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An introduction to natural soap ingredients including oils, butters, lye, essential oils, and natural color. Part of the Natural Soap Making Series which carries on with soap making equipment, easy soap recipes, and the full cold process soap making process.
You will find many free soap recipes here on Lovely Greens but if you’re a beginner, you should begin here. Cold process soap making is an involved topic and hobby and is as much chemistry as it is artistry. This natural soapmaking series is an introduction to what to expect when you make your first batches of soap. It covers topics ranging from the natural soap ingredients you’ll use to how to make soap safely. You can also use the beginner soap recipes to make handmade soap that will turn out well.
We begin the soapmaking series by learning about the ingredients you’ll use. Oils, butters, essential oils, botanicals, and of course lye. The series continues with an introduction to the equipment you need and soap making safety, a few basic recipes, and the full cold-process soapmaking method. This is a free soapmaking series but I also include everything in the series plus a whole lot more in my new 68-page ebook, the Lovely Greens Guide to Natural Soapmaking.
Natural Soap Making for Beginners Series
- Natural Soap Ingredients
- Soap Making Equipment & Safety
- Easy Soap Recipes
- Step-by-Step Cold Process Soap Making
Learn to Make Soap at Home
I’m a self-taught soapmaker. Through trial and error, research, and quite a few unsuccessful batches, I now have a successful process and a great range of products. Most of my soap I sell direct on Lovely Greens Handmade. I use some of it at home in the bath and even for homemade dish soap. I now love sharing tips on how to make natural soap and created this series to show you how too. You don’t need to attend an in-person course to learn how to make soap. You really can learn to make it at home!
Make Natural Soap With Natural Ingredients
For me, making natural soap means avoiding the use of any ingredients that could be toxic or that could have negative impacts on health or the environment. This means that I don’t use artificial dyes, perfumes, or additives in my soap. My philosophy is that if you’re going to go to the effort of making handmade soap why not make a product that is going to be completely safe for you, your loved ones, and the environment?
Things that a natural soap maker would avoid include fragrance oils, dyes, glitter, and plastic embeds. I’d even go so far as to say plastic packaging for selling soap too. Every ingredient you use comes with an ecological footprint and there are also risks for people with sensitive skin or allergies. That goes for synthetics, but also some natural soap ingredients such as essential oils.
Soap is the Result of Saponification
Most people ask me how to make soap. Perhaps the better question to ask is ‘what is soap’? At the heart of all cold process soap recipes are two main ingredients: oil and lye, also known by its chemical name sodium hydroxide. Your soap-making recipe will, through a simple but controlled process, chemically bond these two ingredients into a new compound – soap! You make soap through a process called saponification, a type of natural chemistry.
I’ll go through the process in a later post but let’s first look at your natural soap ingredients. The below natural soap ingredients topics are brief but give you a good introduction. If you’re looking for places to find soap making inspiration you can also sign up for my free newsletter — I send out new ideas and recipes every two weeks.
Lye / Sodium hydroxide
Right, let’s talk lye. I’d like to start off by stating that you absolutely cannot make your own soap without lye. A lot of people shy away from making soap due to experience with the harsh lye soap they remember a family member making in the past. It could also be because the thought of putting caustic soda into personal care products scares or puts them off. As I shared above, soap making is essentially the chemical reaction between oils and lye, which in cold-process soap making is sodium hydroxide. Together and through the wonder of chemistry, they will form a completely new compound — soap.
If you’d like to make soap but are still feeling a bit unsure about handling Sodium Hydroxide then I’d suggest that you look into purchasing ‘Melt-and-Pour’ soap. It’s pre-made soap that you melt, add extra ingredients and scent, and then pour into molds. Melt and pour soap isn’t natural soap due to some of the ingredients used to make it. Ingredients including synthetic surfactants such as SLS.
You use distilled water in soap making to activate the lye and disperse it through the oils. Most of this water evaporates out of your bars during the curing process. That means that your finished bars might be slightly smaller than when you first took them out of their molds. You avoid using tap water, or spring water, in soap making as it can have minerals and impurities that impact the quality and shelf-life of your soap.
As a beginner, use the water amount shown in the soap recipe you’re about to use. Each of the natural soap recipes on Lovely Greens includes a 33-38% lye concentration. As you get more experienced you can experiment with other lye concentrations if you wish.
Natural Soap Ingredients: Oils & Fats
You can use any oil or fat to make soap. Most soap recipes include 3-6 oils but some have a lot more, or less. Soaps made from a single oil, such as Castile (olive oil) soap are uncommon because very few single oils make good soap. Different oils give different properties to soap including hardness, lather, creaminess, and conditioning.
If you’re a beginner, please stick to using tried and tested recipes, especially ones that you know will be simple and have a high success rate. If you do need to change a soap recipe or if you’d like to understand more about oils, fatty acid profiles, and advanced soap recipe customization, head over here.
Common Oils and Fats Used in Soap Making
- You can use babassu oil in place of coconut oil and palm oil in a recipe. It does have a different SAP, so it’s not a direct replacement. It’s used as up to 25% of a soap recipe and helps creates a hard and cleansing soap.
- Beeswax is vegetarian but not vegan, and will add hardness to your soap and a soft scent. Use only small amounts ( 1-2% of the total base oils) of beeswax in your recipes since it stops soap from lathering when used at larger quantities.
- Canola (Rapeseed) oil is inexpensive and can make up 40% of the base oils in a soap recipe. It creates decent lather and hardness but is otherwise not particularly remarkable.
- Castor oil is a thick liquid oil that creates gorgeous lather in soap recipes—typically used at around 5% of soap recipes since more can cause soap to be too soft or sticky.
- Cocoa butter provides gorgeous moisture and skin protection and also helps to harden your soap. Use in smaller percentages of up to 15% of base oils or as a superfatting oil.
- Coconut oil is used in most soap recipes and helps create a hard bar with loads of fluffy lather and cleansing power. Recipes tend to include 25% or less of coconut oil (here’s an exception), and unless otherwise stated, you use solid refined coconut oil that melts at 76F. Liquid (fractionated) coconut oil has different properties and a different SAP. Virgin coconut oil, the expensive stuff from the supermarket that tastes and smells so lovely, isn’t used very much in soap making. The coconut scent does not carry through to the bars, and it is also much more expensive. Best to save it for delicious coconut food recipes and other skincare.
- Grapeseed oil has many of the same properties as sunflower oil in soap. It creates creamy and conditioning lather and can be used as up to 15% of a recipe.
- Mango butter is used mainly as a superfatting oil but can be used as up to 15% of a recipe. A bit more expensive than the other oils and butters here, mango butter melts quickly and adds non-greasy conditioning properties to your bars.
- Neem oil is often a thick and pungent green oil used in skincare and soap to help soothe eczema and other skin conditions. It sometimes arrives as a dark liquid oil, though. Use at 5% or less of your recipe as a superfatting oil.
- Olive oil is also used in most soap recipes and creates sensitive and conditioning bars excellent for all skin types. Many soap makers prefer using olive oil pomace (second-grade olive oil extracted using solvents), opposed to extra virgin (evoo) olive oil. That’s because it’s lighter in color and doesn’t interfere with soap colorants. It also traces much quicker! Extra virgin olive oil is purer but takes longer to come to trace and may add a yellow or greenish-yellow tint to your soap. You can use up to 100% olive oil in your recipes.
- Palm oil is an inexpensive solid oil that creates good lather and hard bars. It’s used as up to 33% of the base oils in a soap recipe, but is controversial. If you use it, please use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO and Rainforest Alliance. Read more about palm oil here.
- Ricebran oil adds conditioning properties to soap. However, it is only used at 20% or less of the base oils in soap recipes. More than this could lead to soft bars with weak lather.
- Shea butter is an interesting oil since it saponifies slower than other oils and will often stay in your soap as a superfat oil. In the past, it was commonly melted and added at trace for this very purpose. These days, it’s more common to use up to 15% as a base oil in palm-oil free recipes. It creates hard bars and good lather, and as a superfat, adds conditioning properties to your bars.
- Sunflower oil is also an inexpensive oil that’s best used at 15% or less of a soap recipe. It creates a lovely conditioning lather in soap and is also easy to find in most regions. Using too much of it can create soft bars that have a shorter shelf-life.
- Sweet almond oil is used for its light feeling and ability to condition the skin without leaving it feeling greasy. It’s also is the carrier oil used by most massage therapists. Used up to 20% of base oils in soap recipes, it creates a rich and conditioning lather and decent hardness.
Using Antioxidants in Soap Recipes
Most soap recipes have a super-fat. This means adding extra oils to the recipe that won’t interact with lye and that will be free-floating in your bars. These extra oils make the difference between a bar of soap that’s cleansing and a bar of soap that’s cleansing and gentle.
In superfatting your soap, you can either reserve a specific oil to add at trace, or you can incorporate all the oils together with the lye. It doesn’t matter when you add the oil to the recipe, though, and it will have a superfat either way. However, oils added after trace, have a higher chance of not turning into soap. It’s a way for you to choose which oil is the superfat, instead of a part of all the oils used. A better way to control your superfat is to add it after the cook in hot process soap making though.
Using Antioxidants in Soap Recipes
The superfat oil will stay in your bars as a conditioning, free-floating oil. Different oils and fats have varying shelf lives, not because they spoil, but because they oxidize and go rancid. It can cause soap to smell bad or to develop ‘Dreaded Orange Spot.’ These look like orange spots on your soap that can ooze with liquid.
To combat rancidity, and help soap have a longer shelf-life, always use ingredients that are well within their best-by dates. Rancidity can also be caused by using water other than distilled water when making the lye solution.
Soap makers also use two main antioxidants to combat premature rancidity. They’re optional, though. I used them regularly when I first started making soap but stopped some years ago. Soap made with ingredients well within their best-by dates does not usually need antioxidants. The only reason I’d consider it now is if a fragile oil were in the recipe, such as hemp seed oil or rose hip oil.
- Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) extracted from the seeds and pulp of grapefruit this thick and clear liquid doesn’t add a scent to your soap and is very effective at keeping other oils from spoiling. It is not the same as grapefruit essential oil.
- Rosemary Oleoresin Extract (ROE) extracted from rosemary leaves and quite a thick and strong-smelling herbal liquid. It is not the same as rosemary essential oil.
Preservatives in Soap Making
You might be wondering about preservatives in soapmaking now. Preservatives are reserved for ‘wet’ products since water creates a habitat where bacteria can grow. Soap does not require preservatives since the water that you use in the recipe will evaporate out. Preservatives would not stop the superfat in soap from going rancid, either.
Fragrancing Soap Recipes with Essential Oil
Some people will choose to let their soap scent speak for itself and leave it to smell like simple, clean, handmade soap. Another idea is to use oils like sesame or beeswax in your recipes since they will impart their own unique and natural fragrances. However, the most common way to scent soap is with either essential oils or cosmetic-grade fragrance oils.
If you want to make natural soap with scent, then you’d use essential oils. Essential oils are concentrated plant and flower extracts with therapeutic properties but also scent. One of my favorites is rose geranium, though it does have a tendency to speed up trace. May chang (litsea cubeba) is my second favorite and a gorgeous and long-lasting citrus essential oil. The downside of using essential oils is their expense and propensity for fading with time. It’s especially problematic for citrus essential oils such as lemon and orange. I exclusively make essential oil soap and don’t use synthetic fragrance in any soap recipes.
Cosmetic Grade Fragrance Oils
Although essential oils are what I recommend, when you begin shopping for soap-making supplies you’ll come across synthetic fragrances called fragrance oils. Fragrance oils are synthetic perfumes for the toiletry and home industry. They’re relatively inexpensive, have a scent that lasts, and have a much more varied range to choose from. If you like baby powder scented soap or a shampoo that smells like coconut then you’ll need to use fragrance oils.
Keep in mind that fragrance oils are both synthetic and patent-protected products though. That means that you’ll never truly know all the ingredients used to make them and that they are definitely not natural. In many cases, they contain petrochemicals and allergens that cause people to sneeze or have skin reactions.
Another thing to be aware of is that not all fragrance oils are skin-safe. Many made for the candle and diffuser industries can cause rashes and burns if used on the skin. If you decide to use fragrance oils, always make sure that it’s safe to use. Look at the bottle and ask the supplier for the MSDS (material safety data sheet) if it’s not clear.
Scent Fixers to Make Soap Fragrance Last
The scent of essential oils can fade over time but there are ways to help the scent last longer. Sometimes another essential oil can help the others to stick. For other recipes, it’s best to use another additive that works to absorb the essential oils into it. Scent fixatives are completely optional in soapmaking, and not everyone uses them. Here are some of the choices you’ll come across:
- Arrowroot is an edible white powder for thickening sauces and gravy. Use as little as a teaspoon in 800g (28oz) batches
- Benzoin is available as both a powder and as an essential oil
- Corn starch is another food thickener that you use as little as a teaspoon in 800g (28oz) soap batches.
- Kaolin clay works similarly to cornstarch and in the same amount. You can use up to a teaspoon per 1-lb soap batches, and many soapers mix it with the essential oils the night before. With clay you need to add 3x its amount in distilled water to disperse it just before you add it at trace.
- Oatmeal is one that I’ve discovered on my own. Using finely blended oatmeal in your soap will add light exfoliation and will absorb and hang onto your essential oils.
- Orris root powder is the dried and powdered root of the Iris (Iris germanica). It has a woodsy and violet scent of its own.
- Essential oils – May chang (Litsea cubeba) for citrusy blends. You can also use base note essential oils such as cedarwood, patchouli, and balsams.
Natural Soap Ingredients that Add Color
In natural soap making, you have several options for coloring your soap. They include powders you can purchase from specialty suppliers and even flowers and plants that could be growing in your garden right now. Your other option is to choose oils that will impart a natural hue to your soap. These could include clays, plant extracts, or natural soap colorants that will caramelize and give a warm color to the finished product.
- Some of your base oils, such as olive oil, will impart a more yellow or creamy color. White and/or light-colored oils will create white soap.
- For a beautiful effect, you can naturally color soap with clay. Clay comes in a range of shades, including blue, brown, yellow, green, and pink. Here are some to try.
- Sugars: milk, sugar, and honey will caramelize if you add them to your batch before trace. They’ll do the same thing if your soaping temperature is warm enough — over 105F in my experience.
- Herbs, flowers, & roots: nature creates all types of wonderful colors useful in soap making. Use calendula petals for golden orange, alkanet root for purples, and madder root for pink.
- Mineral pigments are available in a wide range of colors. However, they are considered ‘nature identical’ rather than ‘natural’. These are the same colors used in mineral make-up but are created in a controlled environment rather than mined from the earth.
- Micas are similar to mineral pigments as they are created in a lab. They’re even less natural, some are made with nature-identical colors and others with dyes. Many micas misbehave in cold-process soap making, too and can end up coloring your soap an unexpected color.
Natural Soap Ingredients to Use as Decoration
Botanicals simply mean natural fruit, flower, leaf, and roots used as soap additives. They are natural soap ingredients that impart either color, visual interest, or exfoliation to your bars. There is some conjecture as to how much of the original properties found in these ingredients survive the soap-making process. However, many soap making botanicals are useful in adding color, texture, and decoration.
- Botanical oils work best in the super-fatting phase and may include rose-hip oil, neem oil, and borage seed oil
- Dried fruit & whole spices. Including lemon and orange slices, peppercorns, and cinnamon. These are just some of the items you can add to your soap to create holiday or scent-themed designs.
- Powdered spices, such as turmeric powder, can also provide vibrant natural color.
- Exfoliants such as rolled oats, ground almonds, and poppyseeds create scrubby soap.
- Use some herbs and flowers to decorate and color your soap. Use infusions of flowers and herbs in place of some or all of the water content. You can also use dried flowers on both the tops and interiors of your soap.
- Various roots with medicinal value are used in soap making. However, the effectiveness of the active ingredients can be questionable in your final product. For example, alkanet and madder root only add natural color to your batches.
Where to Purchase Natural Soap Ingredients
First of all, I encourage you to pop into your local bulk foods wholesaler or cash-and-carry. See what they have on offer since you can often get a much better deal than with specialty soap and beauty suppliers. Always make sure to check the best by date of the oils you’re purchasing. Often times the oil in supermarkets can be close to its expiration date. Using old oil in soap making can lead to a lot of issues from dreaded orange spots to a short shelf-life.
I’d like to emphasize is that it’s easy to spend a small fortune when starting out making your own soap. You don’t need much to get started making soap. A good tried and tested recipe, simple natural soap ingredients, and the basic instructions to make cold process soap. Try to resist splurging on expensive ingredients, at least until you’ve made a few batches and know better what you want. For more ideas on where to get natural soap ingredients head over here.
You can continue on to the next three parts of this series through the links below. Watch the below video to see how to make a simple batch of soap.