Artisan Bath Soaps: Bars of Beauty

Artisans throughout the Hudson Valley are making soaps that smell nice, look pretty, and — best of all — nourish your skin.

The earliest soap that we know about was used by the Babylonians in 2800 B.C., give or take a year. They etched their recipe — a mix of cassia oil, wood ash, and water — onto a clay tablet for posterity, and depictions of Babylonians bathing suggest they didn’t just use it for laundry.

Soap is what you get when you mix a fatty acid (a vegetable oil or animal fat) and an alkali (sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as lye). Almost all mass-produced soaps are made by boiling the ingredients, which results in a bar of detergent to which preservatives, artificial fragrances, dyes, and emollients are added. These chemically laden “body bars” can be harsh on your skin, no matter what gentle-sounding claims the manufacturers make. The process also strips out glycerin — often used in the moisturizers you need to buy because the soap has dried out your skin.

On the other hand, in the more laborious, cold-process method, soap ingredients are stirred together at low or ambient temperatures until they begin to solidify, and the soap remains full of moisturizing glycerin. In the Valley, a number of artisans have started turning out handmade, hand-cut (and often prettily wrapped) soaps using all-natural ingredients, with essential oils, herbs, and spices for color and scent. Try one of these sudsy, moisturizing, sweet-smelling bars, and you and your skin will be hooked.

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One caveat: Handmade soaps melt if you leave them in water. Let them air dry after each use, and they last a long time.

Self-confessed “soap-a-holic”
LynnAnne Inglima made her first soap 18 years ago, after the birth of her last child. The baby had skin problems that Inglima, a retired registered nurse, was not willing to treat with topical steroids, as her doctor suggested. “I was always a renegade. They used to call me the ‘weeds-and-seeds nurse,’ ” she remembers. “In the 1970s and ’80s, doctors were considered infallible, and in I came with my clogs and herb tea. I’m all for Western medicine if it helps, but it can cause harm.”

Inglima developed a gentle soap for her daughter using goat’s milk and shea butter as the main ingredients. These days, she uses that combination as a base for about 30 different soaps, including three for super-sensitive skin: Naked Goat (the original), Oatmeal-Honey, and Goat Milk Calendula. Dermatologists, she says, often recommend such soap to help combat psoriasis, eczema, acne and chronic dryness. “It won’t hurt, anyway, which is more than you can say for a lot of pharmaceutical remedies,” the renegade adds.

Inglima buys goat’s milk from a local farm, and freezes it. The high butterfat content would make her soaps brown, she explains, but by using it when it’s thawed to slush, they come out tan or beige. “It looks prettier and it also retains more nutrients, which can be absorbed by your skin.” The hand-cut soaps are cured for four to six weeks. “We sell no soap before its time,” Inglima jokes. All ingredients are natural, but to keep prices down, she sometimes uses cosmetic-grade fragrance oils. “People think they’re allergic to scents, but really they’re allergic to chemical additives,” she notes.

Inglimi also offers salt and sugar scrubs, lotion bars, lip balms, shaving soaps, and bath salts — all made in the restored 1850s barn that also serves as her shop. “So much for being retired,” she remarks. You can shop online or visit the barn Wednesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. or Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

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1846 House Soaps
Walker Valley. 845-744-2995

Kiki Rosner was born in New York City but spent years in France, where she and her Israeli husband, Yaron, discovered the art of making cold-process soap. Kiki taught English as a foreign language in France, and Yaron was a photographer, but when they moved to the United States with their young children, they decided to try soap-making as a business. “We had the idea of making a luxury product affordable to everybody,” says Kiki. “We looked around for a place to live that was far enough away from the big, bad city for me, and close enough for Yaron.” They opened their aromatic store in Sugar Loaf 13 years ago, stocking it with the all-natural soaps and bath products they make in their “cottage factory,” as Kiki calls it. You’ll also find accessories like soap dishes, washcloths, and sponge mitts.

Their line includes natural scrubs, balms, and oils, along with 18 herb-scented, olive oil soaps; a range of translucent glycerin soaps that look like gemstones; and three hand-milled soaps. One fun product is a loofah soap — a soap-filled slice of loofah that you can use to exfoliate. And how long do they last? “Depends how much hair you have on your chest,” Kiki replies.

The Rosners also make an insect repellent using essential oils. “It’s been used for millennia,” Kiki says. “As long as you smell of it, you will not be stung. You can even use it on infants, and it’s easy to carry around.”

Rosner Soap
Sugar Loaf. 845-469-5931

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Dutchess County store owners Michelle Cussick-Kelsoe and her mother, Linda Cussick, were longtime crafters who Michelle says “fell in love” with making bath and skin products. In 2004, they decided to open a shop to sell them, and launched Periwinkles at Rhinebeck. The soaps they carry are actually made upstate by SallyeAnder, but they concoct their own all-natural body washes (in scents running from classics like lavender and freesia to more esotoric ones like Beach Dunes) along with lotions, gels, and such in the workshop of their roomy store. Bath fizzies are a big favorite.

Periwinkles at Rhinebeck
Rhinebeck. 845-876-4014

Mindy Quinn, a kindergarten teacher, and her husband, Chris, a carpenter, are animal lovers whose 10-acre mini-farm in Saugerties is home to five dogs, some lambs, and a flock of chickens. In 2009, they took in a baby goat, and then adopted another so that she wouldn’t be alone. Now they have a little herd of well-loved Nubian and Nigerian Dwarf goats, whose milk goes into the soap that Mindy started making about 18 months ago. (Chris makes the displays, brochures and pretty wrappings — all “green.”)

Goat milk makes up slightly more than half the soap’s ingredients, Mindy says. “Goat milk has 50 vitamins and minerals — things that are really good for your skin,” she adds. Scents and colors come from zests, herbs, and other all-natural sources.

As for the varieties: “We’re like the Baskin-Robbins of soaps,” Mindy laughs. “We have about 20 scents right now, but we’re always adding new ones. I lean toward the fruity ones, like raspberry and mango. And there’s always a rush for the citrus. We also have some lovely chocolate soaps,” she adds.

The soaps retail for around $5.60. You can find them at Mother Earth’s Storehouse; Pleasant Stone Farms in Ellenville and Middletown; Kelder’s Farm in Accord; Davenport’s in Kingston; and Gill’s Farm in Hurley.

Pumpkin Patch Farms

Coffee Spice, Heirloom Tomato, Homebrewed Honey Brown Ale, Goatmilk Oatmeal — if the soaps at Ash Hopper sound more like foods than cleansers, it may be because Troy Chmielewski, one half of the young couple who makes them, is a CIA–trained chef. “I guess he’s a soap chef now,” says Thena Foote, his partner in business and life, and herself a Fine Arts graduate.

The pair discovered soap making in Argentina, where Foote, who has sensitive skin, learned from artisans who used beef tallow. “We rendered our own fats,” she recalls. “It makes a really high-quality soap, and I actually prefer it. But people shy away from things that are animal based.”

When the Port Jervis restaurant where the couple worked closed its doors, Foote and Chmielewski decided to turn their soap-making hobby into a business. “There’s an abundance of everything in the Hudson Valley,” Foote says. “We found sources for raw goat’s milk; we got fresh produce from farmers. It just seemed to work out.” The couple set up a workshop in their home. “It takes up the entire first floor — it looks like a commercial kitchen, all stainless steel,” Foote says.

They began selling their all-natural, “cruelty free, moisturizing, happy” soaps at farmers’ markets last April, asking customers for feedback. “At first we had 70 different soap recipes — it was a little wild,” Foote says, noting that they’ve winnowed the line down to about a dozen. Most of the ingredients — goat’s milk, eucalyptus, herbs, fruits, vegetables, honey — come from Hudson Valley farms. Other sources are chosen for their sustainable practices. The colors come from pigments in herbs and spices, clays, juices, and root powders; there are no preservatives or artificial fragrances.

The soaps retail for around $4 a bar. You can shop online, or find them at Mother Earth’s Storehouse, various farmers’ markets, and food co-ops.

Ash Hopper Soap Studio
Slate Hill. 845-355-9087

Shari Manfredi, a LaGrangeville resident, started making soaps in the mid-’90s after a drought wiped out many of the heirloom vegetables and cut flowers she grew to sell at farmers’ markets. “The only things that survived were herbs, so I made a couple of soaps and salves to fill in space on my table,” she recalls. “I’d seen my great-grandmother make soap. She knew a little bit about herbal medicine. I started reading about the properties of different herbs. I read about aromatherapy, and I kind of kept going.”

Manfredi’s interest grew to the point that she launched Merriweathers in 1996, making all-natural soaps, bath oils, lotions, and skin-care products in small batches from the back of her Poughkeepsie storefront. In 2006, she opened a retail store in Rhinebeck. Her line now runs to some two dozen soaps that are made with a blend of olive, palm, and coconut oils. The recipes are designed to suit different skin types or conditions. The Remedy Bar, billed as “eczema’s worst enemy,” is a blend of soothing oils and black mud. Soaps in the Herbal series help pep you up or calm you down; the Romance series includes six classically sexy scents like jasmine and patchouli.

Rhinebeck. 845-876-8222

Caption: Squeaky clean (this page) a selection of Merriweather’s all-natural bars; (opposite) Patchouli Orange soap by Ash Hopper Soap Studio

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