Soap making can be really fun once you’ve passed the initial trial and error process. This process plays an important role in finding the right base for your soaps. Set up the scene and choose your oils from countless carrier oils used in soap making.
There are quite a few things you should know before starting making your own soap. In the first chapter of this article, I will tell you about the soap making methods, and their advantages and disadvantages. In the same chapter, you’ll also find a simple guide to making soap with cold or hot process methods.
The next chapter will be about 10 of the most popular butters and oils to use in soap making. You need to know the properties and fatty acid contents of the carrier oils you want to use in your handmade soaps. These details are important because they will determine how your final soap will behave.
The oils used in soap making will influence things like lather, texture, and hardness. But they can also influence the soap’s scent and its effect on the skin. Essential oils in soap making may be optional. We’ll see what happens when you use them in soap.
I will conclude the article with a couple of simple recipes for homemade soaps. You’ll be able to use them as a starting point if that’s what you want. Let’s start with the following piece of interesting fact about the apparition of soaps.
Did You Know?
- The earliest mention of soap dates back to 600 B.C. Pliny the Elder mentioned in his writings that the Phoenicians used soap made from animal fat and ashes.
Soap Making Methods Plus a Short Guide on How to Make Your Own
I should start by telling you there are several methods to make soap. They are the cold, the hot, the rebatching, and the “melt and pour” methods.
The cold proces
Soap is the result of a process called saponification. The saponification is a chemical reaction between fatty acids from oils, butters or fats (the acids) and lye, or caustic soda (the base). That reaction happens in the presence of water. The resulting soap is also called a salt in this chemical process.
When the lye comes in contact with the water and oils, it produces 2 separate products. They are the soap and the glycerin. The glycerin is the byproduct of the saponification.
The saponification process begins when the lye is poured over the oils and it ends a few days (or weeks) after the soap has been poured in its mold. When the saponification is over, there won’t be any lye left in the soap.
Glycerin is a very good skin moisturizer. Because of that, it is widely used in the cosmetics industry.
When there’s an excess of oil in soap making, some of it will not react with the lye. Also, some oils or butters don’t interact with the lye entirely, leading to the superfatting of the soap.
The “leftover” oil will still be present in the final stage of the soap. That “leftover” oil will give the soap a unique quality: that of being extra nourishing, moisturizing, and gentle to the skin.
If there would be a formula to describe how the soap is made, it would look like this:
Oils + Lye + Water = Glycerin and Soap.
The advantage of this method is that you can create your own personal soap base to embellish as you please.
The disadvantage would be that it is not very easy at first. It will take many experiments until you’ll find a good base recipe for your soaps. This is a process where ingredients and quantities are important to get good results.
Another disadvantage is that it may take from days to weeks to get your final soap ready to use.
The hot process
This soap making method is pretty much like the cold one. After mixing all the ingredients, the pot usually goes on a heat source. It can be anything, from a microwave to a stove.
The heat will speed up the saponification process and the soap will harden and finish reacting in a few hours.
The main advantage of this method is the fact that the soap can be used within hours. Unlike the cold process method, where it takes weeks to finish the saponification reaction.
The disadvantage would be that it’s not very easy to pour your soap into its molds or take it out.
The rebatching process
This method is a more comfortable soap making method. Here you can use old or flawed bar soaps and shred them. You can then melt the shredded soap and add different ingredients to make it more interesting. You could use plants, spices, essential oils, fruit or vegetable purees and so on.
The disadvantage of this method is that you can’t use it without knowing one of the cold or hot process methods. You have to know how to make your own soap base.
The advantage is that you can definitely cut your losses every time. The second you’re not satisfied with a bar of soap (or a batch) you can shred it and re-invent it.
The melt & pour process
This is probably the easiest soap making process. It is also recommended for all beginners. This method involves the use of a pre-made soap base and other ingredients of your choice. This soap making method gives the beginners the freedom to play around with fancy designs, scents or essential oils.
After melting the pre-made soap base and mixing it with other ingredients, just pour it in its molds.
The advantage is that this melt & pour process is easy to make and the soap is ready to be used after it hardens.
There’s no real disadvantage here unless you count being this easy a disadvantage. Otherwise, feel free to experiment and play around until you get the hang of melting and pouring.
Short Guide on Soap Making
It is important to use a calculator for the lye quantity you want to use in your recipe. Accurate measurements in the soap making process are paramount.
The rebatching and the melt & pour soap making methods are easier. They both involve melting a pre-made soap base, whether it’s your own or bought. But the cold and the hot soap making processes are a bit more complicated. Here are the natural steps you should follow:
The first step is about preparing the base – the lye in this case.
The lye (caustic soda) needs to be dissolved into distilled water. The water needs to be at room temperature. If it’s colder, the heat resulted from the chemical reaction will be too high.
Never pour water over the lye, or it will blow up. Use protective gloves and face mask, and make sure you’re doing it in an open space. Prepare your soap base in a very well ventilated area.
This second step involves the preparation of the butters, fats, and oils used in soap making.
Here, you need to melt your butters or fats, or both – which are solid, with vegetable oils – which are liquid. Stir them well until complete homogenization.
Mix the lye with your fatty acids together.
It’s time to pour the lye over the melted oils and blend them all really well. You’ll have to stir in until your blend looks like an emulsion. An emulsion is a result of adding dissolved lye into the oils. The lye which you dissolved will contain water.
Water and oil don’t interact with each other. They don’t mix. But the lye acts like a sort of mediator if you like. A good stir will help the oils and the water mix between themselves. That will be your emulsion.
Tip! If the lye comes in contact with your skin, you must use vinegar to neutralize it.
Add further ingredients or heat the mixture.
For the cold soap making method, now you can add your additives and essential oils, or colorants. For the hot soap making method, you can go on heating the emulsion at a temperature between 140 – 175 F degrees.
Pour your soap into its molds or add ingredients, for the hot method.
If the cold process is used, you can now pour your emulsion into molds and cover them with wrapping foil. The heat still generated by the chemical reaction will help speed up the saponification process.
If the hot process is used, you’ll have to continue heating and mixing the emulsion for an hour or two. Your emulsion must look like a gel before turning off the heat. You can then go on adding your other ingredients (essential oils, plants, etc.).
Cut the cold soap or pour the hot one into molds.
You’re one step ahead if you’re using the cold soap making method. You can now unmold your bar of soap and cut it the way you like. Or pour your hot gel-like emulsion into molds. You might be forced to take it out with a spoon if it starts to cool off.
Leave the soap to cure for a week or two.
For the cold process, you need to leave the soap to cure for a week or two, before being able to use it. It is necessary to let the saponification process finish its reactions and the water to evaporate.
For the hot process, you must first unmold your soap (after 24 hours) and cut it. The saponification is pretty much done by now, but you’ll still have to let it harden more. Or not if you prefer it softer, this is just a matter of preferences.
With all the technicalities out of the way now, we can move on to the oils used in soap making. I kept mentioning butters earlier because they’re a great source of fatty acids for soap making.
Vegetable or carrier oils and butters are the perfect “acids” to react with the lye and give us soap. Let’s see what these oils and butters for soap making are.
Did You Know?
- The Romans were the ones to teach the whole of Europe how to make soap. They were already using it to wash their bodies, their clothes, and even animals. Their skills spread rapidly throughout the world!
10 Carrier Oils Used in Soap Making Plus 3 Butters
Carrier oils are different in their molecular nature. This fact influences the characteristics of a final soap. Every type of oil has different levels of different fatty acids (oleic, linoleic, etc.).
These fatty acids can be combined in any way you like so that the soap gets certain desired effects.
Not all oils or ingredients are saponifiable. That means they will stay as they are in your soap and make it even more precious. Depending on what you add in your soap (plants, vitamins), your skin can benefit from extra pampering.
It is one of the best oils used in soap making. Castor oil can create a fluffy lather and make the soap soft. It is able to keep the skin hydrated and moisturize it by locking in the water that comes in contact with your skin. This ability is given by the high content of ricinoleic acid.
Use low quantities of Castor oil in your soaps if you don’t want them to be too soft.
- 40 – 80% Oleic acid.
Avocado is the type of oil that doesn’t react with the lye entirely. That makes the soap extra fat and nourishing. Like I said earlier, some oils don’t entirely react with the lye, leaving an excess of oil that will stay intact during the saponification.
Its high content of oleic acid makes the soap feel slippery, yet gentle to the skin. It makes a stingy lather.
Emu oil (animal fat)
- 50% Oleic acid
Emu oil is another great oil used in soap making because not all of it makes it into the saponification. What’s left of it will make the soap gentle and help healing the skin. It also makes a stingy lather, and makes for a soft soap with a slippery feel.
Hemp seed oil
- 57% Linoleic acid.
Unfortunately, this oil can spoil fast so you should use a small quantity. Otherwise, the resulting soap will be soft with a stable lather. It is not prohibited to use Hemp seed oil in your soaps because it doesn’t contain cannabinoids. It is very nourishing to the skin and suited for all skin types.
Palm kernel oil
- 48 – 50% Lauric acid.
This oil will give your soaps the necessary hardness to stay intact even if you drop it on the shower floor. It makes a fluffy lather. Palm kernel oil resembles a lot with Coconut oil, so it’s gentle and softening to the skin.
- 30 – 50% Linoleic and Oleic acid.
Because of the high content of both linoleic and oleic acids, Sesame oil makes soap with a stable lather. The soap will be somewhat softer, yet very rich and fat. It will also have a good nutty aroma and it is very good for skin with eczema or psoriasis.
- 60 – 70% Linoleic acid.
Sunflower is one of the very popular and affordable vegetable oils used in soap making. It makes for a soft soap with stable lather. It is rich in vitamin E – a good antioxidant that makes the soap last a long time. It is gentle to the skin.
- 45 – 55% Linoleic acid
Linoleic acid makes for a stable lather and a softer soap. It is conditioning and it leaves a soft, silky feel after use.
- 40 – 55% Lauric acid.
- 20% Myristic acid.
Coconut oil gives a fluffy lather and a hard soap. The soap will last a long time. It is nourishing and moisturizing to the skin, and it doesn’t leave a greasy feeling. It should be used in small dose though because it can also dry the skin if it’s too much.
Jojoba liquid wax (oil).
- 10 – 15% Oleic acid.
That content of oleic acid makes the soap stabilize the lather of the other oils. On its own, Jojoba doesn’t really lather. It is being absorbed really fast and it can help with conditions like acne or other skin issues. It leaves a silky feel behind.
Butters used in soap making:
- 35 – 55% Oleic acid.
After melting it, the Mango butter becomes one of the best oils used in soap making. It is super fat and it moisturizes the skin on a deep level. It makes a stable lather too, and it’s conditioning to the skin. Meaning it is very emollient and nourishing.
- 30 – 40% Stearic acid.
Cocoa butter makes the soap hard, with a stable lather. It is nourishing and moisturizing and it can be used as a superfatting oil. You should look for the scented version because it can make your soap smell delicious. Combined with an absolute of vanilla or even cinnamon or orange essential oils, the result will be a great scented soap.
- 55% Oleic acid.
- 45% Stearic acid.
Melted Shea butter makes it to the list of the best oils used in soap making. It makes a hard soap with a stable lather. Makes the skin soft and silky and fights scars, dry skin, and even premature aging effects. It’s a super fat butter that doesn’t react with the lye entirely. All its nutrients remain untouched making it a precious ingredient in soap making.
Notes on the use of essential oils in soap making:
Generally speaking, essential oils don’t make it through the saponification process. Most of them evaporate very fast, especially the top notes (e.g.: citrus oils). While others simply change their scent or tend to fade away.
Some become part of the saponification process and alter. It’s also true that some essential oils (base notes) still lend their aroma to the soap. That happens especially after the first layer of soap is washed away.
The best way to make your soaps smell nice is to use butters like cocoa, Shea, Mango, etc. Or you can macerate certain plants in the vegetable oil you’re going to use in your soap. Macerate vanilla beans for example, for a lower cost. Or use absolutes, but those are more expensive.
Do essential oils used in soap making maintain their therapeutic properties? That’s still being debated. If I were to assume, I’d say they lose most of their properties.
Especially since they’re being added in a hot environment, which helps them evaporate faster. For instance, when you’re making candles, you’re advised to wait for the hot wax to cool off a bit before adding essential oils.
Did You Know?
- In Medieval England, soap making was considered an important source of income. The Government started setting taxes for its production. Not long after, tax inspectors would start locking up soap factories that produced soap illegally (during the night).
Simple Handmade Soap Recipes
These handmade soap recipes are some of the simplest you will find. They make for good inspiration for those who want to tackle this sort of DIY. They contain some of the most popular oils used in soap making.
#1: Handmade Soap with Cocoa Butter
- Coconut oil: 60 grams (2.11 Oz.)
- Castor oil: 45 grams (1.60 Oz.)
- Cocoa butter: 75 grams (2.65 Oz.)
- Olive oil: 120 grams (4.23 Oz.)
- Commercial lye: 133.3 grams (4.70 Oz.)
- Superfatting with a macerate (like Calendula): 12 grams (0.42 Oz.)
These ingredients are for 300 grams (10.58 Oz.) bar soap.
Decide upon the soap making method you prefer. Then, follow the basic steps from the guide in the first chapter of this article.
#2: Handmade Soap with Coconut Oil
- Coconut oil: 250 grams (8.82 Oz.)
- Palm oil: 300 grams (10.58 Oz.)
- Olive oil: 450 grams (15.87 Oz.)
- Pure lye: 138.4 grams (4.88 Oz.)
- Distilled water: 320 ml (grams – 11.28 Oz.)
This recipe is for a kilogram (35 Oz.) of soap.
To conclude this very long article, it’s important to know the properties and the amount of fatty acids those oils used in soap making contain. Especially those you want to use. Use online charts to calculate the right amount for each ingredient. Measurements are very important.
Start easy, with either the rebatching soap making method or the melt & pour one. Just until you get used to the whole process and the mixing of all the ingredients. Once you’ve found a great soap base recipe, the sky is the limit when it comes to creativity and soap recipe ideas.
Have you ever tried making your own soap? If you consider starting, how does it seem so far and which oils used in soap making would you choose?