Posted on

Handcrafted Soap making 101

Last week, I wrote about why I use handcrafted soap. If you recall, my primary reason for using handcrafted soap is simply because I like it. Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about how soap becomes soap. 😀

The truth about lye in your soap

Yep, we talked about this a little last week, but it should be repeated. Handcrafted soap is much better for your skin than the detergents that you can purchase at your local drug or discount store. That’s because handcrafted soap is made primarily with oils – olive oil, coconut oil and castor oil, for example. These oils are melted together and then combined with a sodium hydroxide solution. Sodium hydroxide, if you’re unaware, is lye. Yes, it’s a chemical. Yes, it can be a dangerous caustic. But by the time a handcrafted soap reaches you, the lye has been neutralized and no longer poses any sort of threat.

If you follow me on Facebook, you probably saw my post a couple of weeks ago about how all soap contains lye. Over the last few months, I’ve been approached several times by potential customers who walk up and start reading the labels on my soap. I applaud that, and I respect that everyone has things they’re not interested in rubbing all over their bodies. But in the interest of being helpful, and also because I’m curious, I always ask if they’re looking for something specific in the ingredients list. When someone says, “I’m looking for soap without lye,” I’m confused. Why are they looking for soap without lye? Who told them that lye is bad??

After doing a little research, I have come to the conclusion that one of two things is happening, neither of them true or very honest of the person(s) responsible for spreading this fallacy. Either the person making “soap” without lye is actually using a melt and pour base, or they’re lying to their customers. Now, I’m aware that’s a pretty heavy accusation; no one wants to be accused of lying, and trust me, I don’t want to be the one accusing people of lying. I have found, however, that when you start talking to customers who make this (very odd) request, they have heard from someone who’s either making or has made “soap” in the past that the process doesn’t require lye. It does. Make no mistake, soap making requires the use of lye. Without lye, you’re making a lotion bar, not a soap. Even melt and pour soaps contain lye.

OK, so why isn’t lye listed in the ingredients?

Some soap makers are hiding the lye in the soap by listing the ingredients as “Saponified oils.” At best, this is a deceptive way of hiding the ingredient sodium hydroxide that the soap contains. At worst, particularly if a maker is looking their customers in the face and saying their soap doesn’t contain sodium hydroxide, it’s a flat out lie. And it’s a lie that can cost them much more than their reputation. The United States’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has very strict rules in what a soap maker can and cannot say, and how they can represent their products. There are also very strict rules on packaging and labeling cosmetics, which is how handcrafted soaps are regulated.

Ingredients in soaps, like the ingredients in the foods you eat, must be listed on the packaging in the order of magnitude they are in the product by percentage. If a soap maker creates a product that is 50% coconut oil, 30% olive oil and 20% castor oil, well … she’s going to have a pretty big mess on her hands. That would be a terrible recipe! But she would have to list the coconut oil first, then the olive and the castor. If the percentage of sodium hydroxide for the entire size of the recipe falls between olive and castor, that’s where it would have to be listed in the ingredient list.

The FDA does allow a soap maker to use the “Saponified oils” listing, but I feel like it’s a bit deceptive. Sadly, a lot people won’t look up the meaning of the word saponified, and they just take the word of the person who makes the soap. If lye wasn’t used in the process, though, you’re not buying a bar of soap; you’re buying a bar of lotion with no cleansing properties at all.

A word about melt & pour soaps

I don’t have anything against melt & pour soaps. I think they can be a lot of fun, and you can make a lot of very cute little things using it. I have used it in the past, and I have had a lot of fun with it. However … when you’re buying handcrafted soaps, be sure to ask if you’re looking at melt & pour, or if you’re looking at hot process, or cold process soap. In my experience, you really don’t get the same type of soap when you’re buying melt & pour soaps. They may look good, and they might smell good, but they’re probably going to contain a lot of the chemicals that you’re trying to avoid by buying handcrafted soaps in the first place.

Even better would be to familiarize yourself with the difference between melt & pour soaps and the other two processes. Melt & pour looks different, and it feels different, too. It tends to sweat a lot, particularly in humid climates, so you often see it shrink wrapped. If little beads of perspiration form on the surface, it’s melt & pour. Also, melt & pour tends to be in cutesy shapes, or have words like “Soap” or “Handcrafted” in raised letters on the surface.

I suggest learning the difference because I’ve seen a few sellers at flea markets and craft shows claim that their soaps are handcrafted, when they’re really just melt & pour with different colors & scents. I overheard one such seller tell a couple of customers that her soaps contain NO lye like “the other guys” and that her soaps are more gentle as a result. She made other claims, and I felt bad for her customers because they didn’t realize that her price of two soaps for $5 was too low for a true handcrafted soap, regardless of the volume she may sell. I had to walk away before I said something that would have been rude and unprofessional, but I was angry and sad for all the people she was deceiving. And she certainly had NO regrets about running down other soap makers who were trying to be as honest as possible about their products.

Hot process vs. cold process

Almost all of the soaps that we sell at Old Fashion Soap Co., are cold process soaps. This means that the oils and lye solution are mixed together at around room temperature and are poured into molds and left to harden. Once they’re ready, we pop them out of the molds, cut them, and allow them to cure for three to four weeks. The longer they cure, the happier I am, but sometimes that’s just not possible. The cure time for cold process soaps served two purposes. One, it allows excess water to evaporate from the soaps, making the bars harder and longer lasting. Two, the longer a bar cures, the more gentle it becomes, until somewhere around day 25 (based on tests I’ve seen from labs who do such things), when they hit their peak gentleness. I have tested cold process soap as soon as the day I cut it, and I have never experienced any ill effects. I don’t know that I would want to use the soap so soon, though, and I definitely know that the longer a soap cures, the longer it lasts.

Although most soap makers cure their soaps from 21 to 30 days, the water isn’t completely gone by then. I have had bars of soap for a couple of years that continue to harden and shrink as they sit around. Most of them end up looking fairly deformed, actually, but they last a really long time once they start being used. So long as there’s nothing growing on your soaps, they’re fine to use even if they look sort of weird.

Hot process basically cooks the soap. The oils and lye solution are mixed together and cooked over heat. These days, most soapers use a crock pot for this method, but back in the day, they cooked soap in a huge kettle in the front yard over a big fire. If you’ve ever read the Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls describes the basic process a couple of times, I think. Equipment has changed, and probably fewer eyebrows are singed off, but the basic process is the same. The soap is cooked until it is translucent, then you add color and fragrance, mix it in as well as you can, and mold the soap.

The reward is that your soap is ready to use as soon as it hardens up and is cut. Again, curing time will make the soap last longer, but it’s already gentle, because the process has been accelerated with heat. I don’t really use this method anymore, because there’s a certain knack to it, and it requires more involvement and time commitment than I am willing to make. Also, to me, the soap can sometimes feel a little spongy. Other soap makers swear by hot process and can turn out some beautiful soaps that rival the cold process soaps I’ve seen.

Now you’re familiar with the reason why lye is used, and the ways soap is made. In my next blog post, I will pull it all together and explain what this means to you and your skin.