Meika with oil

The Chemistry of Soap: Interview with local soap artist Mieka

Hand Made Soap – “Made By Mieka”

Buying a bar of soap can elicit a lot of confusion; one may ask, “What are these six-syllabic compounds? Will its strong fragrance warrant unwanted attention within a 5-mile radius? Wait a minute, is this soap?”

In fact, there are many soap doppelgangers–synthetic, petroleum-based detergents.  Soap, per its legal definition, consists of an alkali salt of fatty acids, and the product is labeled, sold and represented solely as soap.  While searching for a handcrafted piece of soap at the local farmer’s market, I found “Made by Mieka” soap – alliteration and transparency all in one package.  While talking with Mieka, I learned about a family venture that builds upon Mieka’s Mediterranean roots through olive oil-based soap.

AGC: Hi Mieka, it’s interesting to see how olive oil has been used for hygienic purposes throughout history.  Apparently, ancient Romans had elaborate bathing complexes in which they incorporated olive oil for cleansing.  Can you elaborate on why you started making olive oil-based soaps?

Mieka: While I was writing my Master’s thesis in anthropology, I thought it would be nice to find something therapeutic and fun to do as a hobby, so I went to Michael’s and bought a soap-making kit.  It turned out to be this thing where you put it in the microwave and is instantly ready!  I thought: I can do better than that!

I began researching more about the soap-making process and incorporated it into my second thesis.  As part of my Mediterranean heritage, I have always loved olive oil, and you know, over there it’s used for practically anything, even treating benign wounds.

My family was instrumental in providing feedback for what ingredients worked and what amounts to use.  My “honey oats” soap came about because my friend’s daughter, Sahara, has Eczema, so her skin is very sensitive.  I combined oats and honey, and then went back and forth with Sahara to determine what worked best for her.  Since each customer has specific needs, my soaps have molded to their feedback.  From the packaging, which my sister designed, to my dad providing business advice and kids keeping me company at the market, each bar of soap has somebody behind it.

AGC: It’s wonderful that your family is so involved.  Can you tell us a bit more about the base ingredients? Sodium Hydroxide, an alkali generically known as lye, is a caustic agent, yet it is one of the principal ingredients for making soap.  Fragrances and synthetic dyes are also used in some handcrafted soaps – what is your approach to making soap?

Mieka: I start off with a pot of base oils: 95% olive oil and 5% coconut oil.  In another container, I slowly add the base (NaOH) to iced water.  Olive oil, in general, has natural anti-oxidants, but since extra virgin olive oil saponifies slowly, I also use pomace olive oil.  Saponification is essentially the process where NaOH neutralizes the fatty acids from the oils. This reaction produces soap, as well glycerin, a by-product.

Many commercial soap producers take out the glycerin, which has naturally moisturizing properties, and it is then sold to other companies, like lotion or facial cleanser producers.  But since the extra virgin olive oil saponifies slowly, I combine with pomace olive oil, which saponifies and traces quickly.  “Trace” occurs when the NaOH solution and fatty acids react.  You can literally see a trace, or swirl, surfacing the combined NaOH solution and oils.  As long as you use the right ratio of oil to lye, you will end up with a product that is neither oily nor caustic, but with is soapy, cleansing, and moisturizing.

These are the basic steps for all my soaps, and then I add other ingredients, such as honey and oats, or essential oils, like peppermint and lavender.  My rule of thumb is that if it benefits the skin, it’s game!  I don’t use perfumes, which are synthetic chemicals designed purely for fragrance.  Additives are used in commercial soap and detergents to treat dirt, so many suds form.  The olive oils I use naturally create some suds, but I don’t try to increase this visual effect.

To elaborate a bit more, the saponification process accelerates as soon as NaOH solution and fatty acids in oils combine, but then slows down as soap cures, or is left to harden within molds.  The curing process can take up to a month.  Like wine, soap only gets better with age, meaning that soap hardens.  However, the essential oils will dissipate so you cannot smell the scent or obtain their benefits.  Each base oil has its own personality so I’ve had quite a few experiments to determine precise temperature and timing of these reactions.  It’s truly amazing to make a batch and find out how my olive oil and lye water transform into soap before my eyes.  Who would have guessed that something so potent could create something so gentle?

AGC: Thanks for sharing the distinct steps of the soapmaking process; it is surprising to learn that you had to learn the chemistry behind soapmaking on your own!  It is also fascinating to learn how the chemistry of soap has been configured so it appeals more to our perception of cleanliness, e.g. creating greater amount of suds, rather than providing actual benefits to the skin.  What do you think we should consider when purchasing soap?

Mieka: I don’t think there is one kind of soap that is right for everyone, but of course, it is nice to try and avoid artificial chemicals and ingredients that are added purely for aesthetic purposes, like lather enhancers or dyes, which are actually bad for the skin.  That said, there are a lot of dynamics that people have to negotiate when choosing their soaps including skin type (oily, neutral, dry), aesthetic preferences (size, smell, shape), even personal politics (local, commercial) and — perhaps most importantly — price.  It would be nice to say that everyone should opt for soaps that use only natural ingredients, and avoid the harsh chemicals dumped into commercial soaps, but people have to make real world decisions that fit their own budget and family needs.

I wish I could offer my soaps at a price that competed with inexpensive commercial soaps, but I cannot.  Instead, I would urge those corporations that make the cheaper soaps to start making better products so that folks who cannot afford a $6 bar of soap can still wash up without having to douse themselves with yucky unnecessary chemicals.  I challenge those corporations to put companies such as mine out of business by producing chemical-free soaps at an affordable price.  Until then, I will continue to make soaps that clean well, and that are also wonderful for the skin . . . and I also will continue to find ways to lower my own prices so that hopefully I will eventually be able make them affordable enough for anyone who chooses a natural and healthful bar of soap.


AGC: Mieka, thanks for sharing your insight into the world of soap-making.  In addition to being a full-time anthropology professor at James Madison University, you manage to inspire behavioral change, one bar at a time.

Mieka’s soap can be found at the Charlottesville City Market.

Interview by Sarah Bolivar