The Essence of Soapmaking

My husband and kids can thank me for picking out my own Mother's Day gift when I visited the Asheville Herb Festival this past weekend. I purchased a feel-good sampling of some of the most luscious skin care products I've ever found. I was immediately attracted to the smell of the sage spearmint soap and I was fascinated with the feel of the lavender-infused lotion bar. I also bought a couple of practical items: a tube of herbal bug repellent packed with 20 essential oils and a first aid soap with herbs to speed up the skin's healing process.

You've probably seen lots of trendy, natural-looking soaps in stores these days like I have. These soaps and other items from Balm of Zarahemla are the real thing. Meeting soap artisan and business owner Jeffrey Racer makes me wish we could do all of our shopping with people who care so much about the products they make.  He and his family live in a rural community just outside Asheville.

Racer explains, "I'd seen soap made when I was young with animal fats, and I wanted to make it with olive oil, with vegetable-based oils. And so I got some books and things, and really just used trial and error."  Racer tells how he and his beautiful wife, Annette, who works in the medical field, started experimenting 15 years ago with soaps for various skin conditions. One family member had dry skin, another oily, teenagers struggled with acne, and they tried various herbal ingredients to deal with those.

"Pretty soon I had a lot of soap laying around, and we kept giving it away. Finally I said, 'Let's go to a festival and see if we can sell some of this', so we went to a festival and it just took off." The Racer family started spending most weekends at festivals, where their products grew in popularity. Racer eventually rented a booth in the prestigious Grove Arcade market in historic downtown Asheville, and tourists started coming to him. Over the years, tourists have restocked their favorite moderately priced items through the Balm of Zarahemla website.

With hand-molded soaps becoming more popular, I wondered what makes these so different. Turns out, it's the fact that they're made completely from scratch and with mostly olive oil, a superior skin product over those made of only coconut and palm oils. This is clearly not a hobby, but a craft, and a potentially dangerous one involving the skilled use of caustic soda.

Racer says, "You gotta really be careful with your weights, your temperatures, your measurements. I cure mine out a full two months, people don't always want to wait that long. I have a dehumidifying building that has 4- or 5-thousand bars curing at any one time, that way I let them sit and take that extra moisture out, that way they last longer.  I wait until the ph balance is near neutral before I even begin to sell them."

If you're fed up with questionable petroleum byproducts and other additives in skin products, you'll be pleasantly surprised to find something made of truly natural ingredients. Racer knows his work is all about the details, "I'm mostly olive oil, which is really really good for your skin, it cleanses it.  It allows a clean barrier that still allows your skin to breathe. I do use a little coconut oil, it helps with lather; a little palm oil, it helps make it harder. I use 10-percent excess of the oils to offset any extra caustic soda in the soap. I also put in some nice nutrient oils in my soaps along with the herbs and spices.  I only use essential oils, but I use nutrient oils like jojoba oil, shea butter, coco butter, those kind of things so it adds a little bit extra moisturizing. I put that in almost at the very end of the soap-making process so it's not used up."

The family-owned skin care business finds inspiration in the family's faith, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. Zarahemla is the name of an ancient city mentioned in the Book of Mormon that represents healing and renewal to the Racers. Their integrity that goes into all of the products is evidenced by the growing base of happy customers.

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