What’s with all the numbers, part two!

Yesterday we got started with an answer to the question I am most frequently asked when I’m out at a show or market with my soap, “what’s with the numbers on the labels?”

Today, we press on with part two: the nineteenth century!


Right now I'm working with three 1842 soaps: Tea Tree, Peppermint and Lavender

Right now I’m working with three 1842 soaps: Tea Tree, Peppermint and Lavender

Once I had my basic recipe settled, I turned to experiments with other oils to see what benefits they might offer.  Some I decided not to work with because I wasn’t comfortable with the questions raised by their cultivation or production methods.  Others I quickly discovered would cause an immediate allergic reaction, often before I’d even finished mixing the raw soap.

Perfume oils are highly problematic, because even though the FDA has relatively stringent requirements as to how ingredients must be listed on the labels of products, perfume and fragrance blends are considered trade secrets and so, though there may be anywhere from two or three to hundreds of individual compounds making up a scent, those components are not required to be listed individually.

There’s nothing inherently or necessarily wrong with this, but for those of us with chemical sensitivities, it’s just too big of a risk to take on a potential adverse reaction if we can’t be sure what’s in that compound.

With essential oil, you can be a bit more confident in your choices.  FDA regulations differentiate perfume oils from essential oils based on their contents.  While perfume oils can contain anything from compounds directly extracted from a raw natural source to compounds produced wholly in a laboratory, essential oils can only be, they *must* only be, the volatile compounds extracted from a flower, leaf, root, or seed of a plant.  Methods of extraction differ, so it is still necessary to be careful when selecting an essential oil to work with, but steam or expression are the most common extraction methods.  As a result, you are left with only the pure “essence” of the plant involved, rather than a blend of essences with other chemical compounds.

Still, some folks do react to essential oils in products, and so I wanted to have a distinct and easy to recognize key to help customers know when something more than just olive oil is in that bar of soap.  Sure, I list the essential oil on the label in both the description and the listing of contents, but I wanted a way for the difference to be clear at a glance.

I’m a bit of an absolutist when it comes to labeling.  Put it all out there, do the work of educating your customers on your methods and values, and then let them decide.  The other side of the caveat emptor coin is that the emptor must be provided with all the information necessary to make an informed choice.

The nineteenth century was a period of time when many traditional handcrafts (like the production of essential oils and soaps) began to be reinterpreted through the lens of industrial production, systematizing their manufacture (for good and for ill).  It made sense that, if I were going to continue to use dates to differentiate my lines, a nineteenth century date would be appropriate for a soap which included another oil, one extracted and refined using modern methods.

And it helps that I had a mid-nineteenth century touchstone in the date 1842, which is the year that Somerville was incorporated as a town in its own right, distinct from Boston and Charlestown.

Next up: the exciting conclusion to our “what’s with the numbers” series!

Sudsy Love and Slippery Transactions

We’ve been so busy around here since our debut at the Somerville Local First market at Arts at the Armory that we’ve barely had time to breathe!  So much sudsy love headed our way – who doesn’t love luxurious moisturizing soap, and plenty of folks in the area love to be able to source their luxuries locally!

We’ve also been working on a new soap based on a number of requests, so watch this space for an announcement very soon!

In the meantime, if you listen to podcasts, I recommend KQED’s feed, especially the short form Perspectives podcast, which offers the chance for regular folks to share humorous and poignant stories and essays from their own perspective.  It’s always fun, but today’s episode is right in our dish…  the soap dish, that is!

(mmmmm…  cinnamon clove gives me lots of ideas…)

And, by the way, if you need a “fix”, you can get all your ‘dirty’ needs met via our Etsy shop!


I’ve always had allergies.  Even as a pretty young kid, I remember needing to be careful about using the right sunscreen and shampoo, or risk the painful, itchy hives that would result wherever I came into contact with a new product.  Over time, I was able to make good choices, based on lots of hard won experience, but I was always just a bit jealous of my friends who could use fancy skin creams and deliciously scented bath products.  Above all, I wanted to have the same soft, smooth, healthy skin that they seemed always to take for granted!

I did have a few trusted products that I relied on, but a couple of years ago it seemed that even those began to provoke an allergic reaction.  And this time, I wasn’t alone; several of my friends found that their skin had changed radically over time (especially after they had their children) and now they too were looking for gentler, simpler bath products to take good care of their skin without added dyes, perfumes and preservatives.

Once again, I experimented with a wide range of products in search of one which would not bother my skin.  I had to cut a lot of possibilities right from the beginning because they contained sodium tallowate or sodium lardate, both of which are made from animal bi-products.  I also spent a long time in a fruitless search for soap without either sodium palmate or sodium palm kernelate, both of which are made with oils from oil palm trees.  Palm oil and palm kernel oil are popular because they are economical and produce a nice, hard bar of soap with lots of lather, but it’s difficult to know for sure if the palm trees were raised sustainably.   Oil palms are often farmed on land that was once vibrant forest, but which has been burned clear, covered with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and doused with water pumped or piped in to support those thirsty trees.

Worse still were the soaps which didn’t include a full listing of their contents, so it was never possible to be certain that the soap would meet both my practical and ethical needs!

It was a chance conversation with a fellow allergy sufferer online who pointed me toward the idea that I might make my own soap and be able to control exactly what would go against my skin.  And so I began to research and experiment!  I tried exotic blends of coconut oil, canola and castor, and kept running into the same problems: though the bars I came up with did get the job done and produced lots of fluffy lather besides, they still made me itch.

And then I found an anecdote in a very old book on soapmaking history, which suggested that one of the earliest recipes for soap was also one of the simplest; just pure olive oil, lye and water.  I tried it and fell in love immediately; it’s no wonder that people have, for so many centuries, relied on the remarkable properties of olive oil for all their skin care.  The soap I made with this recipe could not have been simpler, but the result was amazing: creamy, silky lather that left the skin feeling soft and smooth, and gently moisturized as it cleaned, with a fresh, light and almost lemony scent that needed no heavy perfumes.  And I wasn’t the only one who noticed the change: now my friends were admiring my skin and asking what was my new secret!

I shared the results of those first few batches with my network of allergy-sufferer friends, and before I knew it, requests came pouring back.  Could I make a version with some exfoliating scrub added?  How about a version with clarifying Tea tree oil, or the relaxing scent of lavender?  Each request spurred another round of research and experimentation, and now I’m delighted to be able to share what I’ve learned with others.