Soap-making is an ancient craft that is very much alive in our day and age, even though some of us are replacing soaps with liquid hand washes in our households and many women wouldn’t dream of using a bar of soap on their face or instead of a shower gel.
If you asked me not long ago what does the actual process of making soaps involve I would have blinked at you like a startled deer in front of the headlights, but thanks to Organic Freak, aka a lovely young lady Mai Vi, I got a wonderful lesson and having used one of her bars of soap I am excited to share her story with you.
Mai Vi works at the organic beauty emporium Content, located just off Marylebone High Street, and what started as a courteous relationship between a customer and a shopping assistant, grew into a bigger source of curiosity for me. Mai Vi is a lithe, dark-haired young lady with a slightly fierce look in her eye but when you get to know her or listen to her when she answers your questions, regarding a product or brand at Content, you realise that there is much more to her in terms of depth and knowledge ( don’t know if that is intentional, but Content draws in together fascinating people, who share their knowledge and curiosity about natural beauty, well-being and the world in general ).
When I received the Salty Bar my kids and I unwrapped it carefully and with genuine fascination. It felt substantial in the hand and we had lots of fun washing our hands with it. I used it in the shower and was amazed to feel its soothing effect on my skin, every time you use it you feel like you shed a layer of it and something new emerges. Kids ended up calling it ‘our rock’ much to my amusement but it was nice to see them enjoy using a proper soap bar, as opposed to liquid soap. Thanks to Mai Vi’s artisanal skill we ended up re-discovering the joy of using a soap bar and its feel on the skin. Her soaps are like multi-layered perfume treasures, each leading you on a journey of cleansing discovery. Soap bars used to be so commonly used in the past and it made me think, yet again, how sometimes the simple things from the past can’t be topped by the modern inventions.
Q & A with Mai Vi, aka Organic Freak, the soap maker and multi-talented creative soul
GAP: Your soaps bear a very unusual name – how did you come up with the name for your brand ?
Mai Vi: It took me sometime to come up with my brand name: for many months I kept thinking of a good name that could translate my personality and work: I asked friends for ideas; brain-stormed with everyone at lunches & dinner parties & wrote down inspirations, but nothing ever really sounded right. Until one day I just listened to myself and to the words I was using to describe the products I make and why I make them in the first place and there it was – I do what I do because I’m an Organic Freak! It was always there, I just needed to listen better!
GAP: How did you get into soap-making ?
Mai Vi: I have this memory of my grandma always collecting used cooking oil in glass jars to be taken every summer to our auntie in Sicily. She would mix it with ash and turn into soap. And my grand father still makes soap today in his kitchen with the family recipe.
I never thought of making soap myself to be honest – I always found it very complicated and dangerous, but somehow also really fascinating. When I first started experimenting in my kitchen it was with lip balms, ointments and creams. Then one day I just decided to give it a go and made my first batch of soap. It was ok, nothing special and I set soap-making aside for a good couple of years. It was only a couple of winters ago that I got back into it, when I was contacted by a charity soap-making project and they asked me to come up with some recipes. So there I was again mixing and playing with lye and oils but this time I felt a different spark in my heart. Life has these mysterious ways of unfolding your path and somehow soap-making always came back into my life every time I was about to give it up.
GAP: What does the actual process of soap-making involve & how do you choose the combination of ingredients?
Mai Vi: Making soap from scratch can be a fun and creative science experiment and fairly easy too, once you get the right process and safety gear on. The cold process method is simply the combination of an acid ( the oils and fats in the formulation ) with an alkaline base ( the lye solution ). The saponification process (the chemical reaction) creates a salt, the so-called soap.
Precision is key in soap making; many factors can also affect the final outcome of the batch, like variation in temperatures within the environment and humidity.
It took several recipes, lots of research and trial tests to understand the qualities of oils and butters that I wanted to integrate into my formulations. The properties of a bar of soap are due to the fatty acids composition of the oils and butters used, as these will give the bar its own characteristics. When creating a soap recipe I first think of how I would like the bar to feel, its lather to behave, how hard or soft to the touch I expect it to be. When I want a creamy lather, I will use ingredients like Shea or Mango butters. For lots of bubbles it will be Coconut Oil. For lots of nourishment Olive or Hemp oils are brilliant in soaps! But it is extremely important to find the right balance within all of these properties as you don’t want to end up with a deep cleansing but overly stripping bar, or a very creamy but oily one. It is a challenging and fun process, sometimes it’s just a matter of a few grams to get it right!
GAP: What makes yours soaps different ?
Well, I guess me. I mean not because I’m special or particularly talented at what I do, but because we’re all unique. All artisans dedicate their heart to what they do, so in each final product you will find a part of them waiting for you to experience & to enjoy. You’ll never find handmade products to be exactly the same – that is the beauty of it. In my soaps you’ll see the different designs, cuts, little imperfections or a slight variation in the scent because this time I wanted an extra dash of this or that. In the packaging, oh well, as I am dyeing the cotton in an indigo bath myself, you’ll find many different patterns and designs, different intensities of blue. The label may not be perfect either, but the care and love put into each bar will always be immense. I hope you’ll feel this!
GAP: Soaps have a reputation of drying the skin, especially if you use them on your face. Can your soaps be used on both face and body? What’s the difference between taking a shower with a shower gel or using a soap?
Mai Vi: It depends which soap you use. All handmade soaps will naturally contain glycerin, a natural by-product of saponification and this adds to the moisturizing properties of the bar. However, big manufacturers tend to remove glycerin, turning soap into a skin-drying, over-stripping product. And we don’t like this!
Properly artisan soap will always be gentle on your skin. I also tend to specifically formulate facial bars, as I like these to be gentle, with a creamy soft lather and The Queen Bee and The Susi’s Style are perfect examples.
I think the difference between using a shower gel or a bar of soap is in how you live the daily experience of simply taking a shower! I enjoy using solid soaps, as with each use the shape of the bar changes and it reveals more and more intricate design hidden right within the soap. It’s a little treasure that slowly evolves and then disappears. You’re definitely not left with an empty plastic bottle to dispose of, but rather empty-handed!
GAP: Are there any counter-indications for using your soaps?
Mai Vi: Yes, addiction. Make sure you don’t start over-showering and smelling too nice too quickly or those around you will quickly discover your secret. I’m kidding! On a more serious note, no, there are no counter-indications in using my soaps or any other handmade soap!
Soap is such an ancient art-science – the Babylonians mastered soap making around 2800 BC, the Egyptians and Phoenicians, too. I think everyone should be able to make their own soap. So don’t be alarmed and go get a good quality bar of soap and enjoy it. It’s a whole different story!
GAP: How do you name your soaps & which one is your current favourite?
Mai Vi: My soaps are the fruit of emotions, dreams and different inspirations from the world that surrounds me, things I have seen, music I’ve heard, a particular scent or someone I met. In my products’ names and descriptions I try to reflect this vision.
It’s difficult to say which one is my favorite; I’m always testing new bars and rarely stick to just one. They’re all my babies, my little creations and they’re all so different. Like people, nobody is better than any other, just different with a unique purpose or story.
My soaps are like portraits, frames of stories stopped in time, and to prefer one to another will mean to betray my very own creative process and go against it. You love your children equally. Even mistakes sometimes have proven to be better than the original idea.
GAP: Can you tell me a little bit about each of the soaps in your collections – what makes each unique? Do you create soaps with specific skin types or skin conditions in mind?
Mai Vi: I don’t really create soaps with specific skin conditions or skin types in mind, but I always ensure my recipes are gentle and nourishing enough for the skin, so that everyone could use them. I’d rather create soaps for the spirit, to cleanse and heal the soul, not just our outer, exposed layer.
The Dream Catcher opened my creative flow. It was my very first love, everything else sparked from these bars. The beautiful blend of Lemon Myrtle, Myrrh and Patchouli is like a blessing. And the design technique I use is one of my favorites, called the Peacock swirl! I created this soap really with dreams in mind, I wanted to wash away negativity and nightmares and just keep what’s positive and good for our own healing.
The Mimmo’s Special is in fact one of those soaps that I’ve been working on for ages! It’s created with a friend in mind and it represents Sicily with activated charcoal and almond butter, making it super yummy and soft. And the blend of essential oils is like a hot summer day on the Sicilian coast. This will make you travel back and forth, just close your eyes and enjoy the journey!
The Salty Bar is proving to be everyone’s favorite. The Himalayan Pink salt give it a rock-like look, the smooth edges and the shine make it one of the most beautiful bars I’d ever made. The blend of essential oils of Lavender and Wintergreen make it warming and relaxing for the heart, so you can let go of the day and just breath in and out.
The Queen Bee is dedicated to Bees! I love bees, without them we wouldn’t be here, so I wanted to honor and express my gratitude to these little hard workers by using bee pollen as a natural dye, raw honey and propolis for their amazing healing properties. This is actually a great facial bar!
The Healing Goddess is probably the most sophisticated bar and the design technique to achieve the central swirls is great fun, too! I love how herby these smell thanks to Basil, Rosemary and Sage. It’s so cleansing for the spirit and stimulating for the body that I always feel renewed after using it.
On the curing shelves I have some more bars, not yet in my Etsy store, like The Morning Brew, made with coffee, brown sugar, grounded almonds and oats with a touch of Coconut Milk for those people, like me, who are in love with bulletproof coffees! It’s like breakfast for the skin served in the shower!
And the very last one but not the least is The Susi’s Style. Another creation named after a dear friend that wished to have a soap that felt and smelled like ‘Latte e menta’, which is an Italian summer drink made with milk and mint! Fresh like a breeze, but comforting. These bars have Goat milk at the core of their recipe, essential oils of mint and peppermint, plus a touch of powdered licorice! Nice facial bars, uplifting and capable to cool down any hot-tempered head!
My current soap collection is slowly expanding and some soaps are on rotation, while I discover new ingredients and get inspired from my latest trip to Morocco.
GAP: What inspires your work?
Mai Vi: Many things inspire my work – the world that surrounds me, dreams and visions that I may have during meditation. I just like to share what I experience and soap-making is my way of doing it. It has become my art. I realised in time that soap-making makes me feel good.
GAP: Your work at organic beauty mecca Content – has it contributed to your lifestyle, the way your approach your skincare routine and the way you create your soap bars?
Mai Vi: Working at Content has surely contributed to my life in many ways. I’ve learnt thousand of things about ingredients, skin and how the human body and soul interact and communicate to one another. I’ve met lots of interesting and stimulating people in the last couple of years – my wonderful colleagues, the customers, the makers behind the fantastic brands. All of these people have influenced and encouraged me to stick to my passion! Content helped me to grow up a lot as a person, it’s like the best school you always wanted to go to. It’s not just work, I love it! It has subconsciously helped me start my very own healing process and re-connected me with myself. It has contributed to who I am today, in this very moment and has hugely influenced my whole creative process. I’ve learned to breathe and slow down, to listen, open my heart and follow the flow.
GAP: What’s your daily skincare routine like and what beauty tips can you share that make a difference to how you look and feel?
Mai Vi: My skincare routine is an important time of my day. In the morning I would quickly and gently wash my face with a Konjac sponge, at the moment I’m using the Green Clay one. While in the evening I like to take those ten to twenty minutes for myself, shut the bathroom door and leave the whole day behind. It’s a ritual that I’ve learned to appreciate only in the last few years – also thanks to Content!
In my bathroom cabinet there’s a bit of everything from cream cleansers to gels, experimental concoction and of course, my soaps!
I’m a huge fan of hot cloths cleansing, so I really like to take my time, fill the basin with hot water and double cleanse with a cream or balm cleanser like the MV Gentle Cream Cleanser or the de Mamiel Cleansing Balm. I love to take deep breaths and experience the relaxing and gentle scents of the cleansers I use.
I would always follow it with a good spray of toner, like the Pai Lotus and Orange Blossom or the Therapi Honey Skincare Rose Otto Hydrating Toner to prepare the skin for few drops of the Odacite Wild Carrot Booster. It’s wonderful, my skin loves it but I love facial oils in general and have used different ones. I always have a bottle of the Pai Rosehip Bioregenerate Oil at home. But let me confess that the RMS Beauty Oil was my very first love when I first started working at Content. I used to have a pretty bad combination skin and used it for a solid three months, day and night. My skin has never been happier and most of all balanced! However I’m not immune to the monthly hormonal breakouts and usually fix these by topically applying a small amount of the Suki Transformative Purifying Mask overnight. Right before bedtime I love to indulge in a little dip of the May Lindstrom Blue Cocoon, just to give my skin the very last cuddle of the day and prepare for some wonderful dreams.
During the winter months and changes of season my skin tends to be more on the dehydrated side so I like to take care of it by using the Tata Harper Moisturizing Mask once a week and leaving it overnight to deeply feed my skin. And to maintain the level of moisture, I use Twelve Ideal Moisture Serum regularly. It’s wonderful – your skin will drink it all and feel extremely hydrated.
The best beauty tip that I could give would be to feel your skin, it’s the biggest organ of our body and ever so important. So try to connect with it, observe what triggers what and its behavior according to the internal and external factors. This will actually take you onto a much deeper level of understanding of yourself, not just your body and its biological functions, but also what the spirit feels.
But most of all RELAX! Stress is enemy number one and it will show on our beautiful faces, so let’s try to keep it at bay! Do something that makes you happy, go for a walk or a run, bake a giant cake, have a bath, join a circus school ( like I did! ) or just do nothing at all. Sometimes I have days where I literally do nothing and I just try to feel the moment itself, if any worrying thought enters my mind and I can deal with it later, I postpone it. Respect yourself and your limits, as we all have them. Don’t feel guilty for taking a day off!
GAP: You are also very devoted to yoga, does it have an impact on your creativity?
Mai Vi: Yes I love yoga! I love to clear my mind and to move in meditation. Yoga is probably at the core of my wellbeing at the moment. It has taught me many things about myself; it’s a beautiful journey of self-discovery and this has hugely impacted my creative energy. I never ever imagined that soap-making would have become my media, my way to express myself in this chaotic world. Somehow in my world soap-making is like yoga, I create and move in meditation.
GAP: Does your mood impact your work? I know that some artisans make sure that they are in a very happy mood when they create their small batches of products. Energy has an impact on everything, doesn’t it?
Mai Vi: Energy! I think energy is at the base of everything! How you approach a task, your mind-set, intentions and heart will affect the outcome of your actions.
I have my little rituals: I always burn some Palo Santo wood before initiating my soap making sessions & often play Tibetan chants in the background to help clear any negative thoughts I may have.
If I’m not in a good mood or feeling stressed or worried, I won’t work on the soaps! I want to be able to access my heart with a clear mind; I want to put real goodness in what I do. Not just the good ingredients but also the good intentions, love and the beauty around us. Life can be hard at times and my soaps are my little contribution to help wash away the stress and negativity, to refuel by turning a simple shower into a magical ritual!
GAP:What are your plans for the future – do you plan to expand into making other beauty products?
Mai Vi: I’d love to introduce more products and am working on some healing balms at the moment. I have many ideas and recipe notes here and there on my desk, waiting to be turned into reality. There’s also a lot that I still want to learn about the ingredients I use and all their healing properties. I’m evolving and growing everyday with Organic Freak, so let’s see where this journey will take me.