Monthly Archives: June 2012

Things I do and don’t do

The view from my front yard

The other day I was at the mall, checking out the competition. I know I shouldn’t, after all, my products are good in their own right regardless of what everyone else is doing. Still, I thought it worthwhile to make a list of things I don’t do:
1. There are no preservatives in any of my products. The closest I get is rosemary essential oil, it is full of antioxidants and so will help to keep the product fresher for longer. This also makes for very interesting effects on the skin, rosemary has for centuries been used in cosmetics for its anti-aging qualities. I, of course, would never make such a claim for my products, personally I quite like aging. This applies to what I consume as well. I once bought tomatoes that remained still fresh-looking in the fridge three weeks after I had bought them. I found this quite frightening.  Well, be that as it may, no preservatives in my products means that you won’t get any preservatives on your skin and absorbed by your body. It also ensures that you get your soap and oils fresh.  I keep short production lines and quick distribution, so you should get your products within a few weeks of them being made. Soap requires about six weeks to cure, so you will find each bar that leaves my kitchen is dated. You should use the soap within about six months of that date. I have never known an oil of mine to not be consumed within three months (that is how nice they are). So I cannot tell you how long they will last. On the whole I think that is a good thing.
2. I do not use alcohol in any of my products. Alcohol can be used to make a transparent soap and is quite fun in that way. But alcohol also has a drying effect on the skin, and in that sense it is not very helpful in the long run. Many people also tend to develop allergies against products with alcohol in. So why on earth anybody should want to put alcohol in a body butter is beyond me. I guess it helps to stabilize the mixture and create a steady consistency, it can be quite a challenge to create body butters that are soft in winter but still hard enough not to melt in summer. I would rather take on this challenge then muck around with stabilizers, emulsifiers and alcohol. In my products there will be nothing but the best of pure oils and organic fragrances.

The sugarbird did not want to stay

On a lighter note, I guess it is also my cultural background that makes me do this. Alcohol is for drinking, preferably in the form of a brandy and coke on a nice sunny afternoon watching the sugarbird drink nectar from the red hot pokers. Alternatively a nice port in front of the fire in winter is also a most excellent use of alcohol. It makes absolutely no sense to be wasting good booze by putting it on the skin. Ja nee…

3. My liquid soaps are really soaps and not detergents. This means that they are not made from petroleum by-products and will not dry out your skin. They are also fully biodegradable, and this is a function I have well and truly tested.  Traditional Khoesan waxberry soap is a dark soap, it makes your skin blacker and your hair curlier. This happens to be very useful when you need to protect yourself from the hot sun, but I have had absolutely no success in marketing it. Strange that!  So, slowly drowning in soap, and having given away all I could sucker my friends and family into taking,  I have fertilized my olive trees with the rest. It is raining in nicely now and I reckon there will be a bumper olive harvest next year.

On to a more positive note: what do I do that keeps my oils and soaps special?

4. I keep on innovating. For the past few months I have dreamt of soap at night and woken up in the morning eager to try new recipes. Seeing as it’s just past winter solstice and very cold this side, that is quite helpful in getting me up in the morning. For you, this means that from time to time I will post on this blog about a new recipe, or a specialty soap I will have made on request. I love any soap but it is really nice to play around sometimes and just have fun.

Specialty soaps – this one was for a birthday I had missed

5. I also bite the bullet and ensure that I blend the best possible combination of oils. It would be possible to make a cheaper soap using only the cheapest organic oil. I know of one manufacturer who tries to do that, and I sorely understand the temptation. We all dream of producing an organic soap that is price competitive with soap made from fossil fuels. It can’t be done.  As any soap-maker worth their salt will tell you, natural oils need to be blended in various proportions since each one brings different qualities to the soap: hardness, cleansing, conditioning, lather, and so on. Trying to use only the cheapest oil makes an awful soap that leaves your skin feeling like sawdust.  So I mix various oils based on the qualities they bring to the product rather than the price, and hope I find customers who understand their skin’s needs. Look at it from the bright side, at least my oils and soaps will not contribute to climate change. In the long run I reckon this will work out cheaper for all of us.

6. All the ingredients, with the exception of two for which I am seeking organic suppliers but which fortunately I use in very minor quantities (less than five percent), are organically certified. I will gladly provide copies of certificates on request.

7. Oh, and all the soaps and oils are made by hand. I spent a lot of time working out how to deliver on the claim “carbon neutral”, and one of the ways is to not use machinery for anything that can be done by people. After all, if you look at what our real, renewable energy asset here in South Africa is, it is people. With the unemployment rate so high, it would seem that we have more people than we know what to do with. So I don’t see the point in using coal-fired electricity when a person can do the job just as well. People contribute nicely to the biogas digester too, making for a lovely, full-service, ecological solution to the problem of energy.

Plants are the best solar collectors ever invented

I must confess to a lifelong obsession with crafts – things where beauty and use are combined. I suspect this is why I have an ongoing love affair with soap, it successfully combines the need to be useful with the desire for beauty. Like the best of art, making soap by hand is something I have to do just to show that it is possible. It broadens the horizons of the thinkable.

What this means for you is that most of the soap bars you buy will be cast in big molds and hand-cut when hard. I like to do this, it makes each soap different and adds to the hand-made, artisan feel of my soaps. So each one will be hand weighed and priced before it comes to you. It is a lovely equation: love your skin, get clean, create jobs and save the planet, all in one handy-sized bar. This is as good as it gets.

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Special batch!!!

Because I make everything by hand, it is no problem for me to make specialty soaps and lotions. I do this for the love of it, and it is especially lovely to make something artisan, handmade, and unique. It is creative like slow cooking (just less fattening). So from time to time you will see some of these special offers on this site.

I have a friend who shaves the hair from parts of her body. But she has a problem with ingrown hairs and this tends to happen quite often as long as she shaves.  They can get infected and it can be quite painful too. For her I have made a special batch of Rose, Kelp and Oatmeal soap.  I don’t make less than 32 bars a batch, though, so if you hurry up and order from me you can also get some of this soap. It is a hard soap, coming in round 100 g bars at R 30 per bar.

organic roses just smell nicer

Almost the only thing you can do about ingrowing hairs is to exfoliate.  It will always be a problem if your hair is very curly, and of course the best way to cure the problem is to not shave.  But for those of you who like to shave regularly, very mild exfoliation helps by removing old skin layers and giving the hair the maximum space to grow out. Use it every time you wash the shaved area and over time the ingrown hairs should no longer occur.  Using something every day, though, means you have to be very sure that you are not using strong abrasives which can damage your skin and open it up to infection.  Oatmeal is the classic exfoliator, it abrades gently without hurting the skin and makes a very nourishing, creamy soap. Oatmeal is also an astringent, that is, it opens up clogged pores and so will prevent ingrown hairs as much as anything can. (Some people say this quality also helps with persistent acne, but I cannot say I have tested this usage extensively.)  Lastly, oatmeal has a very ancient use in soothing skin irritation and itches, and so is the ideal substance to use on shaven areas.

Kelp (seaweed) is one of those wonderfoods, it contains over 70 vitamins, minerals and trace elements as well as being rich in anti-oxidants. More mysteriously, it also contains growth hormones and endocrine (hormonal) regulators. Quite how these work on humans is still the subject of much scientific debate, I have of course used it for years in the garden where it stimulates healthy and sound blooming, like these roses. It has also been widely used in cosmetics for centuries. Again, each cosmetician will have their own explanation why it is so great. Suffice it to say that kelp unclogs pores and energizes the skin. So if the oatmeal helps remove the old skin layer, kelp  helps ensure that the new skin which emerges is full of vitality. Try it once and you will understand exactly what I mean!

I add rose essential oil because it is also astringent as well as skin-softening. Together with a dash of vanilla, rose makes such a sweet fragrance combination.  I can go mad with fragrances on occasion, but sometimes the simplest is the best. Ja nee…

After using this soap, apply some of my Buchu Extra Strength Oil to the shaved area, and you should be able to  avoid any further problems with ingrown hairs.  Plus your skin will be shiny, smooth, and absolutely luscious to the touch.

Order from khoelife@gmail,com

The ultimate test

Thank you, people for all the warm and supportive welcome this blog has had! It is wonderful. In response your comments, no my products are definitely, absolutely, NOT tested on animals. The past few months I have been experimenting wildly with different recipes, trying to think what people would like to use. My family was persuaded to volounteer for testing, so all my stuff has been tested on humans, not animals. Not surprisingly, they were the worst critics, nobody is a prophet in their own home town it is said, and this certainly was true for the oils and soaps. So when something got the thumbs up from the family, I considered it to have passed the ultimate test.

First prize for commitment above and beyond the call of duty must go to my one year old niece, who actually ate my baby soap the other day. I’ve been working on a very mild and gentle version of the buchu soap, fragrance free because babies really don’t need anything to make their skin any softer or sweeter than it already is. I had given a gaily wrapped bar to her big brother for testing, niece waited for the opportune moment, grabbed the bar and ate it. She has been practicing climbing lately, you know once they start to walk they get into everything, and since this niece has discovered she can get up on things she has been unstoppable. Fortunately she was persuaded to bring it up again, I mean, I know my soap is edible but I hadn’t meant for anybody to actually eat it…

I do think every generation is more intelligent than the one before, and certainly these latest nephews and nieces are proving this theory to be true. I am convinced little niece waited until she saw everybody’s attention was elsewhere for a minute. She is a remarkably smart young person.

Be that as it may, so we have proved by the experimental method that my soap is absolutely and completely safe. It could not be safer. I would much prefer for people not to eat it, though.

More seriously, it has been said about herbs that they have passed the test of centuries of use. This is definitely true of Khoesan herbs. I very rarely go by what has been written about those herbs, it seems to me that the historical Khoesan had a distinct sense of humour, and nowhere more so than when answering questions from travel writers of questionable sobriety. If you were to believe half of what has been written about indigenous plants, you would be surprised that we are not immortal beings who fly.

During the decades that I have studied this, I began from the written records, but spent a lot of time sitting around with little old ladies verifying actual uses in different times and places. I also spent a lot of time climbing mountains and walking through field and forests, it is amazing how fit old ladies can be. I then devoted myself to testing this knowledge amongst my friends and family. People may have found me a bit strange, I did not have enough of the diseases myself and so I became known as the one who, when somebody came to me with an illness would say:”Oh, fantastic, I haven’t had that one, but try this treatment and let me know how it goes!.” Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I would make a point of testing every substance on myself first, and only once did I suffer really ill effects. My research was complicated by the fact that herbal use is not an exact science, the strength of plants varies depending on the time of year they are harvested, where they grow, and so on. Some, like buchu, also contain such a broad range of substances, it is the very opposite of western pharmacology where one substance is seen to have one activity. Buchu, for instance, is what has been called an adaptogenic herb, which is to say it boosts the immune system by strengthening the body’s ability to cope with stress. It is this quality, amongst others, which is responsible for the many different reported uses of the plant. It requires a very different method of analysis then invented chemicals, centuries of use versus double blind clinical trials. Slowly, over the years, I have managed to verify or disprove most of the uses that had been recorded for the most common indigenous plant medicines. That is the knowledge that goes into my oils and soaps.

As for animals, well, I grow catmint in my garden. I wipe an old toothbrush in the leaves and brush the cat with it now and then. It seems to work against the fleas. And the cat says he is happy.


Welcome to Khoelife!

one of my favourite indigenous plants: a hedge of butterfly sage

I started this blog because I thought you would like to know a little bit more about where your soaps and oils come from, how they are produced and who produces them. So I am Yvette Abrahams, I hold a doctorate in history from the University of Cape Town. But my interest in local plants started many years before I studied at university. As a child I loved gardening with my mother and already in the long ago days when I lived in Mitchell’s Plain running arts and culture projects, I was  fascinated by indigenous plants. Truth be told, though I love talking, I love doing even more, and plants were a way to connect to my indigenous heritage without necessarily using words.

I live on a small holding just outside Cape Town, and I have recently started this cosmetics business after dreaming of it for many years.

I live organically for the love of it. I really have noticed a difference in my health, in my relation to the world and all its creatures since I started doing this. One of the things which began to fascinate me was how hard it can be to live 100 % organic, in fact I began making little lists of what I could get and what I could not. After five years it is still a mission, and in one of these blogs I will share with you the details of those lists.

Pretty much top of the list was soap and oils. When you think that your skin absorbs 40% of what you put on it, it becomes rather important what you use to clean yourself and moisturize. So far, there is only one company in South Africa that makes fully organic soaps, but they are priced out of my range. I understand about paying more for organic, this makes sense to me, since all it means is I am paying for good health and a clean environment up front. Still, 130 bucks a bar (naming no names) is way out of my league. Then there are a few imports, just as expensive, and anyway I have a strong commitment to supporting my local economy as far as I can. I have been making natural soaps and oils for my own use for about 16 years, so I thought this could be my contribution to creating a green economy.

I make my soaps and oils by hand, in an iron pot the old-fashioned way.  When I was studying Khoesan history, I needed to read old travel writings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In most of them there was a mention of the “greasy Hottentots”. There were constant references to the “dirty, greasy Hottentots” and after a few months I thought to myself “what the heck is this grease, anyway?”. I finally tracked the recipe down (in Le Vaillant , for those of you who interested in ancient history), and it turned out that the historical Khoesan would steep herbs in butter or plant oil, which they would smear on their skin. They would also make soap from sheep tail’s fat and ganna bos. The oil was moisturizing, slightly antiseptic and skin softening. It also protects from sunburn. and the historical Khoesan would often follow up the oil by sprinkling powdered buchu leaves over themselves. This helped to repel fleas and made them smell nice.

This was the beginning of Dr Abrahams’ buchu oil. I have updated the recipe a little, for instance, I use vegetable oils instead of sheep tail’s fat for the soap, and I am often syncretic in my approach, that is to say I have no objection to including a herb which is exotic in origin. Cultures change and grow, and Khoesan culture is no different in this respect. In fact balanced change and growth is central to our culture.
Although the contents may be updated, I make the oil using traditional methods. I did this initially just because I wanted to show it could be done. Now I have incorporated renewable energy into the picture. I installed a biogas digester a couple of years ago, there is a solar panel for the geyser, and I also use three solar cookers. It is lots of fun experimenting to see which model solar cooker works best for soap and oil. I collect rainwater and never use tap water for my soaps and oils. It really makes a difference. This is what I mean by growth and change in a balanced way. I like to think I am keeping alive Khoesan values while updating them with new technologies. It gives me real pleasure to think I am making something which is not just good for my skin, but helps to give something back to the environment as well. To me that is culture.

Often I have been unable to get an indigenous plant in sufficient quantities. The ecosystems in which they used to grow have dissappeared and now they are to be found only in nature reserves, sort of like animals in a zoo. They are nice to look at but not really part of our economy any more.  I am growing many ancient oil plants on my smallholding, but it will be a couple of years before they bear fruit. Because of this I substitute some indigenous ingredients with exotic ones which have similar chemical qualities and that I can find on the market.  For about the past three years I have gradually been replacing my natural inputs with organic ones. They can be quite hard to find. The organic palm oil, for instance, I have had to import from the UK. I am working on trying to find a supplier in West Africa, at the moment there are just no projects set up with that kind of export capacity. Well, there is one in Ghana but all their produce goes to an organic soap company in California who cannot spare me any. It doesn’t help that I am a small producer who needs to buy in small quantities, but with time no doubt something will work out. In the meantime I feel quite good about working with a supplier in North Yorkshire. It is such an economically depressed area of the UK it might almost be a developing country. And my suppliers are really kind to me, they give me a decent price for good quality oil, and are very helpful about obliging with minor quantities.

The coconut oil, olive oil and cocoa butter I get from suppliers in Cape Town, again, they are great to work with, they give me the best price possible and are extremely helpful to a small business. As far as possible I work with second grade oils, that is, oils that are from a second pressing or from raw material that is fine, just not suitable for food. For example my coconut oil is from dried organic coconut, it has quite a low nutritional value but retains the same fine moisturizing and lathering qualities as first grade coconut oil. It is all I need for a good soap. I am really fortunate to have suppliers who understand my needs and are willing to source these types of oils for me.

The one ingredient giving me real problems is beeswax. I cannot not use it, it is such an ancient ingredient and has many qualities which are not replicable in any other oil. But I am still struggling to find a certified organic source of beeswax, I keep on thinking I have found somebody and then when it comes to delivery they fail me. I suspect this is because many beekeepers produce organically but are unable to get certification, either because they are too small or because they live next to a fruit farm or something. Bees fly so far and wide that it is almost impossible to demonstrate that they have no exposure to chemicals. You practically have to live next to a nature reserve in order to be able to get certified. I am now looking at a possible supplier in the Karoo, and will keep you updated on this blog. In the meantime I am not too worried, it stands to reason that bees cannot be too exposed to pesticides or they would die before they produced any wax. Also, I use beeswax in such small quantities that it does not affect the organic status of the product. In most countries you are allowed to certify organic with up to 5 % inorganic content, provided that you are unable to obtain the ingredient organically. We still have a long way to go. I would like to think I am helping by creating a demand for organic products.

Oh, and don’t worry you vegans, I make a completely vegan body butter and liquid soap, in separate pots. It may not be absolutely traditional but they are nice. That is the advantage of making things by hand, it is no trouble to do a batch or two separately. Each soap you get will be a little different, they are mixed by hand, cut by hand and sold by weight. This saves a lot of carbon and guarantees you quality. Like I said, I do this for the love of it. In fact, I woke up this morning dreaming of a batch of liquid soap. I think I must go make it now.

Welcome to Khoelife! I hope we shall meet many times on this blog.