S A P O N I F I C A T I O N
The Science of Soapmaking
A beautifully crafted bar of handmade herbal soap is a work of art. But to create a high quality bar of soap – one that not only smells great but is also long-lasting, lathers well, and nourishes your skin – also requires quite a bit of science. The process of cold-process soapmaking is a fascinating (and fragrant) lesson in hands-on chemistry.
S T E P 1:
Developing a Soap Recipe
The secret to a successful batch of handmade soap starts with a carefully calculated recipe. Vegetable oils are made up of many different kinds of fatty acids, and each one contributes unique characteristics to the finished bar of soap. Some oils create a lot of lather (but don’t moisturize very well) and some are very moisturizing (but don’t make the soap hard enough). High quality handmade soap starts with a thoughtfully crafted soap recipe that balances different oils with complementary characteristics.
Another reason the recipe is so important is because made-from-scratch soaps use lye (sodium hydroxide) to turn the oils into soap. But don’t worry! While you would never want to put lye on your skin, it is the only thing that will turn the vegetable oils into gentle, creamy soap. Just like baking a cake, all of the ingredients in a soap recipe must be measured accurately and combined in exactly the right proportions to achieve a successful chemical reaction, called "saponification". A precisely calculated recipe is crucial, because each kind of vegetable oil requires a different percentage of lye in order to fully saponify, and you don't want any extra lye in the finished bars of soap.
S T E P 2:
Measuring and Preparing the Basic Ingredients
The first thing I start with on soapmaking day is measuring out all of my base oils by weight. Liquid oils like olive oil and castor oil are measured directly into my big stainless steel soapmaking pot. Solid oils like coconut and palm oil are scooped into a separate pot and melted over gentle heat before they are added to the soap pot.
While the solid oils are melting, I slowly add the carefully measured lye to my pitcher of water. The lye solution generates a lot of heat as the lye disolves into the water, so I place the pitcher in a sinkful of cold water to lower the temperature. At this point, I also prepare my soap mold and measure out all of my "extra" ingredients, like shea butter, oatmeal, honey, herbs, and essential oils, so they are all set when I'm ready to add them later in the soapmaking process. As soon as the melted oils and the cooled lye solution are both at a nice warm temperature, about 100 degrees, I'm ready to start making soap.
S T E P 3:
Let the soapmaking begin!
With gloves on to protect my hands from splashes of lye, I slowly begin pouring the lye solution into the base oils. The mixture has to be stirred constantly so that all of the separate ingredients stay evenly distributed. This "cold-process" method of soapmaking requires no additional heat or fancy equipment - just a bit of time and lots of stirring. I use a wire whisk and large spatula for hand stirring, and an immersion blender to speed up the process and make sure everything is mixed really well.
Right away, the mixture subtly begins to change. The ingredients are breaking down into their basic parts, and beginning to combine with each other again, but in a brand new way. Vegetable oils, which are made up of triglycerides, are broken down into two parts; fatty acids and glycerol. Lye is also broken down into two parts – sodium ions and hydrogen ions. The fatty acids from the vegetable oils combine with the sodium ions from the lye to create a new product – soap! The glycerol from the oil also combines with the hydrogen ions from the lye to create glycerin. Glycerin is a wonderful natural moisturizer that softens your skin and helps it retain moisture. Handmade soap naturally contains up to 25% glycerin, which is one of the things that makes it so good for your skin. Large scale commercial soapmaking also produces glycerin, but the glycerin is removed during production and sold separately to be used in other skin care products.
With lots of stirring, the saponification process continues and the soap mixture begins to thicken into a creamy, opaque consistency. When the consistency is just right (like a very thin pudding), it has reached "trace", which means I am ready for the next step.
S T E P 4:
Adding nourishing extras and essential oils
Once the fresh soap mixture has thickened, it's time to add any of the herbs, oatmeal, honey, shea butter and essential oils that I've included in my recipe. This is the fun part - when the pure, simple soap takes on its fresh and fragrant personality!
S T E P 5:
Pouring the finished soap into the mold
The warm, fragrant soap mixture is then poured into my large wooden soap mold, which has been lined with freezer paper to make unmolding a breeze. The fresh soap continues to thicken and set up overnight, until the next day when it is solid enough to unmold and cut into bars.
S T E P 6:
Cutting the block of soap
After taking the big solid block of soap out of the mold (a normal batch weighs over 30 lbs), I cut it using a handmade cutter with a custom designed wire grid that slices the whole batch into tall logs. Then I use a second wire cutter to cut the soap logs into individual bars.
S T E P 7:
Four weeks of curing
It's not done yet! While the fresh batch of soap looks ready to use as soon as it is cut, it is still very soft and needs time to "cure". I line the bars up on wooden trays and set them aside on my curing racks for about 4 weeks, where they continue to harden and the final bit of saponification takes place. At the end of the curing time the beautiful bars of soap are nice and hard, and ready to be individually hand-wrapped in tissue paper and a kraft paper label.
Sound complicated? Trust me! Once you try luxurious 100% natural made-from-scratch olive oil soap, I think you’ll agree…
It’s worth it!
E L L I E C A M P B E L L
Meet the Soapmaker
I have been making handmade soap since I was in high school. I love the exquisite balance of science and art that goes into soapmaking, from crafting an original soap recipe to artfully labeling and presenting a beautiful finished product. Most of all, I love being able to make something useful. I love knowing that my soaps are being used and enjoyed, and hearing the enthusiastic response from happy soap customers with happy skin. I hope you become one of them. Thanks for visiting!