Lindsey Mann is a waitress and Mikel Stone is a pedicab driver, but in their spare time they pursue a dream: crafting and selling healthy, chemical-free soaps that smell great and lather up well.
After two years of trial and error, the Denver couple have hit upon several reliable recipes.
"Turns out, handmade soap is a thousand times nicer than the soap that's called 'soap' in grocery stores," says Mann, co-owner with Stone of the Clean Getaway Soap Co. "They're really detergents. You wouldn't drink it, so why would you put it on your skin?"
A similar, au naturel mantra inspired Emily Voth to launch her own soap-making business out of her kitchen more than a dozen years ago. Today, she owns and operates the Kansas City, Mo.-based Indigo Wild, maker of "Zum Bar" soaps and other soaps, spritzes and scrubs, and, more recently, home cleaning supplies.
"I became obsessed about soap" early on, Voth says. "I'm still obsessed."
Zum Bars are sold in 2,500 stores in the United States and a handful of other countries, she says, and Indigo Wild has 13 full-time employees and up to 40 part-time ones. Apparently, natural soap sells.
Voth advises new soap-makers and hobbyists to have fun and not to give up.
"Don't just think because a batch doesn't work out that the recipe won't work," she says.
Failed batches can be melted down to start again, Mann notes — something that soap makers call "rebatching."
"In some cases, some of our nicest soaps have come from those mistakes," she says.
Voth warns about doubling a recipe, however: It's not like baking, where ingredients get doubled. Making soap is more like a science, she says, and ingredients need to be weighed.
"There's definitely some messing around" with a soap recipe, says Voth. "Once you get it, then don't change anything."
Mann and Stone learned about soap-making by researching it at the library. There also are Web sites that offer soap-making tutorials and beginner recipes.
Making soap can range from using uber-simple, melt-and-pour glycerins to the more advanced, cold-process method. Mann and Stone employ the latter, using several simple ingredients and one that's toxic: lye. Used by soap-makers for eons, lye is corrosive to human skin, and can damage eyes and lungs.
Lye cannot be avoided, says Stone, because it bonds the oils and water, which usually don't mix well. Once it's mixed in properly, lye loses its toxicity and the soap is safe.
Stone recommends that soap-makers wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, protective goggles and rubber gloves. He and Mann open windows and use fans to ventilate their soap-making room at home. They have separate dishes for soap making to avoid food contamination. And during cleanup, they spray all surfaces — gloves, equipment and countertops — with white vinegar, which neutralizes the lye.
"There's nothing fancy," says Stone. "You just have to make sure you're being careful with it."
There's nothing fancy about soap-making either. Mann guarantees a simple recipe can be finished in less than an hour.
"It's like a fun art project, all the time," she says.
She and Stone use a base that includes a blend of olive, coconut and palm oils, which they've found creates a soap that lathers and moisturizes but is hard enough to be long-lasting. Their best-selling soaps, sold at Denver-area farmer's markets and online at Etsy.com, are those with lavender, citrus or spicy scents.
Here's the recipe to one of their most popular soaps:
Orange Body Bar, by Clean Getaway Soap Co.
Makes six 4-ounce bars
Some tips, according to Mann:
— Orange essential oil is more stable and less costly than some other oils, so it's good for beginners.
— For accuracy, use a lye calculator, such as Majestic Mountain Sage's version at TheSage.com.
— Never substitute one oil for another in a recipe because different oils require different amounts of lye.
— Invest in an inexpensive immersion blender; stirring soap by hand takes a long time. — It is important to weigh the essential ingredients.
— Almost anything can be used as a soap mold. If using a wood, metal or glass mold, line it with freezer paper. For this recipe, the soap-makers use a white, plastic drawer divider (made by Rubbermaid, it's about 4-by-8 inches). Plastic doesn't need to be lined. If you place your soap in the freezer for a few minutes before removing it from the mold, it will pop out easily.
7 5/8-ounce coconut oil (she uses Coconut 76, which refers to the melting point)
3 5/8-ounce palm oil (not palm kernel oil)
5 3/8-ounce olive oil (she uses pomace, although any olive oil will do)
6 ounces tap water (if you have hard water, buy and use distilled water)
21/2; ounces lye
2 teaspoons orange essential oil
1 teaspoon annatto powder, optional, for color (a spice available at many specialty stores; if unavailable, turmeric may be used)
Clean spray bottle
Four bowls, such as Pyrex, including one at least 8 cups large
Scale (for weighing ingredients)
Measuring spoons and cups
Immersion blender (optional but recommended)
Ventilated cake rack
White vinegar (in case of lye spills)
1. Put on protective gear: long-sleeved shirt and pants, apron, gloves and goggles. Fill the spray bottle with full-strength white vinegar in case of a lye spill.
2. Weigh the coconut and palm oils, and combine them in a large, heatproof bowl.
3. In three separate bowls, weigh the olive oil, water and lye.
4. If using color, mix the annatto powder (or turmeric) with 1 tablespoon olive oil and set aside.
5. Make sure you have good ventilation (open windows, turn on fans). Slowly add lye to the water, stirring constantly until all the lye is dissolved. NEVER ADD WATER TO LYE; the lye solution will get very hot (above 212 degrees Fahrenheit) and will steam.
6. Add hot lye solution to the coconut-palm oil mixture. The heat from the solution will melt the fats. Cover to reduce heat loss, about 5 minutes.
7. After the fats have melted, add the olive oil and blend with an immersion blender in 10-second bursts. It will take about 2 minutes to reach "trace." (Trace is a technical term referring to the point at which a little soap dribbled onto the surface of the mixture will remain there for a few seconds. It's a little thicker than shampoo, but not as thick as pudding. It's at trace that most of the lye has been converted — the best time to add "fragile" ingredients such as essential oils, color or oils that would otherwise be damaged by the lye.)
8. After trace has been reached, stir in orange essential oil and color-oil mixture. Mix well.
9. Pour soap mixture into a prepared mold. Cover and insulate with an old towel.
10. Allow soap mold to sit for 24 to 48 hours. Remove the mold, cut the soap into bars, and place them on a ventilated cake rack to cure, or age, for four to six weeks.
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