The Best Soap Ever

*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.

How does your garden grow?

(Another sort of kum-ba-ya post for this week. Apparently I’m in that kind of mood.)

Reason #1 (which is actually a few reasons):

Because it’s fun. I get to spend time outside in the sun. I get to eat fresh, fully ripened vegetables I know were grown well and healthily. I get to feed garden spiders, meet snapping turtles, and watch lizards and skinks feast on craneflies, mosquitoes, and whatever else they can catch. I can go out and pick pretty flowers for my kitchen and cook with fresh herbs. I get 30-60 minutes of sunshine and “meditation” time every few days (or every day in the summer) while I water and tend to things, time spent alone, but with purpose. Because it forces me to actively pay attention to my surroundings. Because I can easily see the results of my work, whether it’s fewer weeds, pruned plants, picked harvests, or cleared out space for new things.

Reason #2:

Because it’s never just “go to work, come home, live meaningless and repetitive life” with a garden. In fact, I’d never really thought about it that way, until I read a recent article on about things they never tell children about being adults. Apparently, once you become an adult, you never have “summer” again – “summer” just means more work and then weekends doing housework and then more work, with no chance to re-create yourself and take breaks to think.

There’s a certain truth to that, unless you’re a teacher (at which point summer sometimes means working two seasonal jobs to get extra income). At work, time is measured in arbitrary weeks. Those weeks change, with weekends and shifts … well, shifting every week. Time is measured in coupons and promotions, sales plans and marketing strategies. It’s measured in hours of different colored squares that tell me that this hour I have to answer the phone, but next hour I have to stand at Register 3, before I go to lunch.

When I go home, though, I look at the plants in the yard. I notice that the replanted Pentas look a little droopy and need water, but that the mulch is holding up on the new bed pretty well. I notice that the gerbera daisies seem to be thriving in the bed with the hibiscus plant, and silently cheer to FINALLY have a spot for them (and that the new one I got last week with no color indication is, in fact, PEACH. NEW COLOR YAY!). I notice that the purple coneflowers have sprouted their batch of babies for this year, taking my total plants from 6 to about 30, and that the shasta daisies out front need water. I notice that it’s time to start eating lettuce, and that the radishes are starting to look radishey. I notice that the crepe myrtles are budding out, and that a few still need to be pruned.

I notice that it’s late March.

In June, I’ll be noticing something different. I’ll be pulling out dead squash and tomato plants and starting the season of “wait and see”, giving me time to plan a fall garden and start preparing for winter.  By September, I’ll be hoping to keep a last few plants alive, thankful for the butterfly and wildflower gardens ability to tolerate heat and drought. In October, I’ll plant broccoli and winter squash.

In short, even though I go to work, and my work is “meaningless” in terms of creating that new start, creating chapters and dividing lines in my life the way school once did, I always have the garden to find that meaning. Every spring is different. Some plants will die, others will thrive. I’ll hand turn the compost and coffee grounds and dead leaves into the soil, tilling under any last vestiges of what might’ve been left over last year, and start again fresh.

The seasons are pretty spiffy like that.

Reason #3:

Because when I work in a garden, in a muddy t-shirt and stained jeans and old boots, with my hair tied up in a bandanna and enough dirt going around that I eventually end up finding it not only between my toes but behind my ears and IN MY BRA, it doesn’t matter what I look like. It doesn’t matter if I can wear a bikini and not be in a state of high anxiety the whole time. It doesn’t matter if my (body part) doesn’t conform to (unrealistic social standard).

I’m in the garden. I can spend an afternoon with a shovel and a pickaxe, a rake and a hand mattock, and bust through many square feet of 30 year neglected shrubs. I can weed and water, put down mulch, prune plants and deadhead flowers. I can carry bags of mulch and topsoil and sand and poo. I know my way around a lawnmower and a weedeater; I’ve used a chainsaw and a pole saw. I can trim bushes and cultivate baby plants into strong seedlings that will grow into fully developed plants. I can tend things as they grow. And then, after all that tending, I get flowers and vegetables and fruits to show for it.

In the garden, I’m strong, capable, and awesome, even if I have dirt in my bra. It doesn’t matter what my mental state is, if I’m having a good or a bad day, the sheer physicality of the work grounds me and evens things out.

The Earth is strong, and I gain strength from working with it.

Why did my plant die?

Why Did My Plant Die?
by Geoffrey B. Charlesworth.

You walked too close. You trod on it.
You dropped a piece of sod on it.
You hoed it down. You weeded it.
You planted it the wrong way up.
You grew it in a yogurt cup
But you forgot to make a hole;
The soggy compost took its toll.
September storm. November drought.
It heaved in March, the roots popped out.
You watered it with herbicide.
You scattered bonemeal far and wide.
Attracting local omnivores,
Who ate your plant and stayed for more.
You left it baking in the sun
While you departed at a run
To find a spade, perhaps a trowel,
Meanwhile the plant threw in the towel.
You planted it with crown too high;
The soil washed off, that explains why.
Too high pH. It hated lime.
Alas it needs a gentler clime.
You left the root ball wrapped in plastic.
You broke the roots. They’re not elastic.
You walked too close. You trod on it.
You dropped a piece of sod on it.
You splashed the plant with mower oil.
You should do something to your soil.
Too rich. Too poor. Such wretched tilth.
Your soil is clay. Your soil is filth.
Your plant was eaten by a slug.
The growing point contained a bug.
These aphids are controlled by ants,
Who milk the juice, it kills the plants.
In early spring your garden’s mud.
You walked around! That’s not much good.
With heat and light you hurried it.
You worried it. You buried it.
The poor plant missed the mountain air:
No heat, no summer muggs up there.
You overfed it 10-10-10.
Forgot to water it again.
You hit it sharply with the hose.
You used a can without a rose.
Perhaps you sprinkled from above.
You should have talked to it with love.
The nursery mailed it without roots.
You killed it with those gardening boots.
You walked too close. You trod on it.
You dropped a piece of sod on it.