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A Word About Soapmaking Ingredients: A Cure for What Oils You

Posted: Beauty & Body » Fun for the Family » Make-It-Yourself » Gift Giving | April 1st, 2005



By Susy Parker Goins

Let’s talk about soap ingredients: Oils — what good are they? “Effects”: — the glitter, the scents, the colors, the botanicals.

Base oils
There are lots of oils to choose from on the ingredients aisle. Oil is oil, right? Uh, no. You want to choose oils for your lovely, handcrafted soaps that add that certain je ne sais quoi that elevates your product above all the others. Do you want your soap to be hard and long-lasting? Emollient? Sudsy? Cheap? Oof — there is a lot to consider when choosing oils.

Start by reading the labels of commercial soaps you like. The ingredients start with “sodium fill-in-the-blank-ate.” Take the first part of the “-ate,” and that’s one of the base oils used. Example: “sodium tallowate” started out as beef fat. (I did take fiendish pleasure in pointing this out to my vegetarian doula, who spent the next five minutes holding her natural soap, jaw on the floor with her fingertips pressed to her chin.) Sodium palmate is palm oil, sodium oleate is olive oil … You’ll learn a lot by reading those labels.

Sign onto e-lists. (The resource section at the end of the article lists a few I’m familiar with.) Once on the lists, pay attention. It’s great to ask questions. A point of etiquette: It’s ok to ask another soaper what they consider important in a bar of soap, it is not ok to ask for their formulation. Soapers are open and generous with information for newbies, but don’t expect them to cough up every one of their hard-earned secrets. You need to do some leg work, too.

Go to you library and check out soapmaking books. Again, resources at the end list a few I like.

A primer on oils
Once you have decided what qualities you want your soap to have, consider the oils.

Tallow and lard are cheap. I’ve read about more than one soaper who snags free tallow from her butcher. It gives hardness to your bar. Lard is cheaper still but makes for a softer bar. Of course, those of you who don’t want animal products should pass on these fats.

Soybean or vegetable shortening is also cheap. It makes a softer bar and has that all-veggie thing going for it. But some soapers believe veggie shortening is an inferior soapmaking oil. It’s your call.

Olive oil, by itself, makes a rock-hard bar with big, slimy bubbles. (Ask me how I know.) I think It’s best used in combination with other oils. Depending on the grade you use, you may have a green tinge to your soap. It makes a very mild soap – mild enough for baby.

Coconut oil has been a boon to soapers. Its light, fluffy suds are long-lasting and are like the suds we’ve grown accustomed to in commercial bars. Coconut oil also gives your bar hardness. I’ve seen conflicting information about at what percentage coconut oil is drying to the skin or not. I keep mine under 40 percent and haven’t had any problems with it.

Palm oil and palm kernel oils give tremendously hard bars, too.

Castor oil adds to a good shampoo bar. It is used in transparent soaps to help attain that see-through quality.

Other oils are available that are nice to add but are not cost-effective enough to be major players in your soap. Almond oil and avocado oil are both skin-softening. Cocoa butter is expensive and has that tell-tale chocolate smell that makes scenting a challenge. If you choose hemp oil, you want natural hemp oil, not bleached hemp oil. Shea butter and mango butter don’t saponify as much as other oils, so there will be butter hanging out in the soap to help with skin-softening.

A note about lye
Nope, I won’t lie to you about lye. You need to use lye (sodium hydroxide) to make bar soap. It is a caustic chemical and requires caution when handling, but you gotta have it if you’re going to make soap from scratch. If you would rather not have to handle lye, check out the perfectly useful melt-and-pour block soaps at your craft store. I won’t tell on you.

And now the fun stuff
Additives or “effects” can add depth and visual excitement that unadorned soap doesn’t have. The possibilities can be mind-boggling.

Herbs Except for calendula petals, most herbs burn to a crisp in cold or hot processed raw soap. Lavender buds look like little bugs even in bath salts. If you are really aching to use herbs in your soap, do your homework. Research your herbs. Think about adding herbs to melt-and-pour soaps.

Colorants Colorants come in all shades and forms. You can use plant-based colorants, madder root and alkanet for example. Colorants come in liquids, powders or glycerin base. Understand that even the oils you chose can affect the overall color of your soap: green with hemp or low-grade olive oils, creamy white with lard. I don’t recommend — well, no one recommends — you use candle colors for soaps. Your colorant needs to be cosmetic grade to be safe for use on skin.

Use cosmetic-grade glitter in your soaps. Glitter intended for use in crafts is not meant for use on skin. Cosmetic-grade glitter comes in fine and ultrafine sizes. It also comes in a wide array of colors. I particularly like the iridescent glitter.

Essential and fragrance oils
Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between essential oils and fragrance oils. Essential oils are volatile oils that have been steam distilled from plant matter. It is believed that essential oils have therapeutic value. Fragrance oils are man-made to replicate a particular scent. Even though fragrance oils can smell good, there is no therapeutic value to them.

Essential oils can be quite expensive, depending on the oil. Rose absolute and blue chamomile, for example, cost more than $100 an ounce! Eucalyptus and wintergreen, on the other hand, cost the same as a name-brand cup of coffee, per ounce. Fragrance oils are frequently in the latter price category, too. However, there are some scents you can’t get with essential oils that you can with fragrance oils: the fresh, clean scent of cucumber or the sensual aroma of new-mown hay.

Getting creative
Once you have an idea what you want to do with your soaps, you can get even more creative. Make a batch of soap; divide it into two or more sub-batches. Add complementary colors and/or scents to each. Pour them in the same mold, then swirl! Or make some opaque soap and some transparent soap. Cut the transparent soap into small cubes and add them to the opaque soap.

Once you get the hang of soapmaking, you can have tremendous fun. If you get to be like me (heaven forbid!), you’ll have a stash of soaps on hand, ready to mix and match or toss in a gift basket. It’s gratifying to know what is in the shampoo or body soap you’re using, because you made it.

Internet Resources

Cosmetic Index (sources and resources)

Tons of interesting herbal and intellectual links

The Toiletries Library (recipes galore, vendors, tips, e-mail list)

Snowdrift Farms (recipes, information, ingredients, e-mail list)

Majestic Mountain Sage (lye calculator)

Rainbow Meadow


The Herbal Body Book: A Natural Approach to Healthier Hair, Skin, and Nails by Stephanie Tourles (Buy on Powells.com)

The Soapmaker’s Companion: A Comprehensive Guide with Recipes, Techniques and Know-How by Susan Miller Cavitch, Storey Publishing (Buy on Powells.com)

The Soap Book: Simple Herbal Recipes by Sandy Maine (Buy on Powells.com)

Transparent Soapmaking: A Complete Guide for Making Natural See-Through Soaps by Catherine Failor (Buy on Powells.com)

© Susy Parker Goins

An informal student of natural health for years, Susy Parker Goins received her certificate in homeopathy from the American College of Health Sciences. The self-proclaimed out-of-the-mainstream mama of three is a writer, belly dancer, actress, costumer and cook and will soon be celebrating 20 years of marriage to her husband.

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