It began eight or ten years ago, a time when all natural soaps were unheard of in Singapore. Jeannie Chew was on a holiday abroad and came across a cake of natural soap. She got her hands on some and tested them out. They eased her dry skin, ridding the daily itch and bumps.
"When I had the chance to travel again, I went for classes to learn how to make them," Chew tells. Back home she "started making [soaps] for myself, experimenting and testing different ideas."
It was also then that Chew realised there were people with various skin conditions who needed similar natural soaps too. She wanted to help, but her plans stalled. To manufacture cosmetic products in Singapore, Chew needs a registered business licence alongside befitting chemical safety and storage facilities. As Chew took steps to meet the checklist, everything fell into place and "[it] started as an official business."
Chew named her label 'Soap Lah' literally because people were asking if she were selling cakes of food and she had to snap back, 'It's soap lah!'
Chew precisely measures an array of oils and pours them into a steel pot.
To Chew, soap-making is simple – at least she makes it seem easy. She likens it to baking, for it's an exacting process, "[which] starts with measuring out the ingredients."
She usually starts with mixing water and sodium hydroxide – a combination otherwise known as lye. Lye is a necessary starting solution for soap-making. It combines with other compounds in the process.
A wall of essential oils, and on the top shelf are plant powders.
As Chew leaves the lye aside to cool, she starts on vegetable oils. It's a play on permutations. Chew speaks of her soaps as if they were cookies, "each 'flavour' has slightly differents amounts and types of oils."
Chew dropping dollops of plant powders.
Essential Oils & Plant Powders
Once all necessary oils are in the pot, the mixture is heated and melted "if necessary." Chew leaves it to cool.
Meanwhile, she moves on to essential oils and plant powders. Chew notes that the colours of her bar soaps are a play of plant powders. It's green when it's green tea, brown when it's cinnamon and so on.
When both lye and vegetable oil mixtures have cooled to below 50 degrees Celsius, Chew pours lye into her pot of oils. She mixes them yet again before popping the essential oils and plant powders in.
Chew plunges the pot of lye into a cold bath.
Once cooled, the lye mixture goes into the pot of oil.
"Once the mixture is homogenous and hits a thick trace," Chew is referring to a custard-like consistency. "We pour them into moulds."
The soap mixture-filled silicone moulds go into a styrofoam box for consistent warmth. It takes 24 to 48 hours for saponification (chemical reaction between lye and fats) to complete.
While it's murky green in liquid form, it's only because the chemical reaction hasn't fully transpired. Two days later this will be a beautiful shade of purple, the lavender oil soap.
After 24 or 48 hours, remove the soap bars, and cut them up. Chew leaves the bars to cure for another 4 to 8 weeks. "During this time the soaps become drier and harder." Only after that are they beautifully wrapped and placed for sale.
Why can't individuals with sensitive or dry skin conditions use mass-produced soaps we find at the supermarts? "How does hand-made soap differ?" I ask her.
"Most factory mass-produced soap use either hot-process – or are not really soaps at all," she quips.
At SoapLah, Chew does cold-process. Notice how she cooled all her ingredients down before mixing them together? "It means that we do not degrade the oils from excessive heat. And all the goodness and moisturising powers of the ingredients are kept inside," she adds.
It's problematic, for mass-produced soaps are definitely more affordable as compared to hand-made natural soaps. Chew's soaps averages at S$14 a cake. But they're also an unsuspecting cause of most skin problems amongst consumers. "Often their skin problems are caused by the very same brands they find more affordable."
She argues the case, for these bar soaps "that we see on our supermarket shelves today [were] a product of 1800s mass-manufacturing to meet the basic hygiene needs of working-class back then." While they served a very pivotal purpose two centuries ago, these mass-produced soaps "may not be so well matched to our lifestyles today."
Racks of soap curing.
"Should we then, avoid using cosmetic products ladened with chemicals?", I ask Chew.
"Yes and no," she says.
She's concerned about the cumulative effects of prolonged exposure to low concentrations of chemicals and proceeds to cite some scientific research and studies.
While it's ideal to have all 100% natural cosmetic products, it's unfeasible. "Especially in our humid, hot climate. Without preservatives, [products] will become mouldy in a matter of days, if not hours."
It's a contested equation that hasn't been solved. For now, Chew advises steering clear of synthetic, and preservatives-ladened products. Invest a little in safe, natural, transparent soaps, and use them within recommended time frames lest they grow mouldy. If there's one thing you should keep in mind, Chew concludes, "It is about being as natural as possible."
SoapLah is available here.
Subscribe to our newsletter