Harvey Mudd soap club stays squeaky clean in face of pandemic

A soap that looks like a boba drink sits in front of a window.
Along with boba soap, the Harvey Mudd Fights Germs Club makes milk tea soap. (Courtesy: The Harvey Mudd Fights Germs Club)

When Maya Abo Dominguez HM ’22 started the Fight Germs Club at Harvey Mudd College last fall, she had no idea that its relevance was about to skyrocket. 

“Before the pandemic, it was all about doing a relaxing craft: making soap,” she said in an interview with TSL. 

Inspired after taking HMC chemistry professor Adam Johnson’s soap unit during her first year, Abo Dominguez reached out to Johnson to make soap with him.

“I thought that was super cool that you use lye, which is really caustic, and oils, and it becomes something that’s good for you,” she said. “And every time I do it, it’s still magic that you take these two ingredients that you wouldn’t imagine go together, and then you get soap.”

Johnson, the club’s faculty adviser, had a similar revelation when he began his soap making journey. 

“Someone said they made their own soap. And I was like, ‘You can’t make your own soap!’” he said. “So I researched it, started making my own soap, and I haven’t bought a bar of soap since 2013.”

Last year, Abo Dominguez grew the club’s mailing list to about 100 students, with 10 to 20 attending the soap making events due to scheduling conflicts and safety concerns limiting how many people could make soap at once. In fact, she secured school funding for supplies — but soon after, HMC sent students home amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

But the Fight Germs Club adapted to the change. Abo Dominguez turned to social media to “keep the soap club spirit going” with the @muddsudds Instagram account.

Since then, she has made soap about once per month, posting photos of her creations in various locations, including at a waterfall and an observatory. Soap Instagram pages often inspire her photos and recipes, such as boba and milk tea soap. 

The club’s Instagram account includes videos of her soap making process. After deciding on the fragrance, colorants and recipe — which detail the ratios of different oils and the percentage of lye water — Abo Dominguez puts on safety gear and prepares the kitchen.

One may not think of soap as especially dangerous. But both Johnson and Abo Dominguez stressed the importance of safety when making soap. 

“If [lye] gets in your eye, you will go blind very quickly,” Johnson said. “It’ll burn your skin.”

Abo Dominguez agreed.

“It’s really important to keep it away from food in general,” she said. “I just make sure to clean everything really thoroughly. And if there are any spills, I address those immediately.”

After pouring the cake batter-textured mix into the mold, she waits about a week before taking it out and cutting it into bars.

“I have to spend a lot of time waiting for the final product, which is exciting and also kind of infuriating,” Abo Dominguez said. 

In July, she organized a giveaway of oatmeal and honey bars through @muddsudds. 

“It seemed like a timely thing to do with the pandemic and people being worried about hygiene,” she said. 

While a lack of club funding this semester means other club members cannot make soap, Abo Dominguez is hoping to keep the community connected by creating other hygiene products. For example, she posted on Instagram a homemade hand sanitizer recipe her family used. 

“If we aren’t able to go back to making [soap] as a group in-person, it’d be nice to do some live events where we could do something more simple, like hand sanitizer or a body scrub — something with easy household ingredients,” she said.

Additionally, she plans on hosting more soap giveaways and possibly live streaming her soap making. 

Usually, Abo Dominguez and Johnson gift soap to friends and family as well as keep it for personal use.

“It’s a great way to have holiday presents, birthday presents or [for when] someone comes from out of town,” Johnson said. “I send [coworkers] soap every once in a while  when we meet in a professional meeting, and I’ll bring, like, eight bars of soap and pass them out.”

In his first-year chemistry classes, Johnson uses soap making as an engaging way to introduce foundational concepts. 

“I struggle sometimes to figure out how to make chemistry relevant to an average person who’s not a chemist,” he said. “Using soap as a vehicle to sort of show the microscopic to the macroscopic is probably what I think is the coolest.” 

As a hobby, Johnson enjoys the artistic side of soap making; some of his creative designs include watermelon soap, cupcake soap and rainbow soap for Pride Month. 

“I wanted to sell soap, but there’s so many legal requirements for selling soap that I actually thought about saying, ‘I’m not selling soap, I’m selling artistic candles,’ or something like that,” he said. “It’s regulated under the Food and Drug Administration, so I decided I don’t want to go into selling it.”

While he said he likely has not saved money in the process, Johnson enjoys controlling the ingredients in his soap. 

Abo Dominguez agreed, adding that the process of learning about soap making has changed how she sees soap.

“I know exactly like, ‘Oh, [these ingredients are] going to be more moisturizing. This one’s going to be more cleansing,’” she said. “And it’s made me view soap, shampoo and other beauty products differently — there’s a lot of work that goes into formulating those recipes. I appreciate that more.”

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