How Lush hand-makes one of its (almost) edible soaps
With their fragrant concoctions of lotions, scrubs and bath bombs, it’s easy to sniff out Lush’s shops from a block away. At Lush’s Etobicoke plant, three “compounders” hand-make all of the soap for the brand’s North American outlets. The facility’s products range from simple milky bars to the crazy, rainbow-hued “Baked Alaska” (it actually comes in a giant sphere, à la the dessert, which is then chopped into colourful pieces). We followed Katie Bear, who’s been making soaps at Lush for the past three years, as she mixed a batch of Parsley Porridge, a vegan soap packed with fresh parsley, aloe and oatmeal. Here, step by step, is how it’s done.
The first step is to make a gigantic pot of tea: an extra-large tea bag is created by packing a cheesecloth with dried organic tea-tree leaves.
To mix all the soap ingredients together, Lush uses enormous heated kettles (they can hold about 250 kilograms). Before anything else is added, the tea bag needs to be steeped in hot water for half an hour (or until the water turns a forest green).
While the tea is steeping, Bear prepares the fresh ingredients. For this soap, this means peeling 200 grams of fresh aloe, which adds soothing, moisturizing qualities. (This is the least nice-smelling part of the process, as the jelly inside the aloe—the good stuff—kind of smells like onions.)
Of course, the Parsley Porridge soap is also packed with plenty of parsley. One batch uses eight kilograms, washed and cut that morning. “We don’t use any produce in our soaps that we wouldn’t eat ourselves,” Bear says.
Next, Bear adds ground oatmeal to the aloe and parsley mixture.
A gigantic immersion blender is used to create what is basically an oatmeal parsley smoothie. This usually takes half an hour, and lifting the heavy blender up and down means the compounders can work up quite a sweat.
Once the mixture is blended, Bear takes the tea bag out of the kettle and pours in the smoothie one jug at a time. “It’s kind of like making soup,” she says.
Soap flakes also need to be added to the mixture, to, you know, make it soapy. This particular kind uses 58 kilograms of vegan flakes made from rapeseed and coconut oils. Bear lifts each 25-kilogram bag of flakes into the kettle—another reason serious upper body strength is needed for this job.
Lush is currently in the process of eliminating palm oil from all its soaps (it’s not produced sustainably). Instead, Bear uses a mixture of sorbitol, water and glycerin (a clear, goopy substance) to make the soap “stick.”
Now, Bear turns off the kettle’s heat so that the mixture cools and the parsley particles remain suspended. After the mixture’s temperature falls to 65 degrees, Bear adds a pigment solution of chlorophyll (for a deeper green colouring) and titanium dioxide powder (to make it opaque).
The fragrance comes from a blend of essential oils, which deliver quite an assault to nostrils in their pure form.
After the fragrance is added, Bear pours the soap into moulds and lets it set for a few hours.
The whole process (not including setting) takes two to three hours. Usually, Bear works on a few kinds of soap simultaneously, and makes about four batches of soap every day. (One batch of Parsley Porridge yields about 200 kilograms of soap, and is made once every week or so.)
As a finishing touch, Bear marks each slab of soap with a sticker that features an illustration of her face, as a guarantee of its quality.
Parsley Porridge is a “naked” product, meaning the slabs are taken whole to each store and sliced on location (Bear compares it to gourmet cheese).