Natural Soap Making for Beginners: an introduction to natural soap making ingredients including oils, butters, lye, essential oils, & natural color
We begin the process of natural soap making 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, how to formulate your own recipes, and finally a piece showing how to make handmade soap. If you’d like a sneak peek, watch the video below.
Natural Soap Making for Beginners Series
How I learned how to make Soap
Through trial and error, a lot of time spent scouring the internet and books, and quite a few unsuccessful batches, I now have a successful process and a great range of products.
Most of my soap is now destined for shops around the Isle of Man and for direct sale. Some of it is used at home in the bath, kitchen, and even laundry. I now love sharing tips on how to make natural soap and created this series to show you how too.
What is ‘Natural’ Soap?
For me, making natural soap means avoiding the use of any ingredients that could be toxic or are manufactured in ways that use questionable substances or methods. This means that I personally don’t use artificial dyes, perfumes, or additives in my own soap.
While some people might want to try to make soap for fun and aren’t too fussed about using all natural, my thoughts on the subject are 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 friends, your little ones, and your entire family?
What is soap made from?
Most people ask me how to make soap but maybe the first question that should be asked is ‘What is Soap’? At the heart of all 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!
I’ll go through the process in a later post but let’s first look at your ingredients. The below is only meant as an introduction to your options and each section could be expanded upon with enough information to literally fill books. If you’re looking for places to find soap ingredients please sign up for my free newsletter — you’ll receive an e-book on clever places to find natural and inexpensive soap making ingredients.
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 their grandmothers made or 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, which are acids, and lye, which is a base. Together they will form a completely new material which will be gentle and nearly neutral in PH.
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.
You use 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.
As a beginner, use the water amount shown in the soap recipe you’re about to use. This will usually be formulated to give you a 33-38% lye concentration. As you get more experienced you can water discount your soap batches but I don’t recommend you do this at first. Trace time can speed up and the shade of the soap may differ from what you expect.
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 a good soap. Different oils give different properties to soap including hardness, lather, creaminess, and conditioning.
Most soap recipes are also super-fatted. This means adding extra oils at the very end of the soap making process that will be free-floating in your bars. These extra oils don’t combine with lye and makes the difference between a bar of soap that’s cleansing and a bar of soap that’s cleansing and moisturizing.
If you’re a beginner, please stick to using tried and tested recipes. 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 used in soap making
- Beeswax – Beeswax Vegetarian but not Vegan, this wax will add hardness to your soap and a beautiful scent. Use only small amounts of beeswax in your recipes since it stops lathering at larger quantities.
- Cocoa Butter – Organic Cocoa Butter provides gorgeous moisture and skin protection and also helps to harden your soap. Use in smaller percentages as a ‘superfatting’ oil.
- Coconut oil – Coconut Oil creates a hard bar with loads of fluffy lather and cleansing power.
- Olive oil – Olive oil Pomace soap made with olive oil is sensitive, conditioning, and great for all skin types.
- Palm oil – Palm Oil a great oil for soap making but one that is very controversial. Palm plantations in south-east Asia have led to devastating deforestation and loss of habitat for animals such as Orangutans. If you choose to use Palm oil please consider using oil that’s been certified as sustainable and try to learn more about where exactly its being grown and by whom.
- Soybean oil – Soybean oil helps create a conditioning bar with a stable lather
- Shea Butter – Shea Butter An interesting oil since it has more difficulty turning into soap than other oils and will often stay in your soap as moisturizing butter rather than soap. Use in smaller percentages as a ‘superfatting’ oil.
- Sweet Almond oil – Sweet Almond Oil used for its light feeling and ability to moisturize and condition the skin. Use in smaller percentages as a ‘super-fatting’ oil.
Preservatives are only used in ‘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.
If you’re Super-fatting your recipe (which you should definitely do) then what you will need is an antioxidant to help free-floating oils stay stable and not go rancid. There are two main antioxidants that soap makers use in very small quantities at the very end of the soap making process.
- Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) – Grapefruit Seed Extract 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.
- Rosemary Oleoresin Extract (ROE) – Rosemary Oleoresin extracted from Rosemary leaves and quite a thick and strong smelling herbal liquid.
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 in your recipe like sesame or beeswax since they will impart their own unique and natural fragrances. I create an unscented soap fragranced only the natural aroma of oatmeal. It’s proven popular with those with extremely sensitive skin.
However, the most common way to scent soap is with either essential oils or cosmetic grade fragrance oils.
Essential oils vs Fragrance oils
If you prefer the idea of natural scent then I’d suggest you’d stick with essential oils. They’re concentrated plant and flower extracts and come in a fairly extensive range. 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. To learn more about what percentages of essential oils to use in your recipes visit this page.
Fragrance oils are commercially produced perfumes for the toiletry industry. They’re relatively inexpensive, have scent that lasts ages, 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.
The thing I feel most uncomfortable about in regards to fragrance oils is that they are trademarked and patent protected. That means that you’ll never truly know all the ingredients used to make them. In many cases fragrance oils are made of petrochemicals and allergens that cause people to sneeze or have skin reactions
Personally I enjoy soap that’s subtly scented and leaves your skin smelling lovely. I’ve used essential oils in my soap from the the beginning but have also experimented with using fragrance oils. Both have their pros and cons and you’ll need to decide on what’s best for you and your customers.
Above I mentioned that the scent of essential oils can fade over time but there are ways to ‘fix’ the scent so that they’ll last longer. Sometimes another essential oil can help the others to stick and at other times it’s best to use another additive that works to absorb the essential oils into it.
Fixers are a bit more advanced in soap making but I thought I’d add them in so that those experimenting with making nice smelling soap aren’t frustrated by their soap’s scent evaporating during the curing process. Here are some of the choices you’ll come across:
- Arrowroot – use as little as a teaspoon in 800g (28oz) batches Arrowroot
- Benzoin – available as both a powder and as an essential oil Benzoin Essential Oil
- Cornstarch – use as little as a teaspoon in 800g (28oz) batches. Corn Starch
- Oatmeal – this is one that I’ve discovered on my own. Using fine blended oatmeal in your soap will add light exfoliation and will absorb and hang onto your essential oils.
- Orris Root Powder – made from the dried and powdered root of the Iris (Iris germanica) and has a woodsy and violet scent of its own. Orris Root powder
- Essential oils – May Chang (Litsea cubea) and base note essential oils such as Cedarwood, Patchouli, and Balsams are all great at grounding the other essential oils in the blend. May Chang Oil, Cedarwood Oil, Patchouli Oil, Balsam Fir Needle Oil.
In natural soap making you have several options for coloring your soap which will 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 ingredients that will caramelise and give a warm color to the finished product.
- Oil Selection – some of your oils, such as olive oil, will impart a more yellow or creamy color. White and/or light colored oils will create white soap.
- Clays – though limited in palette, cosmetic clays can add beautiful natural color to your soap. Clays can also create bars that lightly exfoliate and detox the skin.
- Minerals & Micas – Mineral and Mica powders are available in a wide range of colors that can help you hit most of the hues of the rainbow. However, not everyone considers them natural. They’re more accurately labelled as ‘Nature identical’ rather than ‘Natural’. Minerals and micas are found in nature but are often tainted with unsafe heavy metals and are unsafe to use. That’s why the ones available for mineral make-up and soap making are reproduced in a controlled environment.
- Sugars – milk, sugar, and honey will caramelise 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. I even have a soap-maker friend who uses fresh Spinach to give her soap a brilliant green hue.
- Learn more about naturally colouring your soaps
The word botanicals simply means natural fruit, flower, leaf, and root additives that impart either color, visual interest, or exfoliation to your soap.
There is some conjecture as to how much of the original properties found in these ingredients survive the soap making process. Try adding them to your recipes and judge for yourself. Using botanicals in soap is optional.
- Botanical oils – mainly used in the super-fatting phase and may include rose-hip oil, neem oil, and borage seed oil. With the exception of neem, it’s my opinion that the addition of these oils to soap might be a waste in cold-process soap since their beneficial components can be destroyed by heat. Probably save them for making handmade lotion and cream, melt-and-pour soap, or mill your finished soap and mix them in after.
- Dried Fruit & Spices – lemon and orange slices, peppercorns, and cinnamon sticks are just some of the items you can add to your soap to create holiday or scent themed designs. Others, like Turmeric powder, can also provide vibrant natural color.
- Exfoliants – Rolled oats, ground almonds, and ground pumice stone can all be added at small amounts to create a more scrubby soap.
- Herbs & Flowers – these can be used to both decorate and tint your soap. Use infusions of flowers and herbs in place of some or all of the water content and feel free to use dried flowers on both the tops and interiors of your soap. A word of caution though in using flower petals – most will discolor during the soap making and curing process.
- Roots – there are various roots with medicinal value that can be used in soap making. However, the effectiveness of the active ingredients can be questionable in your final product. Alkanet and Madder root are roots used purely for color and tend to be added by infusing liquid oils with the dried root. You can also add a powdered version of the root directly to the soap.
Where to purchase your Soap Making 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 their expiration date. Using old oil in soap making can lead to a lot of issues from dreaded orange spots to a short shelf-life.
Secondly 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 so try to resist purchasing expensive oils and equipment. At least until you’ve made a few batches and know better what you want. For more ideas on where to get soap ingredients head over here.
You can continue on to the next three parts of this series through the links below. Have a watch of the below video to see how to make a simple batch of soap.