Monthly Archives: July 2012

Vinegar? Really?

As you can see from the listing text of all of our shampoo products, solid and liquid alike, we recommend following up each wash with a vinegar (or lemon juice, etc.) rinse. What we don’t tell you in those listings is why we recommend using a vinegar rinse on your hair after washing with our shampoos, so I thought I’d take a bit of time and explain the reasoning behind the recommendation.

There are three main reasons for using a rinse of this kind with natural shampoos. First, unlike most commercial shampoos, they do not contain SLS or other high-test detergent/surfectants, and indeed the only surfectant they contain is, well, soap. Specifically, potassium-based soaps, which are much more soluble in water than sodium-based soaps, but are still less soluble than the detergents in other shampoos, which means that especially in hard water they can, over time, lead to a buildup in the hair. Rinsing after every wash with a quart or so of water containing a tablespoon or two of vinegar or lemon juice prevents this from happening. It also helps remove buildup from styling products or mineral scale from said hard water, at the same time.

Second, there is a pH balance issue to resolve. Human skin has a pH in the 5.4 range, but the natural shampoos tend to have a pH in the neighborhood of 9. The skin of your scalp will re-balance its pH to its desired level in time anyway, but it is best for the health of your hair and scalp to give it a bit of help in doing so, which the weak acid of the recommended rinse will do. This can also help to prevent itchy or flaky scalp, as having the pH out of whack is one thing which can trigger that effect. This and the above effect are among the reasons shampoos in other formulations became popular in the first place, but as natural shampoos are far more gentle on your hair and scalp than the SLS-containing kind, the extra few moments it takes to add the rinse to my regimen is a tradeoff worth making, in my opinion.

Third, a vinegar rinse will help close the cuticle of the hair shaft, making hair less frizzy, shinier, and stronger. This is one area in which anyone can benefit from using this technique, not just those who use natural shampoos. Anyone who struggles with frizzy hair, or gets split ends quickly, or whose hair is dull or breaks easily, is a good candidate for seeing improvement in the hair within a few weeks of starting to use a rinse of this kind.

So, what sort of vinegar to use? I usually use apple cider vinegar, personally, though I have used regular white vinegar and lemon juice as well. I have had good results from using herb-infused vinegars designed to benefit hair in various ways, and indeed am intending to offer some of these for sale at some future point. But a bottle of vinegar straight from the supermarket shelf will do just fine.

A few caveats, in closing:

1. I have no personal experience in the effect of a vinegar rinse on color-treated hair, and my research into the matter has produced contradictory answers. My suspicion is that temporary/”wash out” hair dyes are washed away much more quickly if using vinegar rinses, but I don’t quite know how it would have any effect on the more permanent coloring methods. Still, I don’t know for certain that it doesn’t, so use this technique at your own risk if your hair is colored.

2. Dilute, dilute, dilute. Never, EVER use more than 50% vinegar in your rinse water, and more like 5% is probably better. I make a two-quart pitcher of rinse every time I wash my hair, because I have thick, hip-length hair to rinse, and I still use less than three tablespoons of vinegar in that much water. If you use too much vinegar in the water, any benefits you might have seen will be overridden by damage you are doing to your hair from that much vinegar.

3. To re-rinse, or not to re-rinse? Opinions are divided as to whether you should rinse your hair with plain water again after using the vinegar rinse. Personally, using such a dilute rinse as I do, I usually don’t bother, and I still don’t end up smelling of vinegar even as long as it takes my hair to dry. I’m pretty sure this one is a matter of personal taste, however.

And that’s what I have to say on the topic of vinegar rinses! I hope it’s answered your questions, but if not, ask away, and I’ll do my best to fill in whatever I left out.

Tidbits & Links

For those of you who may have missed it on Google+ and Facebook the other day, our Sunflowers SunSoap (say that three times fast!) is cured and ready to sell now, and it’s adorable. I love this soap so much.


In similar announcements, two new varieties of shampoo bars (Vanilla Almond and Honeysuckle Mint) are available now, as well as two new varieties of bath bombs (Eucalyptus Spearmint and Gardens by Moonlight).

And speaking of Google+, look, felted soap!

Finally, we have just put up a list of our store partners and a calendar of our planned craft shows, so if you’re looking for some in-person Foam on the Range shopping, this tells you where to find it. We hope to see you at one of our shows, or that you’ll stop in to visit one of our store partners.

Off to Wilson, KS tomorrow for the Czech Fest. Looking forward to it!

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make . . . Soap

As anyone who is in the entire central part of the country, or indeed watches the news, knows, it’s hot. Wichita, KS had a high of 102 today, and that’s completely unremarkable in the latest stretch of heat. Remarkable or not, though, it’s still really quite unpleasant, and mostly leads to people just not going outside much.

Last summer was hot, too, and I got a bright idea one afternoon: I can use this heat to help me make soap! There is a technique called “cold process oven process”, wherein one makes and pours the soap as usual for cold process, but instead of swaddling the molds in blankets to “cook” in their self-generated heat, one places them into a warm (~180F) oven overnight. Advocates of this process say it gives you all the delicacy of swirl and other appearance characteristics that are the main benefit of cold process soaping, while cutting curing time by half or more and creating usable soap much, much sooner.

My molds won’t fit into my oven, so I never really gave this technique much thought except in the very abstract, until the day last summer, near the end of the heat wave, when I got the bright idea to put the soap into the car instead. It doesn’t reach 180F in the car, but 140F is not uncommon, and hey, it’s an experiment worth trying! It did actually work pretty well, as it happens, but for one reason and another I never have tried it again – until today.

Snug in the back seat.

Both times I’ve tried this, I’ve hedged my bets a bit and let the soap go overnight in its usual blanket-swaddling first – I’ve had “soap volcanoes” before when soap gets too hot in the mold while still early in the saponification process, and I don’t really want to clean one of those out of the car – so it’s not precisely the same way as oven-process users do it. But last time it did cut quite a bit off my curing time, and I hope it does the same this time, too! Maybe I’ll start putting soap in the car throughout the entirety of the warm months.

Maybe not in the window, though – this is probably on the edge of being *too* hot.

Oils, and Why They Differ

So what is up with all the different oils used in different products, anyway? I touched on this topic very briefly in “What Makes This Soap So Special” a while back, briefly explaining some of the characteristics of the oils in our SunSoap that led to me including them in that formula. The fact is, different oils have so many different characteristics that sometimes choosing the selection of oils to make up a particular product is the most time-consuming part of the whole product development process.

First, a bit of technical overview. Oils are fats which are liquid at room temperature, technically, which means some of the things I call “oils” for simplicity’s sake are not, really – coconut oil melts at 76F, so is only liquid at the temperature of some rooms; cocoa butter and shea butter, for instance, are decidedly solid at room temperature, and beeswax is higher-melting yet (also, waxes follow different rules anyway, so let’s forget about beeswax for now). But for the purposes of this and similar discussions, I will use “oil” and “fat” interchangeably as terms.

Triglyceride/fat molecule (image from Wikipedia)

A fat molecule is known as a “triglyceride” – a glycerol molecule with three fatty acid chains hanging off of it. The differences in character between types of fats is all down to variations in the fatty acids – the differences between beef tallow and grapeseed oil are all in those three dangly bits of those molecules. Some of the ways in which fatty acids can differ from one another are terms we’ve heard – saturated, unsaturated, cis, trans – and those are all important in their way. There are other differences as well, less relevant to our diets and so not so frequently discussed.

Serious cooks already know a bit about this, of course. One would never deep-fry in extra-virgin olive oil, for instance; partly because most of the distinctive flavors are destroyed long before deep-frying temperatures are reached, and partly because heating olive oil that far above its smoke point is just asking for a kitchen fire. Sometimes it doesn’t matter all that much – if you’re putting a cup of vegetable oil in your brownie mix according to the directions on the box, you can use the bottle labeled “vegetable oil” (which is probably mostly soybean oil), you can use canola oil, corn oil, or just about anything else oily you’ve got in the kitchen, and while it might change the results a little, you’ll still end up with brownies at the end.

Similarly, if you mix any oil with the right amount of lye, you’ll get soap, and it’ll get you clean, well enough, so what’s the big deal?

Soap is, at the most basic chemical definition, a salt. Salts are made from the reaction of an acid and a base – sodium chloride, table salt, is made from sodium hydroxide and hydrochloric acid, for instance. Soap is the result when sodium hydroxide reacts with the fatty acids in the tails of a fat molecule. So as different oils have different fatty acid compositions, the soaps they make are very different from one another. They’re all sodium salts, but then, table salt and borax are both sodium salts, too, and they’re hardly interchangeable!

Fatty acid  categories (image from Wikipedia)

(Oh, and by the way – the sodium hydroxide reacts with the fatty acids, producing soap (and water, which eventually cures out of the finished soap) – but those fatty acids came attached to glycerol in the original triglyceride molecule. Well, you’ve heard me talk before about the glycerin which many large-scale soapmakers have removed from their soap and which handmade soapers leave behind, and now you know where it comes from!)

Now, having conveyed all this groundwork, I’ll confess that I don’t actually spend a whole lot of time thinking about fatty acid profiles in depth. It’s not entirely irrelevant to me – for instance, sunflower oil comes in “high oleic” and “high linoleic” varieties, each of which has different properties, affecting the character of the finished product in noticeable ways. And fatty acid profiles make it easier to choose oils for a soap recipe and predict hardness of finished bar, quantity and quality of lather, and so on. But if I’m making a recipe for a lotion, scrub, conditioner, or other moisturizing product, I’m usually thinking about more immediate oil qualities rather than the fatty acid composition which created them: Is it easily absorbed by the skin? Is it comedogenic? Does it feel heavy and greasy, or is it lightweight? Does it have a smell, and if so, will it harmonize with the scent I have in mind for the finished product?

Future posts on this topic will expand on qualities of various oils that lead me to choose them in product development, and how I know which oils I can substitute for one another in which contexts, and how I go about composing a selection of oils to create exactly the effect I’m looking for – though, of course, usually not on the first try, no matter how much science I put into the choosing. But then, that’s what science is about, right? Trying things, learning from how they go wrong, and then trying new things!

And if I stray too far into scientific esoterica and leave anyone with entirely no idea of what on earth I’m talking about, please a) let me know before I head any further off into the weeds, and b) feel free to ask questions!

Next in this series will discuss fatty acids and soap in detail.

Fragrance Profile: Black Tea

This is another of my “hat tricks” – a fragrance which started out with one name only to be renamed later. I called this one “Little Luxuries” when I first rolled it out. It fit, as names go; this is a fragrance for the finer things in life, calling to mind a fine cigar, an Islay malt scotch, a cup of Lapsang Souchang tea. Fitting or no, it didn’t stick as a name, and it got a rename a year or so later to Black Tea.

Black Tea SunSoap

The renamed version is the same fantastic scent as before, with all of the above and more: “This smoky, sexy and sophisticated fragrance is reminiscent of roasted tea leaves with strong overtones of tobacco. With surprising top notes of Italian bergamot, Sicilian lemon, and Southern orange, the blend winds down with black tea Leaves, star jasmine, white cedarwood, amber crystal, and a rich musk.”

Perfect for anyone looking for a little dose of luxury!

Foam on the Range’s Black Tea products are here.

Taking the Plunge

As I may or may not have specifically mentioned in this blog, I have for some time been building this business around a full-time job. This obviously has some pretty serious limitations, which I have been running up against hard of late.

Therefore, as of the beginning of this week, Foam on the Range is now my first priority, and the full-time job a thing of the past. This is, as one might imagine, a very intimidating (actually, terrifying) move, but as this is where my passion lies, this is where I should put my energy. I know it might not quite work out all the way, and if I need to, I’ll get a part-time job, and that’ll be okay. But one way or another, I need to give Foam on the Range more time than it has had from me recently!

I’m very excited about this new development, and so I want to celebrate – which means it’s time for a giveaway! Sign up below to be entered to win an awesome gift basket loaded with Foam on the Range goodies. (EDIT: The giveaway is over now, but stay tuned, there’ll be more in the future!)

Right. Back to work. And thank you, by the way, all of you, for making Foam on the Range grow so much so fast! Here’s to the next 2.5 years – may they bring as many happy surprises as the last 2.5.

Gel Phase

Next up in our series of terms to define: Gel phase! You hear soapmakers throw this one around a lot, and there are heated debates about whether it’s a good thing for soap or not. I come down on the pro-gel-phase side, and do my best to make sure all my batches go through it – so I’ll break it down a bit here and explain what some of the hype is about.

Most soapers these days use the “cold process”, which means that, unlike the stories my grandfather used to tell when the women of his family would stand around a cauldron in the yard on hog-slaughtering day and cook up a giant vat of soap over a fire (in what I can only imagine was a long, hot, and horrifically stinky process), we don’t add any heat at all to the reaction after we’ve mixed the lye and oils, or at most a very gentle warming, as from a heating pad. But as anyone who remembers high school chemistry knows, chemical reactions go faster in warmer temperatures, right?

Right. In fact, some of them even require heat as an energy input, which is why liquid soap has to be cooked – potassium hydroxide, the alkali used in liquid soap (more about this another time) reacts less readily with the oils than sodium hydroxide, and needs the heat to move it along. The reaction of sodium hydroxide with oils, though, actually produces heat, and with a sufficiently cunning use of blankets or other insulation, we can trap some of that heat and heat up the mold filled with soap, which accelerates the reaction, which produces still more heat – in a positive feedback loop that takes the temperature of the soap in the mold from around 100-120 degrees F when poured to, ideally, around 200 degrees F, and speeds the saponification process up significantly. The hot end of this is called “gel phase”, because when the proto-soap gets hot enough, it goes glass-like and translucent – it becomes, in fact, a gel.

This is what it looks like just after pouring into the mold…

…and here it’s in the middle of gel phase.

Gel phase does more than just speed up the process of turning oil+lye into soap. It also changes the texture and consistency of the finished soap. Now, soapers who prefer to avoid gel phase are still making soap! It takes a bit longer to finish saponifying, and the curing times are longer, but there are plenty of people who choose to make soap that way because they like the appearance better.

But faster isn’t always better, either. If the initial temperatures were too high, or the insulation is too thick relative to the ambient temperature, or there’s something about the fragrance or the ingredients in the soap that accelerates the process (honey, beeswax, and fragrances with spice notes are common culprits here), the positive feedback loop mentioned above can hit a sort of runaway process, and create what is semi-affectionately known as a Soap Volcano. This happens when the temperature gets high enough that the water in the proto-soap starts to boil, and the soap it’s embedded in is forced up and out of the mold – sometimes in a flow, sometimes in an explosion, but always in a mess. So watch your temperatures, and check your soap an hour or so after you put it to bed to make sure it’s not going CRAZY on you!

There are five batches of soap under that pile of blankets, which I’ve now unwrapped and looked at three times. I think they’re safe to leave for the night, by this point!