Once upon a time, I had a bath/body business!
That’s not the important part of this post. The important part is that this is the time of year when I start seeing really, really ill-advised “make it yourself” bath and body gift ideas. For example, no, there aren’t any plant extracts that magically make it so you don’t have to use a preservative in that water-based formula to prevent your giftee from being attacked by mold, yeast, and bacteria. And no, that pigment isn’t safe to put around your eyes or mouth, etc.
I get it–handmade gifts are wonderful, and they’re often a less expensive way to show friends and family that you care. So, go forth and handmake, but be careful. Here is my quick summary of things that might help you create happy, healthy bath and beauty products this year.
Soap (aka cold process, lye soap, etc.)
Soap is the combination of lye and oils/fats that, well, makes soap. Many of our grandmas made harsh soaps that weren’t pH-balanced because they had to guess on the strength of lye made from water and ashes, and on how much oil was needed to balance the harsh chemicals to make a mild soap. Today, there’s a soap renaissance going on; too many folks’ skin reject the synthetic detergent bars in the grocery store, so they’re seeking out combinations of oils, herbs, and, yes, synthetic dyes and fragrances sometimes, that suit their skins.
It’s too late to make most cold process soaps for this year, because this kind of soap requires many weeks of air-drying to “cure.” (There are ways to add heat to recipes, but they take practice, and more than the usual amount of dedicated equipment.) It can take a while to refine one’s process, and it’s dangerous enough that it’s not recommended to take up if you have animals or any children in your home–and yes, I know real stories of injuries, property damage, and even death.
So: Plenty of small businesses out there dedicate themselves to soap. Craft fairs and Etsy are good places to look. Soap isn’t a cosmetic, and so isn’t required to list ingredients, but a good soapmaker will have been in business for several years, be willing to share all ingredients (or at least verify that something is/isn’t in a recipe), and verify that they’ve made cold-process soap. (If it melts in the microwave, it’s not cold process. But more on that later.) Really good soapers do work in things like making soaps smoother, harder, bubblier, or more moisturizing based on soap calculators and available ingredients.
1. There are recipes out there that say hey, easy: Just mix this amount of oil with a can of this kind of lye. However, in recent years, it’s been much harder to get pure lye–it could be a bomb, you know!!!!!!!!!!!–and the “add a bottle of”s aren’t pure anymore, which could make you ill.
2. Sensitive skin? Try castile soap, which is made from lye (which dissipates in the production process in well-made soaps) and olive oil, most often without further ingredients. Keep in mind that this isn’t a very bubbly kind of soap.
3. Want to make this kind of soap? Try taking a class; that way, they’ll supply the safe kinds of equipment, teach you safety, and probably even send you home with your creations. I’ve taken classes at Otion in Bellingham, WA, and from the founder of The Nova Studio in the SF Bay Area.
4. Rebatch! Basically, you get soap that’s been made and shaved small. You reheat it (in a pot, in a bag), squish it up, add any extras, and remold it. It looks “rustic,” and saves a lot of time.
Melt and Pour Soap
Melt and pour soap is a glycerin-heavy soap that’s most often used to make fun, bright concoctions especially suitable for handsoaps, kids’ projects, and fun. It’s easy for a home crafter to make, requiring not much beyond a microwave-safe container or a pot, and the meltable base and molds can be found in many craft stores, though I highly recommend that you buy it from a cosmetic-dedicated craft store–it’ll be better quality, easier to use, and smell better. You can add soap-safe colorants, micas, fragrances, and so on, and in a pinch, you can wrap your creations in cellophane and ribbons. Or, you can add particular dried herbs for a more rustic look.
While this isn’t as tough of a craft to get started with, go with a recipe (and maybe just switch out the mold or shape) until you get the hang of what works and what doesn’t. Tip: fruits, veggies, and most plants will turn brown and rot!
1. A good place to get beginner recipes is at Teachsoap.
2. Brambleberry has the best base(s) I’ve tried. You can also buy a lot of kits (see the menu on the left) that have just what you need, so you don’t have to guess, and maybe over-buy. For bulk supplies in clay, wax, and some oils, I also like New Directions Aromatics and Majestic Mountain Sage.
Cosmetics, anything that goes beyond “gets you clean,” start getting tricky. Not only are there are lot of things that shouldn’t be in cosmetics, it’s hard to keep them pure, healthy, and safe. I recommend using a reputable recipe, and one that, if it includes water, is properly preserved. I also recommend staying away from any sort of eye makeup as a beginner, since it’s not always easy to tell when you’re getting bad advice.
From here, I’ll have to send you to Soap Queen for more ideas, since this isn’t something I really do anymore. For ease, less mess, and more beginner success, I recommend trying body butters (which, if anhydrous, may not need preservatives like a water-based lotion would), lip balms (I used to make my own with vegetable waxes to replace beeswax, which makes my lips break out), bath salts or teas, bath bombs or fizzes, and sugar scrubs.
1. Hungarian lavender is a little more expensive than other lavenders, but it’s a very different and wonderful smell, even to someone like me who doesn’t like lavender! While natural doesn’t always mean better or safe, essential oils can be a great alternative for anyone who has a fragrance sensitivity but still wants to smell nice things.
2. A couple of my favorite easy recipes from Soap Queen include solid bubble bath, rose clay sugar scrub, bath fizzies (this is a good basic place to start and then improvise), holiday tin candles, everything balm, and whipped body butter.