Lye and lavender

Homemade soap has come a long way from Grandma's old-time recipe

Homemade soap has come a long way from Grandma's old-time recipe

February 21, 2009|By PAMELA PALMER / Special to The Herald-Mail

The fragrance of homemade soap conjures up images of bathing amid rich, steaming lather infused with delicious aromas of lavender, patchouli, white pine or jasmine.

According to World Book encyclopedia, soap making has been made for thousands of years, since at least the time of the ancient Romans.

Early techniques typically involved combining plant or animal oils with ashes from fires.

Synthetic detergents, developed in the early 20th century, changed soap making and the soap industry.

Most mass-produced bar soap today is actually detergent, based on propylene, a petroleum-based ingredients, according to, an academic Web site.

A skin-softening emollient, glycerin, found naturally in soap is often extracted during the process of manufacturing commercially made soap, then sold as a valuable byproduct for lotions and conditioners, according to Cranberry Lane, a supplier for natural soap makers.


According to the National Geographic's Green Guide - at www.thegreenguide .com - there are about 120 chemicals in manufactured cosmetics that have not been completely tested for toxicity. Some of these chemicals are known to be carcinogenic or cancer-causing.

The Green Guide says a one-time exposure to these chemicals is unlikely to cause harm, but a lifetime of use might.

Handmade vs.mass-produced

"After experiencing the benefits of handcrafted soap, created from ingredients with pronounceable names, people often never go back to manufactured soaps," says Elsie Wyndham, a longtime soap maker.

Wyndham sold her soap for 13 years at City Market in Hagerstown. She says the craft of soap making is growing in popularity, as consumers strive for more natural, earth-friendly, living choices.

Other local soap crafters include Jeanne Dietz-Band of Many Rocks Farm in Keedysville (, who sells handcrafted soap made from goat's milk and organically grown herbs produced on her farm.

"Milk has been used for centuries for skin softening," Dietz-Band says. "Goat's milk has a high amount of natural emollients, vitamins and minerals great for soap making."

Make your own

Handmade, all-natural soap is crafted often from plant oils combined with lye and essential oils for fragrance. One very important aspect in home-based soap making is to remember is that lye is caustic. It will burn skin. To be safe, handle carefully and wear rubber gloves and goggles.

There is a hot-processed technique and a cold-processed technique. In the cold-processed technique, lye and water are mixed together. The mixture immediately heats up by chemical reaction. The lye mixture is then cooled to 100 degrees. Plant oils are heated to 100 degrees, added to the lye-water mixture, and everything is blended together until properly blended.

The soap mixture is then poured into a soap mold to harden and cure for four to six weeks.

Pamela Palmer, a freelance writer living in Hagerstown, is a columnist for Women's Online Magazine and for the e-zine Suite 101

Know more

· To find other locally crafted soaps, check out Wilson's General Store near Clear Spring or Cedar Ridge Soaps in Keedysville (its Web site is

· - Directions for making cold-processed soap by David Fisher, owner of Bath Rabbit Soap Company, with clear articles and how-to videos and soap recipes.

· - Lots of great information, soap-making supplies, soap recipes and a user-friendly lye calculator for your recipes.

· - A soap crafter with lots of helpful information and soap recipes.

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