All soaps are based on three ingredients. These three ingredients are water, oil and a caustic agent such as lye. Within this framework, there are dozens of possible ingredients, as well as a wide range of additives to give your soap colour, scent and other benefits.
The oil you use depends on what is most readily available to you. The best oils for old-style soaps are animal fats, such as lard and tallow. Unfortunately, these oils are difficult to acquire in sufficiently large quantities. Most soap makers today use vegetable oils. The best oils to use are coconut, palm, soy and olive oils, in various proportions. These oils are most likely to result in a firm, hard bar that still lathers quite well.
Petroleum-based oils do not work for soap. These include petroleum itself and products like mineral oil.
Additionally, you can use speciality oils in much smaller quantities to add some side benefit to your soap. For example, adding almond oil, hemp oil, castor oil, cocoa butter and Shea butter have various moisturizing and creaming effects
They will make your soap creamier and will add their own faint scents to the mixture.
The lye additive is essential to soap making. Without it, you will simply have an oily bar. The reaction of lye and oil, called saponification, is what produces the soap itself.
There are two types of lye primarily used in soap making. These are Potassium
Hydroxide and Sodium Hydroxide. Each has its own purpose, and which you choose depends on the kind of soap you wish to make. Potassium Hydroxide will make a liquid soap when it reacts with the oil. Sodium Hydroxide will create a hard bar of soap. If you wish a cream or lotion-style soap, you will need to mix them in various proportions.
The lye reacts completely with the oil during the soap making process. The final product will not actually contain any lye, so it is safe to use on skin. Caustic lye is dangerous to handle on skin, so the reaction is necessary.
Believe it or not, the water you use has an important effect as well. You can use distilled or filtered water for good effect. Alternatively, tap water is possible, but you need to be aware of the chemicals that are added to standard tap water. Generally, if using tap water, you will want to let it sit for a day or two before using it. This allows certain chemicals, such as chlorine, to evaporate off the water. For a more naturalistic soap, you can use collected rainwater. The natural minerals will add a slight organic benefit to the soap.
The scent is added to soap using additional oils. You will use either essential oils or fragrance oils. Typically, if you are making soap on a commercial scale for sale online or at a farmer’s market, you will make a variety of different scents of soap. A solid mixture of different oils will give your soap a distinct smell, which is primarily what attracts people to a given variety of soap.
Essential oils are natural oils that come from plants. For some types of scent, such as pine or vanilla, you can harvest and produce your own essential oils. They are also relatively cheap to purchase from a scent oil supplier. Some essential oils, however, are prohibitively expensive. Rose essential oil, for example, can cost upwards of $3,000 for 16 ounces, because it takes over a ton of rose petals to produce. Experiment with essential oils and you can produce a wide range of scents just by varying proportions and ingredients slightly.
Fragrance oils are the other end of the spectrum. They are artificially produced and cannot easily be made at home. Some of them are scent blends that include some essential oil, while others are completely artificial. The term “nature-identical
compounds” comes up in this industry as well. These are laboratory-produced chemicals that have the same molecular structure — and thus the same scent and properties — as natural essential oils. Most floral scents are artificially produced for the same reason as the rose example above, while most food-type scents — coffee, chocolate, mango — are artificial from the start.
Changing the color of soap requires an additive or dye. Some powder additives are introduced for their effects on the soap, such as cinnamon or paprika, and will change the color of the soap as a side effect. Most colors, however, are added with a simple dye.
Before using a dye in soap, you must make sure it is on the Food and Drug
Administration list of approved colourants. Many dyes are not approved for use on skin, or in sensitive areas such as lips or eyes. This limits the available number of colours you can use. However, the soap industry is large enough that any color may be produced with the right combination of dyes. As a soap maker, however, some people may simply prefer an uncoloured natural soap. This allows you to skip an ingredient altogether.
Adding oatmeal to an organic soap is an easy way to include an exfoliating scrub. Adding jasmine or peppermint can give an additional cooling effect, as well as a mint scent that adds to other scents. Some ingredients can be added to in-
crease later and for moisturizing effects.
Producing soap can be an enjoyable hobby, lucrative business and anything in between. Experimenting with oils to develop the perfect soap scent and feel is all part of the fun.