Monday, June 04, 2007

What's in that thing?

Oops, sorry I didn't get the soap company thing posted Friday. I played hookey and worked out in the garden all weekend long on a new landscape project. It looks so darn good - a new section of rock wall, a new set of steps and re-graded a section in the front that had become a complete mess. Now the whole thing ties together, the structure part is totally finished, and we've begun to plant stuff. I just stand there and stare at it, over and over all day. I can't believe how much work it was, and how much was accomplished, after what was truly years of planning it and stalling.

So, the story is this: a woman stopped in my booth at Folklife, and asked a million questions about all the other little products I had out on the ends of the table. She was amazed that I actually made all that stuff. And as she made her way around to the middle where the soaps were, she asked increduously if I made the soap too. Of course I do. Painstakingly. By hand.

She declared to me that of course soap is probably made differently now, and that she used to work in a commercial soap factory. I explained that soap has been made the same way, with generally the same ingredients for thousands of years. There is no other way to do it. I did the quick 101 on the mixing of the fats with the water and lye solution, which I'm pretty sure she knew already, adding that I use a base of really high quality vegetable oils and special nutrient oils as the fat base.

Her response was that they used whatever leftover waste oils they could find -- bacon grease, horse fat, junk leftover in the cold cream making industry. She said they made soap for all kinds of businesses - they were the sort of invisible manufacturing plant that commercial brands hired to produce their soap bars. Even high-end, expensive ones, she said.

I asked her the name of the company, and she told me "Hewitt." So I googled. Here's the rather dramatic recounting and brief history of the factory, in Dayton, Ohio that I found. In a nutshell, it was a family business that was started in 1897, and became the second largest specialty soapmaking plant, making just about every kind of soap, but specializing in those little hotel bars.

In the 30's it became a subsidiary of Proctor & Gamble. In the 80's it was sold to American Safety Razor, which made all kinds of other items too. And then in a violet corporate take-over, it became part of Bradford Soap International in Nov 2004. Bradford basically took it over, gutted the business and dismantled the whole thing, so Hewitt is gone.

Bradford Soap Works has an interesting section on their site which gives a super thorough description of the Art and Science of Soapmaking which explains in great detail how commercial soap is made. And the photos of their products include everything from hotel soaps, to general store brand soap, to specialty bars of glycerin and natural stuff that look just like the spa type stuff you pay top dollar for. As they state: Translucent, transparent, organic, synthetic, moisturizing, beaded, striated, marbled and more — it’s all available in shapes, colors and fragrances to meet customers’ exact specifications and market needs." And their photo (above) certainly looks like those highly advertised Dove or Olay lotion-filled bars. They make everything, and you wouldn't know who the heck they are, they are not listed on the label as manufacturers very often.

The FDA does not require ingredients or strict labelling for soap. For any and every other bath or cosmetic product, the restrictions and ingredients are pretty extensive. But for soap you can pretty much get away with anything. I'm not sure why the distinction, but it's been that way forever. So maybe they still use horse fat leftover from pet food manufacturing. Or old Crisco from popcorn manufacturing, or who knows what old food oils, animal fats, whatever goes into it. Sure, they probably make the nicer, frilly stuff too. But how do you know really. It's gross and not something I would ever want to use again, after hearing what goes on behind the closed doors. Certainly, a fancy little wrapper and nice perfume covers up a lot. But your skin absorbs 99% of what goes on it, so I'm not that into yesterday's breakfast grease.

I spent extra time in the shower with my shea butter soap after hearing all that. And am so darn happy that I have an endless supply of the good stuff in my house. I know every single thing that goes into them. And the basic ingredients are so healthy they are edible. Well, bacon grease is edible too, if you're going to get technical. Ewww.