What is Soap?

At Vermont Soap Organics we take oils, which make you greasy, and turn them into soap, which make you clean. This process is called saponification (making soap). Soap is fascinating stuff. It is actually a salt that foams! For a fascinating explanation of soap crystals, watch this video. This crystalline nature of soap allows it to be made clear as glass when boiled in alcohol with sugars. Now a salt is what you get when you mix an acid and a base together. The acids and bases neutralize each other and a salt forms in the process. Soap is made from acidic oils and an alkaline solution. Think of it like a child’s seesaw. Oil and alkali must be in balance to make the perfect bar of soap.

Any unsaponified oils are called “free fatty acids”, and they add to the moisturizing effect of high quality soaps. Use too much, and the soap will not lather, and it will have a shortened shelf life. Excess alkali, or “Free Alkali” is harsh and drying to sensitive skin. About 25% of us are estimated to get a dry skin reaction to free alkali in our soaps. At Vermont Soap, we formulate for a little bit of oil and no measurable free alkali. This is part of the reason why our handmade soap is so mild.

Here’s a light version of how the chemistry of soap plays out:

How it works:

When you mix oils, alkali and water, they chemically react and turn into soap and glycerin. At Vermont Soap we stir the glycerin back in to add to the moisturizing qualities of the final product.

Where does alkali come from?

In the old days, rainwater was filtered through hardwood ashes (coconut husk and plantain ashes in Africa and South Pacific, oak and maple here in New England) to make a potassium hydroxide solution. Bar soaps are made from sodium hydroxide. This is what you get when you run electricity through salt water. Modern day potassium hydroxide is made from a similar process.

What makes it lather?

Soap is very unusual, acting like a snake with a head and a tail. The oily tail hates water and the alkali head loves water. When you mix soap and water, this love/hate relationship causes soap to lather.

Is glycerin good for my skin? YOU BET!

Glycerin is in fact more valuable by weight than soap. Milled soaps remove their glycerin by adding salt to their batch. Most glycerin in turn is used as a stabilizer in food and cosmetics production, as well as an inhibitor in cigarette paper which allows it to burn more evenly. With glycerin removed, the end result is a soap that dries your skin! That’s because glycerin, mixed with a little oil and water left in the soap, creates a hand-lotion-in-soap effect. This allows us to create a bar that cleans and removes oils, while soothing sensitive skin.

What about glycerin clear bars?

True transparent soap is made by boiling the soap base in alcohol and sugars. Heat and pressure may also be used. Pluses are a high glycerin content and mild pH. Negatives are a bar that dissolves quickly, and often contains artificial colors, fragrances, and alcohol which can dry your skin. Propylene glycol (antifreeze) and triethanolalamine (TEA) are used to make the “melt and pour” soap base of many so called vegetable glycerin bars. Not our idea of natural!

What does “French Milled” mean?

One of the early uses for stainless steel was to run soap base between 2 rollers. They began experimenting with running hot and cold water through the rollers. French milled soap was born! Advantage is a milder, longer lasting bar. These higher quality bar soaps are not milder than handmade soaps.

What is the alternative? Vermont Soap!

We recommend natural handmade/cold-process soaps. These traditional, poured and cured processed soaps last nearly twice as long as most mass market bars. Our soap is batch mixed and poured into wooden molds. The end result is an opaque premium bath and body bar that is mild enough for the most sensitive skin. Many sufferers of dry skin conditions can find relief from these types of soaps. (See our testimonials for more information.)

Problem: When alkali and oil fail to merge chemically, Alkali Salts (sodium hydroxide and oxygen) are left in the product. Alkali Salts have a high pH and are very drying to the skin. Many commercial soaps are full of these salts. It is estimated that about 25% of us are sensitive to this irritant.

The Vermont Soap soap makers knew they would have to make a soap that had no alkali salts in it, but how? After months of research, 8 factors were identified in soaps which dry skin, they are:

  • Free Alkali
  • Alcohol
  • Artificial Fragrances
  • Artificial colors
  • Too high % of Coconut oil in the soap
  • Low quality base ingredients
  • Preservatives
  • Some or all essential oils

So that was the challenge, and the answer was to take a giant step back in time!

A Brief History of Soap

Western Soap probably had its origins in ancient Greece on the Island of Lesbos. There, animal sacrifices were made to the Goddesses. Because the sacrifices were often cremated, hardwood ashes would accumulate (an early source of alkali). These ashes mixed with the tallow of the sacrificed animals. It is said that after a heavy rain a yellow runoff from the fire pit made its way downhill from the temple. The local women washing their clothes in the river noticed that their clothes were cleaner when the river ran yellow. History remembered their poet, Sappho, who wrote of these times and honored her with the definition Saponification – the chemical name for soap making. These are the same women who invented banks.

Over time it was learned that adding salt water to the soap mixture would precipitate the removal of glycerin and excess water, thus making the soap harder, and not subject to the month long curing process required of true handmade soap. This old-fashioned “yellow soap” was used for laundry, dishes, and the occasional bath.

In France during the reign of Louis the 14th, bathing was considered an oddity not the norm. It is said that King Louis guillotined 3 soap makers for making soap that irritated his very sensitive royal skin. In desperation the 4 remaining soap makers in Paris got together and re-invented a method of pouring and curing the soap – taking a month to make a single bar. They saved their own necks, and the world got handmade soap (a.k.a. poured soap, cold process soap, farm soap, cured soap, etc).

Vermont Soap’s soap is made using a modern version of this three hundred year-old method. Certified organic oils of palm, coconut, olive and palm kernel are blended and mixed at precise temperatures with an alkali solution (modern alkali is made by running electricity through salt water). The batch is mixed for hours, allowing it to thicken slowly. When it is ready, botanical concentrates and organic herbs, spices and grains are added. The batch is then poured into wooden molds and kept warm for about three days. As the soap solidifies, alkali salts begin to rise to the top like cream. Around the fourth day the soap, now solid in block form, is removed from the molds, skimmed of alkali salts, and cut into individual bars. The bars are then placed on custom made oak and stainless steel screened drying racks and cured for about three more weeks. This process produces the mildest soap that can be made! Often lasting about twice as long as conventional bars, this soap is extremely moisturizing and soothing to your skin.

Various herbal extracts called essential oils are used to enhance and individualize the soaps, as well as to accommodate various skin types. Peppermint Magic and Sweet Orange contain natural astringents making them suitable for skin that is not dry. Lavender relaxes pores making it the perfect soap for normal to dry skin. Shea Butter creates a soap that works best on the driest skin types. Add organic oatmeal and you have Oatmeal Lavender, excellent for dry sensitive skin. Our Honey soap is great for combination skin combining the exfoliating benefits of cornmeal with the moisturizing properties of honey and the natural astringent properties found in clove oil. Woodspice is naturally deodorizing and stimulating and is great for normal to oily skin. Unscented is a mild and hypoallergenic bar, perfect for the most sensitive of skin types. This bar comes highly recommended from sufferers of dry skin conditions.

When the crew at Vermont Soap Organics set out to make a soap that wouldn’t dry the most sensitive of skins, little did they know the journey would take them to the cutting edge of cosmetics chemistry, and hundreds of years into the past!

Vermont Soap – the first soap in 300 years truly fit for a king!