Soap Making Basics: Soap Ingredients

Before you try to experiment with your homemade soap it’s important to understand the basic soap ingredients – photo courtesy of flickr user mommyknows.

There are a variety of reasons that people decide to make their own soap.

Some do it for a greater degree of customization; some because commercial soaps are too harsh for their skin; still others because it’s a fun and rewarding hobby.

To get started making your own soap, you will need to consider three things:

* Your ingredients;
* Using the right equipment; and
* Your soap making method.

The ingredients are, arguably, the most important component of the soap making process. Without quality soap ingredients, it is impossible to get a quality product. Soap-making is a delicate process, but the ingredients used to make soap are fairly simple: oils, lye, water, fragrances, colorants, and other, optional additives.

Distilled water is the best to use, because any impurities in the water, such as excess minerals, can affect the way it reacts with the lye, or alter the final soap product.

Lye is the material that saponifies the fats and oils, and turns them into soap. It used to be extracted from wood ashes, by soaking them in water, but now you can buy it in most grocery or hardware stores, or online. 100% lye is fairly easy to find, but you have to be careful, because there are different varieties of lye.

Sodium hydroxide lye (NaOH) is typically used to make hard soap, while potassium hydroxide lye (KOH) is usually used to make liquid soap. It is now commonly found in many hardware and grocery stores. It is the ingredient that hydrolyzes the oils or fats, and turns them into soap. Be sure that you’re using lye that is indicated for soap making, because food-grade lye is not strong enough, and lye used for drain openers or other industrial purposes is much too harsh to be used in a product that will be in prolonged contact with skin.

The fats and oils are probably the most difficult of the soap ingredients to select, because there are so many different oils, with so many possibilities.

Almost any natural vegetable oil or animal fat can be used to make soap – corn oil, canola oil, olive oil, vegetable shortening, beef tallow, bacon grease, lard, etc. Typically, soaps made from vegetable oils are softer than those made with animal fat.

The most useful oils for soap-making are fixed oils – oils that can be raised to a high temperature without evaporating. Fixed oils include a variety of base oils, such as olive, palm and coconut oils.

Be sure to thoroughly research the oils you plan to use to make sure that they will impart qualities to your final soap that you will like; for example, if you use too many unsaturated oils to make bar soap, the bars will be mushy and won’t last very long.

There are two types of fats used for soap-making: saturated fats and unsaturated fats. Saturated fats make a hard soap.

They commonly come in a solid form and must be melted prior to use; cocoa and shea butters are good examples of saturated fats. Unsaturated fats, like some vegetable oils, come in a liquid form, and are commonly used to make liquid soap. To use these fats to make bar soap, they must be mixed with saturated fat; the more saturated fat you use, the harder the bar will be.

Other ingredients that can be used in the soap making process include colorants, essential or fragrance oils, and other additives.

Micas, FD&C colorants, pigments or natural colorants are all good soap colorant options (read more here); again each has its own properties, and you should research them all before deciding which ones to use.

There are various natural ingredients that you can use to color soap, such as powdered clay, cocoa powder, tea, paprika, saffron, or ratanjot. Avoid using fabric dyes, hair dyes, candle colorants, or paints to color your soap; even if they are labeled as “non-toxic,” they are not safe to have in contact with skin for prolonged periods, and they may dye your skin.

Some sources say that crayons can be added to soap for coloration, as long as they are made of stearic acid (most crayons made now are), but there is some debate on this topic; it is probably best to err on the side of caution, and avoid using them.

There are two types of scent oils: essential oils and fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are man-made and contain alcohol, so they are typically avoided; the alcohol and other chemicals in the oil may be drying or irritating to the skin, and cause unforeseen problems with the saponification process, or ruin the soap mixture altogether.

Essential oils are more costly, and sometimes more difficult to find; however, a smaller amount is required (usually only a drop or two) and they retain their scent better because they are undiluted. Research oils thoroughly before use; some can be irritating to skin, or even toxic. Also, different amounts are required for different oils, because some will overpower others if the same amount is used for all.

Avoid potpourri, candle scent oils and other strong, commercially made fragrances, as they often contain harsh chemicals that can be irritating to the skin as well. Whole or crushed herbs can also be used, but they will not give their full benefits in a first batch of soap; if you use herbs, the best thing to do is to rebatch the soap later, to extract the full benefit from the herbs.

Depending on the oils used in the recipe, the resultant soap can be prone to spoilage.

Various preservatives can be utilized, such as vitamins E, C, and A, which are also great for your skin. These vitamins can be found in various oils. Sand or pumice can be added to the soap, to make it exfoliating. Also, some metals, such as titanium, silver, nickel, or aluminum can be added for antibacterial properties, and to make the soap bright white.

Other additives include oatmeal, coffee grounds, sand, pumice, etc., and are usually added to make exfoliating soap, or just for aesthetic purposes.

Over to you: do you have any favourite soap making ingredients? Let us know in the comments below and share your favourite tips for how to make soap with our readers!

Take the next step

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4 Replies to “Soap Making Basics: Soap Ingredients”

  1. Fear Not dear friend All you need to do is scapre it all back into your pot heat it up slowly, they shave the parts that are solid back into the pot with a cheese grater (use gloves for this operation). When you wash the cheese grater make sure to put it through the dishwasher and dip it into vinegar to make sure that you get all of the lye use up . The vinegar step might be over kill, but I would do it anyway, that’s just me.Once everything melts, stir it up until it traces well then re mold. I think you didn’t quit get a good trace before pouring originally. I have experienced the same thing at times in the past. This recipe might not do well being doubled as I had already doubled it before posting. I usually just make two batches. Thinking back I’m pretty sure the time I had problems was the time I doubled it again too.

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