Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Stuff We Made Up, Part 1

Sometimes we use terms for our soap that we made up ourselves, just because we can - and also because no appropriate term seems to be available. One of these is Leftover Surprise, named for one of our favorite weekend brunch dishes, which involves a fritatta made with anything delicious left over from the week (you haven't lived until you've had a shrimp, baby potato and roasted garlic fritatta).

Anyway, when we trim and smooth our bars of soap, we save the trimmings and make Leftover Surprise. Basically, we look at what we have, try and match up pleasing combinations, mill up the trimmings in the style of a french milled soap, and melt them down into new bars. We sell 'em on the cheap, because the cost to us is less (it basically helps up recoup the labor costs of trimming the soap) and unlike our regular soaps, which we can duplicate if we get requests, each batch of Leftover Surprise is unique. The combinations can be really lovely and unexpected, too- we made a few this week that are especially good: Fruit & Honey, which was a blend of all of our Honey & Beeswax soaps plus Peach, Tangerine Creamsicle, Blood Orange, White Fig and some Fancypants for good measure. There was also one we just called Man Soap, which is made with all of our men's shaving soaps, Black Pepper bath bar, Bay Rum bath bar, coffee, chocolate, and all of the beer soaps. We're hoping to finish up trimming enough soap this week to make a garden-themed one, with Sweet Pea, Gardenia, Hyacinth, Lilac, Lavender, Honeysuckle, Chamomile, Ladies' Shaving Soap (which is honeysuckle, grapefruit and Honey), our bug-repelling soap (made with citronella, grapefruit, lemongrass and peppermint) and Garden Grits (which is a lightly exfoliating bar with
 peppermint, spearmint, rosemary, basil, and lemongrass). Even some of the weirder combinations turn out amazing, like Blueberry and Amaretto. Also, the texture of each bar varies, depending on what's used- the ones with glycerin are silkier, and often they have various exfoliants, like the coffee in the Man Soap and the slightest bit of ground oats in the Fruit & Honey. 

So keep an eye out for these, because once they're gone, they're gone!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lip Balm: it's always the quiet ones.

It's a funny thing, but we almost never talk about our lip balm, even though it's very popular... even at festivals and things, when people usually ask tons of questions and want to talk all about the different kinds of soap. They walk up to the lip balm, try the tester, stare at the different kinds for a minute, then buy half a dozen and walk away. It's crazy. But when I asked my customers who I know personally, they told me why. It's a combination of flavor, texture, and effectiveness, and really, once you try it, it doesn't need a whole lot of discussion or explanation. It occurs to me, though, that the habit of not talking about it at sales events doesn't help those of you shopping online, since you haven't had the benefit of trying it in person to see how yummy it is. To quote one of our very first customers, "You know how most lip balm smells really good but sort of just tastes waxy blah? Not this stuff. It actually tastes like it smells. It's glorious. I have some sort of tangerine citrus punch and I love it."

And it works! I find that I don't need to explain to people what makes it so good when they've just tried it for themselves. Sure, I use great vegan ingredients, shea butter and coconut oil and Vitamin E and a few others, with raw honey and a beeswax base, but the results speak for themselves. People come up to us months later and tell me how much they love it, how they threw away all their other lip balm and just drool over my Etsy shop, waiting for new flavors. They use it on cuticles, elbows, heels. I even had a pregnant mama tell me how she used it on her stomach to help with stretch marks!

It is a constant source of amazement to me that using the crafting equivalent of the golden rule is such a surprise to people. Instead of doing unto others as I'd like others to do unto me, I just make products with ingredients and methods that make them appealing to myself. Tastes good, smells good, feels good- check. Food-grade, lip-safe, non-animal ingredients- check. Cute reusable container- check. It seems simple to me, but I think I will never get over being thrilled that everyone else loves what I make as much as I do.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bees? Really?

Bees on honeycomb
People are often very interested in the beekeeping aspect of soap making. Obviously, not all soap makers are beekeepers, even the ones who make beeswax and honey soap, but they're two hobbies that go together very well. Once people find out that I use my own honey and beeswax, they have a few questions. Also, as a beekeeper, I often do talks about honeybees at elementary schools, so it's a very nice change of pace to explain things in grown-up terms :)

I'm often asked how bees make honey and wax. They don't just magically appear, after all. So: honey is made when bees collect nectar from flowers and store it in the beehive in a small hexagonal cell of the honeycomb. They fan it with their wings to dehydrate it, and when it's at the proper moisture level, they "cap" it by covering the cell with a thin layer of wax. To a beekeeper, a capped cell is proof that honey is ready to harvest. Honey is one of the few food substances in existence that will never spoil, due in large part to the level of dehydration attained by the bees. The only honey that ever goes bad is honey with too much water in it, which is harvested too early (or it might also happen if extra water got into the honey after harvesting; honey with water intentionally added, for instance, can be fermented into mead). Beeswax is secreted by bees from glands in their legs- in people proportions, imagine a big flake of wax on your thigh. They use the wax to build honeycomb, which, as mentioned, is a storage place for honey, and also for pollen, and for baby bees.

Honey still in the comb
To harvest all this requires some management of the hives. Beehives are built of a stack of boxes, called "hive bodies" or, depending on the size, "deeps" or "supers"; the lowest box is typically filled with eggs, baby bees and the adults who care for them, plus the queen, who is always busy laying more eggs. The next box is filled with honey; if this box is the same size as the lowest one, that's usually enough honey to see a colony of bees through the winter, and must be left for the bees to eat. Any boxes above that, though, are fair game for the beekeeper to harvest. You slide something called a "bee escape" between the lowest boxes and the ones with honey you want to harvest. This has a little maze in the center, so that bees can exit the honey boxes but not get back in. After a couple of days, there are no bees left in the upper boxes, and you can take them indoors to harvest.

A full frame of capped honey
Harvesting involves opening the boxes and removing the frames of honey and beeswax. You pull each one out and use a very sharp knife to carefully slice off the "cappings," or the layer of wax that seals the honey in. You then put the frame into an extractor, which is a hand-cranked cylindrical device that uses centrifugal force to whip the honey out of the comb. You repeat this until all the frames are empty, and then put them outdoors again, so that the bees can reclaim any residual honey.

An extractor full of frames
The cappings are your beeswax, which you then melt down for use in soap and lip balm.

The honey gets strained and then stored in jars until used. One of the reasons the bees cap the cells of honey is that honey is a humectant, meaning that it attracts and absorbs moisture- which is part of the reason it's such a good ingredient to use on skin. Honey soap can be very helpful for dry skin. Honey's also antibacterial- I use it instead of Neosporin on cuts and scrapes, and they heal faster and leave less of a scar. You can read more about the healing properties of honey here.

You can make soap without honey and beeswax, and in fact, I often do. But the honey and beeswax soaps are always my favorite, because while everyone's skin is different, my skin always feels and looks better when I use honey and beeswax as my everyday shower soap. And I love going out to my bee yard and seeing the girls flying around; it's great to know that you're making something good and you know where your ingredients come from. In the summer when the sun warms up the hives, you can smell the honey and beeswax, and it just smells so good that I'm never satisfied until I take a shower with that soap :)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Cold Process? Milled? Glycerin? Soap is soap, right?

In case you were wondering about the different soap-related words we use in describing our products, here is a quick rundown of the ones we're asked about most frequently (and if you want to know about something not covered here, feel free to ask!):

1. Cold-process: this is the term for the method of soapmaking we typically use. It's called cold process because, while we do heat up our oils enough to melt them, there's no real cooking involved, just a chemical reaction between a lye solution and oils.

2. Castile: this is a type of soap made using only (or mostly, depending on what you're going for) olive oil for the oil portion of the soap mixture. Using only olive oil makes the soap mild and gentle. It also makes for a good, hard (read: long-lasting) bar of soap which is white or sometimes faintly green, depending on how the olive oil's pressed (extra-virgin comes out a little greener). It takes a lot of stirring to get this soap to mix properly.

3. Milled, or French Milled: this is a method wherein we take already-made soap (we use our Castile, usually), and mill or grate it up. We then re-melt it slowly, adding other ingredients, before we spoon it into molds. There are two benefits to this process. First, it makes for a harder and longer-lasting bar of soap. Secondly, you can do some interesting things with ingredients. I always add extra moisturizing oils during the process, but also, in making cold-process soap, the lye destroys a lot of the more delicate ingredients... so for instance, you have to use a lot of essential oil for it to be noticeable in the finished soap, and if you use, say, lavender flowers or chamomile, the lye will turn them brown and ugly. Now, if you make a plain castile soap and mill it up, you can add flowers or herbs without turning them ugly colors or reducing their effectiveness, and essential oils or more delicate oils like wheat germ or Vitamin E will have a much bigger impact. These soaps don't swirl or layer well, though, as they aren't as liquid when they go into the molds- more the texture of mashed potatoes, while regular soap is more like a thin custard, and glycerin soap is completely liquid.

4. Glycerin: this is a kind of soap that's made the same way as cold-process soap initially, but when the lye and oils are mixed together, instead of pouring it straight into a mold, the mixture is heated for several hours ("hot process"). This causes the soap to become "neutral"- the part that's accomplished by several weeks of curing in cold-process soap making. When it reaches that point, vegetable glycerin, alcohol and sugar are added to the soap, and after some additional cooking time, it becomes transparent. Then I put in any additives and pour it into molds. Glycerin soap is silky-smooth to the touch and is very moisturizing and mild. This is the method we use for Fancypants soap, several holiday soaps, and some craft beer soaps, for example. (The photo to the left is our frankincense-and-myrrh holiday soap, which swirls a creamy white soap with a shimmery gold glycerin soap.) You can  swirl or layer glycerin and cold-process soap for different effects. Shimmery colors do very well in glycerin soap because, unlike opaque soap, transparent soap makes it possible for light to refract off the particles and produce a shimmer. This is also what you'd use if you wanted to suspend something in the soap and have it be visible. The up side is all the neat effects; the down side is that it takes a long time to make and somehow always makes a huge mess :)

Monday, April 15, 2013

Yay for 250 Likes! Let's have a contest!

You like me! You really, really like me! (I couldn't help it, sorry.) To celebrate reaching 250 likes on Facebook, we're giving away some stuff. Like and share any of our posts (and tell us that you did via comment or message; it's hard to keep track otherwise) to be entered to win a soap, lip balm and bath salts of your choice (or extra soap if you're not a fan of bath salts) plus an assortment of samples. Follow us on Twitter @SoapzillaSoap for an extra chance to win. You can enter once a day, and the winner will be chosen at random next Sunday, April 21st.

And to thank ALL of you who've liked us so far, use the coupon code "Awesomesauce" on your next Etsy order for 25% off! (The only item this is NOT good for is our shaving kits, due to the cost to us of the vintage mugs.)


Friday, April 12, 2013

Why an old-school shave is the hot new thing

It used to be that I knew absolutely nothing about shaving soap. I didn't understand the procedure. It seemed weird and unlikely that any form of shaving could require the use of a mug. And a brush made out of badger hair? I was pretty sure that somebody like Amy Sedaris made that up. Then my husband heard that a hot shave was easier on the skin. My poor guy has always had skin that looked red and rough after shaving, which was not only uncomfortable but didn't look very attractive, either. I didn't want him to have to show up at work with a scraped-up face.

So I checked it out; it didn't seem too difficult to make. I figured, I make soap; if he wants to try a particular kind of soap, why not make some for him? Worst-case scenario, it doesn't help and we're back where we started. So I got him a shaving brush and a vintage mug (why not?) and made a batch of my first and favorite shaving soap, bay rum. I had fun with it; I made plain Castile soap, then milled it up and remelted it, adding lots of moisturizing oils and a special mix of spices, essential oils and aged rum. And OMG, did it smell good! I kinda didn't care whether it helped his skin or not, he was going to have to keep using it. I wanted to pounce on him every time he walked past. However, it did wonders for his skin. His face isn't razorburned anymore, he enjoys his morning shave, and he likes the old-school feel of shaving with a mug and brush.

So I made more (unscented! black pepper! woodsmoke! yum!), and did some research. The vintage mugs were perfect- my soap fit into them exactly, plus I loved the variability: Old Spice shaving mugs are all made of milk glass (goes with everything) and they feature ships, but they're all a little different- different ships, different text, different degrees of fading. Now I hunt them up whenever I'm antiquing.

The brushes, now, that was a thing. It tuns out that there are two main kinds of brush: boar and badger. Boar is a lot cheaper, but also coarser. Many people consider them inferior, but if you have very coarse facial hair, they're actually preferable, because the badger hair won't lift coarser facial hair enough for a good shave. The badger hair brushes are pricier, but if you don't have particularly coarse facial hair, they're worth it. They hold water better and create a better lather, while not being too rough on your skin. So now I offer a free shaving brush (badger, unless they request boar) for people who purchase a shaving kit from my Etsy shop, and some local shops that carry Soapzilla products (Square Foot in downtown Decatur, in particular) sell soap-and-brush combos. 

What I didn't expect is how popular the soap would be. Who even shaves this way anymore? But I have a coworker who used to use shaving soap and was hesitant to use mine, but now swears by it. I frequently have to send shaving soap via priority mail for guys in the military who need to get it before they ship out overseas. It's far and away the most popular thing in my Etsy shop and has been featured many times in the "For Him" category on their mobile app. And it sells out constantly in the local shops.

So for those of you who are wondering how to use it, there are lots of resources online, but basically:
1. Put the shaving soap into the bottom of the shaving mug.
2. Wet a small towel or washcloth with some really hot water and put it on your face for a minute or two (an important but often-overlooked step).
3. Get your shaving brush wet in the really hot water and use it to work the soap into a lather.
4. Brush your face with the lather.
5. Shave! You can use a regular razor, too- no need to get old-school there, unless you really want to.
6. Wipe your face down with that hot-water towel from step two.

Try that for a week and you'll be shocked by the difference. As for the fragrance of the soap, it's mild but lingering- if you prefer something unscented try our "mildly-scented" varieties, which smell great while you're using it but don't leave a fragrance on you- mainly for guys who wear cologne and don't want anything to interfere with that scent. And if none of our fragrances seem appealing but you want some shaving soap anyway, message us- we can always do something custom for you!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The awesomeness of sugar scrubs

My mom, bless her heart, is baffled by sugar scrubs (don't tell her I said so). She received some for Christmas, and while she thought it looked and smelled nice, she just didn't know exactly what it was for or how to use it. As it turns out, this situation is shared by a lot of people. As someone who has discovered the awesomeness of a good sugar scrub, let me fill you in.

Ok, so, first of all, what's in a sugar scrub? Basically, it's a blend of sugars and oils. Some scrubs might include some other ingredients too, but those are the main two. Soapzilla sugar scrubs are made of a variety of sugars, depending on the type of scrub, and a blend of moisturizing oils. We also use just a little bit of sea salt, which acts as a natural preservative (more about that later) and essential oils for their relaxing properties and great fragrances.

Now, what are they for and how do you use them? Sugar scrubs provide an effective but gentle exfoliation (by way of the sugar crystals) while moisturizing your skin (with the oils). If you have dry or flaky skin, or almost any skin condition, it's very helpful. You take a small amount of the scrub in your hands and massage it (or scrub, whatever feels better) over the affected areas until the sugar dissolves. I used to go get pedicures ALL the time, not so much for the polished nails, but because my feet felt rough and looked dry, particularly my heels. I save myself a lot of money by using sugar scrubs at home. I like to take a hot bath, and after I've soaked a bit, sugar scrub my feet. It takes off all the dead, cracked-looking skin and leaves my feet feeling smooth and soft. It does leave you a little oily, but a quick wash with some soap (something that goes with the scent of your scrub) takes care of that. For the ladies out there- if you shave your legs and then sugar scrub your feet, you can massage some of the oil onto your legs, and it feels SO great. The effect lasts a good long while, too.

As for extra ingredients, you want to watch out for some of them. Some scrubs use chemical preservatives, because, although a sugar scrub on its own will not go bad, if you get any water inside the jar, then it will spoil. We don't like chemical preservatives, which is why we use sea salt. We only use a little, and you should still avoid getting water into the jar of scrub, but we're not fans of chemical additives. On the flip side, ingredients like essential oils can add a lot to your experience. You can read our post on craft beer soap to learn more about the benefits of essential oils, but they vary widely and can be very beneficial as well as relaxing, not to mention smelling delicious. If used as part of a bath, essential oils in a scrub will scent the whole bath and give you an all-over experience.

I never have considered myself a girly girl, and I used to scoff at the kind of person who used fancy soap and sugar scrubs. But I am completely converted- they just feel too good NOT to use. Plus, I make them in all kinds of non-traditional scents that aren't necessarily too girly or floral, like peppermint, grapefruit, white fig, lemongrass, brown sugar vanilla... you name it. And we even make some for the guys, in the same fragrances as our shaving soap, because, really, everybody deserves happy skin.

Monday, April 8, 2013

So... how do you make soap, anyway?

When, in conversation, I tell people what I do, they are always surprised and, after a moment to think about it, confused. Soap is one of those things you just take for granted, unless you have a special interest in it. So after a minute, they almost always ask, "So... how do you make soap?" Sometimes I say, "Well, when lye and oils love each other very much..." but since that doesn't always go over very well, I end up explaining the process fairly often.

In general terms, then, soap is made through a process called saponification. There are two parts to the soap mixture, and when those two parts are combined, they saponify, and the chemical reaction forms soap.

The first half is a mixture of lye (which is extremely caustic and can cause chemical burns, which is why I look like a mad scientist when I make soap, with a face mask and safety goggles and gloves) and liquid- usually water, but depending on the soap, you can also use milk, coconut milk, beer, et cetera. The second half consists of oils. You can use pretty much any oil you can think of to make soap, but since each oil has different properties, the better the oils, the better the soap. Also, you might have
different purposes for different kinds of soap, so you'd want to choose the right oils to make, say, a mild moisturizing soap, or a soap with a very bubbly lather, or a super-cleansing utility-style bar, or any number of other qualities. Some people use animal fats like lard or tallow, which I understand make some wonderful soap, but I never use any animal fats, only vegetarian oils like coconut, olive, castor, avocado, almond, wheat germ, et cetera. I love to work with honey and beeswax, so I mix those in at this stage too. If you use beeswax, it's very important to know your source, because many hives are managed with chemicals, and wax absorbs everything it comes into contact with. So if bees are managed with chemicals it goes right into the wax and then onto you, when you use your soap. (Our bees, obviously, are chemical-free, or I wouldn't be off on a tangent about it.)

The two halves have to be measured extremely carefully, so that they neutralize each other evenly. If your mixture has too much lye in it, the soap will remain caustic and not be safe to use. If you have too many oils, the extra oil in the soap will go rancid. Each kind of oil saponifies at a different rate, so you have to be certain that each one is measured down to the gram, and that you're using the exact right amount of lye for that combination. And the two halves have to be mixed at just the right temperature or they can curdle, separate or refuse to "trace." When you combine into one mixture, you then have to stir it until it reaches trace, the stage at which, if you trail some of the mixture across the surface, it leaves a trail, or trace, before sinking back into the mixture. Depending on the soap and how you stir it, this can take an hour or more. But you can't stir too long, either, because if it reaches trace and you keep going, the mixture can quickly seize and become completely solid right in the pot. You have to watch carefully, because some soap can reach trace in less than a minute.

Then the fun part: additives. These can turn your soap from super-plain and dull to amazing. Fragrances, colors, essential oils, vitamin E, exfoliants, botanicals... a creative person can come up with infinite variations. You mix these in as you're bringing the soap to trace (not after, because if your soap is getting ready to seize you won't want to take the time to mix in anything extra; you have to move quickly). And some of the additives (especially essential oils) can accelerate trace, making it happen very fast. This is also the time when, if you're making soap with swirls or layers of different colors, you'd split the batch into separate containers and mix in different additives.

Then you pour your soap into molds, cover it, and (again depending on what you're trying to do with the soap) insulate it or chill it. After a day, you can unmold it and slice it, and wait for it to "cure." Curing is sort of like ripening for soap. It takes time for the saponification process to be complete, and until then, the soap remains caustic and isn't safe to use on skin. The length of time varies from recipe to recipe, but three weeks is usually a good cure time. That time also allows the soap to harden (it's soft when it's newly-made), and the harder a bar of soap is, the longer-lasting it is. Finally you can trim your cured soap, smoothing edges and any imperfections, and package it up.

And that's how soap is made! There are, of course, tons and tons of websites and books on the subject, and variations in almost every step, but those are the basics.

Friday, April 5, 2013

A Soap by the Home Brewers, for the Home Brewers...

A common theme in most of my blog posts (and conversations, for that matter; pity my friends) is how hobbies lead into one another. For me, gardening led to bees, and then honey led to mead making and beeswax led to soap making. The gardening also led me (and my husband) to grow our own grapes (for wine) and hops (for beer). The result of all this, at the moment, is that now I'm incorporating the home brewing into the soap.

A lot of places carry beer soap. However, some soap makers just substitute beer for the water in a recipe and call that beer soap. In my opinion, that's no fun. The whole point of drinking something more complicated than a Bud Light is that it's interesting. And what makes it interesting? The sugars, the hops, the floral notes, the maltiness... all the nuances that make a craft beer a craft beer. And all of those can be applied to soap! It's so much fun to work out how best to make a soap reflect the qualities of a particular beer. For instance, a honey brown soap will incorporate a really good beer, sure, but also local honey, real hops, and essential oils, while a coffee stout will have some deeper flavors, and an awesome exfoliating texture from finely ground coffee. A good beer soap will have all the aromatics of a craft brew without the boozy alcohol smell. You should appreciate the fragrance of a beer soap the way you'd inhale over a great beer just before that first sip.

Another benefit of a more thorough approach to soap making is that you get the real benefit of the ingredients. It's similar to the difference between raw honey and processed honey (which is a whole different post); you can just have the flavor of honey if you want, but raw honey gives you active ingredients with a whole array of benefits in addition to flavor (which is improved as well). So you can certainly enjoy beer soap that's just been made quickly with beer substituted for water in the recipe, but our style of beer soap is going to be more than just a novelty gift.

In addition to just enjoying the experience of using it, it's good for you! Like many alternative remedies, results aren't guaranteed and will vary from person to person, but hops, for instance, are chock-full of antioxidants and are said to help relieve, to varying degrees, anxiety, sleeplessness, dermatitis, and lots more- everything from psoriasis to menstrual cramps to stress headaches. You can read more about that here and here and here.  Speaking of honey, I'm not going to get started on that right now, but in my experience it's practically a cure-all, particularly when it comes to skin. Additives like coffee in a coffee porter soap are great exfoliants, and oatmeal in an oatmeal stout soap can soothe irritable skin. Essential oils have a wide range of benefits, from digestion to circulation to just plain relaxation; more info on that here and here and here. And just on a tactile level, the sugars in beer soap change the lather- just as some beers have more of a head than others, using candy sugar or honey or malt sugar in a beer soap will result in more bubbly suds.

To sum up, then: beer soap is awesome. It feels good, it smells good, it's good for you, and it makes a good gift for yourself or for the beer connoisseur in your life. Soapzilla beer soap is shortly going to be for sale locally at a craft beer store (ooh, mysterious! We'll make an announcement when it's officially in stock) but these varieties, which have been really fun to test, will be our initial offerings:

Pale Ale: a translucent amber glycerin soap, Pale Ale is extremely moisturizing and smooth, with noticeable hoppiness and citrus notes, especially grapefruit.

Honey Brown: an opaque golden-brown soap, Honey Brown is a mild soap with East Kent Golding hops, essential oils and local raw honey.

Oatmeal Stout: dark-brown and complex, Oatmeal Stout incorporates hops and ground oats to exfoliate and soothe your skin.