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Soaping up a stink

A summary account of silver for the governor written in Sumerian Cuneiform on a clay tablet. From Shuruppak, Iraq, circa 2500 BCE. British Museum, London.
A summary account of silver for the governor written in Sumerian Cuneiform on a clay tablet. From Shuruppak, Iraq, circa 2500 BCE. British Museum, London.

Along with many other facets of human civilisation, soap making originated in ancient Mesopotamia. A Sumerian tablet (much like the one shown here) – dated to around 2800 BC – is our earliest evidence, describing a concoction used to cleanse both the skin and textiles. In this recipe, oils were boiled with alkali potash, sodium, resins and salt.

Other archaic texts and testimonies are variations on the theme, with the Ancient Egyptians whipping up a rich and rather tantalising mixture of fuller’s earth, natron (sodium chloride/ carbonate/ bicarbonate/ sulphate) and crushed lupins to clean bodies both dead and alive. Soap – in a crude sense – was born. But though certain folk had clearly grasped soap’s degreasing, antimicrobial powers, its manufacture had not yet become an established industry. When barbarian invasions brought down the Roman Empire, society lost much of its refinement and we became, once again, the great unwashed. 

But while soap making in Europe  declined, our Arab cousins were busy perfecting the craft. They were the first to add lime to the ash lye – hence the Arabic ‘al-qali’ or ‘ash’ , the root of our word ‘alkali’. If the archaeological evidence is to be believed, it wasn’t until the middle of the 8th century AD when Europeans began lathering up again. Soaping flourished in places such as Marseilles, Savona, Genoa and Venice, no doubt inspired by increased contact and trade with the Middle East.

For all amateur alchemists out there, the saponification process is one of life’s minor miracles. As the matter changes from one state into another, it’s hard not to feel there is magic at work. But of course, it’s not magic, it’s basic chemistry. In the words of L’Oreal, “here’s the science…”.Without going into forensic detail, the process is best described thus: fatty acid meets strong alkali, creating a neutral salt. The fatty acids (triglycerides) are the butters and oils – anything from animal tallow to vegetable oils such as olive, coconut, sweet almond etc. The strong alkaline solution (‘lye’) is usually sodium hydroxide dissolved in water. Yes, that’s caustic soda.

In the chemical reaction, triglyceride fats are first hydrolysed into free fatty acids, before combining with the alkali to form a basic soap. This crude stuff contains soap salts, excess fat and alkali, water and liberated glycerol or ‘glycerin.’ This glycerin by-product is a superbly useful softening agent. In modern industrial soap making this lovely glycerin is typically removed and re-sold to other industries including pharmaceutical, personal care and food processing. Hence why many people find soap too drying for their skin.

This month I decided to try my hand at traditional cold process soap making, using a basic recipe for a scrubby salt soap bar and adding my own ingredients (kelp powder, essential oils…) to jazz it up a little. Perhaps I shouldn’t have… 

Before I give you the recipe, a quick disclaimer: if you’re a beginner and fancy giving this a go, please read up on the subject these safety guidelines and get properly informed before you start.     

Soap safety. A glamorous look 


Makes approximately 1.4 kg/ 3lb soap.


700g coconut oil (-luxurious, creamy and softening)
100g cocoa butter (-softening and moisturising, to counteract the drying effect of the salt on the skin)
200g castor oil (-like glycerin, it’s a powerful humectant that draws moisture to the skin while also creating large, thick bubbles in cold process soap)

330ml purified or spring water (-not mineral water, to stop it messing with the chemistry bit)
157g sodium hydroxide (-100% pure, mind)

400g fine sea salt (-not too coarse, you don’t want your soap to be too scratchy)
50g kelp powder (-packed full of skin-nourishing nutrients including Omega-3, and vitamins B2, B6 and B12, the kelp particles work with the salt to gently exfoliate and remove dead skin)

10ml rosemary essential oil (stimulating, antimicrobial)
5ml lemon essential oil (refreshing, uplifting)
Plus a bit of dried bladderwrack seaweed (-for decoration)

If you want to experiment with different base oils, you will need to adjust the amount of lye. Run your numbers through one of these online calculators to get the measurements right.


  1. Weigh the coconut oil and cocoa butter, cut into small chunks, and the castor oil. Put in a plastic bucket and set aside.
  2. Put on your rubber gloves and goggles.
  3. Weigh the water in a new plastic bucket. Set aside.
  4. Weigh the sodium hydroxide in a jug. Set aside.
  5. Weigh the sea salt and powdered kelp. Measure out the essential oils and add them to the sea salt and kelp. Stir and set aside.
  6. In a very well-ventilated area – wearing gloves, masks and goggles – gently pour the sodium hydroxide into the water. Stir with a long-handled, stainless steel spoon until it’s all dissolved. This is the ‘lye’ solution. Set aside.
  7. Pour the now highly caustic lye solution into the oils.
  8. Stir manually until all the fats and oils have dissolved, and then bring the soap to a medium trace using a stick blender.
  9. Now, working quickly, stir in the salt and essential oil mixture and pour into a pre-prepared mould/ moulds e.g. lined if necessary, adding bladderwrack to the base if you like. NOTE: The salt will make the soap react and trace really quickly – if you don’t move fast you could be trying to pour semi-set concrete, as I was.
  10. Cover with clingfilm and leave to set for 12 hours or so, until the soap has reached a hard cheese consistency. Leave it too long and you won’t be able to cut it. Turn out of the moulds and cut it into bars. NOTE: I used individual moulds to get around this issue. Good job, as the stuff hardened after about 30 minutes.
  11. Cure the bars for 4-6 weeks before use. This ensures that the soap has finished reacting, and no more sodium hydroxide remains in the bars. The PH of the final product should be neutral, and not at all irritating to the skin.

As indicated above, I had a few issues along the way. First, I should have cut my coconut and cocoa butter up into smaller chunks as it didn’t quite dissolve. Lumpy bits are not nice. Second, the salt made the whole thing react way too quickly and the resulting soap was un-pourable and very difficult to work with. Third, I definitely used too much kelp powder. Waaaay too much. In the words of my 2-year old daughter: “It STINKS, mummy.” Some sites suggests the pungent fishy odour will dissipiate with the curing process, leaving a more pleasant seaside aroma. Others say this is optimistic. Time will tell.

This month proved the idea that while it’s thrills we seek, it’s the spills that make life more interesting. The result was not necessarily my finest creation, but I’ve definitely learned a lot about what not to do.

photo (5)
My beautiful – stinky – bar.




In a lather

“Cleanliness is next to godliness”

Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

As the old saying implies, at some point we decided that apart from worshipping God, being clean was the most important thing in life. The heathen in me balks at the language, but I can’t help but agree with the sentiment. There is almost nothing that a good soak can’t fix.

Despite living in a largely secular society, the vast majority of Brits still – on a deep subconscious level – clearly believe that bathing is a sacred act. When we make time for it – on Friday nights with a glass of wine and a book, on pamper nights with friends or on trips to expensive spas – it is heavily ritualised. In this context, washing is about much more than simply removing grime, it’s about purity and goodness. And one look at the plethora of products out there tells us the marketeers understand this very well.

This month’s blog is about getting clean, the natural way. Specifically, it’s about the stuff we’ve been using to clean body and soul since time immemorial: soap. For such an everyday item, soap generates more than it’s fair share of hand-wringing. Back in the day all we seemed to care about was whether the soap did the trick and smelled nice. Now it’s a minefield. Do I care that Imperial Leather is made almost entirely from unsustainable palm oil? Yes I do (poor orang-utans…). And what about the fact that Dove’s unscented beauty bar is based on Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate, a de-greasing, synthetic detergent which can dry and irritate the skin? Er… yes. And what about the brands marketing themselves as natural, that very clearly aren’t, such as Aveda, Nivea and Jurlique? It’s misleading at best.

Back to the idea of sacred vs profane, it might be fun to categorise soaps on a spectrum – holy to unholy. At one end, the naughty soaps containing detergents (SLS, SLES), alcohols, preservatives, petroleum, parabens and palm oil. Soaps tested on animals or containing animal products also gets the thumbs down. At the other end, the holiest holy ones made for people looking for all natural products, meaning no synthetic additives at all, including colours and chemicals to help with lathering or hardening. I’m really not that extreme, but I do believe my skin deserves respect. As the largest organ in the body it works hard for me  – protecting, air conditioning, making vitamin D and the like. Put something on it, and some say it absorbs up to 60% of the ingredients into the bloodstream. No wonder people are a bit iffy about potentially toxic chemicals in commercial brands.

Also, have you noticed that soap-free cleansers are having a moment? They’re being marketed as the next big thing with the makers talking about soap’s alkalinity altering the PH of the skin and wotnot. This is seen as Not Good. However, they are basically detergents. And while some people’s skin probably likes being washed with detergent, mine doesn’t. Detergents, I believe, stop the skin doing its job. The glands in our skin secrete natural oils – these oils contain essential bacteria that defend us against disease. As this Huffington Post article on skin mentions, the harsh chemical detergents in the vast majority of our soap and skin care products strip away these natural oils, and in doing so, remove our protection.

In short, choosing a soap  – if you care about such things – is easier said than done. I must admit, on a recent trip to Sainsbury’s I found the whole thing so baffling that I vowed to try making my own. But where to begin?

Initial research suggests the best soaps – that is, the most effective ones that clean without stripping the skin – are based on vegetable (not mineral) oil blends, with the natural glycerine from the saponification process still intact. These soaps can be liquid or solid, created by traditional cold process methods. So this month I’m going to try my hand at both. This first recipe is a bit of a cheat – I’m going to use pre-made liquid castile soap to make a foaming facial cleanser. The second recipe – coming soon – will be a proper hardcore attempt to make a cold process salt bar. Much trickier, more dangerous (yes, I’ll be donning a very fetching mask and goggles to deal with a super caustic solution…) and probably much more fun.


Based on a recipe from blog Simple Homemade.  Makes 130ml (ish).


60ml liquid castile soap (- a vegetable soap originally made in the Castile region of Spain, castile soap is traditionally made from a simple blend of 100% olive oil, water and lye, the alkali used to catalyse the saponification process. True castile will never contain synthetic detergents or artificial colour, fragrance or preservatives that can cause irritation)
60ml rose water (- soothing, toning and all round lovely stuff. You can also use cooled chamomile tea or just plain old water)
2 tsp sweet almond oil (- moisturising, easily absorbed and useful for all skin types. This helps to counter the drying effect of the soap)
2 tsp aloe vera gel (-moisturises the skin without making it greasy)
2 tsp vegetable glycerin (-a thick, colourless liquid useful in skincare products. It attracts moisture to the skin, and also has healing and protective properties)
A few drops of liquid preservative (NOTE: Because the recipe contains water, this product will go rancid without it. I don’t believe all preservatives are bad. The one I use is an approved paraben-free formula that protects against microbial growth and also gives the formula a nice feel).

Essential oil blend:
8-12 drops essential oil
(NOTE: The skin on the face is very sensitive, and essential oils are powerful. Make sure you choose the right oils to suit your skin type. I went for lavender and rosewood).


photo 2

  1. Blend all the ingredients  – apart from the soap – in a blender (… you don’t want it to foam up yet).
  2. Check you like the smell, and adjust if required. But go easy on the oils.
  3. Now add the liquid soap and blend gently, just to mix it up properly. A couple of pulses should to do the trick.
  4. Pour into a foaming pump dispenser like this one.
  5. Try it out! Pump 1-2 little clouds into your palm and gently massage onto face and neck, taking care to avoid the eyes (it can sting…). Remove with a warm, damp flannel and gently towel dry. Moisturise as normal – I would recommend a simple oil such as sweet almond, but use whatever you usually use.

photo 1

After a few weeks using it, my skin appears to like it. It removes make-up nicely (not mascara – don’t get it near the eyes!), and will be pretty cheap to re-create once I run out.

Coming later this month: cold process soap. Watch this space…

Honeyed lips

"We are an ancient sort of resilient. Made for the falling and the rising. Made for rose colored glasses and honeyed lips and finding new home in another. Made for the burning down and rebuilding from ashes. Made for the holy wonder of beginning again." Jeanette LeBlanc
IMAGE: The Wild by Cecilia Carlstedt.

“We are an ancient sort of resilient. Made for the falling and the rising. Made for rose colored glasses and honeyed lips and finding new home in another. Made for the burning down and rebuilding from ashes. Made for the holy wonder of beginning again.”
Jeanette LeBlanc

Lips. Sensitive, sensuous, sexual. Whether opening for food, moving for speech or moulding to our emotions, they form an essential, identifying part to any human face, and are therefore something to be cherished and cared for. Enter lip balm – one of life’s most affordable luxuries. I recently came across this article on the history of chapstick (odd what you come across when breastfeeding the baby at 3 a.m…) that included a Body Shop press release on the subject, replete with sexual metaphors. Indeed, if like me you suffered your teenage years in the early 90s, you may share my near Pavlovian response to the phrase ‘Rum Raisin’. The Body Shop’s fruity pots of gunk (Coconut and Pineapple! Kiwi! Black Cherry!) were launched to a crazed response from girls across the nation, perfecting their pout for the playground. The stuff in those pots smelled so darned good we slathered it on like channel swimmers waiting to take the plunge. In fact, I grew so attached to my strawberry one that classmates bet me a fiver I wouldn’t eat it – so of course I did. Reader, it tasted nothing like cherries but my oesophagus was nicely lubricated for days afterwards.

Because that is of course what most commercial lip balms are made of – petroleum jelly, a chemical waste product of the oil industry. I’m not against ‘chemicals’ per se (note: lots of confusion abounds around what is ‘natural’ vs ‘chemical’ in the beauty industry, but that’s for another time…). However, I am against unfounded claims to efficacy and in this case, dermatologists widely report it has genuinely no hydrating benefit to lips. Why? Because it seals moisture into the lips, which sounds very nice and protecting where in fact it both prevents the delicate skin from breathing and locks any bacteria in too. Not good. For this reason, a few new brands such as Pai, Lanolips and Balm Balm are forging ahead with formulations based on natural oils (coconut, sweet almond, jojoba), butters (cocoa, shea), beeswax and lanolin. This month, I decided to try and make my own version of the one that has me hooked – Burt’s Bees – if only to try and save some dosh.  The recipe worked like a dream, and I now have oodles of tubes that taste just like Murray Mints on the kitchen worktop, waiting to be sent out to various friends, family members and blog followers. Yummy!


Based on Burt’s Bees ingredients and the tutorial on Naturally Balmy. Makes approximately 60x tubes or 20x 15ml tins.

EDIT: Since the original post, a few people have suggested I should remove some of the specifics to protect my recipes in case I want to sell them in future. The recipe below is an edited version.


150ml base oil (-e.g. sweet almond, coconut, macadamia. This can be infused with herbs that have beneficial skin-soothing properties)
80g shea butter (-superior moisturiser with high levels of natural vitamin E)
60g yellow beeswax pellets (-protective barrier that unlike petroleum jelly will not ‘suffocate’ the skin, antibacterial and rich in vitamin A supporting cell regeneration)
30g cocoa butter (-superb moisturiser, rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants)
1 heaped tbsp good quality honey (-can absorb and retain moisture, keeping the skin hydrated and supple, anti-ageing and anti-microbial)
10 drops vitamin E oil (-anti-oxidant that also prolongs the life of the product)

Essential oil blend:
45 drops essential oil (-e.g. spearmint or peppermint for their anti-bacterial, stimulant properties)


  1. Melt the oil and beeswax together in a bain marie over a low heat. 
  2. Cut the butters up into smallish chunks, and add to the pot. Keep stirring.
  3. Now add the honey. Stir until the mixture is smooth and all the bits fully dissolved. Take care not to overheat.
  4. Finally, remove from the heat and add the vitamin E and essential oils. Stir thoroughly.
  5. If you’re using tins, just pour the mixture into a jug then transfer. Using tubes like I did is a little trickier. Try placing them in a shallow tray of cold water as you go to ensure the mixture at the bottom hardens quickly and forms a seal at the base. Warm a plastic pipette in the microwave before using to transfer the product, and work quickly. If the mixture solidifies before you’re done, just warm it up again gently.
  6. Let everything harden overnight, ideally in the fridge. The next morning your wondrous stuff should be ready to use.  There is no water in this recipe so the balm requires no preservative and will keep for up to 2 years. Happy days!
Sticks of joy!
Sticks of joy!

Fresh powder

Reblogged from on Pinterest

Powder is alluring. Fresh powder, even more so.  Ask any young child, snowboarder or weary office worker how they feel about waking up to snow. It makes the world appear sparkly and new.

And so I could think of no more a fitting recipe for the start of the blog than a dusting powder. Something that speaks of the past, but needs reinventing for the present. Because dusting powders have fallen out of favour haven’t they. Depending on your age, you may recall seeing powder puffs on our mother or grandmother’s dressing table – the silky feel of them against our skin, the heady scent of Yardley, Avon, Elizabeth Arden – rose, lavender, lily of the valley – lingering in the air. While nostalgic, many turn their noses up at smelling like ‘old ladies’. But it doesn’t have to be this way: perhaps it’s time for a powder revival. New formulations, a new image for a product with many virtues. Because not only do they make you smell nice after a shower, they can also help to absorb excess oil after moisturising, prevent chafing and double up as a dry hair shampoo. Read more about the history of dusting powders here.

Of the companies in the UK still making dusting powder – and there really aren’t many – the one that does it best, in my view, is the ever wonderful Lush. I followed the company from the start, back when they were Cosmetics to Go (they hail from my neck of the woods in Dorset) making outlandish, delightful bath bombs featured on The Clothes Show.  I touted their catalogue around the playground at school, relishing the witty product descriptions and ordering stuff for my friends. Over the years I witnessed their dramatic demise and subsequent revival under a new brand, Lush, and then worked for them for a brief time after university. It’s safe to say they are one of my very favourite brands. Lush gushing aside, they do make some rather lovely powders. And since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I thought I’d have a go at duping one.

Based on Lush’s Coconut Deoderant Powder, now out of production. Makes 450g.


100g corn starch (-absorbs oil and  moisture)
140g tapioca flour (-velvety soft feel)
40g arrowroot (-skin softening, absorbs moisture and helps active ingredients penetrate the skin)
70g magnesium carbonate (-talc substitute, ultra light, smooths and softens the skin)
70g coconut milk powder (-soothing anti-inflammatory and smells delicious)
25g grated coconut cream (-moisturising, and add further coconut smell)
25g dessicated coconut (-prevents the powder from clumping)
30 drops benzoin resin (-vanilla-ish aroma, a natural fixative that prevents evaporation of active essential oils)

Essential oil blend:
10 drops vetiver (-earthy, almost dirt-like smell known for its grounding properties. Go easy, though, it can be quite overpowering.)
20 drops sandalwood (-combines well with vetiver to soothe and reassure. Also an anti-inflammatory)
10 drops sweet orange (-lovely uplifting citrus tang to tie the blend together)


  1. Mix all the ingredients above – minus the essential oils – very thoroughly in a ceramic or glass bowl. You may wish to wear a mask to avoid inhaling too much powder.
  2. Now add the essential oils to a cotton pad, and place inside the powder mix.
  3. Add the lot to a large kilner jar.
  4. Shake.
  5. Leave for 24 hours to allow the essential oils to permeate the mix, then shake again.
  6. Leave for a further 24 hours.
  7. Decant into suitable shakers. I bought this medium-hole shaker but you can experiment. Even a small, recycled spice jar will do.
  8. Enjoy!


Root and branch

Re-blogged from

Welcome to The Dip Project blog – a place to record my enthusiastic experiments with handmade bath and beauty. There’ll be recipes, ideas and reflections on here. But before all this, I want to share the roots beneath The Dip Project – a project that one day may become a business.

Natural beauty is my thing; it always has been. From an early age, my parents, in particular Dad –  a watercolour artist, musician and all round creative synesthete – encouraged my love for it. I remember stargazing with him in the back garden (deck chairs, hot tea and blankets on our knees), marvelling as  he mapped out the heavens. Orion. Andromeda. Ursa Major. I remember our visits to shops along the Dorset coast, researching and building up a collection of semi-precious gemstones to fill the box my Grandpa Harold made especially. The purity of diamonds, rubies and sapphires paled in comparison to the delights of rutilated quartz, iron pyrites, hematite, amethyst or moss agate. They still do.

The heavens opened.
The heavens opened.
After the storm. Bottling rainwater in Payrac, Dordogne.
After the storm. Bottling rainwater in Payrac, Dordogne.

And I remember the moment when I first became interested in natural health, beauty and cosmetics. On a family camping trip to the Dordogne – I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old – we got caught in a  particularly impressive thunderstorm. After digging ditches around the tent, we took cover and waited for it to pass. When we emerged, the forest was suddenly ripe with the aroma of saturated pine – sap and needle, giving up the freshest aroma I’d known. We took deep breaths. It was a magical day. But strangely, what I remember most was the softening effect the  rain water had had on our hair, and how I enlisted my sisters to help me  collect it from the trees. I wanted to bottle it.

One of my first jobs was for the now extinct Culpeper, the high street herbalist. This was where my interest became a passion. As I restocked the shops’ drawers with dried medicinal herbs – eyebright, comfrey, senna, valerian, hops – and the old wooden shelves with apothecary bottles of essential oil – neroli, vetivert, sandalwood, jasmine and bergamot, a magical, fragrant world of possibilities opened up. The line between mind and body began to blur. I dealt with a wide range of customer queries there, from people seeking natural treatments for the complexion and hair, but also for anxiety, insomnia and impotence. I dabbled with aromatherapy, made messy tomato and oatmeal face masks in the kitchen and contemplated a degree in medicinal herbalism.

And while the path I chose meant I wouldn’t make a living this way – not at this point, anyway – the seed had been well and truly sown.  The interest never faded, it just moved aside for the serious business of building a career, home and family to happen. But in recent years it has become stronger again – to the point where I feel the need to really indulge it. Explore it. And blog about it.

This is the story behind what I am calling The Dip Project. Feel free to join me as I fumble my way. Try the recipes. Send comments. I’d love to hear from you.