nichols overcame her fear of lye and now travels around the area selling her elegantly packaged soaps under the label Maple Leaf Soaps & Candles.

"I get a certain gratification out of mixing my own recipes," she says. "I'm a fragrance junkie."

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