Getting Back to Nature

At various times throughout American history, there have been “back to nature” movements. For example, reaction against urbanization led nineteenth-century authors such as Henry David Thoreau to write about and seek utopian alternatives.

Flower Children

In the 1970s, on communes, former urban dwellers milked goats and slaughtered hogs. Suburban housewives gave up phosphate-loaded laundry detergents for those with the phrase “biodegradable” on the box. A growing awareness of environmental damage created a desire in many people to seek out nonpolluting alternatives to commercial cleaning products. And a few people asked their grandmothers how to make soap at home.

Soap made from kitchen drippings became a not-unheard-of house-hold item again. Not many people were doing it, but there were some. An upsurge in vegetarianism led to experiments with all — vegetable oil soaps. Soon, olive oil soap scented with patchouli oil could be found in “hippie” shops on Telegraph Avenue in San Francisco and in New York's Greenwich Village.

Selling “Natural”

Natural products made at home and sold in the marketplace found a willing and ready customer base. The availability of soaps, cosmetics, and food made from whole raw ingredients was a miniature business revolution. The demand and supply grew together.

“All natural” became a marketing tool when it became clear that there was money to be made from people who wanted to buy such things. Sadly, some products that were far from natural were marketed to a public that was not yet educating themselves by reading labels and asking questions. The same old mass-produced products were dressed up in “natural” clothing, but their manufacturing and ingredients were unchanged.

It is extremely important to note that “all natural” isn't intrinsically better than “non-natural.” Some people think that one of the selling points of a natural product is that it only has things in it that you can pronounce, and they avoid products with chemical-sounding ingredients. However, everything has a chemical name. For example, salt is a chemical: sodium chloride, known to students of chemistry by the formula NaCl. Soap, which is chemically a kind of salt, is “a sodium salt of a fatty acid.” Everything we eat and use on our bodies is full of chemicals.

Don't be fooled by “all natural” labels. Many natural substances are poisonous or otherwise hazardous, and many synthetic substances improve quality of life and even save lives. Do your homework, know what you are dealing with, and never assume that just because a product is natural, it is safe.

In reaction to the highly synthetic 1980s, another demand for truly natural body care arose. Plant essences, herbs, and vegetable oils became staples in soapmaking, cosmetics, and healing treatments. Ingredient disclosure labels, required by the FDA, led to educated customers. The consumer habit of reading nutrition labels on food led to them reading ingredient labels on cosmetics. Suddenly, customers were paying attention!

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