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Slice of Life: The science of soap

Sugar Grove woman offers 41 fragrances

Sue Czer makes Bay Rum soap in the basement of her Sugar Grove home, where she runs her business, Prairie Soaps and Salts.
Sue Czer makes Bay Rum soap in the basement of her Sugar Grove home, where she runs her business, Prairie Soaps and Salts.

SUGAR GROVE – Sue Czer heated some hard fats in a bowl, waiting as they melted and hit the magic temperature of 100 before she poured in liquid vegetable fats.

Wearing safety goggles and protective gloves, she carefully poured a clear mixture of lye and water into the liquid vat of fat and stirred with an immersion blender. As the clear liquid fat blended with the lye, it began looking golden and milky.

After a few minutes, Czer – pronounced Caeser, like the salad – knew it was ready because it achieved “trace” – a property when the mixture is like soft pudding and forms droplets that remain on the surface for a moment. Then it’s ready for fragrance or other ingredients, like oatmeal, to be mixed in.

This is the saponification process, when molecules of fat and lye split apart and become glycerin and soap. 

And it all happens in the corner of Czer’s basement in Sugar Grove, where she makes soap, scrubs and lotion bars and sells them through her company, Prairie Soaps and Salts.

She sells them at eight to nine craft shows per year, as well as wholesale under other labels, such as to a beekeeper who wants to sell soap made with his honey under his own label.

The new year signals the beginning of replenishing the various types of soap she sells.

“I just got through with all the Christmas shows,” Czer said. “And so now what I’m doing, I’ve got to make all my soaps that I’m going to need in the spring for the spring shows coming up.”

Soap-making began as a hobby for Czer, 59, who made bars as little gifts for Christmas. 

“Then all my relatives said, ‘You should sell these,’” she said.

Czer said she studied the chemistry of soap-making for two years, looking at recipes, procedures and ingredients before she left her sales job of 20 years to embark on a second career of making soap and selling it through her own business.

This was five and a half years ago and Czer said she never looked back. 

Czer said she offers 41 soap fragrances – from unscented to lavender, pomegranate to lemongrass mixed with rosemary to this day’s spicy fragrance of bay rum. 

After the last mix of fragrance is mixed in, Czer poured the liquid soap into a square frame that will make 24 bars of soap. She covered it with plastic wrap and took it to another part of the basement to further insulate it for 24 hours.

Then Czer turned yesterday’s batch out of the frame and begins cutting it into bars, using a double-handled knife to make slices and a crinkle knife for vegetables for a decorative edge.

“After 24 hours, it’s a little harder than a loaf of Velveeta cheese,” Czer said, demonstrating how the long knife cuts the loaf of soap into bars.

The bars will be allowed to cure in a tray for 30 days before she sells them. The lye settles down during the curing process so the soap won’t burn. Then she measures the pH value of each batch of soap, Czer said.

In chemistry, pH is a measure of how acidic or alkaline a substance is on a scale from 0 to 14. Anything less than 7 being more acidic and anything above 7 being more basic or alkaline.

“My pH level is always between 7 and 8, which is that of tap water,” Czer said. “So between a 7 pH and 8 pH level is [neutral], like Switzerland. It’s nothing. It’s not too acidic. It’s not too oily. This way it’s good for your skin.”

For information, email Czer at

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