Soapy basics

The hard oils had dissolved into a soupy, yellowish substance under the 80-110 degree heat. With her crisp apron on, hair pulled back, goggles covering half her face, and blue gloves protecting her hands, she looked more like a scientist than a cook. Carefully measured ingredients were placed near the oils. A beater and thermometer sat at one end of the kitchen counter, in close reach. With everything in place, it was time to begin.

Monique Taylor slowly added olive oil to the melted hard oils specially selected because of the properties they would add to the final product. She followed with lye to interact with the oils to produce soap — the byproduct of which is glycerin. There’s no stopping once the lye is added — to do so would make the final product too thick to pour. Honey was added, which raised the temperature even higher. A beater was used to mix and fully integrate the ingredients, while routinely checking the temperature — not so hot that it became lumpy, not so cool that it hardened too quickly. Finally came the oatmeal — again slowly poured — because the reaction must be consistent throughout the entire mixture.

‘‘It’s kind of like baking a cake,’’ Monique, owner of Tioga Soap Company, said. She wasn’t making cake, however, but a batch of Gentleman Farmer Soap.

‘‘If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would become a soap maker, I would have laughed and told them that they were crazy,’’ Monique explained.

She discovered her passion for going back-to-basics, and keeping it simple, quite by chance. As a history professor in the 1990s, she asked her students what they would do if they suddenly found themselves off the grid, back in the days before running water and electricity.

“I’d ask them how they would get clean and they would say with soap and water,” she said. “I’d counter with, ‘There is no soap, and you have no water,’ which got me to thinking about soap. It just so happened that a class on soap-making — where I used a Dixie Cup and microwave — was being offered. After the class, I went home to my farm in Missouri and experimented. I wondered if herbs could survive the lye process, and they did. Neighbors discovered I was making soaps, and, before long, began offering me money because they were taking so much product.”

And so, Tioga Soap Company (formerly Sequoia Soap) was born, merging Monique’s love of both history and plants.

“I go to great lengths to make sure my ingredients are pure,” she continued, “and use only natural preservatives. When you walk the grocery aisle and think you’re buying soaps, you’re actually buying detergents that strip the oil from your skin. It’s such a vicious cycle. It’s like taking a medication for a problem, which causes a new problem and requires another medication to combat the damage from the first medication, and on and on. When does it end?”

According to Monique, in mass production the oils and lye combine creating the by-product glycerin, which draws moisture to the skin. This glycerin is chemically extracted for use in TNT and Saran Wrap, and is then replaced with a chemical moisturizer.

“This is a cheaper and faster process, and the additive makes for more lather because American consumers like their suds,” Monique said. “It just amazes me what is being sold. Room deodorizers that stop you from being able to smell ... shampoos claiming no more tears numbing the eyes ... this has become the standard by which we judge products. We’re so brainwashed into spending a fortune on things that just aren’t good for us. But home-made soap companies across the country are now beginning to make a huge dent in the profits of those mega-corporations.’’

Monique’s soap-making is the reverse of the hot process used in mass production. She uses a cold process, food-grade ingredients, and the glycerin is retained as an emollient to draw moisture, while the soap acts as a surfactant, removing dirt.

“I use Pine Tar soap on my skin, on my animals, on my kitchen counters, and wood floors. I use lye soap for laundry, which brings up a good point. You can’t use just any bar of soap on clothes because there are oils in soaps that attach to the fibers and can ruin the clothes.”

Many of the company’s soaps — Old Fashioned Pine Tar, 17th Century Bay Rum, the Cloth and Fiber Soap, and Milk and Castile soaps are based on historical recipes from the 1800s, with a twist. Monique is currently designing a line of beer soaps with SouthGate Brewing Company.

Her husband, Bob, who served in the Air Force, is also involved in the family business, helping out at shows and making soaps. Hunting for a product that effectively cuts through grease, Bob came up with one of the more popular sellers — Filthy Farmer — which comes with the motto: ‘‘For the man who eats dirt, breathes dust, and bleeds mud.’’

Others like Obsidian (Charcoal and Tea Tree) were special orders from clients, which were later incorporated into the line.

“Clients are the guides, and their feedback is everything to me,” Monique explained. “That’s why I give samples. I want feedback — good or bad — because I can’t make it better if I don’t know, and if it’s not doing the job, I don’t want to keep making it.”

Two-year customer Kate Graham is a huge devotee of the product line.

‘‘Monique makes high-quality soaps, and even customizes for that squeaky clean, smooth feel,’’ Graham said. ‘‘She makes a body butter with grape seeds that is better than anything I’ve ever used. I call it ‘cracked heel cream.’ Without it, my heels would be so bad right now that it would be hard, and painful, to walk.’’

Tioga Soap also makes lotions, scrubs, bath salts and powders. Next spring, the household line will be added, including Beeswax furniture polish, liquid soaps, laundry soap, fabric softener and rug fresheners, and possibly by next summer, a make-up line.

“I’m a professional soap maker — not a hobbyist — and there’s a big difference,” Monique, a member of the International Handcrafted Soapmakers Guild, said. “As such, I’m always continuing my education, working with my chemist on a consultant basis, and following strict adherence to FDA labeling laws.”

“I’m basically offering the public what I use in my own home and on my own skin. The corporations aren’t taking care of us, so we have to take care of ourselves ... and each other.’’