This is the first part of a four part series on getting started with natural soapmaking using the cold-process method. In this post I'll go through the basics of soap and your required ingredients. Check back next week for part two or subscribe by email in the right hand column to receive Lovely Greens blog posts in your inbox.
I make soap most every day and it's become so much a part of my routine that I sometimes take for granted all of the little steps and tips I've learned through the years. I'm a self-taught soap-maker and though I now get consistent results I still remember my first attempt. It was a very small batch of peppermint and I and a friend spent over an hour stirring that pot by hand without getting it to mix (called trace). If I hadn't have been persistent then it would have been easy to have given up after that. Through trial and error, a lot of time spent scouring the internet and books, and quite a few unsuccessful batches, I now have a successful process and a great range of products.
Most of my soap is now destined for shops around the Isle of Man and for direct sale to customers though some of it is used at home in the bath, kitchen, and even laundry. I haven't purchased a bar of soap, bottle of shower gel, or even liquid hand soap in years! I still find it an amazing experience to make soap and get a little excited every time I un-mould a new loaf. Through having a stall at the local Farmers Market I also chat to a lot of people about my products and it's become clear to me that more people would like to find out about making their own soap too. I hope to begin offering local courses by next year but in the meantime I'd like to share some of what I've learned here.
What is 'Natural' Soap?
For me, making natural soap means avoiding the use of any ingredients that could be toxic or are manufactured in ways that use questionable substances or methods. This means that I personally don't use artificial dyes, perfumes, or additives in my own soap. While some people might want to try to make soap for fun and aren't too fussed about using all natural, my thoughts on the subject are that if you're going to go to the effort of making handmade soap why not make a product that is going to be completely safe for you, your friends, your little ones, and your entire family?
But what exactly is Soap?
Most people ask me how to make soap but maybe the first question that should be asked is 'What is Soap'? At the heart of all soap recipes are two main ingredients: oil and lye, also known by its chemical name Sodium Hydroxide. Your soap making recipe will, through a simple but controlled process, chemically bond these two ingredients into a new compound - Soap! I'll go through the process in a later post but let's first look at your ingredients. The below is only meant as an introduction to your options and each section could be expanded upon with enough information to literally fill books. If you have any specific questions about anything please leave a message below.
Lye - Sodium Hydroxide
Right, let's talk lye. I'd like to start off by stating that you absolutely cannot make your own soap without lye. A lot of people shy away from making soap due to experience with the harsh lye soap their grandmothers made or because the thought of putting caustic soda into personal care products scares or puts them off. As I shared above, soap making is essentially the chemical reaction between oils, which are acids, and lye, which is a base. Together they will form a completely new material which will be gentle and nearly neutral in PH.
If you'd like to make soap but are still feeling a bit unsure about handling Sodium Hydroxide then I'd suggest that you look into purchasing 'Melt-and-Pour' soap. This material is pre-made soap and will come in blocks or cubes that you can melt on your stove or in the microwave and then pour into moulds.
Water is used to help activate the lye and disperse it through the oils. However, there will be no water left in your bars of soap by the time you use them. The water will evaporate out of your bars during the four to six week curing process which will leave your bars slightly smaller and harder than when you first took them out of their moulds.
Oils & Fats
Any oil or fat can be used to make soap and in your own recipes you can use anywhere from a single oil to a dozen. But when you're just starting out I'd recommend sticking to just three to five. Soaps made from a single oil, such as Castile (olive oil) soap can be tricky to master and choosing more than a handful of oils can be expensive. Each oil that you use will combine with lye to create a soap characteristic of that oil and some are selected to provide hardness to the bar while others provide lather, conditioning, and cleansing. Here's some common examples of oils used in soap making:
Cocoa Butter - provides gorgeous moisture and skin protection and also helps to harden your soap. Use in smaller percentages as a 'superfatting' oil.
Coconut oil - creates a hard bar with loads of fluffy lather and cleansing power.
Olive oil - soap made with olive oil is sensitive, conditioning, and great for all skin types.
Palm oil - a great oil for soap making but one that is very controversial. Palm plantations in south-east Asia have led to devastating deforestation and loss of habitat for animals such as Orangutans. If you choose to use Palm oil please consider using oil that's been certified as sustainable and try to learn more about where exactly its being grown and by whom.
Soybean oil - helps create a conditioning bar with a stable lather
Shea Butter - an interesting oil since it has more difficulty turning into soap than other oils and will often stay in your soap as moisturising butter rather than soap. Use in smaller percentages as a 'superfatting' oil.
Sweet Almond oil - used for its light feeling and ability to moisturise and condition the skin. Use in smaller percentages as a 'superfatting' oil.
When formulating your recipes you'll first choose oils that will make up the bulk of your recipe, such as Coconut and Olive oils, and those which will be used to 'Superfat'. Superfatting means adding extra oils at the very end of your process that will be free-floating rather than combining with the lye and transforming into soap. Superfatting makes the difference between a bar of soap that's cleansing and a bar of soap that's cleansing and moisturising.
Preservatives are only used in 'wet' products since water creates a habitat where bacteria can grow. Soap does not require preservatives since the water that you use in the recipe will evaporate out. If you're Superfatting your recipe (which you should definitely do) then what you will need is an antioxidant to help free-floating oils stay stable and not go rancid. There are two main antioxidants that soap makers use in very small quantities at the very end of the soap making process:
Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) - extracted from the seeds and pulp of grapefruit this thick and clear liquid doesn't add a scent to your soap and is very effective at keeping other oils from spoiling.
Rosemary Oleoresin Extract (ROE) - extracted from Rosemary leaves and quite a thick and strong smelling herbal liquid.
Soap Fragrance - optional
Some people will choose to let their soap scent speak for itself and leave it to smell like simple, clean, handmade soap. Another idea is to use oils in your recipe like sesame or beeswax since they will impart their own unique and natural fragrances. I create an unscented soap that is fragranced with only the natural aroma of oatmeal and it's proven quite popular with those suffering from extremely sensitive skin or reactions to fragrance of all kinds.
Personally I enjoy soap that's subtly scented and leaves your skin smelling lovely. I've used essential oils in my soap from the the beginning but have also experimented with using 'Fragrance oils', which are commercially produced perfumes for the toiletry industry. Both have their pros and cons but if you like the idea of scent that has therapeutic powers then I'd suggest you'd stick with essential oils. Some have powerful medicinal properties and can help heal the skin or clear your sinuses and airways. The downside of using essential oils is their expense and propensity for fading with time if you leave the soap sitting in the open or in direct sunlight. This can be especially problematic for citrus essential oils such as lemon and orange.
Fragrance oils on the other hand are relatively inexpensive, have scents that last ages, and have a much more varied range to choose from. If you like baby powder scented soap or a shampoo that smells like coconut then you're going to have to use fragrance oils. The con of using them is that they are trademarked and patent protected artificial perfumes that you'll never truly know the contents of. In many cases fragrance oils are made of petrochemicals and allergens that cause people to sneeze or have skin reactions. Using fragrance oils in your soap also means that your product will not be 'natural'. In the end it's your choice to use one or the other but I urge you to do a bit of research before making a decision.
Scent Fixer - optional
Above I mentioned that the scent of essential oils can fade over time but there are ways to 'fix' the scent so that they'll last longer. Sometimes another essential oil can help the others to stick and at other times it's best to use another additive that works to absorb the essential oils into it. Fixers are a bit more advanced in soap making but I thought I'd add them in so that those experimenting with making nice smelling soap aren't frustrated by their soap's scent evaporating during the curing process. Here are some of the choices you'll come across:
Arrowroot - use as little as a teaspoon in 800g (28oz) batches
Benzoin - available as both a powder and as an essential oil
Cornstarch - use as little as a teaspoon in 800g (28oz) batches.
Essential oils - May Chang (Litsea cubea) and base note essential oils such as Cedarwood, Patchouli, and Balsams are all great at grounding the other essential oils in the blend.
Oatmeal - this is one that I've discovered on my own. Using fine blended oatmeal in your soap will add light exfoliation and will absorb and hang onto your essential oils.
Orris Root Powder - made from the dried and powdered root of the Iris (Iris germanica) and has a woodsy and violet scent of its own.
Soap Colours - optional
For a list of natural ingredients you can use to achieve a range of colours please visit this webpage.
In Natural Soapmaking you have several options for colouring your soap which will include powders you can purchase from specialty suppliers and even flowers and plants that could be growing in your garden right now. Your other option is to choose oils that will impart a natural hue to your soap or to use ingredients that will caramelise and give a warm colour to the finished product.
Oil Selection - some of your oils, such as olive oil, will impart a more yellow or creamy colour to your soap, while white and/or light coloured oils will create white soap.
Clays - though limited in palette to just pink/red, green, and white, cosmetic clays can add beautiful natural colour to your soap. Clays also help to lightly exfoliate and detox the skin.
Minerals & Micas - Mineral and Mica powders are available in a wide range of colours that can help you hit most of the hues of the rainbow. Please note that while these cosmetic materials are considered natural they are both created in a laboratory environment. Minerals and Micas are found in nature but are often tainted with unsafe heavy metals and are unfit for use.
Sugars - milk, sugar, and honey will caramelise if you add them to your batch before trace.
Herbs, Flowers, & Roots - my personal favourite! Nature creates all types of wonderful colours useful in soap making. Use Calendula petals for golden orange, Alkanet root for purples, and Madder root for pink. I even have a soap-maker friend who uses fresh Spinach to give her soap a brilliant green hue.
Botanicals - optional
The word botanicals simply means natural fruit, flower, leaf, and root additives that impart either colour (see above), visual interest, or exfoliation to your soap. There is some conjecture as to how much of the original properties found in these ingredients survive the soapmaking process but you can try adding them to your recipes and judge for yourself. This is again a more advanced area of soap making and completely optional.
Botanical oils - mainly used in the superfatting phase and may include Rose-hip oil, Neem oil, and Borage Seed oil. With the exception of Neem, it's my opinion that the addition of these oils to soap might be a waste since their beneficial components can be destroyed by heat. Probably save them for making handmade lotion and cream.
Dried Fruit & Spices - lemon and orange slices, peppercorns, and cinnamon sticks are just some of the items you can add to your soap to create holiday or scent themed designs. Others, like Turmeric powder, can also provide vibrant natural colour.
Exfoliants - Rolled oats, ground almonds, and ground pumice stone can all be added at small amounts to create a more scrubby soap.
Herbs & Flowers - these can be used to both decorate and tint your soap. Use infusions of flowers and herbs in place of some or all of the water content and feel free to use dried flowers on both the tops and interiors of your soap. A word of caution though in using flower petals - most will discolour during the soap making and curing process. If you'd like lovely colour from your botanicals, make sure that that they're ones that will stay true. You'll see some lovely soap out there that use pretty rose petals and lavender buds on top and think you might want to do the same. If you decide to go down this route be prepared for them to turn brown in a very short period.
Roots - there are various roots with medicinal value that can be used in soap making but again, the effectiveness of the active ingredients can be questionable in your final product. Alkanet and Madder root are roots used purely for colour and are added either by infusing liquid oils with the dried root or by adding a powdered version of the root directly to the soap.
Where to purchase your Soapmaking Ingredients
Firstly I have to state that I'm in no way being endorsed by any of the companies listed below and that I've not yet had experience with some of them - in particular the North American suppliers. In addition to these sources I encourage you to pop into your local bulk foods wholesaler or cash-and-carry and see what they have on offer since you can often get a much better deal with them, especially with food grade oils. One other point that I'd like to emphasise is that it's easy to spend a small fortune when starting out making soap. You don't need much to get started so try to resist purchasing expensive oils and equipment until you've made a few batches and have decided that soap making is for you.
Suppliers in the United Kingdom
The Soap Kitchen
Just a Soap
Suppliers in the United States
Mountain Rose Herbs
Suppliers in Canada
I'll continue with the next post in this series a week from now and as the posts are published I'll also place links to each section below.
Natural Soapmaking for Beginners Series
2. Equipment & Safety
3. Basic Recipes and Formulating Your Own
4. The Soap Making Process: Make, Mould, and Cure