Metaphor Organic

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The Benefits of Organic Soap

Errol DavisComment

Here at Metaphor Organic, we’ve been using organic soap for so long it seems like a no-brainer. We rarely think about all the reasons we got into the soapmaking game or why we set out to make the best soap we could. That’s not to say that we never thought about it. We just made our decision long ago, and have been going with it ever since. However, if you haven’t thought a lot about what goes into your personal skin care products, the following article should give you a bit more information.

Introduction to the benefits of organic soap

What is the number one benefit of Organic soap? Organic soap is simply better for your skin. It contains natural ingredients such as plant-derived base oils, glycerin, and essential oils. By contrast, synthetic, mass-market soap is made of petroleum-based lathering agents, synthetic fragrances, harsh dyes, and dangerous preservatives. It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of our customers say that their skin feels better after using organic soap, and that it sometimes helps to improve skin conditions such as eczema and acne, rather than producing further irritation.

But not only is organic soap better for you, it’s also better for others. It’s better for the environment because producing its ingredients has less of an environmental impact, and because those ingredients break down easily and cause fewer problems after they go down the drain. It’s better for animals because its ingredients are already recognized as safe, so no animal testing is necessary. And finally, organic soap is better for the economy, because it is often made by small, local producers, so the dollars you spend on it stay in the community.

What do I mean by organic soap?

When I talk about organic soap, most of the time I’m talking about natural and organic soap. Natural soap is made out of fats or oils, water, lye, and often essential oils and natural dyes. Organic soap also has the added benefit of being made of ingredients that are produced with organic farming practices, that is, farming practices that don’t use pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. So organic soap is natural soap, but it is also one step better.

Organic soap is made of ingredients that are better for your skin

Base oils

Organic soap is made from natural ingredients, and in most cases, those ingredients are also organically farmed. The majority of the soap bar is made of what are called base oils. We use some of the same base oils for soapmaking that you can use for cooking. So if it’s safe to eat, it’s probably also safe to put on your skin. In the case of our latest recipe, those oils are coconut, olive, and castor bean oil. (We used to use palm oil but are phasing it out because of the massive amount of environmental destruction that it takes to produce.)

Essential oil

Another ingredient in our soap is essential oil. Essential oils are the volatile or fragrant compounds in certain plants. Most essential oils are distilled from things you would eat such as citrus fruit or herbs. Two examples of essential oils we use are lemon essential oil and rosemary essential oil. Experts say you shouldn’t put pure essential oil on your skin because it is very concentrated and can cause irritation. However, essential oil diluted with another oil is just fine.

Glycerin

Most organic soap also contains glycerin. Glycerin is a natural product of the soapmaking reaction. A lot of mass-market soapmakers and some small-batch soapmakers take out the glycerin because it makes the soap bar last longer or because they can sell the glycerin to use in other cosmetic products. However, when glycerin is left in the soap bar, it acts as a humectant, or a substance that attracts moisture from the air into the skin. Two other natural humectants are aloe and honey.

What about lye?

Lye is a purified natural substance that does not meet the definition of “organic.” Lye does have it’s origins in wood ashes, so it is plant-based. But it doesn’t seem like something you’d want to put on your skin. So what gives? Well, one soapmaker explained there is a difference between “contains lye” and “made with lye.” Soap is made in a chemical reaction between lye and oil. So, if done properly, there is no lye left in the soap once the soapmaking reaction is complete. There are only sodium ions, fatty acids, glycerin, and a bit of water. (And essential oils and whatever else you put in the bar.) If you have any more questions about how this works, google knows the answer, or you can send and email to sales@metaphororganic.com, and we can grab a beer and chat about chemistry.

Soapmaking and cooking

A few years ago a friend bought a house, and her father came to visit to help her with a couple of carpentry projects before she moved in. We were all having dinner one night, and he said something that stuck with me. If you start with the best ingredients, and manage to combine them with a little bit of skill, you’ll probably end up with a pretty good dish. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Imagine buying a salmon right off the boat, which you could when I was growing up on the Oregon Coast. Imagine taking the salmon home and cooking it over an open fire in the back yard. Pristine ingredients. And sure, it takes a little bit of skill to cook fish over a fire. Now imagine fish sticks that you buy in the freezer section of the grocery store. Imagine all the technical steps and machinery it takes to make fish sticks. Now which tastes better? In my experience, soapmaking works the same way.

What organic soaps do not contain

Now that we’ve talked about some of the good stuff in organic soap, I'm going to mention a few of the bad things found in mass-market commercial soap. Three ingredients I’m going to examine are surfactants, parabens, and artificial frangrances.

Surfactants

Surfactants are the chemicals responsible for the cleansing properties of a particular product. Surfactants are made of long molecules with two different ends. One end of the molecule sticks to water, while the other sticks to dirt and oil. Surfactants, as a category aren’t automatically bad for you. Soap is technically a surfactant. But you have to be careful about which surfactants you put on your body. One of the most common surfactants in personal cleansers and shampoos is sodium lauryl sulfate. Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is made from coconuts, but it is contaminated with toxic byproducts when it is manufactured. SLS has been linked to skin irritation, toxicity, endocrine disruption, and cancer. Another unsettling fact about SLS and many other synthetic substances is that your body doesn’t have the enzymes to break them down, so they may accumulate in your tissues over time.

Parabens

Parabens are a specific type of preservative used in a wide range of cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. More specifically they prevent growth of mold and bacteria. Paraben is actually short for “parahydroxybenzoate.” The reason we should avoid parabens is because they act like estrogen in the body. Too much estrogen can lead to breast cancer and reproductive issues. One piece of good news is that there are a lot of newer safer preservatives available, so a company that is still using parabens is really just being lazy. When inspecting labels on cosmetic products you should look out for the three most common parabens: butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. Or you can just opt for a simple, natural product such as organic soap!

Artificial fragrances

Let me tell you a story about artificial fragrances. Back in the early days of Metaphor Organic, we used some of them. (Hangs head in shame.) We bought all our essential oils down the street at a little bulk herb shop, and the artificial fragrance oil was right next to the essential oils. We didn’t know any better! But the more research we did, the more we realized we should phase them out. For example, there was an artificial vanilla that we used in some of our scent blends. Then we tried to find natural vanilla, but it was very expensive and it didn’t smell very distinctly. So we wrote to the manufacturer of the artificial vanilla to try to find out what was in it, because maybe then we could justify putting it in the soap. But they wouldn’t tell us! Artificial fragrances recipes are protected as trade secrets. So maybe they are fine, but other sources report that the majority of artificial fragrances are derived from petroleum.

Other ingredients

There is a long list of other synthetic ingredients that may be found in mass market cleansing bars, but listing them would make this article way too long. The best place to look for info on just about every additive to personal care products (and food) is the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. It’s their job to stay up to date on all the latest research on potentially harmful chemicals.

Why do companies use chemicals?

Ok, technically everything is made of chemicals, but you know what I mean. Why do large skin care companies use synthetic ingredients? For one, they’re cheaper than natural ingredients. For another, they’re easier to process and store. And finally, it’s easier to get them to produce exactly the desired result, such as super intense colors and scents. Remember that artificial vanilla we found at the herb store? It smelled like an hyper-natural BLAST of vanilla. Unfortunately, a lot of natural scents aren’t able to translate into soap. You can distill the essential oil out of a certain number of plants, mostly strong-smelling herbs, but I’ll bet that blueberry-ice-cream-scented soap is synthetic. Likewise, many flower scents are incredibly expensive to distill in their natural form, so, for example, if you want a jasmine bar of soap that costs less than $25, you have to use synthetic.

Soap that isn’t soap

As a final note on artificial soap, you might have noticed that a couple paragraphs ago I used the term “cleansing bars.” That’s because, legally, soap has to be made out of mostly oil, water, and lye. If it’s not, they have to call it something else, such as a detergent or “syndet” bar. That doesn’t mean that some companies don’t make actual soap and then put a bunch of other stuff in it. Dove soap is a great example. One ingredient is listed as “sodium tallowate,” which is just another way of saying tallow, or beef fat, that has reacted with the lye catalyst. Maybe not very delicious, but it is natural. But Dove also contains cocamidopropyl betaine, a synthetic surfactant. Likewise, Lush soap, even though we love its minimal packaging, contains SLS and parabens.

Organic soap is better for the environment

In the last part of this article, I’m going to talk about why organic soap is the best choice if you’re concerned not only about what sort of products you put on your skin, but also, the greater impacts of the production and disposal of those products.

Wind Oil

Errol DavisComment

Last post I explored how I would go about turning our manufacturing process completely farm-to-skin. Today I want to talk about one of the inspirations for wanting to take more control over our raw material production, and possibly one of the tools that would help us do so: wind oil. A few years ago, Dutch designer Dave Hakkens made a sleek and functional wind-powered oil press. It is basically a mini-windmill for your backyard. All you have to do is gather the nuts, place them in the hopper, and wait for the wind to do the work.

Wind oil design

The wind oil-machine is about seven feet tall. The wind turbine looks similar to that of the old mid-western agricultural windmills. It has fifteen blades made out of sheet metal. A worm drive gear arrangement sits behind the turbine, which turns the spinning of the blades into slow, powerful rotation around a vertical driveshaft. The driveshaft extends to an auger that is housed in a copper press assembly, which is located about halfway up the windmill. There is a platform under the copper press, with space for two bottles. One bottle collects the oil, while another bottle collects the leftover pulp.

Other oil expellers

The closest thing on the market to Dave Hakkens’ wind oil press is the Piteba hand crank oil expeller that is, interestingly, also from the Netherlands. The mechanism of the Piteba oil expeller also utilizes an auger that rotates within a metal tube, and it similarly separates the oil from the pulp. However, the Piteba mechanism is oriented horizontally compared to the wind oil machine, no gear assembly is needed to turn horizontal rotation into vertical, and a hand crank, of course, supplies all the necessary torque.

Making cold-pressed oil

Both Hakkens’ wind oil machine and the Piteba produce cold pressed oil, which just means no heat is used in the oil extraction. (If heat is used, more oil can be extracted, but heat may alter the taste of the oil.) The Piteba website mentions that it can press any seed nut or dried fruit that is at least 25 percent oil. I would expect the wind oil machine to have similar capabilities. Some of the nuts and seeds Dave Hakkens likes to press include hazelnuts, walnuts, linseeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds! If you read our post on creating a farm-to-face soapmaking operation, you’ll know why I have a special affinity for pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.

Open source?

One of the features of Dave Hakkens’ projects are that they are open source. At some point I think I read that he intended to make wind oil plans available so we can all build our own wind oil presses. I emailed him in 2015 or so asking if he would send me some plans, and he emailed back saying he was too busy! Well, it looks like he’s been working on spreading a DIY plastic recycling movement all around the world, so I suppose that’s more important than pressing a few seeds.

Metaphor wind oil?

Is a wind oil press in our future? Maybe. Most of the pieces look pretty easy to duplicate, except the auger. Maybe you can get a replacement Piteba auger somewhere. If not, it looks like there are plenty of Piteba oil expeller hacks documented online, including…one with a bicycle? But first, we have plenty of half-finished projects, such as increasing our revenue a bit by getting more of y’all to the website. So, perhaps, not in the near future. But…you never know.

Farm-to-Face Soap

Errol DavisComment

I’ve been thinking about growing and manufacturing some type of farm-to-table bath and body product since at least 2013, but at the time, I didn’t have a farm. That, and the term “farm-to-face” hadn’t been invented yet! After a few years of gardening and small-batch manufacturing, I’m pretty certain about the process I’d use, if the stars aligned and a few factors came into play. So how would we go about crafting a farm-to-face skin care product?

What does farm-to-face mean?

Firstly, let’s define the term “farm-to-face.” Farm-to-face, or farm-to-skin” means all the ingredients for a product are grown at the same location or by the same company that produces the skin care product. Farm-to-face is a similar concept to farm-to-table, which has existed in the restaurant industry for some time, in which the owners of the restaurant also grow the food that they prepare.

The hardest part of farm-to-face is finding a farm

When we lived in San Francisco, we had no green space at all. In Oakland, I actually had access to a rather large lot, but I didn’t know then what I know now about growing and producing oil. Now in Portland, I live on a wonderful property with lots of trees, but it is too shady to grow anything except maybe mushrooms!

Over the years, I’ve explored a bunch of options for obtaining the raw materials and processing my own oil. I researched going to a u-pick-it olive orchard in the Central Valley. The orchard staff would also extract the oil from the olives for $3 a pound, which is about what we pay for already processed olive oil.

Later, I found a guy in the Bay Area who had an olive oil centrifuge, the device that you use to separate the olive oil from the rest of the fruit. My idea this time was to forage avocados from a friend’s tree, which made several hundred pounds of avocados each year. Avocado oil is processed in a centrifuge just like olives. However, the guy with the centrifuge, in the end, decided not to work with us.

One year I planted a few oilseed pumpkins, but they didn’t make much more than one small soap batch worth of oil. For a while, I even looked into growing algae to produce oil for soapmaking!

Pumpkinseed oil for farm-to-face soap

One of the biggest problems in trying to locally-source all our ingredients was that two of the most useful base oils we use aren’t widely cultivated in the United States. One is palm oil, which we are actually phasing out. The other is coconut oil. We decided to continue to use coconut oil, because, along with olive oil, this is what gives our soap its unique “personality.”

However, it is possible to make soap purely out of olive oil, which is traditionally known as castile soap. Another oil very similar to olive oil is pumpkinseed oil. So, to keep things simple in this farm-to-face thought experiment, I would use a purely pumpkinseed oil recipe because it would take a lot less time to grow a crop of pumpkins than it would to establish my own olive orchard, especially in the rainy Pacific Northwest.

Sunflower oil for other skin care products

There is one oilseed even easier to grow than pumpkin seeds, and that is sunflower seeds. Sunflower oil, by itself, makes a very soft bar of soap that doesn’t cleanse very well, but it is great for other cosmetics. We use sunflower oil for a few of our skin care products, and so do a lot of other companies, such as Burt’s Bees. Growing sunflowers would be as simple as finding a vacant lot and planting a sack or two of sunflower seeds meant for birdseed. Those are actually the same kind that is used to make oil.

I actually have a pretty good physical sense of the amount of sunflower seeds needed. A friend used to plant sunflower seeds along her fence and in a couple flower beds. She easily filled up a big yogurt container with seeds for the next year, so you could probably make a couple gallons of oil from a quarter acre plot.

Sunflower oil is also great because it is one of the least comedogenic natural oils. Comedogenic means the tendency to clog pores and form blackheads. For some reason, the sunflower oil molecules are big enough that they don’t clog the pores, or the oil is just not as irritating as other oils.

Processing the oilseeds for farm-to-skin products

After growing and harvesting the oilseeds, the next step would be to mill them to get the oil out. Since I would opt for pumpkin seeds versus olives, I wouldn’t need a centriguge, but rather, more of a press, or grinding device. There are a couple popular tools that backyard homesteaders use, mostly of the hand-crank variety. One of these could process a gallon of sunflower seeds in about an hour, and you would end up with about a pint of oil. This is not too bad a time investment to produce enough cooking oil for a month or two. However, it is a big labor cost to add if you’re making products to sell. If I was thinking about a long-term farm-to-face cosmetic operation, I would almost certainly build some sort of hydropower or windmill oil expeller to process my seeds.

Update: I wrote a later post about a prospective design for one of these contraptions.

Is it possible to make all-natural lye?

It is possible to make your own lye. Our pioneer ancestors made lye out of hardwood ash. They would simply mix the ash with water and then mix that with cooking fat. One problem with making soap out of wood ash lye is that it’s not very precise. We might end up with a bar of soap with not enough lye that is basically just oily goop. This happened with one of our very early experimental batches, and the goop-soap was not very pretty or effective. Or we could end up with a bar of soap with too much lye that would be very harsh or even dangerous to use. I’m not saying that DIY lye is out of the question, but I would be hesitant to use it in a recipe that is meant for commercial production. If we did decide to make an entirely farm-to-face soap bar, we would almost certainly invest in they type of testing equipment needed to ensure consistent lye quality, or at the very least, practice a lot before we made a bar to sell.

Other farm-to-face ingredients

Essential oils aren’t necessary to make a bar of soap, but they do make it smell good, which in turn, makes people want to buy it! So if we wanted to make soap that was actually marketable, we would probably have to invest in a still to steam-distill essential oils. Steam distilling requires a lot of raw material to start with, so we would probably pick scents based on availability of materials. For example, if we made soap that smelled like eucalyptus, pine, or bay laurel, simply pruning a couple trees would give us enough material for a few batches of soap.

Beeswax is another ingredient that might not be necessary, but greatly improves the quality of a soap bar in certain circumstances. For example, in our experience, a pure olive oil soap bar is rather brittle, and often cracks while curing or being cut. A little beeswax in the recipe goes a long way to make a firm bar that is not too brittle. Beeswax is necessary, however, to thicken balms and salves. So the hypothetical Metaphor Organic farm would certainly include a few bee hives!

Finally, a lot of natural soap brands include little bits of seeds, flowers, or other natural ingredients to use as exfoliants or just as an artistic touch. This part of Metaphor Organic production is already farm-to-face, because most of these “botanicals” come from our home garden. Our homegrown lavender petals, for example, have a deeper color and smell better than anything we can find available commercially. This bring up another point, that you can strive to produce ingredients in-house, even if the entire operation is not farm-to-face. Even though we think we make one of the best soaps out there, any craft is a process. There is always more to learn, and there are always ways to improve.

Conclusions

After years of soapmaking and especially after doing the research to write this article, I think that farm-to-face soap is certainly doable. However, considering the difficulty of making consistent lye, as well as the expense of a still to make the essential oil, I think it would be a lot easier to start with a different farm-to-face skin care item such as a salve. We could grow the sunflowers as well as any fragrant or medicinal herbs. A few bee hives would make all the necessary wax. And because the process of making salves is more simple than that of soap, we could simply soak, or macerate, the necessary herbs in the sunflower oil rather than having to first distill their essential oils. If you are curious about why you need to use essential oils in soap, you can read the article about our soapmaking process. Or if you have some land that you want to loan us for a farm-to-face skin care operation, in Northwest Oregon or Southwest Washington, email us asap at sales@metaphororganic.com!

Moving to Portland, Oregon

Errol DavisComment

In July 2006, I moved from Ashland, Oregon to San Francisco for creative writing school, and a soap company was but a twinkle in my eye. I joked that I saw all kinds of cool people driving on I5 the other way, moving from the Bay Area to Portland! Indeed, around that time was the beginning of the Bay Area exodus. Creatives seemed to be migrating to either Oakland or Portland.

Over a decade later, I’m headed back. In fact, I’ve been back for almost a year. If you regularly order from us, you might have noticed the return address move from San Francisco to Oakland, to a different address in Oakland, to Sacramento, briefly back to Berkeley, and now to the Portland, Oregon area. Half of the soap company, our designer-at-large, Adam, has actually been in Oregon since 2015.

A Farm in the City?

Metaphor has been an odd mix of idealism and commercialism. We set out to make natural products, but we put them in smart-looking boxes and charged gift shop prices. When this project began, I dreamed of a network of urban farms grown on the tops of buildings throughout the city. I did live in Oakland for a few years, in a building next to a huge vacant lot where my partner and I managed to grow the majority of our vegetables. Much like the Amish farmer from our collective imagination, I made value-added products (soap) to pay the non-food related expenses.

A Greater Vision

But beyond some sort of pastoral fantasy, I wanted to create a sustainable lifestyle. A way of living, but also a business model that would bypass the fossil fuel economy and send ripples out into the world inspiring others to do the same. There was a bit of Kantian imperative. I wanted to embody principles that I could say if everyone followed, the world would be significantly better.

The Limiting Factor of an Urban Farm is Rent

Something I’ve been struggling with for a few years is that not everyone can run a Metaphor Organic. Not even close. To really make this lifestyle work, you have to win coveted shelf space in gift shops and grocery stores. Most farm and gift markets already have soap vendors, and most craftspeople I’ve met do it as a side hustle. You can make a small soapmaking operation work in roughly the space of one bedroom. However, in the Bay Area, you can make more money per month renting out that bedroom than we gross most months.

Back to Our Roots

Still, it wasn’t rent that drove us from the Bay, so much as friends and family live elsewhere, mostly in the Northwest. While I spent a lot of time successfully existing in the City, I never was able to shake off my small town Oregon instincts. Metaphor will continue, though I don’t expect it to ever serve as our main venture. There may be some adjustment, as a large part of our brand identity involves being a local Bay Area company. Maybe, if I am fortunate in a couple years I’ll be able to buy a plot of of land and build a small cottage. The property values even in the small towns are racing skyward, as it seems everywhere is gentrifying, but it will take quite a while for this process to spread to every little patch of ground. You can’t plant fruit trees, and then dig them up every few years with rent doubling again and again.

Why We Don't Make Cannabis Soap

Errol DavisComment

Recreational cannabis just became legal in Canada, and it has been legal in Oregon and California (our two home states) for some time. Currently, topical formulations containing cannabis are hugely popular. Such products, especially those containing CBD, have been shown to soothe arthritis symptoms and chronic pain, and they may help improve a variety of skin conditions.

So why don’t we make cannabis soap? For one, it seems like a waste of good cannabis! When you use soap, the lather only sits on your skin for a few moments before it is washed off, so there isn’t a lot of time for the active ingredients to work. A topical product that remains on your skin, such as a lotion, balm, or infused oil, would be a lot more effective. For another, there is still a lot of legal gray area surrounding products containing THC and CBD, and we don’t really want to deal with the hassle of figuring out which states we can ship to, and whether or not we may be breaking any laws. And finally, for a small manufacturer, it is simply more effective to concentrate on a few products that we do well rather than trying to capitalize on every trend.

That said, cannabis soap is still an interesting topic, and I’m going to explore a few of the questions people are asking about it on the Internet.

How do you use cannabis soap?

You use cannabis soap just like regular soap. Rub it on your body. Lather. Rinse. Repeat if necessary.

Does cannabis soap get you high?

No. A lot of research and personal accounts say that even lotions and creams containing THC don’t get you high. The substance acts on the cannabaniod receptors in the skin or near where it is applied, but it probably doesn’t make it as far as the brain, which is why you won’t feel any psychoactive effects. That, and as already mentioned, the lather only sits on your skin for a minute or two, so you probably don’t absorb much of the THC or CBD.

What does cannabis soap do?

Cannabis soap cleans you just like regular old soap. It may be a bit more soothing to people with severe skin conditions or illnesses that make them extremely sensitive to synthetic compounds. I have to point out here, that another prominent article on cannabis soap states that the lye in the soap is what breaks down the dirt and oils on your skin. No. No. No. No. If that were the case, it would break down your skin as well. If you make soap properly, no lye remains in the finished bar. You start with lye and oil, and they undergo a chemical reaction that makes glycerol and fatty acid salt, aka “soap.”

What is cannabis soap good for?

Cannabis topicals, in general, are good for pain, such as muscle aches and arthritis, inflammation, and skin conditions, such as acne and eczema. Cannabis soap, in particular, good for people that love cannabis so much they want to rub it on their bodies at every possible opportunity. Listen, I’m not judging here. This is largely the reason we made a coffee soap once upon a time. And finally, I think a good case could be made for a cannabis shaving soap. Shaving soap tends to sit on your skin a bit longer than non-shaving soap, so it seems like you’d get the chance to absorb more THC or CBD. The process of shaving, by its nature, also produces irritation, which the cannabis would presumably soothe.

Is cannabis soap legal?

This is a complicated question. If you live in a state (or country!) where medical and/or recreational cannabis is legal, then yes, of course it is as per the specific regulations, such as the amount you possess and whether or not you need a medical card. If cannabis is not yet legal in your particular location, and if your soap contains THC, then it is probably not legal. CBD soap may also be illegal in these locations, and it may also be illegal to ship across state lines. Some people in the CBD industry claim that the 2014 Farm Bill legalized CBD products, and there is also the belief that CBD is legal if it comes from industrial hemp production. However, at the time of writing this article, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still lists CBD as illegal. So we recommend doing research for your particular locality or waiting to see how this issue is decided in the near future.

How do you make cannabis soap?

Making cannabis soap is a lot like making non-cannabis soap. If you have no soapmaking experience, there are melt-and-pour soapmaking kits that are pretty fool-proof. If you were using one of these, you would just add some cannabis oil into the mix. If you want a more technical challenge, I can talk about how we “would” make cannabis soap. Sort of like when O.J. Simpson came out with the book “if” he did it. Kidding. First you can check out the article I wrote describing our soapmaking process in detail. So, we would follow basically the same procedure, except near the end we would add a THC/CBD extract, at the same time we would be adding the fragrance. In this way, a minimal amount of the active cannabis ingredients would be destroyed in the chemical reaction between the lye and the oil. We would also have to account for the extract as part of the total oil content and adjust our recipe accordingly.

So would we make a cannabis soap???

I can say, at this point, it’s not totally out of the question. Currently, we have a bunch of other projects to get to first, and we would probably start with a salve of some kind. But, you know, never say never.

Can Soap Go Bad or Expire?

Errol DavisComment

You may have accidentally left a bar of soap sitting around for a few months or maybe even a year or more and noticed it doesn’t quite smell as good as it used to. This might be especially true for organic or handmade soap. You might be wondering if soap can go bad like food in the refrigerator or if it can expire like old medication or other personal care products.

The short answer is no: if left undisturbed, bar soap remains soap for years. It should still be just as effective at cleaning no matter how old it is. However, certain changes in a bar of soap make it smell less good and seem less pleasant to wash with. As soap gets older, there are two main ways it deteriorates. The first way is that the fragrance evaporates out of it, and the second way is that some of the oils may go rancid.

Why doesn’t old soap smell as good as it used to?

It seems obvious that the scent evaporates out of a bar of soap as it ages, but have you ever wondered why that is? The most common natural scent for bar soap is essential oil. Another name for essential oil is “volatile oil.” “Volatile” means that it has the tendency to vaporize. Essential oils are distilled in a similar way to alcohol because they vaporize at a lower temperature than water. The particles of vaporized oil are what you smell when you detect the pleasant aroma of a bar of soap. But of course, there is only so much essential oil in each bar, so if you wait long enough, all the essential oil will eventually evaporate out.

Can I still use soap with no essential oil?

There is one piece of good news about soap and essential oils. As soapmakers, we often take old inventory for our own personal use. On many occasions, I’ve noticed the old soap bars don’t smell like much, but as I use them, and as the bar shrinks, they begin to smell more strongly again. I am guessing that in these cases, the essential oil has only evaporated from the outer layers of the soap. So as you use the soap, and these outer layers are washed away, you expose the inner core that still has plenty of scent left. So if your soap doesn’t smell quite as strongly as it used to, you might as well take a chance and use it anyway. You might be pleasantly surprised after a few showers.

Does organic soap go rancid?

Another factor in soap going bad is rancidity. Rancidity is a process when, over time, oils break down or oxidize. Rancidity isn’t the same as food spoiling, such as chicken salad left in a hot car for a week. When food spoils in this way, it’s because of bacterial growth, and if you eat it, it will make you sick immediately! If you eat rancid oils, they won’t make you sick in the same way, but also, they are not terribly good for you. For one, as the oils break down, so do most of the vitamins. For another, rancid oils can contribute to oxidative stress, which accelerates the aging process. And finally, when a compound slightly damages cells like this , it increases the risk of cancer. Fortunately, rancid oils smell terrible, so you wouldn’t want to eat them in the first place.

I think I accidentally used rancid soap. Am I going to get cancer?

This is sort of like winning the lottery. If you just buy one ticket , your chances of winning the lottery are smaller than getting hit by lightning. Each time you’re exposed to a harmful compound, it’s like buying a lottery ticket (for the f-ed up lottery.) So you need to buy a lot of them, for example, smoking several times a day for many years. If you use rancid soap, it’s unlikely the rancid oil will soak through your skin and make it to the inside of your cells where it can damage your DNA. And even after that, the soap lather only sits on your skin for a minute or two before it’s washed off. This is the same reason why we don’t make cannabis soap. Just make sure you don’t eat rancid soap regularly.

Is organic or handmade soap more likely to go bad?

It’s not that big of a stretch to assume that soap made out of natural or organic ingredients might not last as long because natural or organic ingredients don’t last as long as synthetic, or because we don’t include any preservatives, etc. This is sort of true, for a couple of reasons I have already talked about. For one, essential oils only last for so long. Another reason has to do with a common practice in natural soapmaking called “superfatting.” This is when we use a recipe that leaves a little bit of oil in the soap bar that doesn’t react with the lye. Superfatting tends to make a very gentle soap bar that is pleasant to wash with. But it is also an added safety measure that ensures all of the lye is used up in the soapmaking process and none remains in the soap bar. So it is this superfatted bit of leftover oil that goes rancid first.

Are certain oils more prone to going rancid than others?

Yes. Polyunsaturated oils such as corn, canola and soybean oil go rancid more quickly than others. Fortunately, monounsaturated oils such as olive and avocado oil do not go rancid as quickly and behave pretty much the same way in a soap formula. We use olive oil for this portion of our soap formula, although we weren’t thinking about rancidity when we decided on a recipe! If you want to read more about why we use certain oils in a soap recipe, you can read our post on base oils.

How can you tell if the oil in soap has gone rancid?

You can tell if soap has gone rancid because it has a stale or acrid smell. It also develops spots.

What can you do with an old bar of soap?

A lot of soapmakers might tell you to throw out your stinky, spotted soap and buy new because they want you to buy more soap. But I say use it! Now, I’m guessing if you’re shopping for organic soap you’re probably very conscious of what you put in and on your body. I’m not saying to use it to wash yourself! Use it to wash your car. Or your bath tub. But probably not the dog. Or use it to pre-treat stains in your clothes. Maybe to wash the dishes, that is, if…you’re feeling lucky.

Crafting a New Soap Scent

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How did we decide what our soap would smell like? Mass-market soap and other products contain fragrance oil made of zillions of synthetic ingredients. Just what the hell is the “spice” in Old Spice anyway? As a reaction to complex synthetic mainstream soap, for many years, the natural soap “genre” used very simple single-ingredient fragrances. Good old Sappo Hill, the brand that planted the soapmaking seed in my brain many years ago, is a good example. A quick glance at their website shows tea tree, lavender, almond, lemon, and others, all scents made with just one fragrance or essential oil. We decided to do something a little different.

Looking at the Perfume Industry for Soap-Scenting Clues

We wanted to use natural scents, but we also wanted to make unique signature smells all our own. We studied a bit of how perfume is made, that is, how people specifically in the business of making things smell good go about crafting a scent masterpiece. A perfume is a lot like a piece of classical music. There are different smell “notes,” which can be divided up into top middle and bass categories. Light floral and citrus scents fill the top note range. Middle notes are more herbal. And finally, base notes are deep, often distilled from sap or tree oils. To complicate matters, some essential oils fall between categories. Some are top-to-middle, while others are middle-to-bass.

How we Test New Scent Combinations

Scent theory offers a good starting place, but ultimately, the best way to test new scent combinations is to just try them together. A new scent blend often starts with a hunch. One way to get a ballpark idea about a new blend is to place the open essential oil bottles next to each other and waft a bit of the essence of two or three scents up towards your nose. If you get too near the bottles, the smell can be too overpowering, but if you’re about a foot away, this can give you a pretty good idea of what the oils smell like together. For another technique, you can put a few drops of each essential oil together on some tissue or another surface. This is particularly useful if you’re making a scent that doesn’t involve equal portions of the oils. So in this case, if, say, the blend was three parts lavender and one part lemon, you would be able to try three drops of lavender and one drop of lemon to smell the relative strength of each together.

The Smell of Freshly-Poured Fat

After arriving at a scent you like, there’s one more piece of information to consider, which is the ambient smell of the base oils in the soap. Even unscented soap has its own light smell. The ambient soap smell tends to mellow the essential oil blend a little. It is fatty, deep, and comforting, and is most noticeable right after the soap is poured. Every batch, the fresh still-liquid soap looks and smells like fresh pudding. Every time we are tempted to taste it. We even did one time, which I recommend NOT doing. It tastes terribly acrid, and nothing like it smells.

Smell Imagination

At first, one’s scent-crafting experiments might be a bit awkward, but that’s because most people don’t think about smell very often. The sense of smell can be exercised just like any other sense. Brain connections are strengthened. After a while, you get a pretty good idea of how things are going to smell together. You might even say you develop a sort of smell imagination, the same way you might crave a certain food, you can almost smell it, only it’s the beginning your next soap blend there waiting on the horizon.

Getting the Base Oils Just Right

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A common question is “what do you make soap out of?” The quick answer is “fat and lye.” Lye deserves a post all on its own, so today I’m just going to talk about the fats or oils. Firstly, we need to distinguish between fragrance or essential oils and base oils. Base oils are what most of the soap is made out of. Fragrance or essential oils are only about 3% of the soap, and they are added at the end of the process so the soap smells good. You can have soap made out of base oils with no essential oils but not the other way around. So, ironically, “essential” oils are not essential to soapmaking, haha.

We use vegetable oils for our base oils.

Note: on a lot of ingredient labels, when they say “vegetable oil,” they mean soybean oil. We do not use soybean oil. What I mean by “vegetable oil” is fat that is not from animals. We use plant-based oils because a lot of our customers don’t like products made out of animals. We also want to keep our manufacturing process as off-the-grid as possible. When you think about just the resources required, making soap out of animals doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Different base oils give different qualities to the soap.

This is one of the most interesting parts of soapmaking. You can’t just use any old oil and hope it will turn out right. Only certain fats will turn into soap in such a way that the soap is significantly cleansing. The most common oil that adds cleansing properties to a bar of soap is coconut oil, and another is palm kernel oil.

Coconut oil is great, but by itself, it is actually TOO cleansing. A pure coconut oil soap would suck all the moisture out of your skin. So you need to add a moisturizing oil to the recipe. Most plant-based unsaturated oils contribute moisturizing qualities to a bar of soap. Grapeseed oil, avocado oil, and apricot kernel oil are some examples of moisturizing oils.

The final important quality to mention is the firmness of the soap bar. Coconut oil on its own produces a firm soap bar, while any number of the moisturizing oils would produce a soft, mushy soap bar if they were the only ingredient. So, you need a third oil to add to the mix that adds firmness to the bar but that doesn’t add much cleansing effect. The oil that serves this function in our recipe is palm oil.

The Goldilocks of a base oil recipe.

Now you see why I said in the title that the oils need to be “just right.” There are actually even more variables that go into soapmaking, such as how much lather the bar produces, and how creamy and/or foamy the lather is. There is a great tool online that lets you calculate a lot of this stuff, which is available here:

http://soapcalc.net/calc/soapcalcwp.asp

There are also oils that don’t follow all the rules, such as one mysterious oil that you can use to make soap completely on its own. I’ll write a blog post on this one soon. Unitl then, you’ll just have to wait!

How Do You Make Soap?

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Enough people have asked me how I make soap over the years that I suppose it deserves at least one article. I’m going to explain the cold process method, which involves doing less work at the beginning and then waiting a few weeks, because I guess we tend to be lazy, but also patient. Note: certain steps of the soapmaking process are DANGEROUS, and I don’t suggest you attempt it based on this piece of writing alone. Do your research or take a class.

Step 1: Mix the catalyst. This involves mixing appropriate amounts of water and lye. Add the water first and then the lye. We do this in a large HDPE (number 2 plastic) jug. Why? HDPE can stand the hot temperature generated, we prefer it shaken, not stirred, and the opening at top of the jug is easy to aim away from the face or other body parts as the caustic steam escapes. Now, leave the hot lye/water mix to sit for about an hour, which is the time it takes to fall within the optimal 100 to 110 degree temperature range. MIXING THE CATALYST IS ONE OF THE DANGEROUS PARTS. Set a timer for 45 minutes for the first temperature check.

Step 2. Mix and heat the base oils. At the time of writing, we have a big jug of pre-mixed base oils, so we skip this step. But when we first started out, we would scoop the coconut and palm oil into a big metal stockpot with gardening trowels and put it on medium-low heat to melt. It’s better to heat the oil slowly to avoid burning and creating weird smells. The coconut and palm need more heat than 110 degrees to melt, but we found that when we added the room temperature liquid olive oil to the mix, the temperature of the whole thing came right down to the sweet spot.

Step 3. Mix the essential oils. Mixing the essential oils doesn’t take very long. We usually put the essential oil mix into a mason jar with a lid because if they were ever to spill, our workshop would smell like that particular scent blend FOREVER. Like mixing the base oils, mixing the essential oils can be done in big batches ahead of time. We have a shelf full of mason jars with scent mixes. Why do it this way? It saves a little bit of time to make big batches of each step at once. Also, if you only have half an hour at a time to work, this is one of the ways you can break the process into manageable chunks.

Step 4. Line the molds. We use hand-build wooden molds that we line with freezer paper. We’ve looked into designing some sort of plastic or silicone break-away mold, but we haven’t found a good design that the soap won’t stick to. If we did, this would save a bit of garbage, as well as about 10 minutes of production time per loaf. But the added step of cleaning the molds might add those 10 minutes right back on. Lining the molds is yet another step that we often do in big batches ahead of time. Can you see a pattern?

Step 5. Make sure you have all the stuff set up for the pour. The final few steps of soapmaking are pretty hectic, as you have to mix and pour before the soap gets too thick. It helps to set up your space in a way that you can work quickly without making too much of a mess, ruining the loaf, or getting injured. For example, make sure you have a clear pathway from the mixing location to the soap mold(s). Make sure the soap mold(s) are sitting on a level surface. Line up the essential oil mix and any other added things so they are ready at the right moment.

Step 6. Drink a beer. After doing all these steps, there still might be some time left to wait before the catalyst is cool enough. Especially if you did some of the steps in big batches ahead of time. After the 45 min timer goes off, check the temperature of the catalyst. If it still isn’t cool enough, keep checking it every 15 minutes. Also, keep an eye on the base oils. It should be pretty obvious when they’re melted. Keep a close eye on them when they are almost melted, but still a bit cloudy. If you overhead the oils, it’s going to take a lot more waiting and a some more beer. You will probably also have to transfer the catalyst into another container to heat it up again, which is one more risky step dealing with lye. So just don’t overheat the oils.

Step 7. The final last hectic bit. At this point, the catalyst should be cool enough and the oil should be warm enough so that they are about the same temperature. Next, you pour the catalyst into the oil and blend with an immersion blender for about 10 or 15 seconds until that mysterious moment called “trace” when the mix begins to thicken just a little bit. (A whole blog post could be written on “trace” so I am going to leave it alone for now.) Then you add the essential oil mix, blend for a few more seconds, add the flowers, herbs, coffee grinds, or any other little bits and pour into the mold(s).

Step 8. Cutting and curing. After a couple days, the soap loaves can come out of the molds and you can cut them into individual bars. After a few weeks, the bars will be solid enough to withstand a few showers without turning immediately into goop. At this point they are ready to use. Celebrate by drinking a beer and taking a shower!

What the Hell are Soap Berries?

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While working on my post-grad soap education the other day, I came upon the term “soap berries” in a list of search results. It turns out soap berries, also known as soap nuts (not kidding), are the fruit of several shrubs or small trees in the Sapindus genus. Soap berries contain saponins, or soap-like compounds, and are most commonly used as laundry or dishwashing detergent!

So why would you use berries instead of detergent? In many ways, soap berries are the ultimate farm-to-table skin care product. As you might imagine, they come with many ecological benefits, but there are also a few downsides to using soap berries. Let’s first talk about the benefits of soap berries.

  1. They are inexpensive. You can buy a half-pound bag for around $12, and each handful of berries can be used for multiple washes.

  2. They have a small ecological footprint. Soap berries come in simple packaging and are compostable. If you live in a warmer climate, you could even grow or forage them yourself.

  3. They are great for sensitive skin. Soap berries are hypoallergenic, and (obviously) contain no added dyes, scents, preservatives, or other chemicals.

So what are the cons to this amazing little fruit?

  1. It takes hot water to dissolve the soap compounds within the berry. If you use soap berries in the laundry, you have to run your washing machine on the on the hot setting, which consumes a lot of energy. Some people get around this problem by boiling water and berries ahead of time to make a sort of liquid soap, or berry-soap-syrup.

  2. The berry detergent is not as powerful as many other commercial or even homemade products. One Internet reviewer claimed she had to religiously pre-treat every little stain.

Now, let’s look at all the ways to use soap berries.

  1. Laundry detergent. As already mentioned, you can boil water and make your own liquid berry detergent. A few tablespoons per wash will do. Or you can put a handful of berries into a drawstring bag and throw the whole thing in with the laundry. You should be able to get about a dozen washes from one bag.

  2. Dishwashing detergent. As with the laundry, you put a small bag full of soap nuts in the silverware tray of the dishwasher (not in the regular soap spot on the door.)

  3. Personal cleanser. Although you could probably rub the berries directly on your body, making berry-soap-syrup is probably the best way to get the most washes out of the berries and the least mess on the bottom of your shower. As a side note, a google image search for “rub berries on your body” yields disappointingly safe for work results.

  4. Shampoo. Yep. Berry-soap-syrup also makes pretty good shampoo. People have had success mixing anything from vinegar to coconut oil with it. Other posts on the Internet go into detail about various berry shampoo mixes depending on what type of hair you have.

Where do I find soap berries?

If you live in Florida or South Carolina, you can try foraging for the Florida Soapberry. You can find the Western Soapberry in the Southwestern United states, Sapindus oahuensis in Hawaii, Sapindus vitiensis in American Samoa and Fiji, and the Wingleaf Soapberry in much of the Americas. International readers, forgive me, the list of soapberries worldwide is more than I want to type. Check Wikipedia.

Or you could actually buy them on Amazon and other places. Full disclosure: this is an affiliate link. If you click it, I know you decided to buy soapberries instead of Metaphor Soap! That, and I get a buck or two from the sale. Also, feel free to make “soap nuts” jokes until your little heart turns to lather and foams right out of your chest.

Does Organic Antibacterial Soap Exist?

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It makes sense that a lot of people might want the germ-killing boost of an antibacterial soap, but they don’t want the synthetic or harsh additives of commercial mainstream “soap.” So are there any organic antibacterial soaps out there?

Before we dig into this question, let’s first look at how antibacterial soap works. Antibacterial soap usually contains one or more ingredients designed to kill bacteria and fungi. The most common of these ingredients are triclosan and triclocarban, and some others are benzalkonium chloride, benzethonium chloride, and/or chloroxylenol. Triclosan is used as a disinfectant at hospitals, where sterilization is really important. Needless to say, triclosan and its cousins are not organic compounds.

I suppose you could make a soap out of good old olive oil and shea butter and then throw in some chloroxylenol just for kicks. But that would seem sort of backwards, right?

The good news is that most organic soaps already contain natural antibacterial ingredients. What I’m talking about are essential oils. May of the same essential oils we put in soap to make it smell good also kill bacteria and other microorganisms. Let’s take a look at a few essential oils:

Lavender

Lavender is a shrub-like flowering plant in the mint family. Lavender essential oil smells floral and calming, and is one of the safest essential oils. Unlike most essential oils, it can be applied undiluted, directly to the skin. Herbalist James Green of The Herbal Medicine Maker’s Handbook carries a small bottle of lavender essential oil to use as a disinfectant when he is out in the field.

Cedar

Cedar essential oil has almost too many benefits to list, helping with arthritis, acne, dry scalp, and yes, it is an antiseptic. Three major components of cedar essential oil are alpha-cedrene, beta-cedrene, and cedrol. While cedar essential oil has the ability to kill microscopic critters, it can also be used to repel insects.

Cinnamon

Cinnamon essential oil may come from the cheaper cassia trees or the more expensive true cinnamon. The antiseptic compounds in cinnamon essential oil are cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid. Besides its disinfecting properties, cinnamon can also be used as an astringent, as an aphrodisiac, or as a pain reliever. 

One question you might be asking at this point is whether organic soap contains enough essential oil to be an effective antibacterial treatment. The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. To date, according to the FDA, antibacterial soap hasn’t been shown to be any more effective than regular old soap. So go ahead and just buy the one that smells the best!

Beard Oil, No Beard?

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Recently a customer emailed asking if it’s possible to use beard oil if you don’t have a beard, and if you do, what will happen. So we went down to the lab and did some exhaustive research by putting beard oil on other non-bearded parts of our bodies to simulate the horrifying scenario of not having ample facial hair. We came up with a list of 5 things that may happen if you use beard oil with no beard because, as you know, the only articles allowed on the Internet are lists of 5 things.

1. Your face will become more oily.

It might also be surprising to note that the more beard oil you slather on your cheeks, the oilier they will get. Unless you begin with a severely dry face (or other body part), and then it may end up just pleasantly moisturized.

2. Hair on other parts of your body may become more soft, conditioned, silky, and/or smooth.

Experience has taught me that I need to specify: you should apply the beard oil directly to the target hair that you want to condition. No, you can’t soak up beard oil through your face and sweat it out somewhere else. In all seriousness, I have applied beard oil to the regular old hair on my noggin as a proxy conditioner at times when it was particularly dry.

3. You may (not) grow thicker, more abundant, or any facial hair.

I’ve seen numerous articles and YouTube testimonials claiming that beard oil may help you grow thicker, more abundant, etc, facial hair, and I’m not so sure of the science behind this. I guess maybe you could absorb some of the oil into your hair follicle cells, much in the same way a frog breathes a bit of oxygen directly through its skin, and then the follicles would have more nutrition to make healthier, super-sized hairs. But, I have to warn you, if you apply beard oil with no beard, there is also a possibility that you will (not) grow a beard.

4. You have no beard, but you use the beard oil on someone else’s beard.

This could happen in the case of a very subtle frat prank (in which all parties have agreed to consensual non-consent), when you apply it to an unconscious comrade’s face, and they wake up the next day thinking, “holy shit, my beard is now incredibly soft, conditioned, silky, and/or smooth.” You could also apply the beard oil indirectly to someone else’s beard by giving them the beard oil to do it themselves in a scenario known as a “gift.”

5. You suffer from Schrodinger’s beard.

You’ll have to forgive me in advance for my imprecision with this last point, but my command of physics is arguably lousy. On more than one occasion, a couple of women have come to my booth at a gift show and joked, “yeah, we totally need this (beard oil) for our beards.” They had no beards that I was aware of, and I could only imagine they were invoking some concept of hypothetical beard-or-non-beard-ness. As if there may or may not have been a beard somewhere just out-of-sight (perhaps nestled against an unconscious comrade’s face), but impossible to be know by the casual observer. Maybe they were only looking for hypothetical beard oil, which is why they didn’t buy any. I couldn’t quite grasp what they were talking about!

Soap Good Enough to Eat

Errol Davis1 Comment

A long time ago I took a class called something like "Ethical Issues in the Food Supply" from an organic chem professor and learned a a startling fact: you can eat soap. That is, if you can manage to force yourself to chew it up and swallow it, your body can digest soap and derive nutrition from it.

So why don't we eat soap? Mainly because it tastes terrible. It turns out there is a whole class of stuff out there that's technically edible, but we don't consider food because we just don't want to eat it. This includes a lot of discombobulated fat molecules substances (my scientific terminology) such as soap, rancid oils, and gas station hot dogs. 

One takeaway is that if an earthquake hits and you're buried alive in your soap workshop next to a stack of inventory, you'll probably be okay. After a few years of therapy, anyway. You might wonder if we ever tried a little taste of warm, fresh-poured soap right after it hit the mold, because it smelled so damn good?  More than once.

If you've surfed any more of our blog posts or if you've ever read the ingredients on a bar of soap, you'll know that soap is mostly made out of oil. You might wonder if we use the same oil for cooking as we do for soap. The answer is no, but probably not for the reason you might guess. 

And that reason is...taxes. If we use any soap supplies for personal use we have to pay a special tax on it. "Use" tax, in fact. Since that turns out to be kind of a hassle to keep track of, it's a lot easier to keep separate cooking and soaping pots of oil. Now, if I happen to run out of cooking oil, every once in a very infrequent while, I might poach a little bit of olive oil off of the soapmaking shelf. 

Also, a gallon jug of virgin coconut oil from a discontinued product might have contributed to a lot of delicious stir fries last summer. 

Yesterday I ran out of cooking oil again, which actually gave me the idea of writing this post. There was no olive oil to poach, because I've been pre-mixing all of our base oils together in big batches in order to save time later.  So I just went ahead and used some pre-mix, olive/coconut/palm to fry some tofu for a salad. It turned out amazing. Not gas-station hot dog amazing, mind you, but still pretty damn good. 

 

 

 

Spotlight on our Orange & Cream Goat Milk Soap

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When I lived in Ashland, Oregon, my drunken neighbors bought a pygmy goat one morning on a whim. The goat ran away that same afternoon, probably for the better, but ever since then I've been a bit obsessed with these interesting critters that munch on pretty much anything, make delicious milk, and are a lot more portable than, say, a large bovine. 

Needless to say, when crafting our original soap lineup, we had to include at least one goat milk soap. It was a happy coincidence that we were also a bit obsessed with those tasty frozen snacks: you know, half orange sherbet, half vanilla ice cream. We decided this scent would be a tribute to the dessert, incorporating orange essential oil, goat milk, and a dash of vanilla fragrance.  You can see and smell the results here.

Our goat milk soap isn't the most popular kid on our team, but it does have a loyal group of fans and friends.  A few customers order several bars a month off our website like clockwork. People from the East Coast prefer it for some reason. Is it vegan? Obviously, no. Can you eat it? Actually yes, but it doesn't taste nearly as good as it smells. Is there a Metaphor Organic goat? No, but one December, we dressed one of the dogs up with reindeer antlers. 

Did I mention goat milk soap is great for your skin? It's full of emollients, triglycerides, and vitamins.  Emollients moisturize by helping your skin absorb more water, and triglycerides restore natural oils. Vitamins nourish the skin to keep it healthy and youthful. 

Order an Oranges & Cream Goat Milk Soap and see if your skin can taste the goat milk. 

On Cooking, Soap Making, and Living off the Grid

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If you can cook, you can make soap! Or more precisely, if you can follow a recipe you can make soap. Maybe the better comparison is with baking. Some of my most successful attempts at bread and pizza dough involved measuring flour, yeast, and salt to the nearest gram on a trusty kitchen scale. But soap also has a lot in common with good old fashioned cooking. You mix stuff. You heat stuff. You mix some more stuff. Then you mix all of the other stuff you previously mixed, and if you do it right, it smells good. (Also, a fair amount of drink might be involved in cooking, baking, and/or soapmaking.)

Back in the days of the legendary Capp Street House, cooking was a skill we pretty much learned by accident. Adam and I were both gifted the Great Funemployment of the 2008 Recession. We had a lot of time on our hands and not a lot of cash. One way to maximize potential beer money was making dinner on-the-cheap.

On a more philosophical note, I was trying to publish a book, and Adam was trying to land a job as a UI designer, both of which were large, long-term goals. And even if we put in a lot of effort, success was still uncertain. On the other hand, roasting chicken quarters and russet potatoes or whipping up a loaf of soap were relatively small tasks that could be broken up into 20-minute chunks of work. With instant results. 

If you want to live in a cabin and grow your own food or put together a small-scale manufacturing operation, cooking is a great way to start. I know everyone reading this will achieve rapid wealth and independence, so the money-saving advice is moot, but I'm also presuming you're saving up to build an earth ship. You can't order from Grubhub if you don't have an address! (Edit, 11/9/18: Grubhub? Holy crap, that was a long time ago!)

A lot of people fantasize about starting a small farm, but farms are expensive, and a lot of work! Maybe start with a really basic skill that makes your food supply less expensive and less carbon intensive. Cooking! Then maybe sprouting your own legumes, or growing micro greens. Or, a DIY mushroom growing kit. If the project goes no further than that, it still brings you some small benefit.

Digital entrepreneurs talk about making projects that are scalable. That is, projects that you can easily grow if the initial efforts turn out profitable. But the first part of the equation is starting small. In cooking, this means making a small batch of a new dish to start with, because if you don’t like it (or if you screw it up!), you don’t have a week’s worth of bad dinners to eat. When we started making soap we decided to make Christmas presents first. Then see if we could get one wholesale account. Then ten. Habits and skills can be thought of in terms of whether they are scalable. Confidence is scalable.

Looking at it a different way, a nice meal prepared with your own hands is a great end in itself, but it might also prove to be the quintessential gateway addiction. If you're not careful you might soon find yourself gathering acorns to mash into acorn flour or squashing 20 lbs of plums into a re-purposed olive oil drum to ferment over the summer for some incredible  late-fall plum wine. I may even see you at the farmers market behind a booth some day soon.

Fall Two Years Ago: The Thing Quarterly

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Since we lost a lot of our old blog posts when our website went down, and just because #nostalgia, I'm going to write about an interesting moment in Metaphor history. In Fall 2013 we partnered with The Thing Quarterly to concoct an experimental herbal salve. The Thing Quarterly is a subscription service that sends out an art object four times a year in place of, say, a zine. Along with The Thing staff, an artist and a maker collaborate on each issue. For our part, we worked with writer Ben Marcus on the concept of a "thinking salve," in other words some sort of unguent infused with  herbs and supplements designed to trans-dermally boost one's brain power.  

For simplicity, we decided on a salve vs. a cream (no water) to eliminate the need for emulsifiers, preservatives, and a lot of mixing. This cut down the list of possible herbs to only those with oil-soluble active compounds. In the end, a mixture of sunflower oil, gotu kola, gingko biloba, bacopa monniera, and a few supplements ended up macerating in a black 20-gallon garbage in the half-acre garden lot next to my apartment building. The drought wasn't quite so bad that year, and Oakland did get a couple storms. I remember lying awake at night listening to the wind and hoping the garbage can would not tip over!

Production day was a smashing success and also a kick in the pants! To cut costs, The Thing staff volunteered as the production crew. Having that much human power at our disposal is a rare luxury for Metaphor. For several hours, we heated pails of beeswax and herbal oil, and ran them to pouring stations where steady hands would fill a line of 20 tins at a time. After 3/4 of the work was done, we took a break to eat at nearby Little Star Pizza. At the end of the day we filled around 650 tins, a record production run for Metaphor. 

 

 

 

Headed to the Fort Mason Farmers Market Sunday July 19th

Errol DavisComment

Hey soap fans, we will be at the Fort Mason Farmers Market next Sunday from 9:30 to 1:30. If we do well, or even ok, this could become a regular thing. As you may or may not know, these markets are a super valuable distribution tool for small manufacturers such as ourselves. For one, they give us a predictable sales schedule so we don't have too much or too little inventory lying around. And more importantly, we get to see all your beautiful faces to get real-time feedback on our stuff. A lot of great products were born out of these conversations. To read more about this particular market, check it out here: 

http://www.cafarmersmkts.com/fort-mason-center-farmers-market

 

Introducing the Farmer's Market Bar

Errol DavisComment

When first starting out, a lot of luck lead us to success with the small gift shop market. At the same time, another impulse has been driving our process. Simplicity. We feel almost compelled to make great soap with minimal packaging. It's the kind of soap we would buy. Offering soap out-of-the box not only appeals to the conscientious minimalist, it also allows us to lower the price point substantially. The cost of the actual boxes is a relatively small, but by not hand-stamping the boxes and placing the soap inside, we can cut production time in half.  For the past few months we've been offering unboxed soap at various craft and farmers markets to a decent reception. Eventually we'll have soap-in-the-loaf for sale at $1.20 per ounce. You'll show us how big a slice you want, we'll chop it, weigh it, and figure the price. It's the same way you buy pizza in Sicily. For the gift-givers and admirers of great design: don't worry. Boxed soap is still available. And for the sake of logistics, the unboxed soap on our website will stay a standard 5 oz size.

The Quest for an All-Local Soap Bar

Errol DavisComment

Local Soap Supply Chain

Metaphor began in many ways inside-out. We started with principles and larger goals, and then tried to figure out how to make them work within practical business constraints. One ideal was to establish all-local supply and distribution chains. We got our first batch of oil 4 blocks away from our house at Rainbow Grocery, and our essential oils around the corner at S.F. Herb Co. To obtain the lye took a slightly greater trek to the Ace Hardware store at the corner of Church and Market. Our first wholesale account was a whopping 1 block away at the Mission Statement, followed by Viracocha and Her Majesty's Secret Beekeeper all within a half-mile radius. Mission accomplished, right?

Local Soap Distribution

Well, we quickly discovered there are a limited number of accounts available within bicycling distance that would carry our soap. Maybe 10 in S.F. To pay ourselves full-time we would need more like 50 to 100. And small gift shops from around the country (and world) began to seek us out! We soon took the same stance as a lot of people who are vegetarian for environmental reasons, or "meat minimalists." That is, dramatically cutting back achieves nearly the same result as eliminating it altogether. So we decided to be "carbon minimalists," which is, indeed about as far as you can go when even breathing releases a bit of CO2 into the air!

Expanding Beyond the Bay Area

Today we sell soap as far away as South Korea. However, the majority of our accounts are still in the S.F. Bay area. We also occasionally table at local artisan fairs, and since last winter, we've been workshopping products to find what sells best at these. Now we've figured out a pretty good lineup to offer and are in the process of getting established at a couple weekly farmer's markets. The volume of soap sold at one market in one afternoon is often equal to what might sell in a small gift shop in several months, so a couple markets a week could dramatically shift our focus back local again.

More Sales, More Problems

Around the same time we started getting inquiries from stores outside of California, it also began to make sense to  get our supplies in larger quantities, which meant ordering base oil from a soapmaking supply company all the way in Columbus, Ohio. Whoa, not local so much! For a while we just kept making soap, but after the holiday rush, we started again trying to work our way back to original ideals. The biggest breakthrough at this point came when I found a local supplier for our olive oil, a grower near Modesto, CA.

Finding a Local Olive Oil Supplier

Although we originally found our supplies at local retailers, those same suppliers did not necessarily get their oils from local farms, etc. We were lucky that Rainbow Grocery did in fact get some of its olive oil from a local farm, which is the same place we eventually began to buy it in bulk. Olive oil alone makes an okay soap bar, but not with quite the lather that our customers came to expect. We also use coconut oil, for example. I spent about a month scouring soap making forums, and it turns out you need a saturated fat to contribute some of its properties to make the excellent soap bar that we were used to producing. Our only choices are to use an animal fat or a plant source that grows mostly in the  tropics.

One All-Local Soap Bar

Today we do have an all-local soap bar available: the Savon de Castille bar, which, being just pure saponified olive oil, is also our most hypo-allergenic. Developing it was an excellent experiment, and I haven't yet completely given up on sourcing more of our ingredients locally. An inexpensive source of milk fat might work in place of coconut oil, and there are a few species of palmetto growing wild in California that produce the right type of oil if we ever get big enough to charter a Metaphor Organic farm. You never know.

 

 

 

 

Soap Like Fine Wine

Errol DavisComment

Soap and wine have a lot in common. Both are obviously necessities, haha. Both are made from natural materials grown perhaps not too far away, or perhaps all the way across the world. Both have basic economy versions available on the market and also more choice, luxury vintages. Some people pay hundreds of dollars for one bottle of wine that lasts a few hours, so our bar of soap that lasts a month is, by comparison, a bargain! Both need to age a bit before they are fit to use. But while fine wine only gets better as the years go by, fine soap is ready in about a month, and past its prime in a year or so. So maybe the better metaphor is to compare soap to cheese!

Bad-Scented Soap. But why?

I was having dinner with an old friend the other day. It wasn't anything too fancy, but still a nice place: one of the better pizza restaurants in Portland, Oregon, in fact. It was the type of pizza that would go well with a decent beer or a more expensive glass of wine. I ordered beer and my friend ordered wine. She spent a lot of time deciding on the right wine, swirling the samples around the glass and asking the server a lot of questions. A few minutes later the drinks arrived.

After a couple sips of beer, I noticed an off-scent: somewhat citrus-like, but also very acrid. My friend let me try her wine and I continued to smell the off-smell. It was the soap from the bathroom! It was the kind that comes in a dispenser and turns into foam when you squeeze it into your hands. The lingering scent of it was more than enough to notice whenever I lifted a hand near my face. I find it very interesting that people can spend so much time, attention, and money on achieving the perfect food/wine combination, but something like the soap can toss such a discordant note into the composition. Not only did the smell clash with the pizza and wine, but it also smelled quite bad on its own!

Unscented Soap, or the Best Essential Oils?

One possible solution is to stock unscented soap, so that it doesn't contribute anything either way to the dining experience. An even all-natural and unscented castille soap still has its own mysterious array of fatty and fragrant notes, but it certainly doesn't leave any extra perfume on your hands. Another solution would be to stock a soap whose essential oils would complement the cuisine. Of course, sliding farther down this slippery slope, so to speak, might land one in a whole new league of of food/wine/soap combination ridiculousness.

I like to imagine my soap will someday be regarded with a little more scrutiny than your average two buck chuck. In all seriousness, the smell of the soap may matter to people who pay attention to the details of their sensory experience, especially when it follows you back to the meal.