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!