In the last few years, the interest in purchasing handcrafted soap bars has mushroomed. As a result, many of these artisans take their craft seriously.
However, there are those who see handcrafted products as a way to generate a quick buck.
The handcrafted scene
A new word: craft-washing.
Yes, the corporate world has woken up to the fact that ‘handcrafted’ or ‘artisan made’ is big bucks. Therefore, corporate craft-washing campaigns can deceive. Also, for many corporate entities, ‘handcrafted’ is just crafty marketing.
In their attempts to cash in on the peak hipster market, we now see fast-food giants (or some not so big) passing off assembly-line products as small-scale, bespoke creations. These carry an aura of moral authority.
For example, in 2014 McDonald’s opened a café in Sydney’s inner-West. Here we had chambray-shirted baristas serving single-origin coffee alongside quinoa salads on wooden boards. The café was called The Corner. It looked like just another Sydney café. And all very hipster. Trendy tiled walls, and a herb garden. But beneath the breadboards and beyond the quinoa is the latest McDonald’s incarnation—a testing lab for future stores. A McDonald’s trying not to be a McDonald’s.
The Australian Food Safety Authority is reportedly clamping down on “artisan”, “traditional” and “farmhouse” claims. They say these should only describe products made “in limited quantities by skilled craftspeople” at a “micro-enterprise” scale. Doesn’t sound like McDonald’s.
This is also true at places like Starbucks, and other large chains. They try to tap into the artisan ethos. They may write “artisan” on everything or use higher-quality ingredients.
These sorts of descriptors are lies. Mass producers can’t make “craft” or “artisanal” products. Craft involves risk and unpredictability. In contrast, manufacturing involves predictable and managed uniform outcomes. With artisan-made products, you may detect small errors or an idiosyncrasy. There’s humanity there.
Handcrafted soap – Craft-washing
We see these trends creeping into the handcrafted market. Check out alibaba.com. Search for ‘handmade soap’ and what comes up is factory after factory offering minimum orders of 5,000 pieces.
How to buy genuine artisan made soap
How then can you determine if your source of handmade soap comes from a knowledgeable and skilled artisan? Use the following tips to help you discern quality before buying.
- Ingredients — An experienced maker will tell you what is used to create the soap. They can describe the specific benefits of those ingredients. But a word of warning, it is a cosmetic, not a pharmaceutical. So, if the product is claiming to solve every ailment known to man, be warned.
- Type of process — I recommend steering clear of melt and pour soap. Why? With melt and pour the method is to buy ‘soap noodles’ (other forms are available) and melt these into a liquid that is poured into moulds. The drawback for consumers is that the maker has no control over the ingredients in the ‘soap noodles.” Often, these have preservatives added along with other ingredients and are no better than mass-produced soap.
- Hot or cold process method is the standard for handcrafted soap. The soap maker should be able to explain the process, and why they use it.
- Hardness — If you can press the soap with your finger and leave an impression, it may not be cured. Or it may have a large percentage of liquid oils or soft butters. A soft soap means it will wash away quickly. Plus, make your bathroom messy. At this stage, you may be encouraged by the seller to buy a soap dish. The fact is, for a well-formulated handcrafted soap it should not be messy and must be long-lasting. After all, these soap bars are not cheap to buy.
- Watch out for a chalky or crumbly texture. This undesirable texture is a clear sign that the soap was not formulated correctly. The soap may be highly alkaline and drying on the skin.
- Labeling — A professional crafter will label soap will all ingredients.
And what about certification?
For soap, certification may be required for cosmetics depending on the country. In the USA, the rules are more relaxed as the soap may not be classified as a cosmetic. For the EU and Australia, plus many other countries soap is classified as a cosmetic. In Malaysia, soap must be Notified with the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency (NPRA). The soap seller may provide this information, and even if they do, you can also check for yourself. Various online search options are available at NPRA.
OK, if you have any further questions, feel free to contact me. You may also like to check out our Indochine Natural handcrafted soap.
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Dr. Mike Thair
Indochine Natural Sdn Bhd
Photo credit: Annie Spratt