At-home half-hour DIY facial for new mamas

The salons are closed in my country. We don’t know when life will get back to normal. That doesn’t mean compromising on beauty treatments, especially when you’re a new mama and need pampering after pregnancy and birth. Here’s my go-to facial. The steps are based on when I lived in China, where the K-beauty routine is basically standard. This facial takes about half an hour and includes plenty of time while treatments are taking effect to go sort out the baby. 😉

First, set the scene. Light some scented candles or get your oil diffuser going. Put on some relaxing music (I love Enya or Clannad, which is probably my Irish half). Get into your comfiest clothes or dressing gown. And let’s dive into the half-hour facial for new mamas.

Part 1: Cleansing

If you’re wearing make-up, sunscreen, fake tan or anything else you’ve already put on your face today, start with an oil-based cleanser. I discovered these when I was in Japan and they’re soooo good! This one is my current favourite.

Next it’s time for exfoliation. The key to keeping skin looking firm, hydrated and toned all starts with a good exfoliation. This can be a physical exfoliator, such as the St Ives apricot scrub, which I’ve reviewed here (although I don’t know if they’ve changed the recipe due to the microplastics ban… I really need to try this again), or a chemical exfoliator, such as the Nip + Fab glycolic fix exfoliating pads. If your skin needs some serious TLC, I really recommend the Nip+Fab glycolic fix exfoliating scrub, which combines the chemical exfoliator glycolic acid and physical exfoliation for a very thorough skin exfoliation.

Part 2: Face mask

The benefits of a good vitamin face mask cannot be overstated. My favourite is the Dermalogica multi-vitamin power recovery mask, which contains nourishing vitamins and the clinically-proven anti-ageing ingredient retinol (so avoid during pregnancy as it will burn your skin, but it’s fine afterwards). It’s a great dupe for Kim Kardashian’s favourite Chantecaille Bio Lifting Mask, and I haven’t yet found anything else that’s even a fraction as good as these two, so for me, the Dermalogica one is worth the splurge because retinol doesn’t just make you look younger, it actually reverses the effects of ageing.

Keep this on for at least 15 minutes and don’t get any on your baby (retinol, duh) e.g. by kissing them or snuggling them. If you can’t last 15 minutes without a cute baby snuggle, you would be much safer using my homemade breastmilk face mask recipe, which is especially good for acne-prone skin. If you’re not breastfeeding, my avocado face mask recipe literally just requires some mashed avocado. You can actually leave any of these on overnight (my last tube of the Dermalogica mask had this idea as a tip from a skincare expert inside the box and it really works). I have a Japanese silicon face cover for using with wet masks.

Part 3: Cleansing (again)

You need to wash off the face mask. If you’ve made my breastmilk soap recipe, this is the perfect time to use it, as it’s super nourishing and a gentle but effective cleanser. Otherwise, another homemade soap or plain water will work fine.

Part 4: Essence and serum

Grab your favourite K-beauty essence (mine is Innisfree soybean essence in light) and cover your face in it. I have mine in a spray bottle so I can use it as a facial mist.

Once this has dried, I add a thicker serum. I love the It’s Skin Q10 effector serum. I use the dropper to get some on my fingers then I pat it into my face, avoiding my eyelids.

Part 5: Moisture

The last thing is a replenishing moisturising cream. I have a bad track record for my favourite creams getting discontinued. It happened with my favourite Sanctuary Spa Covent Garden one, then the Manuka Doctor one, lastly the Innisfree Soybean one which I never even got around to reviewing, so I’m constantly wandering the beauty aisle like a nomad trying to find the next great cream. I still think there’s a lot to like about the Olay Regenerist 3-Point Cream, which contains matrixyl which is fab for under-eye dark blue circles, although for overall skin care, I prefer the Elemis Pro-Collagen Marine Cream, which I reviewed here in 2016 and, in 2020, my skin’s now four years older (33… wow that went fast!) and I think this cream is better for thirtysomethings than people in their twenties as you get the long-term effects as well as the short-term plumping and moisturising effect.

Finished?

If you haven’t put a lash conditioner on your eyelashes, now is the perfect time.

Don’t forget to pop some hydrating lip balm on your lips to keep them soft! I love using a bit of coconut oil as a quick DIY lip balm.

That’s it for my new mama facial. Did you try this? Let me know in the comments if you want more articles on at-home pampering!

Infographic about expats in China: Where they’re from will surprise you.

This infographic shows the number of expats in China, where they are from, what job they do and where they live in China.

This infographic shows the number of expats in China. Even after living in China for two years, I was amazed to find out the majority of expats in China are from South Korea (closely followed by the USA; less surprising).

Why did that surprise me? The two cultures of Chinese and Korean are kept very separate. Almost no Chinese people speak South Korean, and if you mention K-pop, K-beauty or Korean TV shows to young people in China, they scoff and tell you that China is better at all those things (and maybe there’s some chicken-and-egg going on here because the two styles are very, very similar). By contrast, if you don’t look Chinese, most people in China assume you speak English, even if you don’t. I was also surprised about the low percentage of South Americans and South Africans, since I know quite a few of both who live in China.

I was also surprised to find out that most expats in China live along the coastal region (loosely coastal, you still have to travel a couple of hundred miles from the main cities in most of these provinces, but the provinces themselves are the coastal ones). I was surprised that Shaanxi (where Xi’an is) and Sichuan (Chengdu) provinces were not teeming with expats, because these are great places to live and work, and I do know quite a few people who work in these areas.

While I made this infographic, it was less surprising to discover a third of expats living in China work in education, research and translation. China needs highly skilled, degree-educated workers to keep their economy forever growing and moving forward.

Click the infographic to enlarge. Keep scrolling for the graph of countries of origin for expatriates in China.

If you’re thinking of a move to China, follow my blog (right hand menu) to stay updated as I tell you everything I’ve learned about this mysterious and fascinating country in my two years of living there.

And here’s the graph with more of a breakdown of where those expats are all from although this one uses the 2010 data from the Chinese census so new data should be available for 2020 very soon:

pie chart showing country of origin for Chinese expats number of South Koreans in China number of Americans in China number of Indians in China Mama Adventure guide to China infographic

10 things to do in Xi’an, China (and 7 more I wish I’d done)

Xi’an in Shaanxi Province is one of China’s most interesting cities, and a mixing bowl of old-fashioned and modern city life. I’ve been there twice, now, and these are my top 10 things to do in Xi’an! These can be divided into “touristy” things and “local” things, to give you a flavor of some of the more authentic things you can do here.

Some of these are things you can do in other cities in China, too, but if you’re in Xi’an there are excellent versions of some things they have in other parts of China, as well as the big tourist staples such as the walls and drum and bell towers which is probably what you came to the city to see, along with the Terracotta Army.

1. The drum and bell towers

These are a really spectacular sight right in the centre of Xi’an, so really easy to get to. You probably heard all about them already but if not, here’s what you need to know:
Almost 40m high, the bell tower was built in 1384 in the Ming Dynasty and is one of Xi’an’s most recognizable landmarks. It was originally in a different location, but in 1582, the Shaanxi local government ordered it to be taken apart, piece by piece, and rebuilt exactly as it was but in the place where you can find it today. The bell tower contains several Tang dynasty bells as well as the Jingyun bell.

2. The underground walkways

Beneath the bell tower is the biggest underpass I ever saw. It goes between the metro system, the towers, the shopping malls and the roads. During the Boat Festival, it was so busy, they had police officers doing crowd control! It was literally like being carried along in a tide of people.
You can get to them by taking the Xi’an Metro to the bell tower then following the subterranean passageways to your heart’s content.

3. The Terracotta Army Museum

This is not technically in Xi’an, it’s about a 60 minute taxi ride. It made me feel all cultured and historical. The place is absolutely crammed with Chinese tourists who will elbow, shove and barge through you. It’s glorious! Respect the one way system inside the big buildings full of warriors, and don’t get mad at middle-aged Chinese grandmas when they elbow you in the ribs; they do it to everyone.
You can get here by taking a taxi (use the Didi app if you’re living in China or the Uber app if you’re a tourist, or get your hotel to book you a taxi). There is no train here. When you leave, there are a ton of Chinese taxi drivers waiting to give you a ride home, just have your hotel’s address card handy in Mandarin so they know where to drive you.

4. Walk the historic city walls.

I did this walk on my first trip to China and it was excellent and made me feel all historical and cultured.
This is a fun thing to do if you are not pregnant. You will get fantastic views of the city. Give it a miss if you are 6 or more months pregnant because there are serious steps to get onto the walls and breathlessness, loose joints and swollen ankles in 35 degree July heat is not funny.
There is at least one shop selling drinks up there and you can hire bikes to cycle around if walking isn’t your thing. Just be aware there are a LOT of reckless American tourists going around on their bikes shouting and having no consideration for other people. Don’t be that guy.

xi'an walls mama adventure

5. Go past a hospital.

You will see a fascinating slice of local life as you walk past any of the traditional Chinese medicine hospitals. On the footpaths between the hospital and the city walls, elderly people walk around following rituals. I saw some people walking backwards, while others were thumping themselves or clapping. I’m not entirely sure what they were doing but it was an experience. I didn’t take any photos as it seemed inappropriate. This is a pregnancy-friendly activity.

6. See the light show and artistic features at Starry Street mall.

The malls in China are stunning, and Xi’an has some really beautiful ones.
This one has two parts, a long thin section (which is the official Starry Street mall) and across the way, a ginormous mall, much of which is underground. It has this water mist that gets dropped down from the top of the covered walkway and they project patterns onto it with lights. It’s amazing. And there’s a reading corner, some modern art sculptures, and some really good eateries. Well worth a trip if you’re nearby. There’s also a Godiva if you’re peckish for expensive chocolates and there’s a Bread Talk if you want to enjoy authentic Chinese baked goods from a clean, reputable chain store; I recommend the Hello Kitty cake for utter creamy decadence or the donuts for a taste of really good sugary fluffy deliciousness. Pregnancy-friendly especially for those eating for two!

7. Visit the little amusement park for kids

If you have kids, there’s also a mini amusement park outside that mall, in a pedestrianized area. I’m not sure if that was permanent or whether it was only there when we visited the first time, as there’s so much to see and do in Xi’an, we went to a different part of the city for our second visit.

children's play area xi'an china mama adventure

8. Go to one of the many parks.

I especially liked Xi’an Huancheng Park which is a long thin one running north to south alongside the western walls, the Children’s Park, which is near the Xi’an Children’s hospital complex. The Revolution Park, near West 5th Road, one of the main roads in the city centre. The Daming Palace National Heritage Park is also ginormous and well worth a visit.

9. See the terrarium shop at Ocean Towers mall on FengCheng Second Road.

This is really hard to find because it’s not marked properly on Google but in real life it’s the shopping mall next to the Marriott Xi’an North (which is not where it claims to be on Google maps, but is exactly where it claims on Apple maps, another reason to use Apple maps in Xi’an). Oh, my, goodness, if you can find it, you absolutely have to see the terrarium shop, it sells terraria like nothing you have ever seen before. Basically, some artistic masters have created miniature ecosystems complete with rockeries, waterfalls, bonsai trees, plant life and ponds with tiny living fish in them. If I hadn’t been moving away from China four weeks after my last trip to Xi’an, I would have bought one and had it shipped to our apartment in Changzhou for sure! The children’s bookshop on the top floor of this mall is fabulous, too. Pregnancy-friendly activity.

giant fish terrarium xi'an china mama adventure

10. Grab some street food on Muslim Street… maybe.

This is last on my list for very good reason as I have a controversial opinion on it compared to other westerners. Lately, this has become so touristy, and the food hygiene is not good.

Everyone I know who ate there in the past year was stuck on the loo for days, and you cannot readily get Imodium (loperamide) in Xi’An (although they will sell you creosote tablets at most of the traditional Chinese pharmacies… they were sort of effective, but not as good as Imodium).

Avoid eating anything here if you are pregnant or otherwise delicate of digestion. Severe diarrhea can cause miscarriage.

But do go there to soak up the atmosphere and buy cheap non-food souvenirs in the side streets; even if you’re eighty, this area will make you feel like a twenty-year-old backpacker when you walk down the street.

For excellent and authentic modern Chinese dining, choose one of the fantastic restaurants in a shopping mall instead (I 10/10 recommend the eateries in Starry Street mall), which is how all the locals eat. Don’t make the mistake of thinking because the customers at the stalls in Muslim Street are all Chinese, that they are locals. China is a huge, beautiful country with a lot to see, the Chinese year offers a lot of time off for holidays and hardworking Chinese residents love nothing better than a good staycation.

And a few things I wish I’d had time to see:

  1. The Giant Wild Goose Pagoda
  2. Little Goose Pagoda and Gardens
  3. Tang West Market Museum in Datang Xishi (on Xishi Bei Luo, which on Google maps is half-translated to Xishi North Street).
  4. Shaanxi TV tower, because it looks a lot like the Shanghai pearl tower.
  5. Shaanxi History museum beside the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
  6. Tang Paradise Gardens around the corner from the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda.
  7. Qu Jiang Chi Yi Zhi Gong Yuan (aka Quijiang Chi Relic Park), just below Tang Paradise Gardens (see a potential entire travel day you could spend in this area? I got quite bad asthma during my last 3 months in China as I was heavily pregnant and the pollution disagreed with me so I was not up to walking very far and had to miss out on this amazing part of Xi’an on our second visit).

We spent a total of 10 days in Xi’an across two visits, and it wasn’t enough time to even scratch the surface of what this fab city has to offer, and yet we saw very few westerners beyond the main sites, whisked between the big tourist attractions by buses! This is one city that’s crying out for off-the-beaten-track independent exploration adventure travel and like all of China, it’s a very safe city, although some people are very surprised to see westerners walking around because most just go on coach tours and never see the real China! Go there and walk around, taking in the surroundings and seeing what modern Chinese city life is really like.

Have you been to Xi’an? Did you see any of the things on my wish list? Let me know in the comments!

Vegan green tea hair shampoo bar recipe that you can even make in a campervan!

My love affair for all things green tea began long before I ever moved to East Asia. Being in Japan last year really cemented it.

The rumors about Japan are true. They use matcha green tea for everything. In our hotel, the shampoo and conditioner were green tea. And they were phenomenal.

So since lockdown, when soap and other cosmetics suddenly vanished, I decided to start making my own cosmetics. I had planned to make a melt-and-pour shampoo bar before anything else, but I ended up making soaps successfully, first, and getting product safety tests done on my essential oil soaps. At the same time, my shampoo bars were not going so well.

I couldn’t understand it. Both my soaps and the shampoo bars were made using the correct bases (don’t use soap base for shampoo bars! I know a lot of bloggers say you can do it with soap base, but if you care about your hair, you need to use proper shampoo base) but my shampoo bars weren’t mixing properly and when I tested them on my hair, they left residue. Eeek!

Eventually, I found out where I was going wrong. The rubbing alcohol in this recipe is essential. Do not skip that step.

You will need (makes one 100 gram bar; scale up for more than one):

  • A glass jug
  • A saucepan of boiling water on a stove
  • A spoon
  • 85 grams Stephenson’s Solid Shampoo Base (this doesn’t seem to be available to buy on US Amazon but you can get it shipped to the US from the link above which is UK Amazon)
  • 1/4 tsp Green tea powder
  • 1 tsp Rubbing alcohol (I’ve linked to Amazon there in case you can’t get out to a store, but you can get cheap rubbing alcohol in the Dollar Tree so don’t spend more than you have to).
  • 5 grams Avocado oil (substitute with another oil such as olive oil, jojoba or almond oil if you don’t have this)

    If you’re in the UK/Ireland you can get your green tea, rubbing alcohol and avocado oil on these links, instead.

How to make vegan green tea melt and pour shampoo bar:

  1. Cut the melt and pour shampoo base into small squares and put it into the jug.
  2. Place the jug inside the pan of boiling water.
  3. Remove when the shampoo base has melted.
  4. In a small cup, mix the green tea powder with the alcohol.
  5. Once this is mixed, add it to the shampoo base.
  6. Add the avocado oil.
  7. Mix well.
  8. Pour into your soap mould. Leave to harden for about an hour and a half, then wrap.

I am so happy with this recipe (finally)! Let me know what you think in the comments! If you have a microwave, you can melt the melt and pour shampoo base in your microwave, checking every 30 seconds to be sure not to scald it!

What to get a baby for Christmas: Toy buying guide for baby’s first Christmas 2020

What should you get for a baby for Christmas in 2020? What are the best baby toys in the UK and Ireland this year for a budget? Whether you’re the new parents, grandma or an aunt, that first Christmas is hard to shop for. I remember last Christmas, my baby was only a few months old and I had no idea what to get! Then, amazingly, we were inundated with presents from relatives and somehow no one bought us the same thing twice. I’ve broken down the best toys and gifts for baby’s first Christmas by age and budget and reviewed them below:

0-3 Months:

At this age, babies are in the third trimester. They sleep a lot, wake up to feed and cry, and sleep some more. They have very little interaction with their environment and in the words of one of my friends (whose baby was born exactly one year earlier than my baby), “they don’t give a crap about toys”. So what to get for a newborn baby for Christmas? You have two options. You can either get them something they might enjoy in a few months’ time or get them something really, really simple. They are growing rapidly, and mama will probably appreciate some baby clothes in the 3-6 or 6-9 months size.

Best budget buys for newborns (under £20):

Lullaby toys tend to be enjoyed by even very young babies.

Baby Einstein in the UK do this super-cute star lullaby toy for £12.99. It attaches to the cot and features bright colors which babies love! It has motion activation so if your baby is over 6 months and alone in their cot, if they stir, they can be lulled back to sleep without you risking waking them up more by going into their room and turning the lullaby toy back on. At this price point, this is about the best lullaby toy you can get and the ideal Christmas gift for newborns this year.

This Manhattan Toy Lullaby Squirrel is £20. It attaches to the cot for safety and the squirrel slowly moves into his acorn as the music plays. There are also crinkles and textures for baby to explore, making this a good toy for when baby is ready to touch things.

Crinkle books with high-contrast images start to come into their own when baby is about 10-12 weeks old. My baby adores Bumble Bee. It’s £12 which is a bit on the expensive side for a cloth book but if our copy got lost, I’d buy it again because my jellyfish still loves this book at 14 months. As well as having high-contrast images, a brief, rhyming story that’s easy to read, crinkles in almost every page and even some textured ribbon pages and a shiny mirror, it’s a lift-the-flaps cloth book so it will stay interesting for babies for a lot longer than other cloth books. Just remember to remove the plastic from the mirror at the back of the book (I used a knife very carefully around the very edges of the mirror). Oh and did I mention Bumble Bee has a clip to attach it to the pram, which you can detach and give to your baby as a teething ring because it has two different chewy textures?

For a cheaper crinkle book with fewer features, Giraffe and Friends is a super-simple book. It has a rattle page and a crinkle page, but largely is pictures of animals with the only words being the names of the animals. I’d give this one 6/10 for engagement, interest and features but it’s £6.99 and you get what you pay for with rag books for babies.

For an indestructible twist on a British classic baby book, Dear Zoo by Rod Campbell comes in a cloth book version, perfect for little babies who like to chew the pages and rip the flaps off board books. And you can currently get matching outfits in Sainsbury’s, for your little zoo fan!

Another fantastic option for cloth books for newborn babies is the timeless Guess How Much I Love You by Northern Ireland author Sam McBratney, also available in cloth book (they call it the Guess How Much I Love You Snuggle Book). We have Guess How Much I Love You in French (Devine Combien Je T’aime) and my 14-month-old baby often brings it to me to read him.

And I have to give a special shout-out to Noises by Jo Moon because, although it’s now out of print and hard to get, this book gave us our baby’s first smile at a toy, on an 8-hour car journey to the south of England from Northern Ireland last November. We have now read it about 1000 times and sometimes he falls asleep with it. I wish, wish, wish the cloth books Noises and Patterns by Jo Moon were still in print because they are perfect for little ones. Ah, cloth books… I could buy every cloth book on Amazon and make a little library of them if I had the space in this tiny house!

Mid-range £20-50 toys for Newborns:

Toys for this age group tend to be either very cheap or very expensive, I think the only thing we had for a newborn that cost between £20 and £50 was bouncy chairs. We ended up buying two in the end because I tripped over the first one and broke it (also, OWWW), but also that one was only up to 9kg and we had a heavier baby who was born on the 98th percentile so we needed to upgrade by 6 months anyway.

Originally we got a chair like this one from Red Kite with the thin wire legs. Pros are it’s easy to bounce (you can even bounce it with your foot) and he liked batting the toys. Cons are it’s not going to last as long as a sturdier bouncer. If your baby is on the smaller side, however, you will probably find this fits your baby quite well in the early months.

If we were doing everything again, I’d opt straight for a chair that would last up to 18kg. We now have this Bright Starts one, which has a toy arch and the same vibrations as the bouncers for younger babies, although this one doesn’t so much bounce as rock, our 14-month-old still enjoys rocking it himself by kicking his feet. And it *says* 18kg but I’ve sat in it (I weigh 45kg) and it can take my weight, so if you have older kids, you don’t have to worry about them wrecking the baby’s chair. We also use our bouncer for weaning, as we have no space for a high chair or a dining table in our tiny home. 10/10 recommend this chair unless you have a tiny baby or a preemie in which case something like the Red Kite one above would be better.

High end toys over £50 for 0-3 months:

A baby rocker like the Ingenuity ConvertMe Swing2Seat is another fantastic option but never, ever, ever let your baby sleep in it unsupervised. The best ones vibrate and play soothing lullabies to get your baby to drift off.

3-6 Months

Ahh, this is where toys start becoming interesting and babies start interacting with things more!

Budget buys under £20 Christmas gifts for a 3-6 month old baby

All of the toys for 0-3 months will still be interesting to a 3-6 month old baby, but babies will also be interested in rattles and crinkle mittens.

Our baby adored the Guess How Much I Love You rattle. He still plays with it at 14 months of age so we’ve had a lot of use out of it. When he was really little, we used to put his whole hand through the hole in the middle and he loved waving his hand and rattle it!

He also loves his Panda teething mittens! These come in a pair and they’re black and white. Young babies love high-contrast toys so this was really eye-catching for him. His hands never fitted inside (98th percentile baby problems haha), but he still chews on it and loves exploring the crinkle sounds. He has been teething since he was 4 months and a lot of teething remedies are for older babies so this was a great buy. Now his molars are coming in, he loves chewing it with his back teeth.

We also have a night light projector. These don’t need to be expensive (the baby won’t know or care) and this £15 one is fantastic! It doesn’t sing (that costs more money) but there are so many toys that make noises and not so many that can do a good light show!

Mid-range Christmas gifts for a 3-6 month old baby (£20 to £50)

A basic baby gym requiring no batteries is a great investment. They fold up mostly flat for taking on car rides if you’re going to see family at Christmas and can keep babies occupied while they discover all the toys on the toy arches! This one is perfect. They’re also great for tummy time and as baby learns to sit.

All babies develop at different ages, but if yours is an early roller, an activity play mat might be a great choice at this age!

High end Christmas gifts for a 3-6 month old baby (over £50)

If you want to spend a lot of money, the Fisher Price rainforest baby gym is a fancy-schmancy hi-tech baby gym with sounds and lights, which will captivate your little one from birth and last through the 3-6 month age range, although don’t expect them to do more than fall asleep in it for the first couple of months (at which point you’ll probably want to move them due to safer sleeping).

The perfect Christmas toys for 6-12 month old babies

By this stage, they’re probably sitting, maybe crawling, and definitely waking up every day ready to play, play, play!

There are so many more options at this stage.

Budget Christmas gifts under £20 for babies 6-12 months of age

Baby keyboards are where it’s at for 6-12 month old babies. During tummy time or sitting time, they will love pressing the buttons and hearing the sounds. We have this one from Baby Einstein, who really lead the way in innovative musical instruments for babies.

Cars are another big favourite at this age. Babies discover wheels sometime around 6-12 months and that’s it, cars have their attention forever. It happened to all my cousins’ babies, my friends’ babies, and then it happened with mine, too. Finding toy cars suitable for 6-12 month old babies can be hard. These ones are age-appropriate.

Grandma and granddad also have this Fisher Price baby piano at their house which our baby loves because it also does funny sounds like ducks quacking and cows mooing.

A ball pool! If you have the space in your house, a pop-up ball pool will provide so much fun and wonder for a 6-12 month old baby (and beyond… who doesn’t love a good ball pit). We have a modular one from Tesco that cost about £20 for the pool and the matching crawling tunnel, but they aren’t doing them right now (they class them as a summer toy), and the downside is, the balls fall out through the hole for the tunnel, which is annoying as we don’t have enough space to set both up indoors, so it hardly gets played with now. This £7.99 ball pool would be a great budget alternative. Or, if you have a travel cot, just buy about 3 or 4 packs of play balls from anywhere for about £10 for a pack of 100 (or get one mega pack of 300 from this place for £20) and put them and the baby in the travel cot in your living room, which is what I do when I need to contain the baby e.g. to make tea (which is why we don’t use our ball pool)! I know that adds up to over £20 for the pool and the balls, but you can get started with one pack of balls and a pool for around £16 together, and buy more later, or get relatives to each buy a pack of balls, and the baby will still love this!

Mid-range Christmas gifts for 6-12 months of age (£20 to £50)

The baby Einstein touch piano is a great upgrade if you have £24.99 to spend on it. We’ve played with one but not bought it because we wanted one with buttons to press, for cause and effect. It’s a 2 in 1 keyboard and xylophone and I’m going to get it once my baby outgrows his current keyboard.

Sit-me-up baby sitting support:

About 5 or 6 months, your baby might start sitting. At this point, you will want some way of supporting them. With a very long baby (98th percentile for height and weight) we found that by the time he was ready to try sitting, he was too big/heavy for a lot of the sitting toys to work properly, and they just tipped over with him in. We tried LOADS (this was January and February, before the playgroups all shut down).

Our favorite, and the one we ended up buying, was a horseshoe-shaped cushion support type of baby sitter. This one is very similar to the one we got (ours was from Mothercare who are now bankrupt).

The other type he got on well with was this donut-shaped sitting support, which he used several times at playgroup. The thickness of this one was quite good for my baby’s size. We avoided the seat-type ones because when he fell sideways, the seats fell with him which meant disentangling him from them. Anyway, I have an especially wiggly baby who hates being fastened into toys and not moving around, so the cushion sitting supports for babies were much better for him as he could use them independently and roll around on the floor for a bit when he got bored.

For travel, this infant sitting support would be a great option. It’s inflatable and the play tray is detachable, and it has extra neck support.

Baby Walkers:

I’m not a big fan of the type of walkers where the baby is stuck inside it. I’ve heard of them tipping after getting stuck in doorframes, going down staircases, and generally not being very safe. My health visitor also said to avoid them and while I know health visitors aren’t always a fountain of knowledge, mine really is so I believe her about the number of injuries she’s seen from the Dalek-type baby walkers. From a child development point of view, they don’t teach proper walking or posture, either, which can lead to later back trouble.

Instead, I recommend the sort of walker where the baby pushes it around independently. My baby was very very late to start cruising so we’ve just bought him this Nuby push-along walker which is suitable from 6 months and Nuby are a reputable brand (I’ve seen some really worrying reviews of imported walker toys, so while I am usually happy to buy things from abroad, I would only go with a known brand for this type of toy).

High end Christmas gifts for babies aged 6-12 months (over £50)

Jumperoo: About 6 months, you’ll be ditching the baby gym. Jumping is where it is at for 6-12 month olds. We love this Fisher Price rainforest jumper! For us, this was absolutely worth spending £75 on, even though it takes up most of the floor space in our living room. Just remember babies can’t use them for more than 30 minutes at a time because their hips are still developing as they learn to walk. Benefits of jumping include leg strength, co-ordination and gross motor control. But really, babies shouldn’t be doing any activity for more than about 30 minutes to keep their developing brains stimulated and to avoid over-tiredness.

So that’s it for my top gifts for baby’s first Christmas. What are your favourites? Let me know in the comments! P.S. Sorry to my American readers, this article is all about British baby toys available in the UK, but if you head on over to US Amazon I’m sure you could find some of the toys I’ve linked to above!

Note: This article may contain affiliate links. It does not affect the price you pay or my opinions of products.

Vegan hair conditioner bar recipe that you can even make in a campervan!

I searched and searched the WHOLE DAMN INTERNET and none of it had a recipe like this. I wanted a recipe using natural, vegan ingredients, so I could make my own conditioner bars. I also wanted something that didn’t require expensive or bulky equipment to make it.

I needed this recipe to make a bar, not a liquid, because I travel a lot and I have super dry curly hair, and I am very fed up of not being able to take conditioner on a plane unless it’s in my checked baggage or in a very tiny bottle.

When I didn’t find a vegan hair conditioner bar recipe for travel, I made my own.

This bar is super-nourishing for very dry hair, you really don’t need much of it. I like to use it by working it into the ends first, while my hair is wet, then moving up slowly until I get to my ears. Lastly, I put the rest onto my hair from my parting downwards in one or two swift strokes.

If you accidentally use too much, get a bit of your shampoo bar and rub it between your hands then wipe the lather onto your hair where there’s too much conditioner.

This conditioner is a little bit soft, I’ve played around with the recipe and every time I’ve tried to harden it, it just goes oilier but not harder. So I find the original bar cracks into three or four pieces after a few uses, but after that it seems pretty stable.

If you’re a fan of using a bit of coconut oil to moisturize your hair, you will LOVE this recipe as it incorporates coconut oil but makes a solid bar for travelling with!

You will need:

  • A glass jug
  • A spoon for mixing
  • A soap mould
  • 40g shea butter
  • 30g olive wax
  • 20g cocoa butter
  • 20g coconut oil
  • 10ml rice bran oil
  • 10ml avocado oil
  • 30 drops lavender oil (or other essential oil of your choice)

Method (no microwave… scroll for microwave method)

  1. In a saucepan, boil some water and place your glass jug in it.
  2. Add the cocoa butter and olive wax as these take the most heat to melt.
  3. When they have melted, add the rest of the ingredients except the lavender oil.
  4. Once the whole lot has melted, remove jug from saucepan, add lavender oil and mix well.
  5. Pour the mixture into your soap mould and leave it to harden. This takes about 2-3 hours.
  6. Pop it out of the mould. Wrap to keep moisture out and it’s ready to use!

Microwave method:

  1. Put the cocoa butter and olive wax in the microwave and heat in 30-second bursts until they have melted.
  2. Add the rest of the ingredients except the lavender oil and heat in 20-second bursts until everything has melted.
  3. Add the lavender, pour into a mould and leave to harden for 2-3 hours.
  4. Pop out of mold. Wrap. Enjoy.

So there you have it, a 100% vegan conditioner bar recipe that requires nothing complicated or weird, no dodgy chemicals and you can even make it in a campervan. Let me know if you’ve used it!

If you want to learn more about making cosmetics in a campervan, you might like my really long and comprehensive article on soapmaking for vanlifers!

5 things I wish I’d known before buying a VW T5

My second campervan was a VW T5. I might buy another one, I might go for something different, but I would want to ask some much harder questions this time. After all, I’m not buying something to drive to work, this is going to go on adventures.

1. You really do need the service history.

The Volkswagen Transporter is a fine piece of German engineering. In 2020, the T5 model is like a figure skater in her late twenties: Old enough that things aren’t working like new any more but not old enough that she needs a hip replacement yet. Still beautiful to look at but it’s hit-or-miss as to whether she’ll ever qualify for the Olympics again. Before anyone thinks I’m attacking figure skaters, I’ll remind you I used to be one.

I used to be of the opinion that service history was a waste of time and that only pedants read through it before buying a car, and that I could learn a lot more from getting underneath a vehicle and looking at the state of things, starting the engine and listening to it, and feeling how the vehicle drives, than from reading some stuffy pieces of paper. Let me drive it already! However, that might be true when it comes to an idiot-proof car like a Vauxhall Corsa model B, but for bigger engines and longer journeys, you need to check the service history.

You need documented proof that the VW T5 got its check ups on time, because there’s a lot that can go wrong and some vanlifers care more about aesthetics than whether they should fix the squeaks and rattles. After ten or fifteen years, that kind of inadvertent neglect can take its toll in all sorts of weird and common places.

When was the timing belt last changed? Has the engine ever needed major work?

2. You need to know the annual mileage.

If the service history is complete, this should be easy. If not, you will need some other way of finding this out. Low mileage is not always better. It’s not good for an engine to drive it less than five hundred miles a year. And it’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of campervans I have walked away from buying over the past 15 months.

3. You need to know where it’s been kept

This might seem silly, but think about it. A car that’s been kept in a garage out of the rain, snow and local youth is far less likely to have rust under the body, issues with the fuel line or handbrake cable, dents and scratches on the panels (which can cause rust), or sun damage to the dashboard. The same goes for a van. If it lives in a garage, you have a lot longer before you would need to do any welding. Extensive rust is an MOT fail.

You need to know who did the conversion

Bob Smith of Bob Smith’s Quality VW Conversions is going to do a better job than Rip-Off Steve from down the pub. Especially if you’re looking forward to vanlife with children, you absolutely need to know that the person who converted the vehicle is reputable and did a stellar job.

4. You need to know what sort of rock-n-roll bed and seats you’ve got.

They’re not all created equal. Some rock-n-roll units are not safe for passenger transport. In a crash, they can come unbolted from the floor or even shear the floor with them because they’ve been attached to a part of the vehicle that wasn’t strong enough to support the angular forces at play in a crash.

People still attach seatbelts to cheap, substandard seats, especially if they’ve done a half-arsed conversion whose only aim was to sell a clapped out old builder van with 200,000 miles on the clock for several thousand pounds more than it’s actually worth. The rock-n-roll unit should be safety-tested and should have been fitted with seatbelts when the unit was installed, by the fitting company.

If this has not happened, and you have kids, walk away from that van for the love of God because a rear-facing car seat won’t save your baby if the thing the car seat’s attached to falls apart.

5. Whether it’s registered as a van or motorhome on the v5

This is important for reasons to do with insurance, primarily, but also many music festivals don’t let you use the campervan parking unless your vehicle is registered as a camper on the V5 log book. Which would mean pitching a tent. Yesterday, I discussed the requirements for changing your campervan from a van to a motorhome on the logbook.

So there you have it, my top 5 things that I wish I’d known before buying my first T5. None of it is the sort of thing anyone likes thinking about (unless you’re James May, and maybe not even then) when buying a vehicle, but it will save you a lot of stress and even heartache in the long run.

Why a motorhome is better than a van on your V5

What’s in a name? Well, if you’ve landed on this article, you want to know whether it makes a difference if your UK campervan is registered with the DVLA as a motorhome or a van. Or you’re wondering how easy is it to re-register your converted van to a motorhome. Or you just like Googling about vanlife as you get ready for your next big adventure.

There are two ways a campervan can be registered on your vehicle registration document (the V5): It can either be a van or a motorhome. You might think there’s no difference, but actually, whether you’re registered as a van or a motorhome makes a huge difference, especially when it comes to insurance.

Benefits of re-registering as a motorhome

If your campervan is registered as a van, you have to buy van insurance. This is offered by a much wider range of companies, and online quotes are easier to get, but you will pay two or three times the price of motorhome insurance.

As an example, my Volkswagen T5 was registered as a van even though it had a complete campervan conversion. The old owners never changed the registration, which is a fairly common situation, as you’ll know if you’re buying a campervan online.

It’s effort, isn’t it, to get the DVLA to change your registration from van to motorhome? I can understand why people don’t do it if their vehicle doesn’t quite fit the DVLA’s rules on motorhome campervan conversions.

But if your van meets the criteria, would you pay £400 to avoid filling out some forms and taking some pics of your van then sending them to the DVLA? How about £400 a year? Because that was the price difference for my van insurance. I paid £667 with Admiral for 1 year of van insurance on a 2007 T5.

For reference, I’m in my early 30s, female, and have now been driving for almost 10 years (I didn’t learn to drive until I was 23 because I was too broke), all of which affect insurance prices. Conversely, I had zero no-claims-bonus on a car or van because I’d been living in China for the past 2 years where I didn’t drive.

If I’d gone with a specialist camper insurance company such as Adrian Flux, they quoted me £263 for 12 months on the same van. The only problem was, I would need my van to be re-registered as a motorhome and at that point, I was 7 months pregnant, living alone in my VW T5 van full-time (having come back from 2 years in China with nowhere to live), and really had no time or brain space to sort this out when I hadn’t even got a midwife or a hospital booked for the birth yet! So re-registering the van was very low on my list, but would have made a LOT of financial sense.

What you need to re-register your campervan as a motorhome

So what do you need to do to register a campervan conversion as a motorhome instead of a van in the UK? The paperwork itself is not that complicated, you just need to make sure your van meets the DVLA’s requirements. Then you tell them this, sending in photos as evidence. They then re-register your vehicle, send your shiny new V5 certificate (log book) to your home address and your van is officially a motorhome.

What does the DVLA define as a motorhome? The most up-to-date info is on the Gov.uk website on this page. They are now saying on that page that the body type (whether it’s a van or motorhome on the V5) doesn’t affect the speed limit you’re allowed to drive at or the insurance category of the vehicle.

However, in the real world, most specialist motorhome insurers won’t insure vehicles registered as vans, and so you do end up paying more. And as far as speed limits, I’d love to see the proof from the DVLA about the speed limit. This implies that, if a van full of bricks was stopped and it had a sleeping bag in the back, and the owner claimed it was a campervan, that they’d get away with driving at 70 instead of 60 and crashing on an icy bend because they’re laden with bricks, which is obviously ridiculous.

So if the Plod stopped you and you were going at 70 in a high-sided large wheelbase van like a VW Crafter, even if it was fully converted inside, I highly doubt your average rozzer is going to take that into account when the insurance certificate and V5 paperwork says you’re driving a van. They’re not known for thinking for themselves or applying common sense. It seems to me that the DVLA are a little out of touch with how the rules they produce actually get enforced.

In fact, they have seriously tightened up their rules on what counts as a motorhome in the past 12 months and now the external features requirements mean many campervan conversions would have to stay as vans (you apparently now need two windows on one side of the vehicle, which would exclude most VW T5 conversions which were previously successfully re-registered because you used to only need one window on one side).

They also now want a high roof (not a pop top) and they expect “motor caravan style graphics on both sides of the body” because THAT affects whether something is a campervan or not. It’s hard to look at the current exterior rules without thinking they just want to allow retiree motorhome vehicles to be re-registered but not the vanlife type conversions, which are the province of younger people (under 65). Like we need another way to be charged money on vanlife (end rant haha… you can’t fight the DVLA).

Internally, you need seats and a table, sleeping accommodation (which can be converted from the seats), storage and cooking facilities. I did view one van that wasn’t registered as a motorhome, despite the owner’s application, because the table leg wasn’t fixable into a “permanent hole in the floor”.

If you can navigate the pitfalls of re-registering, it’s a fairly straightforward process providing your vehicle has been converted into a “standard” style that meets the very specific criteria set out by the DVLA. If not, you’re probably stuck paying for van insurance, like me.

If I’d had my van for 5 years, that £400 a year I paid in extra insurance would have been £2000 I could have spent on a nicer van or some custom upgrades like a pop top (which would actually cost more than £2000) or switching the rock-n-roll bed for a seatbelted rock-n-roll bed to add extra seats for the baby and our rabbit. So if you don’t already own a campervan, buying a van already converted and registered as a motorhome will save you money from day 1, and might be worth paying a bit extra for in the long run, depending on what sort of conversion you’re planning to do.

How to make your own soap in a campervan

Are you looking for ways to make your own soap? Perhaps you’ve been searching for homemade soap recipes but are worried about how complicated they seem, or that they need equipment or space you don’t have? This article will cover how to make soap for vanlifers with all levels of experience.

Contents:

Part 1: Melt and Pour Soap:

What is melt and pour soap?

What is different about making soap in a campervan?

What do I need to start making melt and pour soap?

How to make melt and pour soap in a campervan without a microwave

Easy, natural melt and pour soaps with essential oils

How to get stronger fragrances in melt and pour soaps

Experimenting with colours

How to store your soap in a campervan

How to wrap your soaps without plastic: twenty great options

Part 2: Cold Process Soap

Why I don’t recommend cold process soaping to vanlifers

Sodium hydroxide aka lye: Safety.

One-oil soaps

Castile soap recipe

Three-oil soaps (including recipe)

Problems with palm oil

A quick note on hot process soap

Part 3: Selling your soap

EU Cosmetic Regulations for Europe

Brexit and EU Cosmetic Regulations

Prohibited ingredients in cosmetics Europe

FDA Cosmetic Regulations for America

Prohibited ingredients in cosmetics USA

Part 1: Melt and Pour soaps

What is Melt and Pour soap?

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Melt and Pour soap is the easiest, beginner-level soapmaking method. You buy a melt and pour soap base such as the Stephenson SLS-free and SLES-free white soap base, you cut it into chunks, weigh it, melt the soap, mix it with your ingredients and pour the lot into soap moulds then leave them to harden.

Voila.

Your own handmade, customized soap without needing to handle dangerous chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, which is required for cold process soap (the main other type of soap).

There are dozens of ready-made melt-and-pour bases you can use, such as ones containing aloe vera or carrot seed oil, and even African black melt and pour soap (I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that and I already have an idea for a cinnamon-scented soap recipe I want to make with the African black melt and pour soap base).

If you’re looking for a starting point with homemade cosmetics that are suitable for vanlife (vanmade cosmetics?? Haha), I 100% recommend melt and pour soap bases.

What is different about making soap in a campervan?

Electricality

When it comes to melt and pour soap, the biggest issue with vanlife cosmetic making is that (unless you have a seriously clutch electrical system) a campervan will not have the power to run a microwave. Last year, when I was searching for my own van, I did view a campervan conversion with full 240v (British) electrics, converted from an old Network Rail work van, which had a proper domestic microwave, but that was the exception.

Most vanlifers have a solar-powered electrical system. The sun shines on some solar panels, this converts to energy, which is then used to charge a leisure battery (usually 12v but 24v is also possible) and an inverter distributes that electricity at the correct ampage to make all the appliances in the van work correctly.

Vanlife is a trade-off between having things that make life comfortable and not getting bogged down with a clunky, heavy snail shell of junk. Vanlifers, myself included, don’t want to be tied down like that, or we wouldn’t have a van!

Most vanlife setups that I’ve seen have a fridge, somewhere to charge phones and laptops, a fan for hot nights, lighting for night time and a water pump. One vanlife couple run a high-powered blender on their electrical system. You might prefer an electric kettle, for cups of tea, or a coffee maker, or a television… the list of things is endless, and that leisure battery can’t power them all.

I’m not saying you can’t have a microwave in a campervan, you can, if it’s a priority for you. Most vanlifers will need to make their melt and pour soap without a microwave. This is not only possible, it’s actually a better way of doing things.

Ventilation

Another key difference between a vanlife cosmetic making setup and one in a house or apartment is that you need to pay more attention to adequate ventilation. Your van is where you eat, sleep and… hello? Breathe! To do that effectively, you need to get rid of any fumes right away.

Cleanup issues

The third main difference relates to cleanup. In a campervan, unless you’ve installed a water heater, you won’t have hot water on tap to wash your soapmaking equipment in.

The best way to clean soapmaking equipment is to rinse it several times in hot water then scrub it out. If this isn’t possible, rinsing it in cold water will work, too, but you will have to rinse it more times.

This probably seems obvious but it took me a couple of soapmaking efforts to realize, you don’t need washing up liquid or dish soap because you’re cleaning something that already has soap in it!

Storage is limited in a van!

Keep your soapmaking equipment separate to cooking equipment. You should have separate equipment that’s only used for soap making. This is because eating soap is not good for you, and the soap making ingredients can get into even microscopic parts of your equipment.
In a campervan with limited space, you will want different soapmaking equipment to someone with an entire kitchen cupboard where they can store their soaping things.

What do I need to start making melt and pour soap?

The most basic equipment you will need is as follows:

  • Melt and pour soap base. If you plan to sell your creations, I strongly recommend Stephenson bases because they are available around the world so you won’t have to reformulate (or pay for product safety testing again, in the EU). If you go abroad and can’t get your melt and pour base from the small business you were buying it from, how will you make your soaps? In the EU, you cannot switch between suppliers if you are selling cosmetics and for melt and pour, that means you can buy Stephenson soap base from any soap company but you couldn’t buy another soap base instead, and vice versa. I will discuss safety and regulations in a dedicated section, below.
  • A knife to cut the soap base. I prefer a ceramic knife.
  • A glass jug or bowl to melt the soap base in. I prefer a jug because it’s easier to pour, but bowls will melt the base more evenly.
  • A plastic or glass stirring spoon.
  • Weighing scales
  • Moulds to make soaps in.
  • A saucepan that fits the jug or bowl in. Ideally, the jug or bowl should not touch the bottom of the pan.

How to make melt and pour soaps without a microwave in a campervan

The key to making this work well is to ensure the soap base is cut into really small pieces before you try to melt it. If you’ve ever made a chocolate krispie cake, using melted chocolate, you’ll have a pretty good idea about how this can be done.

Here is an overview of how to melt the soap base to make melt and pour soaps when you don’t have a microwave (this is not a recipe):

  • Cut your soap into really tiny chunks. It’s a trade off between spending a lot of time cutting and spending a lot of time waiting for your melt and pour soap base to melt. Any cubes bigger than 2cm (or an inch) need cutting down smaller.
  • Heat some water in the pan on your campervan stove. Bring it to a gentle boil then turn the heat down to a simmer (if your bowl or jug touches the bottom of the pan, it’s safest to turn the heat off completely and remove the jug/bowl to re-heat the water in the pan if necessary).
  • Put the soap cubes in the bowl or jug, and gently lower the glass container into the pan of boiling water. Don’t let the water get inside the bowl or jug.
  • The boiling water will heat the bowl, this will transfer heat energy into the soap base and that will melt the soap. This will take several minutes. If the heat is off, you will need to re-boil the water at some point. Don’t let the water get too cold.
  • Once the soap is all completely melted (no chunks), remove the bowl/jug from the pan of water.
  • Now follow the rest of your soap recipe. For melt and pour soaps, you can add cold pressed oils, essential oils, colourants and even exfoliators such as salt, sugar, loofah or rope! The possibilites are vast!

Easy, natural melt and pour soaps with essential oils

The easiest recipes for melt and pour soap are ones involving essential oils. These are the natural oils that come from plants, such as lavender essential oil soap or spearmint essential oil soap.

I would recommend practising without using colourants for your first batch.

Here’s a very easy recipe you can follow right away in your campervan kitchen:

This makes one soap.

You will need:

  • A glass jug
  • A spoon for mixing
  • A knife
  • A rectangular soap mould
  • 100g (or 4oz) Stephenson’s white melt and pour soap base
  • Scales to weigh soap base.
  • 15-25 drops lavender essential oil (you can sub lavender with any essential oil you prefer, some have a stronger scent profile than others. I recommend 5-fold or 10-fold orange, rose geranium, or spearmint essential oils). This recipe isn’t designed to be used with an oils blend, so I recommend choosing one individual oil for this first soaping adventure.

Method:

  1. Cut 100g of soap base into small squares, like you’re chopping a potato to make mashed potato. Any cubes bigger than 2cm (or an inch) need cutting down smaller.
  2. Heat some water in the pan on your campervan stove. Bring it to a gentle boil then turn the heat down to a simmer (if your bowl or jug touches the bottom of the pan, it’s safest to turn the heat off completely and remove the jug/bowl to re-heat the water in the pan if necessary).
  3. Put the soap cubes in the bowl or jug, and gently lower the glass container into the pan of boiling water. Don’t let the water get inside the bowl or jug.
  4. The boiling water will heat the bowl and melt the soap. This will take several minutes. If the heat is off, you will need to re-boil the water at some point.
  5. Once the soap is all completely melted (no chunks), remove the bowl/jug from the pan of water.
  6. Add 15-25 drops of your essential oil and stir. You don’t need to stir much to mix this in.
  7. Immediately pour the soap into your soap mould, using your spoon to scrape any off the sides if it’s hardened and set inside the jug/bowl while you were stirring/pouring.
  8. Let your soap set and voila!
  9. Congratulations, you just made a soap!

How to get stronger scents in melt and pour soaps

One problem with homemade soaps, especially using natural essential oils, is that the scent doesn’t always smell as strongly as you would expect, or it doesn’t smell the same as store-bought soap.

You have two options if your soap is lacklustre in the scent department:

First, you can opt to go for an artificial fragrance, there are plenty of artificial fragrances for every different herb imaginable. But it won’t have the same properties as using the real essential oil. The way commercial soapmakers get around this is usually to double up – so they add the essential oil, for its properties, and then they add an artificial scent to make the soap smell more like the essential oil than… well… than the essential oil did.

You can tell if a company has done this because their ingredients will list the essential oil, then at the end of the ingredients they will also say “parfum” or “fragrance” (depending on which country you are in).

Second, and definitely the easiest and safest for vanlife soapmaking and all homemade soaps, is to just use more essential oil. In the EU, we have rules on how much of an essential oil can be safely used in a soap. You can use up to that amount if you need a stronger scent. If you are selling your soaps, when you get your safety testing done, just write down the exact amount of essential oil you are using for your cosmetics safety test and the cosmetics chemist who does the test can check that your products are safe to sell. Never ever be tempted to misrepresent the ingredients in a safety test, the safety limits on ingredients are there to protect customers from harm.

Experimenting with colours

There are a few types of colours available in the UK for soapmaking. and there are an infinite number on sale in the US. In the EU you are limited on what you are allowed to put into cosmetics. You cannot use any plastic-based glitter anymore because it is contributing to the microplastics issue in our European water. Your options for glitter are very, very limited right now but hopefully that will change when more companies find ways to make plastic-free biodegradable glitters.

Since I’m not a huge fan of artificial colours, the two types of colourants I work with are clay powders and mica. Mica and clay are both minerals. Mica comes in more vivid colours. Clay tends to come in more natural colours. Alongside clay, other colors for a found-in-nature look to your soaps (haha as if you’d ever just find a soap in a forest or a meadow) would include indigo powder (a very dark blue), green tea powder (or the brighter matcha powder), and activated charcoal. Aside from micas, all these colourants have beneficial properties when put into cosmetics, as they can all draw impurities out, making your soaps and other cosmetics even more effective. I tend to put green tea powder in my shampoo bars after discovering how good green tea cosmetics were when I was in Japan. I’ll talk more about making shampoo bars and conditioner bars in separate articles.

Using clays in melt and pour soap

The advantages to using clays then are pretty clear cut, but there are also disadvantages. They don’t color very strongly, even when you use a lot you tend to just get a flat sort of tint. They really don’t mix. I tried mixing yellow and red French clays and the result was grainy, just like someone had got a yellow and red felt tip pen and done lots of little dots, instead of a smooth block orange colour which is what I was trying to achieve. The third drawback with clays is that they don’t mix directly into the soap. And the fourth problem is, in white melt and pour, the titanium dioxide (which is what makes the soap white to start with) makes the clay colours even lighter, while in transparent melt and pour, the clay powder is grainy and makes the soap look like it has bits of dust in it (which technically it does—clay dust).

For mixing clays (and any other colourants that aren’t soluble), you need a small amount of alcohol. This is an added expense. It also smells disgusting and that smell permeates the soap. I looked up tutorials on how to get clay to mix into soap and they said one tablespoon of alcohol to one teaspoon of clay powder. Well, I used half a teaspoon of clay powder and I still ended up with a lot of residue in the bottom of the mixing jug, and to make things worse, when I poured that into my hot soap mixture, the alcohol fumes got right up my nose. The tutorials I’d read all said the alcohol would disappear and I can only imagine that in America, people are using so much fragrance that you just can’t smell that alcohol anymore because there’s no way to get rid of it at all.

If you don’t use alcohol to mix clays, charcoal, green tea and indigo powder, you end up with clumping, no matter how well you mix the soap or how even the colour looks when you’ve finished. The colour will separate from the soap and you’ll get these big weeping blobs of highly-pigmented (brown or grey) gloop mixed in with your soap.

Using micas in melt and pour soap

Micas are a lot more enjoyable to work with. The colour results are nuanced and graduated, giving you a lot of options for colour effects even with melt and pour soap. I saw so many tutorials that said you can’t do any good colours with melt and pour soap but as you can see from my pictures, I found it was doable (although it takes time and practice). What I really like about mica is that you can control how pigmented the final soap is. If you use a lot, your soap will be very pigmented, if you only use a little, the soap will only be a little pigmented.

Another thing I discovered about micas, which I only found out after I’d made about half a kilo (one pound) of soap, was you don’t actually need to mix it with alchohol before putting it in the melt and pour soap. You can just drop it in with a spoon and mix it, because the mica mixes really beautifully and can create a smooth, even result, with a little shimmer.

Mica is also available in a lot more colours, if you want a pop of pink or a tango of orange, you can achieve that with mica.

How to cool your soaps in a campervan

Once you have made your soaps, you need to let them cool until they are ready to be stored. They should not be left anywhere damp, which can be a problem in a van. You may need to wrap them in something, such as greaseproof paper or kitchen towel, to keep moisture away.

If melt and pour soap is kept in the fridge, it will suck the liquid out of the air and the top of the soap will become slimy. This is known as glycerin dew, or sweating. It can ruin the visual appearance of a soap, so be careful especially if you are planning to sell your soaps.

Even the normal air inside a campervan might be too humid for soaps to cool in, I’ve had glycerin dew form when I’ve just had my soaps cooling by my stove because the amount of water in the air was too much. If you have this problem, try opening the doors to get some airflow going. This might be difficult in a country with cold winters.

How to wrap your soaps without plastic: Twenty great options.

Of course, plastic is problematic. It damages the environment and it’s not biodegradable. Many vanlifers try to keep their plastic use to a minimum (I’m saying that rather than “eliminate plastic” because anyone who drives a vehicle is using some plastic, in the form of door handles, gear stick, car battery etc). So with that in mind, here are twenty great ways you can package your soaps without resorting to plastic:

  1. Grease proof paper
  2. Waxed paper
  3. Beeswax reusable sandwich wrap
  4. A glass jar
  5. A cardboard box
  6. Wrapped in tissue paper
  7. Tie a string around it (works best with “low glycerin” melt and pour soaps)
  8. A wooden box
  9. A paper bag
  10. In a porcelain or other ceramic dish with a lid. There are lots of these on sale in charity shops/thrift stores so you can buy preloved and find something with a history!
  11. In a square of cotton
  12. In a muslin bag
  13. Wrapped in a square of towel, which can double up as a washcloth.
  14. In a piece of burlap fastened with string.
  15. In a cork container.
  16. In brown parcel paper
  17. Bamboo
  18. Recycle! There are so many things in the recycling bin which you could use to make a soap container, such as a stackable potato chip tube (Pringles has a plastic lid but some other brands don’t), an empty glass jam jar or an empty bolognese sauce jar.
  19. Get creative: You could make a papier mache or plaster of paris container!
  20. Just leave it out. If you are only making one soap at a time and it’s for your personal use, just leave the soap out on a nice wooden soap dish!

Part 2: How to make cold process soap in a campervan

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Why I don’t recommend making cold process soap to vanlifers

Cold process soap requires the use of sodium hydroxide lye (NaOH). You may remember from high school chemistry (which I used to teach) that NaOH is a strong base (it is very alkaline). To use sodium hydroxide, you need to take safety precautions:

  • Wear safety goggles
  • Wear long sleeves
  • Wear an apron
  • Wear appropriate footwear with no open toes.
  • Be parked on a flat, stable surface with your van door open away from moving vehicles, animals, children or strong wind.
  • Be near a source of running water in case of contact with skin or eyes. If sodium hydroxide (in aqueous solution or in its solid form) gets into your eyes, you need to rinse your eyes with water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Somewhere to store your soap for several weeks while it cures.

The second big issue with making cold process is it requires you to have a stick blender, and you’ll need a power supply that can support it.

Assuming you can do all that, you’re good to make cold process soap in your campervan. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it and I don’t like the idea of then waiting weeks before being able to wrap my soaps to sell. If I made more than one batch every few weeks, my van would quickly be full of nothing but soap, which isn’t the look I’m going for with my camper van.

A question I keep asking myself, and maybe you’re wondering it too, is if cold process soap is such a bad idea for vanlifers, why am I writing all this down to tell you how to do it?

I suppose I am writing about how to make cold process because vanlife is unpredictable. Crazy things happen during vanlife adventures, and when you’re in your camper van, hundreds of miles from the nearest city or thousands of miles from home, you might need to know how to make soap completely from scratch.

Maybe all you have is half a bottle of coconut oil and some sodium hydroxide and you’re covered in oil from fixing the engine on your T1 splitty on your way through Western Sahara. Or maybe you were in an accident in Mongolia and had to respray your driver door with a ridiculous colour to avoid rusting and now your hands are covered in paint (this happened to my new car the day I arrived in Northern Ireland and I was seven months pregnant and had to repair my door). Maybe you need the soap to wash your car to avoid getting a fine at the Serbian border (this actually happens).

My point is, you live a life of adventure, who knows why you might need to make handmade soap during a day in vanlife? I’m going to warn you not to make cold process soap in a campervan, then I’m going to show you how to do it anyway.

Making homemade soap in a campervan then, is a lot easier with melt and pour. If you are set on making cold process soap and your van has the right setup, this is how to do it.

Sodium Hydroxide Lye Safety

Sodium hydroxide is a dangerous alkaline. Its role in soap making is to turn the oils into soap through a process called saponification. Too much sodium hydroxide can cause an issue known as soda ash. Not enough sodium hydroxide will result in a fatty soap (this can be a desirable trait that makes soap nourishing and skin-loving… up to a point, after that it goes too soft and greasy and its ability to clean is diminished).

Sodium hydroxide is commonly used as a drain-unblocker (but don’t use drain cleaner to make soap, it often has other ingredients). It is also used for a wide range of other applications. If you want to learn some really disturbing facts about the uses of sodium hydroxide by the Mafia, check out my article, “the dark side of soapmaking” (warning, it’s very dark). To get soapmaker’s quality sodium hydroxide you need to buy it from a reputable soapmaking store and there are restrictions on where it can be shipped to.

Because sodium hydroxide is very corrosive, it can burn your skin very easily, especially the solid base (rather than the very watered-down version you will have used under adult supervision at school).

Always follow these steps with sodium hydroxide:

  • Long sleeves
  • Strong shoes
  • Goggles
  • Apron
  • Tie long hair back
  • No unexpected movements such as winds or the chance of being involved in a fender bender if you are parked.
  • Don’t use outdoors where wind could blow the NaOH into your eyes or onto your skin, or where droplets of rain could fall on the powder and create a highly exothermic (very hot) reaction.
  • Don’t use it near children or animals.
  • Keep the door open in case of an accident causing fumes.
  • Never mix anything like fragrances or colors with sodium hydroxide.
  • Always add your sodium hydroxide to the water not the other way around (see above about exothermic reactions).
  • Weigh your sodium hydroxide and only use as much as you need. Never ever feel tempted to add extra “for luck”.

Above all, if you must make cold process soap in a camper van, be very cautious, vanlifers, and good luck.

One-oil soaps

Soap is usually made from at least three oils and some sodium hydroxide, but you can actually make soap from one oil.

A traditional soap made this way is Castile soap, which is Italian and made from olive oil (not pomace olive oil, that’s a different soap ingredient entirely). The disadvantage of Castile soap is that it’s quite a soft soap.

Another one-oil soap that can work is coconut oil soap. It has a good lather but it’s not very moisturising.

The thing about one-oil soaps is they’re not in the repertoire of most handmade soap makers because they always lack properties that can be found in soaps with more ingredients. The more commonly-made cold process soaps have three oils to ensure bars of soap have a range of properties.

Overall, one-oil soaps are fun to experiment with, and good to have in your soapmaking arsenal especially as a vanlifer because it’s definitely possible that you might end up in a remote location where you need some soap and all you have is olive oil and a small container of sodium hydroxide.

A simple Castile soap recipe:

The soonest this is likely to be ready is 24 hours, although if you do it wrong it can take up to 2 weeks, and it will still be quite alkaline and need to cure for 4-6 weeks.

You will need (this makes one bar of soap, scale up as necessary):

  • 100g olive oil
  • 13g sodium hydroxide
  • 25ml water (for the water discount – using a little less water gets this soap to harden faster)
  • A stick blender
  • Two jugs
  • A soap mould
  • A spoon
  • A thermometer
  • A pan of boiling water

Method:

  1. Slowly add the sodium hydroxide to the water (not the other way around) and stir it in. Don’t stop stirring until the liquid is clear (i.e. no longer cloudy and with no bits). You now have aqueous sodium hydroxide (remember at school, you used to write this as NaOH aq). It will get warm as the process to make NaOH (solid) into NaOH (aqueous) is exothermic. Leave it for now and move on with the next step.
  2. Add the olive oil to your mixing bowl or jug. Place the jug or bowl inside the pan of boiling water and keep an eye on the temperature of the oil. On the stove, heat until the olive oil reaches about 50 degrees (this will not take long, olive oil heats quickly).
  3. Once the NaOH has cooled to about 50 degrees and the olive oil has heated to this temperature, add the sodium hydroxide to the olive oil slowly. WHILE YOU ARE DOING THIS, with your hand blender (stick blender), pulse until the oil starts to thicken and turn opaque (called a trace in cold process soapmaking).
  4. Blend for several minutes, until the oil has thickened to about the consistency of custard or brown gravy.
  5. Pour the soap into the mould(s).
  6. Cover the mould (e.g. with plastic wrap or foil) and if you’re in a hurry, put in a warm place to ensure it goes through gel phase. It will take about 24 hours.
  7. Let it cure for 4-6 weeks and it will be ready to use (to speed this up, put the soap in a very dry place, e.g. next to a bowl of salt or a salt rock)!

For a faster soap, use melt and pour soap base or use a soap base with palm oil and coconut oil because they help the soap harden faster.

Three oil cold-process soaps

A three-oil cold process soap requires more ingredients, but it will produce a better bar of soap and, with a water discount, it will be ready sooner.

Basically the simplest three-oil soap recipe ratio is 33% coconut oil, 34% olive oil, 33% palm oil. The amount of sodium hydroxide changes depending on which oils you are using and what superfat (excess fat, good for moisturising) you want.

So to make 146g of soap, this simple recipe will work:

33g coconut oil

34g olive oil

33g palm oil

14g sodium hydroxide

32ml water

You can scale up or down the recipe depending on how many bars you want to make and the size of your soap mould.

The method is the same as with the olive oil recipe:

Equipment:

  • A stick blender
  • Two jugs
  • A soap mould
  • A spoon
  • A thermometer
  • A pan of boiling water

Method:

  1. Slowly add the sodium hydroxide to the water (not the other way around) and stir it in. Don’t stop stirring until the liquid is clear (i.e. no longer cloudy and with no bits). You now have aqueous sodium hydroxide (remember at school, you used to write this as NaOH aq). It will get warm as the process to make NaOH (solid) into NaOH (aqueous) is exothermic. Leave it for now and move on with the next step.
  2. Add the oils to your mixing bowl or jug. Place the jug or bowl inside the pan of boiling water and heat until the palm oil has completely melted, stirring it all to mix.
  3. Once the NaOH has cooled to about 50 degrees and the oil has heated to this temperature, add the sodium hydroxide to the oil slowly. WHILE YOU ARE DOING THIS, with your hand blender (stick blender), pulse until the oil starts to thicken and turn opaque (called a trace in cold process soapmaking). This will not take long compared to the Castile soap recipe.
  4. Blend until the oil has thickened to about the consistency of custard or brown gravy.
  5. Pour the soap into the mould(s).
  6. Cover the mould (e.g. with plastic wrap or foil) and if you’re in a hurry, put in a warm place to ensure it goes through gel phase. It will take a few hours.
  7. Let it cure for 4-6 weeks and it will be ready to use (to speed this up, put the soap in a very dry place, e.g. next to a bowl of salt or a salt rock, if you’re in a pinch you can technically use this soap after a few days but be careful as it will be a harsh, strong soap if you use it before it has fully cured)!

Problems with palm oil

At the end of this section on making cold process soap in a campervan, I wanted to mention a problem you might be wrestling with at this point. Palm oil is really bad for the environment. You can buy ethically sourced, sustainable palm oil, but some people prefer to avoid it entirely. You can find cold process soap recipes for almost any combination of oils and there will definitely be a recipe that becomes your go-to. If you decide to substitute, you will need to change the quantity of your palm oil substitute and your quantity of sodium hydroxide lye so it’s best, especially when starting out, to find a tried and tested recipe.

A note on hot process soap

There’s another type of soap, it cures faster than cold process because instead of leaving it to cure by itself, you heat it. Saponification (the process of turning oils into soap) is a chemical reaction. You might remember from high school science that you can increase the rate of reaction in two ways: Temperature and pressure. Hot process soap methods do one or both of these. Obviously, it’s easier to increase the temperature of something.

A lot of people make their hot process soap in a crock pot (which I’ve found out is what we call a slow cooker in Ireland), and I don’t know if buying a separate soapmaking pressure cooker is on anyone’s list of things they want to fill their van with.

If you want to look up hot process soap there are lots of tutorials on other websites. I have no experience with it at all so I can’t really say much about it but if you leave it too long or too hot, it can turn into a soap volcano, so it has the potential to get messy, and I’m not a fan of van mess.

Part 3: Selling your soap

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This part is going to look at the legal aspects of selling your soaps. I’m not a lawyer, but I am a soapmaker and a businesswoman (haha) so I know when it’s important to play by the rules.

EU Cosmetic Regulations for Europe

The EU has some of the most stringent cosmetic regulations in the world. Animal testing is banned both for ingredients and finished products, and has been since 2004. Microplastics (tiny plastics, such as in body scrubs, or glitters) have been banned since 2019. And there are rules on other ingredients, too, which I’ll go into further down.

When you make a product to sell in Europe, including the UK, you have to get a Cosmetics Product Safety Report (aka the CSPR), also known as a product safety assessment. This means a qualified cosmetic chemist has to test your product and write a report on it. For Ireland, you have to have additional toxicology reports done, and the whole thing costs about £250 or €270.

Once you have a CSPR, you have to go to a website called the European Cosmetic Product Notification Portal (CPNP), register as a business and notify them of every single product you intend to sell. You must include evidence for any claims you’ve made (anti-ageing, for example) and you have to upload images of your packaging so they can see it complies with EU regulations.

Unfortunately, the database is not searchable and so no one can actually check you have done all this. Legally you are also supposed to keep a “Product Safety File” which is a hardcopy of all the info for your product, including the full safety assessment report.

You might find the lack of anyone enforcing the rules frustrating if you’re a rule follower, especially if you’re nomadic or on tour in your van and trying to sell soaps at craft fairs, because a lot of unethical crafters sell their soaps without getting safety assessments.

You can buy with confidence by asking to see the product safety file. If they don’t have one, or start making excuses, you know they haven’t had a safety assessment done. Another way to prove to customers your soap is legal and safe is to join the Guild of Soapmakers, who only accept people who hold valid CSPRs for their products.

European rules about ingredients:

Here’s a brief lowdown on the rules you might easily fall foul of in Europe:

  • Fragrances must not contain an ingredient called “lyral”
  • Soaps must not contain glitters, microbeads or other plastics
  • Any product marked “baby soap” or sold for babies must be subject to additional testing, particularly around toxicology, at present baby cosmetics are allowed to have a small amount of very specific non-toxic fragrances but the EU are in the process of changing that so soon, only unscented and uncoloured products can be marketed for babies under 6 months.
  • There are different rules on whether a fragrance can go in lip products or not.
  • There is a maximum amount of fragrance you are allowed to use in all cosmetics. For soaps, this is between 2-3% of the total mass, depending on the essential oil (so for 100g of soap, 2-3g can be fragrance).
  • Formaldehyde is completely banned in the EU (it’s found in products in the US)
  • Five types of parabens (artificial preservatives) are banned: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben and pentylparaben.
  • Methoisothiazolinone (another preservative) is also now banned.

This is absolutely not an exhaustive list, there are over 1300 banned ingredients in the EU! I encourage you to do your research before trying to sell a product. The most reputable soapmaking supply companies don’t sell anything that can’t be sold to customers, and Soap Kitchen will even tell you of one of their ingredients can or can’t be used for specific purposes.

Brexit and EU Cosmetic regulations

As far as we know, the rules are not changing for UK cosmetics any time soon.

FDA Cosmetic Regulations for the USA

I’ve spent a lot of time in the US and one of the things I saw was the bigger range of cosmetic products available. In the US, the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) is in charge of regulating cosmetics.

There’s an interesting article on Soap Queen discussing what a visit from the FDA looks like and including some of the ways you might fail an FDA inspection. Most soapers never hear from the FDA, but labelling your products with nonsense claims (this shampoo bar contains aloe which cures cancer!) is a fast-track pass to an inspection.

One of the main things you have to follow is hygiene practices. If you are unsure about how to follow hygienic soapmaking, look up the rules or take a course on food hygiene.

Prohibited cosmetic ingredients in the USA:

According to the FDA’s website, the following are banned:

“Regulations restrict or prohibit the use of the following ingredients in cosmetics: bithionol, mercury compounds, vinyl chloride, halogenated salicylanilides, zirconium complexes in aerosol cosmetics, chloroform, methylene chloride, chlorofluorocarbon propellants and hexachlorophene.”

You are unlikely to use most of those in your handmade vanlife soap making and cosmetics making.

Conclusion

So that’s my brief (haha) overview of making soap in a campervan and selling soap for vanlifers. I hope you found it helpful. Let me know in the comments.

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