*crossposted from Seven Deadly Divas*

Back when I was in college, I decided to start growing out my hair. On a long hair care board, I ran across a discussion of something called a “shampoo bar”. My hair is somewhere between wavy and curly, extremely fine, and relatively thin, so I have to be pretty careful with what I wash it with – curly hair likes lots of moisture, and regular shampoos give me the bad aquanet frizz look. Not very attractive.

After a lot of forum reading, I started looking into shampoo bars, since I figured it was worth at least experimenting. I learned that some of them are essentially just solid state shampoo – a detergent with sulfates that had the exact same effect on my hair as regular bottled shampoo. Others, however, were made with super-fatted soaps and not detergents at all.

Brief Intro to Soap:

Soap happens when you mix oil/fat/butter with lye. The chemical reaction is called saponification, and when it’s completed and the soap has cured, you’re not actually left with any lye, just soap, glycerine, and water. People can make soap with animal fats (tallow) or vegetable oils and butters.

Tallow soaps are very hard and can be harsh – my grandmother made some tallow soap and while nobody uses it to clean their skin on a regular basis, it will get engine grease off your hands or pretty much any stain out of clothing. (It also smells vaguely like sausage.) Soap for your skin is usually made with vegetable fats and is much gentler. Super-fatted soap is soap made with more oils/fats/butters than the added lye can saponify into soap, leaving delicious skin conditioning oils and butters behind in the soap.

Natural and handmade soaps also still have all the glycerine – a saponification byproduct that draws and holds moisture (humectant). Most commercial soaps remove the glycerine because they can then sell it to you in more expensive stuff, resulting in a harsher soap for you and more money for them, when you buy their glycerine lotions.


After a bit of highly unfortunate experimenting, I saw a recommendation for shampoo bars made by a lady named Ida. Ida runs an online (and in person, if you live in Ohio) shop called Chagrin Valley Soap and Craft. Most of the reviews were highly favorable about her handmade soap as well.

I bought some samples – both of her shampoo bars and of her myriad soap offerings. It didn’t take long for me to get totally hooked. While my hair only needs to be scrubbed with shampoo about once a week (otherwise I just wash it with water and light conditioner), I use her soaps every day.

My skin is weird – my face is oily and acne prone, but also very sensitive to cleansers and most face washes will leave me with horrible pizza-like patches of acne after just a few days. The rest of my body, especially my arms and legs, gets dry, bumpy itchy patches all year long, worse in winter (even here in the swamp, where we only get quasi-winter-ish weather for a few short months).

I’ve tried going Soap Free, and had about as much failure as Haemonic has had success – I wouldn’t necessarily say I stunk, but my skin was VERY UNHAPPY, even if I did drastically cut down on how often I wash the not-dirty skin (like my upper arms). Also, I do a lot of gardening. At the end of a good afternoon of work in the garden, not only are my hands and feet dirty, my legs are dirty, my hair is dirty, my ears are dirty, I probably have dirt up my nose, and depending on the wind and how sweaty I get? I probably have dirt in my bra too.

Such occasions actually require soap.

Changing over to super-fatted natural soap instead of detergent-based cleansers (or bars! many “bar soaps” at the big box store are actually detergent) got rid of all but the worst winter itchies and calmed my skin so that I only use one acne related product and a light moisturizer all year long. Which is good, because if you’re used to buying a 12 pack of Big Box Brand Antibacterial Body Soap for $3, paying for individual bars of handcrafted soap will make you a little dizzy. Being able to cut down on all the other gunk I was using helped offset the price, and I was supporting an awesome small business at the same time.

Now, I’m not going to say that only Ida makes really great handmade soaps. In fact, I know she’s one of many awesome crafters who make amazing skincare products. But if you’ve never tried a handmade, super-fatted soap before, I highly recommend you try one. And if you don’t know which one to try, maybe try a sample bar or three from Ida.

Not sure where to start? Try the Chamomile and Calendula, Cucumber Lime Yogurt, or Lemon Lavender – they’re all wonderful. If you’ve got acne prone skin, the Neem and Tea Tree is good, and extremely sensitive skin will do well with the Aloe soap and the Olive and Shea.

My favorite shampoo bars are the Carrot Milk and Honey and the Butter Bar.

I put in my first order to Ida in 2004, back before she had a checkout cart and processed all her orders just by email. These days things are more automated, and Ida has a full checkout system on her site, but the soaps are still just as awesome.

And the best part of mail ordering your soap?

Your mailbox (and your bathroom cabinet) will smell AMAZING.

To get the most use out of your handmade soaps (of ANY variety), you should store them out of direct contact with water on a tray of some kind so that they can dry. Because of the glycerine in natural soap, it tends to absorb water and “melt” more easily than detergent soaps. I also cut my soap and shampoo bars into thirds, since that gives me a good hand-sized chunk to work with and keeps the rest of the bar out of the humid shower air until I need it.

The Best Soap Ever
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4 thoughts on “The Best Soap Ever

  • April 11, 2011 at 8:39 am

    Natural soap isn’t just a hippie thing…I’m about as far from hippie as you can get, and while I do use a commercial shampoo on what hair I’ve got left, I only use natural goat’s milk soap from a company called Southern Belles Soap Company down in Georgia. We run into them at a craft show we do twice a year and always make a point to either trade them jewelry for soap or just take advantage of their five-for-$20 deal.

    It’s amazing stuff. I have fewer problems with rashes and acne since I started using it, my skin feels better, and I feel cleaner. Plus the stuff lasts forever and the scents are awesome. They use goat’s milk (from their own goats) along with all the usual ingredients and stuff in their soaps and it results in a heavy, dense bar that’s long-lasting and very good on the skin. Of course I like the “guy” scents, stuff like cedarwood and pine and bay rum. They also do a tea tree soap that’s excellent on problem skin, like you mentioned, and they even do an unscented scent-masking soap for hunters.

  • April 11, 2011 at 9:55 am

    I recently changed over to Kiss My Face Olive Oil soap (I use the one that also has Green Tea in it because my skin is sensitive). I’ve noticed serious changes in how my face feels vs. even Neutrogena which was the best thing I found previously. It took a couple washes for my face to get used to the olive oil, and I thought it was pretty weird putting an oil on my face, but once it did it felt amazing.

    The only thing I put on my face anymore is sunscreen. Hooray for natural soaps.

  • April 12, 2011 at 4:21 am

    You hit a subject that needed attention … I’ve always liked Lush but this sounds even better. Thanks for the tips!

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