Warning: It’s Soap

By Kim Johnson

My neighbor called the other day and asked, “Hey, what was in that soap you made?” I was hoping she loved it and not calling because someone had developed a rash.

“The ingredients?” I asked dumbly.

“I cut it up and fed it to my mother,” she informed me.

Three things struck me immediately. One, she didn’t have a rash so maybe she liked the soap. Two, she must be joking because who would eat soap? And three, to avoid future lawsuits my soap needed a warning label, something like: “Warning! Soap is for external use only! Not intended as a food item! Achtung, Baby!”

My neighbor went on to say that it was really her husband’s fault because she left the soap on the counter and he wrapped it in plastic and put it in the cheese drawer. Needing to give Nana a snack, she removed the soap from the cheese drawer, sliced and served. Clearly, if the husband hadn’t been so Johnny-on-the-spot with his clean up, this disaster would have been avoided.

I began making soap several months prior to Nana’s fateful ingestion of my cleaning product. With a surplus of goat milk I wanted to make a product with a longer shelf life than cheese. Soap only gets better the longer it ages or “cures.” I read many books and online articles about soap-making. I quickly realized that soap-making is complicated. It requires a rich attention to detail and a high level of precision with measurements. Many sources likened it to cooking. What they should have likened it to was college-level chemistry. While cooking is an art, soapmaking is a calculated science. If cooking goes outside the recipe the end result is usually at least edible, and in the hands of a creative chef often better. Soap-making outside the recipe is an excellent way to burn down your house, corrode your plumbing, and/or lose your eyesight.

I had many creative disasters in my early attempts. Most involved a fundamental error called failure to follow directions. One memorable mistake involved pouring the soap into an aluminum mold. Soap-making 101 teaches that sodium hydroxide, the lye ingredient in soap, reacts badly to metals. This should have been obvious to me, as I earned a minor in chemistry. My husband pointed this fact out over and over as we dragged the spewing concoction outdoors to vent the poisonous gasses. I told him that the metal molds looked cool and would have made neatly shaped soaps. He countered with something witty like, “No one wants to wash up with noxious fumes.” After many trials and mostly errors I began producing consistently good soaps, adding in different scents and essential oils.

The soap Nana ate contained essential oil of orange, with a wonderful floral bouquet. It certainly smelled tasty. I rattled off a list of its ingredients to my neighbor and suggested she call poison control. Although I didn’t think any of the ingredients were harmful, better not take any chances. I wished her luck and hurried off to my computer to print a warning label: “Smells good, like oranges, but for the love of God, don’t eat it!” Turns out Nana was fine, she just needed to drink some cool liquids before she caught the bus back to the senior center.