Top 40 under 40: Tara MacWhirter
The view from Tara MacWhirter's laundry room, overlooking a series of magnificent backyard gardens, is not the only thing that sets it apart from most people's laundry rooms.
It's also the place where the soap-making magic happens and where most of the finished product is stored. The scent of soap, therefore, permeates the nostrils from the minute one enters the room.
MacWhirter, who operates her Garden Path Homemade Soap business from her home on Pleasant Corner Road, started making soap three years ago but only began selling it last March. At the time, she made six soap-bar varieties, which fit neatly on the top shelf of her cupboard; now, more than 20 varieties of bars have taken over the closet space.
"That's another reason why my dream is to have a little store right there," she says.
MacWhirter's inspiration to begin making soap was her gardens; in fact, many of the ingredients she uses come from her garden: calendula, rosemary, lavender, wild mint, paprika, and chamomile.
"I like to use natural when I can," she explains. "For example, when I need to make a soap a little bit pinkish, I can add paprika. The blush wine soap I make has a little bit of paprika in it. I like to avoid dyes."
A teacher by day, MacWhirter was altered to the benefits of homemade soap by a friend. After noticing a remarkable difference the soap made on her skin, she asked her friend to teach her how to make it.
Though a lengthy process, particularly the curing phase, making soap is something accessible to almost anyone. To begin, one needs some type of oil (an alkaline/acid) and lye (a base). "If there's no lye in it, it's not soap," she says.
MacWhirter stresses, however, the difference between "homemade" and "handmade" soap; the former is made from stratch, while the latter is a pre-made product that could contain a multitude of unknown ingredients.
"My soap is a total vegetable-base soap, because there are many type of fat you can use," she continues. "I like to use palm oil, coconut oil and olive oil, so right there, you've got a lot of moisture."
Adding the lye, while not difficult, is akin to following a recipe: "If you do anything wrong, it doesn't work." It's also very caustic, so MacWhirter is careful not to be interrupted when making soap - and she keeps a bottle of vinegar close by.
The oil and lye are heated separately, and must then be cooled to reach the same temperature before blending them together. It must be done fast, but a stick blender helps.
Colour and extras, e.g. lavender buds or poppy seeds, is added at the tracing phase, and the "phenomenally hot" soap is poured into wooden moulds - 63 bars at a time - and sits for 24 to 36 hours. Within four to six weeks of "saponfication," the lye is gone from the finished product; along with the oil, it becomes a new product: soap.
"You're doing chemistry, essentially," MacWhirter notes. "What's interesting is that depending on what's in each oil, it changes the colour of the soap and how quickly it goes to trace - one of my most popular ones, honey-almond and oatmeal, goes to trace almost immediately."
She launches into a description of her soap varieties, which also include maple syrup, vanilla-mint and green tea, pink grapefruit, apple crisp, blueberry oatmeal, lemongrass and lavender, and chocolate truffle.
"All my soaps are highly moisturizing. Calendula pedals are very therapeutic; I will add them to my unscented soap, just as extra goodness for your skin, because my unscented one has nothing added other than the oils - for those sensitive to scents. I use poppy seeds and coffee grinds for exfoliating; it takes off the dead skin. I add ground oatmeal to some of my soap because oatmeal is a very gentle exfoliant and very good for your skin."
Three "quite unique" varieties, she continues, are the coffee soap (made with actual, very strong-brewed coffee) as it works as a scent-remover, useful beside the kitchen sink or for grease; the beer soap (made with Beau's All-Natural beer), because it uses pure beer instead of water; and the wine soap (made with Vankleek Hill Vineyard wine) which is made from the local winemaker's three varieties.
"Beer and wine are both antioxidants," MacWhirter says, proudly. "And the beer soap makes beer suds - it foams like you wouldn't believe!"
Also available are a facial bar - which she says can work miracles on acne - and a miniature bar for dogs, which contains tea-tree oil, a natural antibacterial.
MacWhirter says her interest in professional soap-making began several years ago, when her sister - who suffers from eczema - used her soap with incredible results.
"Her hands her smooth, and she just said, 'I used your soap!'" she recalled. "I asked her, haven't you been doing that for three years? And she said, 'Yes, but now I'm using only your soap.'" She got rid of her anti-bacterial soap at the kitchen sink, she got rid of it in the bathroom. Her hands are free of eczema, she has none."
It also cured the psoriasis on another user's arms.
"I didn't know it was going to do this, so that's kind of nice, too," she smiles, adding: "The only thing that's unfortunate is the cost; homemade soap can cost 10 times more than regular soap, because you can buy soap at the dollar store... but you know why: chemical is cheaper to make than natural."
Still, a bar of her soap - which retails at a number of shops in the local area - is reasonably priced at about $5. MacWhirter will ship to you but, if you live locally, you can make arrangements to pick it up in person.
For more information on the soap (or its maker), visit www.gardenpathsoap.com.