Ashes to ashes, lye to soap

At Ash Wednesday service tonight, Rev. Dr. Doyle gave us a caution I’d never heard before. He suggested that, when it came time to wipe the imposed ashes from our forehead, we should use a dry cloth first to collect most of the ashes before going to a wet washrag. The idea is that ashes are closely related to lye, and can burn your eyes. I don’t think this is a serious problem — I’ve never had any ill effects from imposed ashes before — but it’s probably good better-safe-than-sorry advice.

Anyway, I had to smile because I knew that I’d be exposed to lye in a much more potent form after coming home from the service. I made my first batch of soap in ages tonight. It was pretty haphazard — the blend of oils wasn’t carefully calculated but was based on emptying my existing bottle of plain, non-virgin olive oil, then adding some lard because there wasn’t very much olive oil, then adding some palm and coconut oils for lather. (You must not go overboard on the coconut oil; it adds lots of bubbly lather, but in soap form, it dries out your skin.) I was eyeballing my additions, but I did keep track of how much I had added using a digital scale. I kept notes on how many grams of each oil I had added, and then plugged them into SoapCalc to find out how much lye and water I needed. I threw in my last few drops of blueberry fragrance oil, although it’s likely that the scent won’t survive the curing process.

I used little round Glad-Lock containers for molds. The soaps are now going through gel stage in an insulated mylar bag. I threw the empty fragrance oil bottle into the bag before closing it up because, well, it couldn’t hurt.

Future batches will be a little better thought out; this one was just for fun, to get me back into the habit.

The bars will be solid and can be popped out of their molds within a few days. But when you use cold process, you aren’t supposed to use the soap for a month to six weeks, on the off chance that there are any tiny specks of un-saponified lye lurking inside. I have heard of some soapmakers who follow those guidelines faithfully for any soap they sell or give away, but for their own use they sometimes take the risk of using the soap sooner, especially if it’s just as a hand soap.

While they are curing, the soaps may develop a dull powdery coating. This is harmless soda ash, and can easily be shaved or rinsed off before the soaps are used.

I probably need to make 100 percent lard soap for most of the samples I end up taking to Bolivia, since it’s most likely that my students will be making lard or beef tallow soap rather than using a bunch of different frou-frou oils. (In Kenya, which isn’t much of a pork producer, beef tallow was the fat of choice.)