Clean Energy

Clean Energy

It was a new year when, in 2018, New Havener Kiah Smith resolved to make her own soap. That year was almost finished when, after many months spent researching and testing techniques and designs and aromas, she found herself sitting on a pile of results.

Smith had seen people selling their own soaps at popup markets, so she decided to give it a go at a market hosted by the New England Brewing Company. “I was like, ‘Let me just try that. And if people have interest, maybe I can make it a business. And if not, I tried.’” As it happened, people did have interest—a lot of it. “I almost sold out that day,” she says, and her company, Smithmade Essentials, was on its way.

Like those early customers, I first met Smith and her soaps, which currently sell for $8 a bar, at a popup market (the New Haven Night Market last May). Her design sense, evoking abstract art of both man and nature, drew me into the booth, but it was her scent sense, somehow both lucid and enigmatic, that had me picking up and investigating one flavor after another: Lavender Wilds (“lavender, rosemary eucalyptus with warm notes of clove, ginger and patchouli”); Sea Foam (“melon, orange and lemon zest blended with jasmine and violet”); Gallant (“spice, zest and cedarwood with warm notes of bergamot”); Fire Bird (“rose and wild geranium with warm middle notes of bergamot and amber finished with an earthy touch of patchouli”).

“Flavor” is actually a pretty good word here—not just because many of the cruelty-free, non-carcinogenic, sustainably sourced ingredients register primarily as food products—olive, avocado, coconut and rice bran oils; sea salt; cocoa butter; (colloidal) oatmeal—but also because Smith’s process parallels baking. She uses a hand immersion blender to mix batters. She builds layers into the bars and uses piping bags and tips to ‘frost’ their tops. Her recipes require particular timings and temperatures. And when she’s looking for design inspiration, she says she often turns to cakes and their makers.

As with a beautiful slice of cake, you feel a pang of guilt sinking your proverbial fork into Smithmade soaps. A bar of the Lavender Wilds, for example, is crowned in paisley-like embossments flecked with shimmering gold and purple. Below that, color fields like white marble and grape agate are parted by a slender, slanted vein of gold. A bar of the Sea Foam, for another example, presents a mind-bending depiction of ocean and beach, a frothy wave cresting in profile toward the top while a sandy coastline meanders in bird’s-eye at the base.

But even the prettiest soap is really about getting you clean, and for that, Smith leans largely on coconut oil. This “hard oil,” meaning it’s solid at room temperature, is also crucial for helping her bars, which are low on synthetic chemicals, keep their shape. Shea butter, another hard and natural oil, adds velvety texture and moisturizing power. The visible and tactile result, Smith says, is “a gentle, creamy lather. It’s not like the most bubbles that you’ll ever get from a soap… I really like that creamy texture.” She says customers report that unlike standard store-bought brands, her products don’t dry out their skin, in part because she “superfats” the soap, “add more oil than the lye can handle,” which softens the feel and keeps the soap from cleansing too harshly.

My trial run with a bar of the Sea Foam bore all of that out. The lather wasn’t, indeed, the sudsiest, but it was still satisfyingly bubbly, and my skin—traumatized in the past by those store-bought brands, to the point that I’d written off bar soap altogether—felt miraculously clean and soft afterward. In what is likely a testament to Smithmade’s handmade, small-batch, low-ingredient approach, the scent wasn’t always uniform, oscillating between sweet and simply fresh, and neither was the friction level of the glide, which alternated between silky smooth and somewhat tacky, possibly due to the heat of the water. The latter quality in particular might sound bothersome, but it wasn’t a problem for me. In fact, I found myself enjoying the authenticity and connectedness it indicated, and especially compared to soaps made with short consciences and long lists of chemicals, I’ll take what Smithmade is making every time.

Smithmade Essentials

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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