Something to Soothe Every Body

The soft side of soap



Jeff Amberg

These days, consumers are waking up to the harsh realities of the harmful ingredients used in everyday, seemingly “innocent” products — especially those that are rubbed into the skin. 

One of the biggest areas of concern is what, exactly, is hidden in personal hygiene products, especially in bars of soap. With its vast array of colors, fragrance, lathers and appealing packaging, those bars of soap become a trusted must-have for the bathroom. Unfortunately, from new mothers looking for those “gentle” products for their newborn baby’s skin, to the person suffering from dry skin or allergies, buyers would be horrified to find out what is really lurking in these products.

The skin is the largest organ of the body, and the body absorbs a large percentage of its nutrients through the skin. With minimal monitoring by the Food and Drug Administration, most soaps now contain a mixture of synthetic chemicals and cancer-causing toxins such as parabens, which enter the bloodstream and are mistaken by the body as estrogen, causing a myriad of high-level estrogen problems, especially in females. 

Soaps also contain sulfates to create lather, but sulfates strip the skin of its natural oils and cause further irritation to those with skin problems such as eczema and dry skin. Triclosan, used for anti-bacterial soap, contains carcinogens like dioxin — the primary toxic component of Agent Orange! Even that wonderful “fragrance” in soap is only synthetic and contains cancer-causing toxins, such as phthalates. Over-exposure to these fragrances can negatively impact the nervous system and possibly trigger allergies.

What is a body to do? As people increasingly work to eat healthful foods, such as “locally grown” and “organic,” it is equally important to not only be mindful of what goes into the body, but also to what is put on it. For those better alternatives, there is a growing local industry of healthful choices right here in the Midlands.

Kayla Sansom, owner and operator of Carolina Soap Works in Newberry, was first introduced to the craft several years ago when dealing with a skin problem. A friend who makes goat’s milk soap gave her some bars and eventually the recipe. Through trial and error, Kayla created her own successful soap line. “I began with the original recipe, and over time, altered it so much that I destroyed it! Today, I use my own recipe to create beautiful bars of goat’s milk soap,” explains Kayla.

Likewise, Penny Calcina of Penny’s Naturals, sensitive to artificial colors and fragrances of commercial laundry detergents, asked partner Tommy Copeland to discontinue using his commercial detergents as she thought he would just start using her clean detergent. Tommy came up with the perfect powdered laundry detergent. “My son, Foard an avid backpacker, also had a special request — a biodegradable powdered detergent. This was my solution to both situations,” says Tommy.

Penny and Tommy pondered the possibility of making bathing soap for their own use. After recalling some basic chemistry knowledge — an acid (oils, fats, butters) plus an alkaline (lye) equals a salt (soap) — Tommy created their first recipe for a pure, unscented “castile soap” — a nod to Penny’s Catalonian ancestors. “We offer our castile soap in unscented bars and gently scented liquid,” Tommy says. 

They were so pleased with the castile soap that they soon began pondering the next soap, and the next. Today, they use five different recipes restricted to pure, nature-made ingredients to create a myriad of 16 artisan soaps — from Avocado Lime and Palmetto Rain, to Wadmalaw and Orange Sunshine. 

“We have complete control over the ingredients we use,” says Penny. “I collect some of the ingredients myself. For instance, our Palmetto Rain soap is made from rainwater I collect and filter. When we make Carolina Coast soap, we travel to the coast to bring back salt water from the ocean. If we add Spanish moss to a soap recipe, I wait for it to fall. We never pull living plant material from the trees. I like to tell people we use what we cut from our garden, grind from our pantry and shake from our coffee cans!”

Most of their soaps are vegan as well. Their “Honey Oatmeal” technically is not since it contains natural honey, but none consist of any artificial colors, fragrances or other materials. “Each generous 5-ounce bar contains aromatherapy grade essential oils,” Penny shares. 

Producing a batch of Penny’s Naturals soap requires several hours of intense work. After weighing ingredients, she blends the perfect combination of nourishing oils with the lye mixture. As the ingredients are stirred in the pot, they begin to thicken. They will soon reach a soft pudding stage. The final ingredients — essential oils and botanicals — are added at that time and mixed thoroughly. The soap is then poured up into the molds, covered, wrapped and left for a few days to set up. After unmolding, it is cured for four weeks. 

Like Penny and Tommy, Kayla handcrafts her soaps in small batches. “I use the cold process method to create my soaps,” she says. “The danger lies in handling sodium hydroxide, commonly known as lye. Although lye and water, or lye and goat’s milk, is combined with oil to form soap, there is no harmful lye left in the soap.” 

Kayla uses fresh goat’s milk to create a rich, moisturizing, lathering bar. The goat’s milk keeps the pH levels of the soap closely related to that of human skin. She follows a streamlined cold process method that requires a brief cooling period. 

“First, I weigh all of the ingredients,” she says. “Then, I carefully combine the lye and frozen goat’s milk mixture with my specially selected oils. Within a few minutes, I’m ready to add the fragrance and colorants. At this point, I can set some of the soap pudding aside if I want to make the batch a two-color loaf or if I want to add botanicals to only part of the loaf. After filling the mold, I stack it on the shelf with the other soaps and begin a new batch. Goat’s milk soap will cure in seven days.” 

Kayla prefers vivid soap with bright colorants and can make her eye-catching, multi-colored soaps in almost any fragrance. “My use of bright colors reflects my energy and enthusiasm for my soap. It’s who I am!” she exclaims.

Kayla shares that sometimes she hires her mother, Kelly, sister, Haily, and good friends to help with production and packaging. During winter, many of Carolina Soap Works’ soaps provide heavier berry and holiday scents. For summer, Kayla prefers to offer customers winter-relief with the lighter beach and fruit scents. “Sometimes, strangers knock on my front door and ask if this is the place to buy soap. And my neighbor’s grandchildren are known to come over and ask for my watermelon soap!” she says with a laugh.

Penny and Tommy credit Columbia’s uptown Soda City Market, an open-air farmer’s and artisan market, for their boom in sales. “One of our neighbors encouraged us to begin selling our soaps at Soda City. So, one Saturday we headed off to see the Market. When we saw Main Street filled with artisans and shoppers, we knew immediately we wanted to become involved. Now, we wouldn’t miss a Saturday!” says Tommy.

Kayla feels the market was a huge shot in the arm for Carolina Soap Works too as people line up to purchase her soaps. When someone asks for vegan soaps, she sends them to Penny and Tommy’s booth. “My success at Soda City Market has led to invitations to sell at other markets and local events around the state,” says Kayla. “A number of retail stores have also invited me to sell my soaps in their shops. My retail outlets include The Nest, 14 Carrot Whole Foods, It’s the Little Things, and Hawthorne Pharmacy and Medical Equipment in Lugoff.”

Penny and Tommy are proud that their soaps get top billing at Mast General Store, Rosewood Market and14 Carrot Whole Foods. 

While soaps are the mainstay of both companies, additional skin care products are available. “We create all sorts of bath scrubs: tea, salt, coffee and sugar. We also create skin serums, body butters, tinctures, aromatherapy sprays and lip balms. And, we don’t leave out the men; we produce a gentleman’s line of bathing and shaving soaps, as well as beard oils,” says Penny.

One of Penny’s favorite infusions is a calendula-infused extra virgin olive oil bathed in sun and moonlight for several weeks. “This oil is effective for rejuvenating tired, dry, itchy and inflamed skin,” she says. With a shelf life of one year and a modest price, this product is a “must have” for Columbia’s medicine cabinets. 

Carolina Soap Works also produces a fine line of deodorants, lotions, body scrubs, bath bombs, soy candles and bath soap for dogs.

Both companies are credentialed; their products must meet certain requirements for sales and advertising. “Of course, we must have the usual business licenses that allow us to sell products. Additionally, we are a certified South Carolina Company, by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture,” tells Penny.

Carolina Soap Works is credentialed as well. “In addition to being certified SC Grown, my company is also registered with the United States Food and Drug Administration. This USFDA certification allows me to sell my products on Amazon,” tells Kayla.

While luscious soaps have launched both businesses, neither company is content with the status quo. “We will continue to grow our line of products,” says Penny. “Our future plans include expanding deeper into the local and global communities we are already working with, broadening our educational focus that is at the heart of all we do and continuing to bring forward the very best of Nature’s goodness through each of our nourishing products. With an eye on local and a vision on the world, we are excited to be a positive part of this healthy revolution.”

When Carolina Soap Works soon outgrows its Newberry production facility, Kayla plans to move her production and shipping headquarters to Columbia. “And I’m going to purchase a much-needed van to transport my products,” concludes Kayla.