An Aromatherapy Treatment

by Susan Spencer & Jeanne Rose

                Go into any bath and body store and you are sure to find soaps in  a huge variety of scents, fragrances, colors, types, sizes, shapes and price ranges.  How are these soaps different from the nationally advertised brand name soaps?  How are they different from each other?  What really makes a soap a "good" soap? 

                The first thing most people do when seeking the perfect lathery bar is to hold it to their nose and breathe deep. Apparently, the most important thing to most people is fragrance.  But there is more to soap than just scent.  The base is an important aspect of any soap that consumers know little about. 

                First a little background: As  you may know, very few companies make their own soap.  In fact, virtually all famous brand name soaps, hotel soaps, teddy bear soaps, fruit soaps, glycerin soaps, aromatherapy soaps, etc. on the market are made by just five independent soap makers who "private-label" for hundreds of different companies.  So if you want to find out everything there is to know about "Made in America" soap, there are only a few key people to talk to.  Of those five independent American soap makers, only three actually make their own soap base which means that many soaps, despite all their apparent differences in color, fragrance and packaging, share exactly the same base.

                In the "natural" products industry, more and more individuals are making their own soaps and soap base.  Spirits Herb Shop makes soap for thousands in her soap kitchen (with a little help from five other family soap makers who also work out of their kitchens.) 

                Saponification is the process of making a soap base by mixing fat with an alkali.  In the old days soap makers used the ashes of plants like the Soapwort and Barilla for their alkali.  But ever since Nicolas Leblanc figured out how to synthesize the active ingredient, sodium hydroxide (a.k.a. lye), in the late 18th c. France, that's what everyone's been using.

                When it comes to which fat or oil to use, however, there are still lots of options: saturated, unsaturated, poly, mono, animal, vegetable. 

                Most soaps are made from a tallow base (that's right, animal fat…whence comes the expression soap rendering).  It doesn't matter how many flowers are on the package, or even how transparent the bar is, unless it specifically says "vegetable base" it's probably tallow.

                People have been using tallow for soap ever since Phoenicians boiled goat fat with wood ashes about 2500 years ago. The first solid soap bar was made in the Middle East around the 8th century.  Today, tallow still makes a great base for soap and is cheap.  

                We have a preference, aesthetic and otherwise, for soaps with a vegetable-base.  Baudelaire prefers a blend of 80% palm oil and 20% coconut oil, but other soap makers use combinations that contain olive oil and /or other vegetable oils.  The base for true Castile soaps, for example, is primarily olive oil made in the Castile region of Spain.  Be cautious, some soap makers label their soaps as Castile though they are not actually a TRUE Castile soap from the Castile region nor are they an olive-oil based soap. 

                Here's a little-known fact: you don't have to add glycerin to make a glycerin soap base.  You have to leave it in!  When fat is mixed with lye, this chemical reaction creates about 93% soap and 7% glycerin.  Usually all but about 1/2% of that glycerin is removed.  In a glycerin soap, it's left in, and occasionally more is added generally from tallow soap makers to bring the level up to around 10%.

                After saponification, some soap makers add an additional oil or fat (often lanolin) to the soap base.  This creates what is called a superfatted soap. 

                Once the saponification process is complete, most soap base is dried into a powder; or, occasionally, a flaky substance. The powder or flakes lie around in big bags, waiting to be mixed with some fragrance, color, preservatives, anti-oxidants, secret ingredients, or whatever the soap maker will be adding to create the final product.  The ingredients get macerated, squeezed, rolled, chopped, milled and, finally squished (a.k.a. extruded) into the long tube of soap! A soap's longevity depends not only on the base, but also on how it's milled and dried. It is then sliced, molded and wrapped to produce the final bar of soap. 

                The only difference between some "natural" soaps and soaps you buy at the supermarket are packaging and a vegetable base.  Many contain synthetic fragrance oils, artificial coloring and preservatives.  Many call themselves "Aromatherapy" simply because they contain fragrance.  A true aromatherapy soap is one that has therapeutic value, meaning it is of a vegetable base, contains no artificial coloring and the fragrance and therapy comes from pure, therapeutic quality essential oils from plants which have not been standardized.  Of course, only some of this information is on the label, and if you call many soap companies, they will not know if they are using pure essential oils, if the oils have been standardized, or even if the oils come from plants.  We recently contacted a soap company which advertised "ALL NATURAL, NOTHING ARTIFICIAL" on its product information and label.  They claimed to be using pure, high-quality essential oils.  Yet when they told us they were paying approximately $12-20 for a Kilo of what was sold to them as Lavender oil, it was clear that they were mistaken.  No one is knowingly selling 100% therapeutic quality Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) oil for $12-20 a Kilo.  Lavender - terpene free, a good Lavender essential oil for soap costs $125 a Kilo. Lavender 40-42 which is a standardized semi-synthetic oil is about $45 a Kilo.  True Lavandula angustifolia is $200 a Kilo and up.   

                Spirits soaps mix the vegetable oils and lye at perfectly controlled temperatures, then add pure essential oil, 8 ounces to every 32-35 pounds of soap base.  The soap is then poured, aged and cut.  There are no preservatives or synthetic fragrance added.  The result is the only pure, natural and therapeutic soap in the natural foods market.  Due to the high essential oil content per bar of soap, every wash gives you approximately 1 drop of pure essential oil in a way that is therapeutic to the skin.  For a genuine aromatherapy treatment for acne, irritations or skin that is too dry or oily, this lathering is followed by an aromatherapy lotion or bath oil containing the appropriate essential oils.

                Try Spirits Soap for teenage skin; green and blue soap with Douglas Fir and Rosemary Verbenone to stimulate and wake you in the morning; marbleized soap with Vanilla/Patchouli scent for a relaxing romantic interlude and JEANNE ROSE SEAWEED SCRUB with oats and seaweed for cellulite treatment.

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*This article is adapted in part from Baudelaire February 1991 newsletter.

*For more information send a postcard to Jeanne Rose Aromatherapy, 219 Carl St., San Francisco, CA 94117 for a product list.

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