Cape Town is suffering from a catastrophic lack of water. The winter rains are coming to an end and the relentlessly dry, hot, beautiful summer season is upon us. For several years the winter rainfall has been below average and now the City’s water reserves are almost spent. No rain of note is expected until April so Cape Town is bracing itself for some of its toughest times in history.
“Don’t Flush the Toilet!”
Households and businesses all over the City are working hard to save water. Gardens are being watered and toilets are being flushed with grey water from showers and washing machines, rainwater tanks are being installed, swimming pools are not being topped up, parents are reminding their children NOT to shower or flush the toilet, and driving a dirty car has become a matter of pride and principle.
Soaking and lathering up luxuriously in a tub full of water is something many Capetonians will only dream of until the drought is over.
As far as soap is concerned the water shortage has some interesting implications. Making natural artisan soap requires very little water; a fraction of the water that goes into making lots of other products that we use daily. In addition to the steep water discounts we’ve been doing for years 🙂 , we use as little water as possible in making soap, bringing water use for clean-up to a minimum.
With little water being used by households water treatment works are under pressure and it’s wise not to use any unnecessary soap during this dry season. Compared to synthetic shower gel in plastic bottles bar soap is concentrated and goes a long way making it the perfect companion for bucket baths and two-minute showers.
Since grey water from showers and baths is being reused extensively for watering gardens, using biodegradable handmade soap is a good option. Natural handmade soap contains neither sulfates nor phosphates and is readily compostable. And since water is so very precious around here right now it makes sense not to waste any of it on bad soap. Make each and every one of those brief shower moments count by using a soap that you really love, a soap that feels great.
This brings me to our seasonal soap: a soap we make in springtime only – a unique and luxurious product – the snail soap.
International Snail Gel
Depending on where in the world you are you might be well familiar with the concept of snail soap. In Spanish snail filtrate aka snail mucin aka snail gel is known as baba de caracol, and skin care products containing it are popular in Latin America. In Korea and Thailand snail gel products are also popular and widely used, and they are gaining popularity in Europe and the US too.
So, is snail gel all snake oil and mumbo jumbo, or is there actually some reason to using it in cosmetics?
To recap from last year’s post about snail soap snail gel contains hyaluronic acid, glycoprotein, collagen, copper peptides, antimicrobial compounds etc to help protect the snail’s skin from damage, infection, dryness and UV rays. All of these compounds are commonly used in cosmetics and typically in hydrolyzed form which means that they can be added to coldprocess soap without being destroyed. Then again, soap is a rinse-off product which spends a very short time on the skin and long-term effects on skin from snail gel in soap are very difficult to measure.
For instant gratification snail gel in soap is great; the proteins and sugars make for a luxuriously soft, cushioned, creamy lather and a soft and lovely after-feel.
A year ago we made soap with snail gel for the first time. I live in the Cape winelands of South Africa and during the cool winters garden snails (Cornu aspersum) flourish in great profusion in the nearby vineyards. For years I’ve been collecting snails to enjoy as escargot, but last year I extracted snail gel for soap for the first time. The soap was very popular so this year I decided to do it again.
Snails and Snails
Here I should point out that all snails were not created equal. The snails used for commercial snail gel production are Cornu aspersum i.e. the same common garden snails that we have in such large numbers in and around Cape Town.
Further towards the east and north of South Africa you may come across the Giant African land snail (Achatina fulica) which is much larger and may carry parasitic nematodes which can cause meningitis in humans. Because the Giant African land snail is considered one of the world’s most invasive species it’s illegal in many countries (including South Africa) to keep and own Giant African land snails. Better stay away from those then.
One of the responses to my writings about the previous snail soap project was that it was outrageously cruel of me to make use of snails for soap. Hmm, to me the fact that I cooked and ate last year’s snails as escargot after extracting the gel was arguably somewhat more cruel. But be that as it may; I was now curious as to how much damage my gel extraction actually would cause. So this time I decided not to eat the evidence but to see how the snails would fare after I had extracted gel from them.
Designated snail gel companies have various ways of extracting snail gel, but pretty much all processes involve stressing the snail because that is how you get the snail to produce mucus.
I extract the snail gel by ‘tickling’ the snail, massaging it with the soft tip of my little finger. The snail is not amused by my advances and tries to ‘wash off’ my pesky finger with a generous film of gel which I gather before moving on to the next snail. A large garden snail around here will produce about a gram of gel in one go. Each of our snail soap bars contains about 10g of fresh Cornu aspersum gel. That’s the gel of ten snails for each bar of Snail Soap. Talk about labour-intensive and handmade!
As the last winter rains were sweeping over our region I gathered snails in the neighbouring vineyard just like I did last year. I kept them on a controlled diet, well hydrated and protected from sunshine for two weeks. Then one evening I extracted gel from 120 snails for this year’s first batch of snail soap. I resisted my urge for escargot and placed the ‘spent’ snails on the lawn next to an overgrown flowerbed in my garden. The following morning four shells were lying hole up on the lawn, but the rest of the snails had all disappeared from the lawn and my flowerbed was teeming with mobile, perky-looking snails.
That same morning I also took a walk through the vineyard where I had gathered the snails two weeks earlier. Now the farmer had spread out snail bait and the ground between the rows of vines was littered with little blue pellets – and droves of dying snails.
So, I had four casualties among ‘my’ snails, but the rest of them seemed to be doing remarkably well, moving around and eating big holes in my organic ivy leaves. Their cousins who had been spared my cruel tickling were now dying en masse in the poisoned vineyard. I’m not sure what one should extrapolate from this but it does seem like a tale of fate, relativity and surprising outcomes.
Snail Soap 2017
Like last year I first hydrolyzed and sanitized the freshly extracted snail gel. I then added the hydrolyzed gel to an extra gentle, coconut-free soap formula rich in shea butter, avocado oil and extra virgin olive oil. Price-wise both avocado oil and olive oil are much more precious this year than last due to poor harvests and low yields over the past couple of years.
With all the labour and all the luxurious ingredients in these little bars they are truly exclusive and unique.
This year we corrected our little snail-shell inverted stamp tool and now our stamped snail shells are spiraling clockwise from the centre out the way all genuine snail shells do.
And to go with the gentle formula, the beautiful shape, and natural colour, we added the same soft and gentle essential oil blend as last year: geranium, lavender, chamomile, neroli and a soft whisper of patchouli.
All the snails in these pictures, by the way, were photographed several days after their gel had been extracted – and yes, they’re still eating their way through my garden. Stressing snails is clearly not cruelty free, but they seem to have recovered well. A big shout out and thank you to them for their contribution to our project.
Finally, after a good long cure we’ve wrapped the bars of snail soap in pretty and protective handprinted paper. The paper wrapping keeps the soap protected from dust, fingers and light and gives these very special bars the unique look they deserve.
Our snail soap of 2017 is now available in Auntie Clara’s Soap Shop on our website; natural, mild and gentle, biodegradable, compostable, and beautifully wrapped without plastic. The perfect seasonal gift and the perfect companion for showers and baths – long or short.