Who would have thought that good old-fashioned soap would, more than four millenniums after its invention, still be one of humankind’s most powerful tools in fighting disease? Over the past year or so, we have been reminded of this fact, and of the simple magic of hand washing, with its unequaled germ-killing (and lifesaving) powers. Which means that possessing a truly fantastic bar — sudsy, fragrant and mood elevating — is more sensible than ever. But to understand what makes a great soap, one must go back in time. There are several origin stories (most set in ancient Babylon), all of which involve the accidental (and perhaps barbecue-related) discovery that pairing wood ash with animal fat drippings (scientifically speaking: sodium or potassium hydroxide and a triglyceride) led to the miraculous chemical reaction we now call saponification, which results in a highly effective grime-removing solid.
A history of modern beauty in four chapters.
Chapter 1: On the rise of strong “oriental” fragrances that reflected the political and cultural landscapes of their time, the 1980s.
Chapter 2: On ’90s-era advances in weaves, wigs and other Black hairstyles that ushered in a new age of self-expression.
Chapter 3: On botanical oils, a simple fact of life in much of the world that, here in the West, began to take on an almost religious aura in the 2000s.
Chapter 4: On men wearing makeup, a practice with a long history, but one that has really taken off in the last decade.
Until the 19th century, that winning recipe of fat and ash remained, in essence, the same. Everyone from the Syrians to the French and Spanish created their own versions: Aleppo soap was made from olive oil, wood ash and laurel berries; Marseille and Castile soap were made using Mediterranean saltwater, local olive oil and ash from singed marine plants. Some cultures used it for bathing and others for washing cloth or stripping wool of its lanolin before weaving it. In America, early colonial settlers made their own soap, primarily for laundering, until the mid-1800s, when manufacturers like William Colgate & Company in Manhattan (makers of Palmolive), and the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble (creators of Ivory), began producing scented bars for personal hygiene, and launching advertising campaigns that would link one’s cleanliness to one’s health. From there, soap quickly became one of the fastest-growing industries in America. But as scientific developments in the field progressed around the world, it also became a chemical imitation of itself. Now, many of those shiny, perfectly creamy bars and scum-free liquid hand washes you find at the drugstore are technically detergents (synthetic reproductions of soap), which are machine-made and can contain harmful ingredients including synthetic fragrances.
But there are still craftspeople making soap the traditional way. Susan and Sarah Ryhanen, the mother-daughter team behind Saipua, whip up the most exquisite handmade bars at Worlds End, their 107-acre farm near Albany, N.Y. There, they also run an artist residency and floral business, and teach workshops on everything from flower arranging to wool and basket weaving — they plan to launch in-person soap-making classes later this year. Mixed with a blend of shea butter, olive, coconut and castor oils, Saipua’s bars are perfumed with unusual and ever-changing combinations of essential oils and other natural elements like dill and clary sage, nori and sea salt, French green clay and vetiver and coffee and mint.
Susan began concocting soap in her basement in 1997, and it is with those humble beginnings in mind that she shares with us a step-by-step guide to making your own. The below recipe is for lavender rosemary soap with oat flour — a new twist on one of her favorite bars from the Saipua archives — which can be executed in less than an hour, and renders ready-to-use soap a week or two later, once it’s had time to cure. “The oat exfoliates, and I’ve always loved the pungent smell of rosemary and lavender together,” she says. “It’s relaxing but also uplifting.” The perfect medicine for these last weeks of spring.
Susan Ryhanen of Saipua’s Lavender Rosemary Soap With Oat Flour
Yields 2 lbs.’ worth
Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is a strong base and, in its dry form, a caustic substance. Care must be used when working with it, and your measurements should be exact. It creates fumes when mixed with water, though the small amount you’ll use here is quite safe. Just don’t lean over the container, and be sure to wear your mask and gloves the whole time. When your carefully measured soap recipe is done and dry, there will be no more lye in it. While you need to be aware of safety precautions, don’t be put off by them. Soap-making is really an easy process, though I don’t recommend involving young children.
1. Measure the lye and water (water must be cold — never put lye into hot water because the heat will make it a “volcano”). Please put your glass container in a sink. This is a safety precaution: In the event that the glass breaks, the lye will go down the drain.
2. Cold water goes in the jar first. This is important! Never add water to lye. Lye has to be added to water. As soon as you add the lye to the water, mix it with your plastic spoon so it dissolves. Be aware that lye is exothermic and will generate a lot of heat (about 200 degrees) when added to the water.
3. Let the lye cool while you measure the other ingredients. These should be measured into the stainless steel saucepan, which will hold about 2-3 quarts. You need space for mixing.
4. Warm the shea butter, olive, coconut and castor oils to about 100 degrees (test the temperature with your instant-read thermometer) while the lye continues to cool.
5. When both the lye and the oils are between 90-110 degrees, add the oat flour to your essential oils, and then pour it and the lye water and oils into the saucepan and mix with your immersion blender. When it looks like pudding, pour it into your mold.
6. Let the soap harden in your mold overnight. In the morning, tear off the paper carton and cut the contents into squares with a large knife.
7. Let the soap cure (that means dry inside) for a week or two, and enjoy! You can technically use your soap earlier, but it will last longer if you let more water evaporate from it.