Discover Benzie’s Homemade Soaps

“We’ve been using handmade soap for a year or two after discovering it at a local store. They discontinued it, and I’ve been buying it from Florida ever since. I would really like a local source. I cannot imagine going back to Dial.” — Joann Miller

Miller will be pleased to learn there are some great local sources of handmade soap here in Benzie County—from natural herb-infused to bars felted with alpaca wool. Most of the local soaps are made by the cold process method, which involves several steps, and a lengthy curing (drying) period once the bars are cut. Makers and users alike swear the end result is worth every effort.

Benefits of using handmade soap

Many people begin using handmade soaps after experiencing allergies to the chemical ingredients and fragrances in commercially mass-produced soaps. Others find handmade soaps help them better manage skin issues such as eczema, psoriasis or simple dry skin. Still others turn to these more natural alternatives because they want to buy locally made products or adopt a more ‘green’ lifestyle.

In cold process soap-making, lye combines with fats to create hard bars (a process called saponification). This process allows for the glycerin by-product to remain in the bars. Glycerin is an excellent natural moisturizer, keeping the bar’s lathering action from completely stripping skin’s natural oils during bathing.

How is soap made?

Any hard bar of soap uses lye in the recipe. That said, the presence of lye does not mean the soap will be the harsh old farm soap made by many a great-grandmother. Modern recipes generally use as little lye as needed to create a solid bar.

Some common terms for lye include: Potash, Sodium Hydroxide, Alkali, or Crystals of Alkali or NaOH. Some ingredient labels skip naming lye altogether by stating the soaps contain “saponified oils of …” Saponified simply means the oils have gone through the process of mixing with lye to create a solid bar of soap.

Soap makers choose different fats and oils for the characteristics they bring to the bar. Many people use olive oil as a predominant oil in their recipe, because of both the relatively low amount of lye needed, and also because olive oil is especially nourishing to the skin.

Other oils are added for lathering properties. Coconut oil brings frothy lather, and castor oil brings a slower, creamier lather. Most shampoo bars contain a fair amount of castor oil to help give the proper lather for that function.

First, lye is mixed into water (causing an instant heat reaction). Lye water is caustic, and the soap maker must take care to neither come in contact with the lye water, nor inhale its fumes. Lye water can only be mixed in stainless steel or glass containers, as it will eat though tin or aluminum containers.

Any solid oils are then melted and liquid oils are added to the melted solids. Once both the lye water and oils have cooled to room temperature, they are mixed together. The saponification process happens as oil and alkali molecules mix and bond in the soap pan. The soap mixture is continually stirred to help this process. Once the soap mixture thickens, essential or fragrance oils can be added as well as colorant or botanicals. The soap mixture is then poured into a mold.

Newly poured soap enters a thermal period of 18-24 hours, when it continues to heat. In winter, soap makers often pile blankets around the mold to help assist the thermal process. Some place the soap molds directly into a low-heat oven for a few hours first. Once the thermal period has ended, the soap is solid enough to remove from the mold and cut into bars.

Once cut, soaps continue to “cure” for a period of four to eight weeks, depending on recipe. During this time, excess moisture evaporates from the bars leaving harder and milder bars. Soft soaps which have not completely cured are safe to use, but will melt away almost immediately the first few times they are used.

Handmade soaps will enjoy their longest shelf life when allowed to thoroughly drain between each use. Problems occur when soaps are allowed to sit in water, and ‘gel’ on the bottom. The gel washes away quickly, taking much of the bar with it. Use of a draining soap dish helps combat this problem, as does letting bars dry in non-humid areas of the house after bathing.

Three unique Benzie soap experiences

Creation Pharm (2760 River Road, Frankfort) makes and sells their own soap and skin care products made from herbs and botanicals grown on their own farm. They also hold workshops for those who would like to learn how to make soap. Founder Anna Sangemino and her husband Mike Hulbert definitely have the credentials to do this.

Anna began growing herbs and making her own soaps in 1982, and was one of the founders of the handmade soap movement. Today, Creation Pharm, Inc., which makes Creation Soaps, sells soaps and facial products in over 300 retail outlets across the United States (and ships worldwide). Using Anna’s recipes, Mike authored, The Country Living Handmade Soap Book; Simple Recipes for Crafting Soap at Home, which was published in 1997 and again in 2003. In 2003, Creation Pharm soaps were featured on national television during a segment of QVC’s Home Shopping Network. The soaps sold out in 13 minutes.

The herb farm, near Betsie Bay, is a family owned and operated business. The soaps are still handmade in relatively small batches, and the skin care product sales have grown right along with those of the soap. “We like to say we’re a “farm to face” business,’ said Sangemino. The soaps come in varieties such as Frankincense & Myrrh, Wild Yam & Gingko Phyto, and a special Aloe & Eucalyptus all-in-one shampoo bar. For information and operating hours, call 231-352-9600.

BeeDazzled (6289 River Road, Benzonia) began as a family cottage bee keeping business making consumable items from bee by-products. Owner Sharon Jones began making soaps, candles and other skincare products in her own kitchen, eventually relocating to the shop’s present location on River Road.

Customers can watch soaps being made mere feet from the cash register, in the fabulous-smelling BeeDazzled retail shop, a quaint little rough-hewn building built into a hillside in the Betsie River Valley. The soaps are still kettle-made in small batches, and contain beeswax. “What sets our soaps apart are the amazing skin conditioning and healing effects from beeswax, which is in every bar we sell,” said Jones.

BeeDazzled soaps come in bars, hand-rolled balls and hexagon shapes imprinted with honeycomb and bees. Of the more than 30 varieties sold in the shop, Jones said the bestsellers are Aunt Bea’s Lavender with cocoa butter, Pollen Pleasure, Honey Oatmeal and Peppermint Patch. For information and operating hours, call 231-882-7765.

Crystal Lake Alpaca Boutique (4907 River Road, Frankfort) not only lets you watch soulful- looking alpacas grazing in their fields, but you can also purchase handmade soaps felted with alpaca wool in their Alpaca Boutique. The soaps are certified organic, triple milled for long life, and scented with a variety of essential oils, then hand-felted with 100 percent alpaca fiber.

Felted soaps are created by taking wool roving cleaned of impurities (and sometimes dyed) and using hot water and motion to work the wool into the soap bar. No wash cloth is needed when bathing with felted soap, as the wool serves as the cloth. As the soap is used, the wool continues to shrink right along with the bar. Eventually you are left with the empty wool, which will be highly fragranced and can then be dried and used as a sachet.

“There is no fiber that’s warmer, softer or stronger than alpaca,” said Chris Nelson, owner. “We don’t make the soaps ourselves but get them from a wonderful source who does. They smell fantastic and there are scents like aloe & cucumber, and my personal favorite which is lavender with chamomile.” Nelson added that alpaca wool is the perfect felting material due to its strength and softness—the soaps felted soaps will be durable and will lather well, but without scratching. For information and operating hours, call 231-920-7085.

For more handmade soaps further downstream, visit:

• Bay Lavender Trading Company, 5777 S. Lake St., Glen Arbor, 231-642-6829
• Still Point Farm, 3300 W. Empire Highway, Empire, 231-326-5479
• Bar Naked Soap Company, 541 S. St. Joseph St., Lake Leelanau, 231-256-0065

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Kelly Ottinger

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