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Sunday Soaps – Experiments

I ordered new supplies recently and got new things to experiment with!  When the rest of the order comes in I will try a hand at making solid conditioner bars, a syndet* shampoo and some oil cleanser.

But first, here’s what I tried today.

I got a free sample of a nice floral fragrance called “Midnight Waters”, just enough for a 1 pound batch.  I made a simple coconut soap with coconut milk and tried to color it purple.  The fragrance discolored a bit tan so my base purple was crowded out, but since things were moving slowly I tried to add a purple line and colored the top pale green.  I’m quite pleased with the result

This glorious purple mica was overwhelmed by the FO discoloration
Bars after unmolding and cut. The purple line looks great. I’ve never tried one before.

Then I tried two shampoo bars.  One is my favorite coconut recipe but I wanted to try it again with the addition of apple cider vinegar and citric acid.  The next was a very different recipe with 6-oils that also includes apple cider vinegar.

Cider vinegar in the lye does not make for an attractive color.

I scented one with ylang-ylang and bergamot essential oils and the other with a green tea fragrance oil.

Coconut shampoo on the left, 6-oil shampoo on the right.

*But wait, I hear you say.  What is a syndet bar? The shampoo bars I’ve made so far are all true soaps.  That means they are made by reacting lye with fatty acids from plants or animals and you get a high-pH solid soap at the end. Your hair has a natural pH on the acid side and some (but not all) shampoos you can buy commercially make a big deal out of matching the pH of the shampoo to your hair.  It’s unclear to me if this is really beneficial or a marketing ploy (I suspect the latter), but I do notice that when I use my soap-shampoo that every week or two I like to use a cider vinegar rinse that seems to remove some build up.  (It will also de-scum your bathtub!)

If you try to add acid to soap to lower the pH below around 8, you will undo the chemical reaction that makes it soap and be left with a pile of fatty acids.

Enter ‘synthetic detergents’.  This is what nearly all commercial shampoos are made of.  They can have a pH anywhere from about 4 to 8 or 9 but they stay detergents, and will still clean, even with a lower pH.

Lush makes shampoo bars by pressing detergent noodles into a mold along with some other ingredients and I’m going to have a go at that and see if like it any better than my soap-based shampoo.

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I’ve been following the eruption of Kilauea while at the same time, planning our fall camping trip to Mount St Helens.  I knew from previous trips about the difference between a’a and pahoehoe but the recent footage has given some really great visual examples of it in action, rather than the cold and plant-covered versions I’ve seen locally.

Here’s a video that shows the difference.

On the way back from the Ape Cave we saw a big pile of clinkers. This time, knowing what it is, I’ll be sure to take more pictures.

2,000 years ago, a smooth basalt flow ran through a forest on the south side of Mt St Helens. It smothered the trees which then burned or rotted away, leaving behind casts in the stone.  It is now covered by another forest.

This was once the trunk and root of a tree.
A new tree grows where the old one stood.
Before I knew how these were formed, the perfectly round holes were baffling.
Lave covered this fallen log, leaving the impression of its bark. This one is large enough to crawl through.

Pahoehoe flows sometimes form lava tubes when the outsides cool, but the molten center continues to drain away.  There are many on the south of St Helens. Ape Cave is one, and it is over a mile long.

A small lava tube
A large lava tube. (Ape Cave)
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Shampoo Bar Thoughts & Review

My experimental musing have turned toward shampoo bars and I’d like to share some of my experiences with using a ‘hair soap’ or ‘solid shampoo bar’ or whatever you’d like to call it.

Advantages: The main advantage for me, is that a solid bar doesn’t have to be stored in a bottle.  It can’t leak, I can take it on the airplane and I’m not generating more plastic waste that will wind up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I  have complete control over the ingredients so I can test out the advantages of avoiding silicones or detergents. And in my case there is also a bit of “what kind of sucker am I, buying shampoo when I have ALL THE SOAP MAKING OILS right here in my house??”

Thus, I took the plunge.   For my first recipe I made one that was designated for ‘normal to dry hair’, the fatty acid profile looked like it would have lather, high conditioning and contained a high proportion of shea butter, avocado oil and sweet almond oil.  It looks fantastic.  I made that one, and at the same time I saw a positive review of a soap made with 100% coconut oil and a slightly higher-than-normal superfat*.  I tried that one too, tossing in a mix of essential oils and fragrance oils that were leftover from a previous soap batch.


Avocado-almond-shea (square) from the original batch and a later, round batch. I think this looks like a lego face with big hair.

Avocado-Almond: I’d never used a ‘hair soap’ before so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I used the Almond-avocado bar first, working up a lather in my hand first and then rubbing it on my head. I knew not to expect the same ‘squeaky’ feel that I get from regular shampoo.  It generated a reasonable lather, and I used it twice, leaving behind a feel that I’d call ‘moderately grippy’. I didn’t feel like I could leave it at that, so I used some conditioner as usual.  And… I liked it.  My hair felt soft, everything seemed clean. Except for the feel in the shower it seemed identical to using any random shampoo.  I used it about 3-4 times.  After the first wash, the grippy feel lessened.

Coconut shampoo bar with accidental “froot loops” scent. I will never be able to duplicate this.

All Coconut: I admit – I expected this to be too drying.  I make 100% coconut bars with a 20% superfat and they lather like crazy, but I find them a bit drying on my skin in the winter.  This bar, with a lower superfat percentage, I was sure would be drying.   I was wrong!  I was so wrong.  It was amazing – it lather felt just like my favorite shampoo, it rinsed out cleaner, and while I still needed conditioner, my hair felt soft and amazing.

After two weeks of use my hair felt a bit ‘stiff’ for want of a better word, and on the next wash, I used a cider vinegar rinse. That cleared everything up and gave a much ‘slicker’ feel in the shower when I was rinsing off.  (It can also make the shower floor slick, so be careful).

I’ve been using nothing else except these two shampoo bars for months now and I’m very pleased with the results.  My hair is very straight and fine, neither dry nor oily (I think) but starting to turn gray.  Now that it’s getting gray I’ve noticed it’s been less ‘sleek’ for some time now.  My shampoo didn’t fix that, nor did it make it worse.

80-20 unscented coconut that was sitting on my kitchen sink

80/20 Coconut  Today I thought – I wonder if that roughness I’ve noticed is because it’s too dry.  I considered trying a deep oil treatment (did I mention I have all the oils?), but I’m lazy and instead I decided to try one of my regular 20% coconut bars and a vinegar rinse and see what happens.


It was FANTASTIC!  Why have I not tried this before? It lathered just as much as the lower superfat, that ‘grippy’ feeling in my hair was more noticeable, but after the vinegar rinse and just a bit of conditioner there’s a noticeable improvement/reduction in ‘flyaway’ factor.

Other experiences: I handed out samples of both shampoo bars to friends.  Most preferred the coconut bar to the avocado-almond.  The exception was someone who has very fine, dry hair, who is happy with the avocado-almond.  I am still getting more feedback from testers with different hair types.

Final thoughts: I wonder now if I was too quick to dismiss the Avocado bar.  The grippy feeling that I didn’t like so much might be retained oils and could be contributing to what I liked so much about the 80/20 bar.  Clearly more research is needed.

Cider Vinegar Rinse:  1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 1 cup hot/warm water.  Optional – instead of using plain water, make a peppermint & nettle tea (or use the herbs of your choice)



*A typical superfat is 5%, and the number represents how much ‘extra’ oils are added to the recipe over what is needed to fully react with the lye (and convert all the oils to soap).

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Red Cabbage Science

My youngest daughter needed a science experiment for school and I suggested we try something that I knew would give us pretty colors.

Red cabbage contains anthocyanin which changes colors based on pH.  So we got ourselves a red cabbage, chopped it up and added the juice to various substances.  (Science is here.)

After straining, get dark purple juice

The control solution was distilled water and then we tried various other things that were either acids or bases.  This particular indicator makes all acids red, but bases range from blue to green to yellow.  The colors were more vivid than I expected.  The only thing I’d change if we did it again is I’d pour some BIG jars of the indicator liquid (more dilute perhaps) and add our test substances to that, it seems to give more impressive results.

The final array:


And just for me, I wanted to test the pH of some of my soap.

Immediately after the drop was placed
After 1 minute

If we repeat this experiment I will use a LOT more solution to get a bigger color impact and I will look for something that will give me green (ammonia perhaps?).

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Moustrap Car Racing

It’s one month later and time to test our designs.

My eldest had the idea to let the cars ‘fight’ and I suggested mounting a wedge-shape onto the front of it to knock other cars over (I used to watch BattleBots) but alas, we didn’t devote enough time to this project during the month and now there is no time.

2-mousetrap prototypes under construction

Somehow adding a second mousetrap failed to result in the higher level of performance I was expecting from our mousetrap cars.  When raced most of them didn’t move at all.  In some cases I could point to obvious problems: too much friction on the wheels, mousetrap not securely fastened.  But my prototype which was just the original, working model with a new mousetrap added, also didn’t move.  Clearly more research is needed.

Here are some photos of the lineup.  No video because I can’t edit the children’s faces out of them.

Starting Lineup

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Mousetrap cars

I lead a 4-H club that is mostly devoted to hiking, kayaking and general outdoorsy stuff, but we sometime dabble in some kid-size engineering projects. In the past we’ve built pop-pop boats and a pumpkin-hurling trebuchet. This week I built a prototype mousetrap car.  The kids tested and critiqued the design and will have a month to build their own version and race them when we meet again.

I’ll get some video of the race next month.  I was able to get the still shot on the right because my duct tape construction method was failing and so the boom arm was no longer exerting enough force to move the rear wheels.

Back in 2002 I was backing up my computer to CD – this seems like a good use for that stack of old backups.