I have become quite obsessed with handmade soaps over the past few months. I originally planned to try my hand at soap making just to take one more store-bought item off my shelves. Then I made a couple of batches, and the addiction started.
Making soaps has become my creative outlet in recent days. I’m not naturally artistic, but I am mathematically minded so the measuring and mixing of oils gives me much satisfaction. Each batch of handmade soap is completely different from the last. Each oil and butter brings something new to the equation. In addition to making them, I adore using my soaps and trying out other handmade soaps. I will never buy a store-bought soap again. As I give away and sell my creations, many friends and family agree that store-bought soaps are a thing of the past.
As I’ve been selling my soaps, I have noticed the same questions coming up again and again. I thought it would be nice to address some of the top questions in one place as a resource for anyone new to the idea of handmade soaps.
TOP 10 QUESTIONS THAT I GET ASKED ABOUT MY HANDMADE SOAPS:
#10: What is the difference between handmade soaps & commercial bar soaps?
The two biggest differences are the glycerin in handmade soaps and the lack of detergents.
Glycerin is naturally produced during saponification. It’s a humectant which means it draws moisture from the air to your skin so it leaves your skin soft and moisturized. Commercial soaps remove the glycerin and sell it separately and/or use glycerin in more profitable products like moisturizers.
Detergents are synthetic often petroleum based cleansers whereas soap is simply oils and butters saponified with lye. I won’t get into the whole issue of polluting our water supply with detergents or my issues with petroleum byproducts. Detergents strip your skin, leaving it dry whereas soap cleanses without stripping.
Another issue with detergent based soaps is that the preservatives required to keep these acidic soaps from growing bacteria are toxic and drying as well. A well formulated handmade soap will outshine a detergent based bar soap any day!
If you are new to handmade soaps, you are in for a huge treat because they leave your skin feeling completely different than commercial soaps. I superfat all my soaps by about 5%, which means that I leave 5% extra oils/butters that doesn’t get turned into soap. Those extra oils/butters leave your skin moisturized.
#9: Why is the labeling on bar soaps so confusing? What do many of those ingredients on store bought soaps start with sodium? Why do I not see lye as an ingredient on many soaps?
I really enjoy deciphering labels on commercial soaps now that I am making soap myself. It can be very confusing simply because here in the US we do not have regulations on how the soaps need to be labeled. So sometimes you will buy handmade soaps that have no labels, and store-bought soaps are not all labeled the same. Here are some basic guidelines:
Sodium hydroxide is lye. Some soapmakers list what goes into their soaps and some list what the product is. So, for instance a bar that only contains olive oil, lye and water may have those three ingredients listed or may say “sodium olivate” as a single ingredient. Sodium olivate is the saponified version of olive oil. I like to list mine in the common names so it’s easier to understand for the majority of consumers. So I list all my oils and butters as saponified oils of… because I think customers understand “saponified olive oil” more easily than “sodium olivate”.
My biggest issue with soap labels is the term “fragrance”. If you are a big “natural foodie”, you can equate this general term to the term “natural flavor” on food labels. It’s a catch-all word that could mean many things. Fragrance oils are synthetic replications of actual scents, and those are proprietary blends so companies aren’t going to list out the breakdown of ingredients in a “fragrance”. The other issue with “fragrance” is that a buyer may have sensitivities or allergies and need to know what is in a product.
“Natural” ingredients can also be irritating and activate allergies, but at least if you know what exactly is in your products you can steer clear of items that irritate your skin. Since I only use essential oils as scent, I simply list those specific oils out on my labels. There are certain essential oils that aren’t recommended if you are pregnant, and if you have allergies, you want to be sure and read the labels carefully.
Another confusing thing that you will find on commercial soaps is fragrance added to soaps that are “unscented”. Kirks Castile is a soap I used to use that has fragrance in the unscented version. They add fragrance to cover the scent of the natural oils/butters. The issue with that is that people with sensitive skin could have reactions to synthetic fragrances, and buy unscented soap thinking they are getting no fragrance. Read your labels!
One of my “unscented” bars of soap will still have somewhat of a fragrance because the oils and butters have their own scent.
#8: What does curing a soap mean? Why does that take 4-6 weeks?
Curing the soaps simply means I slice it and place the slices on a rack that allows good air flow turning the soaps occasionally. Most soaps take 4-6 weeks to cure, although any soaps that are mostly olive oil or all olive oil take 6 months to cure.
The cure time allows two things to happen. First, the water in the bar slowly evaporates which causes the bar to become hard. A hard bar will last much longer than a soft bar that hasn’t cured long enough. Secondly, curing allows the bar to become more gentle. I always test my bars immediately after cutting them to get a good idea of lather. That initial test makes my skin a little itchy and irritated. Every week that bar cures adds a whole new level of gentleness. Since I have the opportunity to test the bars out throughout those weeks, I can attest to the fact that they really do change a lot during that cure time.
#7: What is the difference between cold process, hot process, milled and melt & pour soap?
Most of us handmade soap makers speak up about the fact that our soaps are cold or hot processed because we worked hard to make these soaps and want people to know we didn’t just use a base pre-made soap.
“Cold process” refers to the fact that no heat was added to the soaping process. You mix an exact amount of lye water with whatever oils & butters you are using, then your mixture naturally heats up on it’s own. You let it process in a mold, then cut and cure the soap for 4-6 weeks (or longer for some soaps).
“Hot process ” refers to making the soap in the same way except adding heat to the process to speed up saponification. That usually occurs by putting the fresh soap in a crock pot. Hot process soaps work the same way as cold process, but hot process soaps have more of a rough texture usually. Cold process soap is similar to cake batter when it’s poured into molds, whereas hot process is more like a really thick, clumpy pudding. Hot process gets the soap to a usable state faster, but cold process allows you to swirl colors and other creative flair.
Milled soap/French milled soap/rebatched soap is soap that was originally created through the hot or cold process. The soap is shredded, a little liquid added, and then it’s cooked and molded. This is a great way to redo soap that didn’t turn out pretty and it’s a great way to add fragrance that sticks around since the saponification has already occurred.
Melt and pour soap is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It’s a base soap that you purchase pre-made. You don’t have to worry with mixing lye because the soap is already made. You can add colors and scents and easily melt and pour the mixture into molds. Most melt and pour doesn’t meet my qualifications for “natural”, but I did find a natural base made by a company called SFIC that I am happy with.
I use the melt and pour for cute kid soaps with embedded items or other cute shapes. Melt and pour is great if you want to make some soaps with your kids or you need to make soaps that will be immediately ready to use. Many elaborately designed soaps that you find in stores are melt and pour. These are often called glycerin soaps and many have a transparent look. Melt and pour soaps are a great way begin the soaping addiction.
#6: Why do you specify that some of your soaps are palm free and the ones with palm state that they are made with sustainable palm? What is wrong with palm oil?
Palm oil is generally used in place of tallow or lard in vegetable based soaps for hardness. You can make a bar of hard soap without palm, but it will usually take longer than 4-6 weeks to cure. The issue with palm oil is that rain-forests are being destroyed and orangutans endangered by profit driven companies. Palm oil is used in many food products as well as soaps.
With the growing concerns over the sourcing of palm oil, I am committed to only purchasing through sustain-ably produced companies. There are plenty of consumers who do not want to purchase items with palm oil at all which is why I create some soaps that have no palm oil.
#5: Why do you specify that some of your soaps are vegan?
This is one I find interesting because there are many people who don’t ever really think about what is in their soap. One day recently a lady asked me if other soaps contain meat since many of mine are, “Vegan”. No, most soaps do not contain meat, but most traditional soaps contain animal fats – lard, tallow…Personally, I have no issue with animal fats in soap. I do however want to be sure that anyone who buys my soaps knows what they are getting. I also want to educate people so they know how to read store labels.
I do make milk soaps and honey soaps with vegetable oils and butters so those are vegetarian, but not vegan. I always list ingredients and specify Vegan or Vegetarian. In the future I may create some soaps with animal fats, but those would be clearly labeled and I would use separate utensils for those so there is no cross-contamination.
#4: Can I use these soaps on my face?
I am formulating some bars that are specifically for washing your face, but many of the bars I currently have could be used on your face. Your face is more sensitive generally than your body, so the essential oils and butters/oils that may work well on your body, could be irritating on your face. Typically, my regular soaps will be a little too drying for your face. I do like to use the plain goat milk soap on my face sometimes, but I moisturize well after.
#3: I can’t use store-bought bar soap because they irritate my skin. Can I use your homemade soaps?
Well, maybe…I don’t know your skin issues nor do I try to diagnose skin problems (even though people are constantly showing me their rashes and skin problems while asking for advice). What I do know is that many people are allergic to the detergents in storebought soaps. Those detergents can leave your skin dry and irritated. Many people do find that their skin reacts very well to natural handmade soaps. I am happy to give you a sample to try out!
#2 I really love the smell of (insert common store bought scents)…can you make a soap with that fragrance?
Personally, I have made the decision to not use any fragrance oils/synthetic fragrances in my soaps and other products. That means there are certain scents that I simply can’t replicate.
For instance, vanilla. Vanilla beans make a great exfoliant and my vanilla infused body oil has a heavenly natural vanilla smell, but the vanilla scent doesn’t make it through the lye process in soap making. I can’t make soaps with a strong vanilla smell because I don’t use vanilla fragrance oil. That’s just one example of a fragrance I can’t replicate.
There are also many fragrances that would be very expensive to make with essential oils. You can replicate the rose scent with fragrance oils (although it won’t truly replicate that smell), but if you are looking to have rose soap you will be disappointed in the price. Bulgarian Rose Essential Oil currently costs $356.50 for 1/2 oz (Mountain Rose Herbs). Soap requires between 1/2 – 1 oz of essential oil per pound. Basically, a bar of soap with only rose essential oil could cost you $200+. I use Palmarosa essential oil often as a replacement for rose so there are options, but there are definitely some scents that can’t be economically achieved with essential oils. Jasmine is another scent that would be expensive to replicate.
If you have a fragrance you are interested in, feel free to ask me if it’s one I can make with essential oils.
#1 Is there lye in your soap?
There is no lye in the finished soap, but you CAN’T have bar soap that didn’t have lye in the process. Lye is what makes the soap, soap. Lye reacts with the oils and butters through a chemical process called saponification and the end result is soap. Each oil and butter requires a specific amount of lye to saponify so measurements have to be very exact.
Some older people remember a time when soaps were marketed as “lye soap”. Typically those soaps were a basic lard soap or tallow soap. I often have people tell me they have bought soaps from elsewhere that didn’t have lye in them. Bar soap isn’t soap unless it was made with lye by the very definition of bar soap.
Liquid soap uses potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide. If you tried to make “soap” without lye, you would simply have a bunch of oils and butters mixed together. You wouldn’t have soap.
***Interesting lye fact – If you eat bagels or pretzels, you are eating a product that required lye. I use food grade lye in my soaps which is the exact same lye used to make bagels & pretzels. Lye is dangerous, but once it goes through the chemical reaction, as long as you used the correct amount of additions, the result is safe.
***Interesting lye fact – lick your soap to see if it’s lye heavy. My daughter loves to tell everyone that I lick the soaps. If you are a soap maker, this is not odd, but to the rest of the world it seems a little crazy. If soap has not finished with saponification or if you put too much lye in the soap, touching your tongue to the soap will cause a zap. It’s a similar feeling to putting your tongue on a 9 volt battery. Doing a quick zap test lets a soap maker know that the soap is safe and has saponified. It still needs to cure, but you know that it’s not lye heavy and that you did a good job of mixing the lye with the oils.
I’m sure other questions will come up along the way, but these have been the ones I hear most. Come visit me at The 7th Street Public Market in Charlotte, NC to check out my current soaps. I also list some of my soaps in my Etsy shop, and I’m happy to take custom orders as well!
Interested in making soaps? Here are a few of my favorite resources:
Soap Queen & Soap Queen TV - Anne-Marie represents Brambleberry which is a company that sells soap making supplies. She has a whole series of videos on cold process soap making that were super helpful to me starting out.
Soaping 101 & Soaping 101 on YouTube - This is my current “go to” for soaping ideas and is a fantastic starting point once you move past the beginner stage. This is where I got the idea on how to make dog soap, pine tar soap and several other ideas that I’ve tried out recently. There is also a Soaping 101 group on Facebook which is an unbelievable group of helpful people. Anytime I have a soaping question or issue, that’s where I get advice.
Humblebee & Me - A blog with a variety of DIY projects including soap, cooking and other beauty recipes.
The Nerdy Farm Wife - This is another favorite blogger who writes about soapmaking in addition to other great DIY beauty projects.