Washington-made soaps to wash away 2020

Artisans from Shelton to Bellingham are making beautiful bars to help start the new year with a clean slate.

Employees at the Shelton-based Riverdance Soapworks facility. The company has been making natural soaps by hand for more than 20 years. (Riverdance Soapworks)

The seismic changes of 2020 included a shift in hygienic habits, as most people went from routine hand washing to working up a good lather while singing “Happy Birthday,” expanding our knowledge of the many different hand-washing angles and obsessively using hand sanitizer. And while the COVID-19 vaccine is starting to roll out, keeping hands clean is still paramount.

For a kinder, gentler hand-washing experience, consider handmade soap. Northwest makers are using natural ingredients to create artful bars that look beautiful and smell divine and keep those much-washed hands moisturized. Layered bar soaps are especially en vogue, made by hand with custom “batter” and “superfatted” with emollients, then poured into “loaves” to be sliced for individual sale.

Artisans all over Washington are selling these specialty soaps via Etsy shops and online stores, seasonal markets and brick-and-mortar storefronts. South Puget Sound, in particular, is bubbling over with soap makers creating bars that look like elaborate cakes, smell like cabin fever, celebrate the Seahawks or pay homage to “monkey farts.”

In short: If you’re hoping to wash your hands of 2020 altogether, you have a tub full of colorful options.

Crosscut spoke with a few local soapers (soapists? soapxperts?) to find out why we need homemade soaps right now, which soaps reflect our hopes for 2021 and what “Monkey Farts'' soap actually smells like.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Scents by Skybox

Established in 2015

Skybox co-founder Marika Thomas fills molds with soap batter that will eventually become her delicious-looking layered soaps. (Scents by Skybox)

Tacoma-based soap-making couple Marika and Darion Thomas might want to consider trying out for The Great British Bake Off. We don’t know how they’d fare with flour and eggs, but their Scents by Skybox bar soaps (made with natural ingredients, and milk derived from their own herd of Nigerian dwarf goats) look and smell like slices of elaborately layered cakes. With scents such as Cherries Jubilee, La La Lemon, Mulberry and Grapefruit and luscious whipped toppings, these soaps offer a playful pandemic escape.

Your soaps look delicious. How do you achieve the cake resemblance?

It takes a good [soap] mold, patience and good piping techniques. Every soap maker has their own recipe. Just like bakers, we know what the consistency of our recipe needs to be to get the result we want. It’s part artistic license, part vision and part learned technique.

How does your soap help keep skin soft during all our pandemic hand washing?

We love using goat milk. The high natural fat content helps coat the skin with a layer of hydration. Adding kokum, shea, mango and other butters, in addition to aloe, helps seal in that moisture and repair the skin.

Which of your soaps reflects the upheaval of 2020?

We made a hibiscus, turmeric and honey goat's milk bar soap.... Hibiscus is this vibrant fuchsia color that is simply captivating. But what I forgot was that hibiscus is extremely sensitive to pH. Depending on the pH of the soap, that beautiful fuchsia can turn blue or black. In my case it was the latter; 2020 did that for a lot of people. Just when we thought we had a plan, someone changed the pH and it all went black.

Honey comb soap
Marika Thomas says her Apricot & Honey Whiskey bars were inspired by a favorite warming drink with similar ingredients. (Scents by Skybox)

Which of your soaps speaks to something we could really use a dose of in 2021?

We did a Spiked Fall series — PNW drinks that included Blueberry Whiskey Buck, Blackberry Whiskey & Lemonade, Caramel Rum Apple Cider and Boysenberry Mojito. They were all drinks that my husband and I loved during the time we could gather with friends at local restaurants, bars and pubs, laugh and enjoy ourselves. That’s definitely what we need. 

Why do we all need handmade soaps right now?

Now more than ever, washing our hands seems like a chore because we are doing it so much! Handmade soaps allow for natural based ingredients to hydrate your skin and to keep them moisturized. If they have a great design and scent combo they can be an experience — and not just another tool for hand washing.

Riverdance Soapworks 

Established in 1991

Large, marbled soap loaves ready for slicing at Riverdance Soapworks. (Riverdance Soapworks)

Next year will mark three decades since Deborah Petersen began making natural soaps out of her home. Since then, her company, Riverdance Soapworks, has become a family business, with her children helping out in her Shelton facility. One of Washington’s longest running soap makers, Petersen offers a range of body products that includes beautiful swirled bars from trippy (Space Dust, Faerie Dust) to regional (The Hoh, Olympia Mist) to mysterious (Frankincense & Myrrh ... and Monkey Farts).

Let’s ask the obvious question: What does Monkey Farts smell like?

Who doesn’t want to smell like Monkey Farts? I have to give my son credit for coming up with it. We get more comments about it than any other scent we offer. Several years ago, I told my husband I was tired of talking about Monkey Farts at the market, and I was thinking about discontinuing it. He said that would be a huge mistake, and he was 100% right. We have over 60 different soap scents, and Monkey Farts is always one of our top 10 best-selling scents, no matter what the season. And, of course, customers are curious about the smell. It’s a harmless and pleasant blend of fruity and floral scents. 

How can natural soaps help with all our pandemic hand washing?

If you have extraordinarily dry skin (due to hand sanitizers, or just body chemistry) you should use a “superfatted” bar soap formulated intentionally to nourish and hydrate dry skin. Our Dry Skin Care soap is superfatted with kukui nut, hemp seed, and evening primrose oils. Each of the ingredients in our formula brings very specific qualities to the final product: luxurious lather, creamy texture, conditioning properties and a hardness that makes our soaps last much longer than commercially produced soaps.

The personal pampering regimen is [also] important during times of stress and uncertainty. Just going through the motions of treating yourself well and making consciously healthy choices can have a very significant impact on our emotional strength, well-being and attitude.

Which of your soaps captures the upheaval of 2020?

Our resourcefulness and creative abilities have been tested in some very interesting ways, with sometimes less than desirable results. For example, a few of the colorants we use come from Asia, so we were unable to restock the orange colorant we normally use for our Kauai Ginger soap. The product we substituted unfortunately left us with 150 bars of (not exaggerating here) an eye-stabbing neon orange batch of soap. It smells amazing and, hey, you can probably use it in place of a night light in your bathroom! 

bars of black soap that look like a galaxy
The popular — and far out — Space Dust bar. (Riverdance Soapworks)

Tell us about the inspiration behind your Space Dust bar.

Our soap-making team was extraordinarily fascinated with the “Great American Eclipse of 2017,” and wanted to create a soap [celebrating] the universe. They started making colorful, tubular columns of soap out of the left-over base from other batches, made small white, star-shaped embeds and set them aside. And finally, they engineered their universe soap embedded in a black “outer space” soap base. And Space Dust was born. We really struggle to keep it in stock, and it requires a lot of pre-design work, but it's worth it! 

MW Soapworks 

Established in 2013

Andrea Lawson, left, selling her soaps at a farmers market before the pandemic. (MW Soapworks)

Andrea Lawson keeps her soaps simple. Wrapped in paper bands, her earth-toned MW Soapworks bars reflect the natural ingredients within (see: Lavender Woods, Eucalyptus Grove). Based in Bellingham, Lawson says that while COVID-19 restrictions have been tough on business, she’s grateful for the customers who have helped artisans ride out the pandemic wave. “You are feeding these entrepreneurs. You are feeding their families,” she wrote in a blog post. “And most importantly, you are giving them hope for another day.”

Pans of uncut soap
Rows of MW Soapworks loaves before  cutting at Lawson’s solar-powered home studio in Bellingham. (MW Soapworks)

MW soaps have a minimalist vibe. How did you choose your aesthetic?

I am a firm believer that less is more. Over half of what you put on your skin gets absorbed into your bloodstream, so I keep my soaps as natural and simple as possible. The colors in my soaps are usually from the essential oils themselves or from clays or other natural colorants. I have always been fascinated with nature and helping people connect more with our planet.

Why are natural soaps a better option during the pandemic?

If you’re this far into the pandemic and are still using store-bought generic soap, do yourself a favor and find yourself a good bar of natural soap. When you make soap from scratch, a byproduct of the chemical process is glycerin. Glycerin is a humectant, which attracts moisture from the air to your skin. That’s why so many people comment on not needing as much lotion after switching to handmade soaps. Big companies extract the glycerin in order to use it as a filler in many other products, including their lotion formulas. In addition, I always “superfat” my soap recipes, which means I add a little extra oil for moisturizing benefit. 

Which of your soaps seems most like 2020?

I’m not sure there is one soap that best represents the wild ride we have had this year, but the number of new soaps I have created this year certainly does! Going into 2020, I had planned out my [craft] show schedule well in advance. It was going to be my busiest year yet. Instead, all of my shows got canceled. I was of course disappointed but I decided to take the extra time as a silver lining. I really had creative freedom and time to experiment with new scent combos and recipes! I have since finalized over 17 new soaps this year, which is huge when you are doing everything from product development and research to packaging and marketing.

Which of your soaps best represent what we need most in 2021?

Clean Slate Soap. It is a simple white bar of soap adorned with a little bit of green color from French green clay along the top, scented with a blend of bergamot, eucalyptus, fir, rosemary and peppermint essential oils. When 2020 rolled around, everyone was talking about their high hopes for the new decade, and many people didn't see those come to fruition. I wanted this soap to [represent] leaving 2020 stresses and disappointments behind, learning from everything that we have been through together and growing stronger as a community.

Tell us about your Winter Solstice soap.

Solstices are a powerful time for reflection and celebration — honoring where you have been and where you are going. It is the darkest day of the year for us and a great time for reciting self-affirmations and setting goals for yourself. I made this a dark bar using activated charcoal ... and topped it with brushes of beautifully sparkling copper mica. Featuring orange, lavender, cedar wood, and sweet anise essential oils, it is a bar that smells warm and mysterious. I wanted a soap that would make quiet time alone in the bath feel like a break from the hurries and worries of this year.

Cascade Rain Soaps

Started in 2014, on Etsy since 2016

Lynn Hermanson’s homemade soap bars include a sudsy way to support the Seahawks. (Cascade Rain)

When it comes to naming her soaps, Lynn Hermanson says she just “follows her nose.” (We definitely want a whiff of Grapefruit Bellini, White Tea & Ginger and Creamsicle.) With a full-time job in higher education, she began making Cascade Rain bars at her home in Tacoma as gifts for friends and family before opening her Etsy shop. She considers her marbled soap bars “consumable art” with a Northwest perspective, including options like Washington Apple and a Seahawks soap in swirling blue and green.

Tell us about your Cabin Fever soap.

Cabin Fever was inspired simply by the smell of the fragrance oil. It’s the perfect combination of musk and piney notes and honestly made me think of being outdoors, camping in the woods. I never imagined that in 2020 we’d all actually experience cabin fever!

What sort of ingredients do you use that can help avoid dry hands?

My soaps include many “skin loving” ingredients like coconut, olive and castor oils, along with Vitamin E. Customers are always surprised at how moisturized their skin feels after using my soap. Because it’s made of natural ingredients, it doesn’t strip the natural oils in our skin. 

Pink, chevron-style soap.
Lynn Hermanson says her Pink Blossom soap bar smells the way spring and sunshine feel. (Cascade Rain)

Why are handmade soaps important right now?

Right now, we’re forced to find joy in many tasks that could be thought of as mundane. My hope is that my soap bars can do just that. When people purchase soap because of a connection with the scent, colors and design, it adds a level of excitement and pleasure to bathing and hand-washing routines. Sometimes, it’s the little things that uplift us. [And] in addition to keeping our hands clean, purchasing handmade soap from local artisans helps support small businesses.

Which of your soaps reflects what we need most in 2021?

I would have to say Pink Blossom. This soap has bright, colorful layers with a soft, floral scent. Pink Blossom makes me think of spring, sunshine and, in a strange way, stimulates feelings of hope and love. In 2021, I think we need to find ways to uplift each other through new connections, compassion and courage.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores

Agueda Pacheco Flores is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where she focused on arts and culture.