Boston Globe Magazine

Raising the bar

Handmade soaps are painstakingly prepared to pamper your skin

By Vicki Hengen, 10/13/2002


ARIZONA SOAPWORKS, Tucson. Funky, arty glycerin soaps in bright colors and unusual shapes (flowers, leaping cats).

CARDIGAN MOUNTAIN SOAP WORKS, Alexandria, New Hampshire. More than 50 varieties of floral, fruit, and herbal scented soaps as well as bars with names like Autumn in New England and Christmas in New England. Gorgeously wrapped in cotton cloth. Other bath products are also sold., toll-free 866-588-7627.

HIGHLANDER NATURALS, Plainville. Soaps, massage and body oils, lip conditioner, facial masks., toll-free 888-878-7627.

JUST SOAP, Florence. Produces soaps in fragrances like cinnamon clove, sage fir, and lemongrass ginger. Available at Bread & Circus and health food stores., 877-969-7627.

LANCASTER COUNTY SOAPWORKS, Manheim, Pennsylvania. A wide variety of soaps with names like Earl Grey, Chai, Chocolate Emergency, Wise Guy (made with beer) are made from vegetable oils (no animal fats) and other ingredients. Bath and body products are also sold.

LATIMER SOAP WORKS, Inverary, Ontario. A large selection of joyously colored, eccentrically patterned soap, as well as shaving, baby, and chef's soap, and more. Special orders and personalizations available.,  613-353-7439 or fax 613-353-6788.

PROVINCETOWN SOAP WORKS, Provincetown. Luxurious soaps with names like Beachcomber (containing lemongrass and vetiver), Trade Winds, and Snug Harbor. Plus bath and body products made with imported Dead Sea salts from Israel.  

RIO OSO FARM, Herriman, Utah. Beautiful soaps in unusual shapes and colors, including sleeping rabbits, alpacas, moons, and hearts., 801-254-7299.

SEA SOAPS, Ketchikan, Alaska. Soaps scented with fruits and botanicals with names like Arctic Mint, Northern Lights, Fireweed, Polar Bar, and more. Gift packs and other bath products available., toll-free 877-947-6277.

THE SOAP FACTORY, Bedford. Specializing in Castile bar and liquid soaps, made with olive oil, in various scents and colors., toll-free 888-227-8453.

SUMMIT SOAPWORKS, Ludlow, Vermont. Herbal, olive-oil based soaps, about 20 varieties, plus bath salts. Catalog available., toll-free 877-937-2627.

VERMONT SOAPWORKS, Middlebury, Vermont. A wide variety of soap, bath gels and salts, and other natural products., toll-free 866-762-7482.

Soap was named after the Greek poet Sappho, claims Larry Plesent, whose company, Vermont Soapworks, produces natural soaps and bath products in Middlebury.

"The women of Lesbos (who invented the first bank in the Western world) also lay claim to the invention of soap," he says. "You see, they actually ran a brothel, disguised as a temple. Supplicants gave donations to the church. Those without money brought goats. Lots of burnt offerings and ashes -- the raw materials of soap!"

If that's true, my hat is off to those Greek women. Long ago, I traded in my plain old drugstore soap for the handmade, old-fashioned kind they would have used, because I find it far gentler to the skin. I didn't know it then, but these are so unlike mass-produced commercial varieties because the processes by which they're made are completely different.

Commercial soaps are milled -- that is, cooked and melted down before being extruded into molds under high pressure. Such soaps typically include artificial dyes, preservatives, perfumes, and hardeners, as well as alcohol, and detergent to make them sudsy. The glycerin that is produced naturally in soap (a desirable component) is usually removed and sold for other uses, such as stabilizers in food and cosmetics production.

The technique used by hobbyists and small soap-making companies harks back to a simpler time. The process they use is called cold molding, and it, too, involves heat, but a heat that is produced solely by the chemical reaction called saponification. It is induced by mixing an alkaline solution (like lye or water filtered through ash) with natural fat or oils, and the result is soap.

The soft mixture is poured into molds, where it is left to cure for anywhere from three weeks to two months.

The resulting bars (or balls or frogs or kittens -- the possibilities are endless) are denser and richer in natural oils, contain no synthetic chemicals, and last about twice as long as the supermarket variety. All of the good glycerin is left in the soap, and these products are considered far kinder to the skin. People who suffer from allergies, eczema, or are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation can benefit from these qualities.

Soap makers use a wide variety of ingredients. The oils may be olive, coconut, or palm, and soaps are scented with selections from an infinite array of herbs, flowers, spices, fruits, milk, honey -- even chocolate and beer. Each ingredient claims specific homeopathic properties. Soaps made with anise are popular with hunters and fishermen, since they are believed to disguise the scent of humans.

Finally, natural-soap makers tend to be of the distinctly planet-loving, recycling, save-the-bunnies mind set. Take, for example, a company called Just Soap, which is run by one man in Florence, Massachusetts, who powers his mixing equipment with a specially built bicycle and packages his product in recycled wrapping. Frederick Breeden, owner of the company, says his soaps are available at many health and natural-foods stores around the state as well as on the Internet.

Or consider Deborah McMurtrie, who runs a small alpaca farm in Herriman, Utah, and makes quite beautiful soaps (under the label Bear River) in addition to the yarn she harvests and spins from her animals.

Or Valerie Sandusky, who mixes and cures her soap in a trailer on her property in Ketchikan, Alaska. The product is made with "oils, sodium hydroxide, and pure Alaskan rainwater."

So popular are these old-fashioned, natural soaps that there are now thousands of Web sites devoted to selling the work of cottage soap makers.

Having looked through nearly 200 Web sites, we list here a few whose products were particularly beautiful, interesting, or unusual. Handmade soap generally costs $4 to $6 a bar, and many of these companies offer an array of other bath and body products. All sell via the Internet, and most take orders or provide information by phone.


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