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School life summer session

This week’s lesson: Making soap with Mary Forrest

POSTED: July 11, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

1. First, Forrest mixes up a solution of lye and water. Lye is a caustic solution made up of either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. She uses a digital scale to measure an exact amount, making the recipe very precise. When the lye and water are mixed, the result is a solution that heats itself up to about 200 F.

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Parents, take note: if you're looking for a way to get your kids into chemistry, teach them how to make soap.

Along with working with exothermic reactions and a process called saponification, you'll also have handmade soap to enjoy around the house.

At least, that's what partly happened at Mary Forrest's home. When she decided to venture into making soap and told her 16-year-old son she needed some sodium hydroxide, he got a little worried.

"He said, ‘sodium hydroxide! That's really dangerous. You could get a really bad burn or you could blow up the house; you could do anything,'" she said of her son, who was taking advanced placement chemistry at the time. "So I did it with my kids and we made teacher gifts, and they said, well, that was really boring. They didn't enjoy it, but I really loved it."

Forrest, who sells homemade soap under the Secret Garden name at local farmers and artist markets, said she has always had a love of fragrance and home remedies that could be cooked up in the kitchen. So, soap became a natural progression for her.

"When I was little I would sneak into my mother's bedroom and smell her perfumes and stuff," she said. "And I've always loved kitchen cosmetics ... and I like to garden and I like herbs, so this seemed to be something that pulled all of those together."

The soap-making process is one part chemistry, one part cookbook recipe and one part aromatherapy. The chemistry comes from the lye, which is essential in creating a chemical compound that will attract water yet repel dirt. Lye, which will burn when it comes in contact with water, is muted by the oils, which make up the rest of the soap.

Palm oil, coconut oil and even shea butter can be used in soap, depending on the consistency and fat content you want. As long as your lye-to-fat ratio has extra fat molecules, Forrest said, your soap won't burn like the kind grandma made.

"Grandma estimated. I don't estimate. And I have 7 percent excess fat, which means not only is all the lye bound up but there's more oil," she said. "I've figured out what makes a great lather, what makes the kind of hardness that I like and what is soothing and emollient enough.

Coconut oil gives you bubbles, she said, while oils are emollient. An olive oil soap, for example, will be great for your skin but won't harden; rather, it will be a mushy lump.

She makes 28 different fragrances of soap, using all-natural ingredients like patchouli oil or cocoa powder. In her workshop, which is filled with small bottles of essential oils and opens up onto a shady stone covered patio, she keeps bakers' trays of soap waiting to be packaged for her next visit to the farmers market.

Her love of high-end commercial soap products like Lush and Philosophy drive her to create a high-quality, natural product, she said.

"The fact that it's a vehicle for fragrance, the fact that it's better than what you can buy in the store," she said,. "You can take a hard bar of Dove, but I don't think you get the same feeling that you do with this.

"To me, it's the difference between homemade food and fast food."



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