Ever wonder what soap is really made of?
Would you like to know what goes into making that great handmade soap you love?
Are you curious about the general process of soap making?
Want to know the differences between several handmade soap methods and commercial soap?
Today I am going to provide a general overview of the soap making process and a bit of what happens during this process.
A little background first. We started making candles as a hobby in 2002 and began to learn the soap making process in 2003. Once we were confident in our product and had done proper testing we started our business in December of 2006.
The soap making process does involve the use of strong chemicals and is not something to be done without proper safety equipment and not to be done around children or animals.
What is soap?
Definition: Soap is a cleansing agent made from the interaction of fats and oils with alkali.
So, what is soap made of?
Soap is made using oils, fats, and butters (animal or vegetable), water, and sodium hydroxide (lye) for solid soap or potassium hydroxide (potash) for liquid soap. The combining of the lye and water solution causes a chemical reaction known as saponification.
Oils and fats for soap are compounds of glycerin and a fatty acid. When oils are mixed with an alkali, they form glycerin and the sodium salt of the fatty acid. At Crazy Times Candle & Bath Co. we stir the glycerin back in to add to the moisturizing qualities of the final product.
The fatty acids required for soap making are supplied by tallow, grease, fish oils, and vegetable oils. The hardness, lathering qualities, and transparency of soap vary according to the combinations of fats and alkalis used as ingredients. An experienced soap crafter uses many combinations of oils.
We use high quality oils in our soaps including first cold press extra virgin olive oil and unrefined organic fair trade shea butter.
To ensure a hard, long lasting, mild bar of soap with great lather cold process soaps must sit and "cure" for 4 - 6 weeks. The wait is well worth it and the longer a soap cures, the better it becomes. I guess you could say that natural soap is like a fine wine and gets better with age.
Above: Soaps on one of our curing racks
Is glycerin good for my skin? YOU BET!
Glycerin is in fact more valuable by weight than soap. Commercial milled soaps remove their glycerin by adding salt and alcohol to their batch to separate the glycerin. Most commercially removed glycerin in turn is sold and used as a stabilizer in Food and Cosmetics production, as well as an inhibitor in cigarette paper which allows it to burn more evenly.
With glycerin removed, the end result is a soap that dries your skin! That's because glycerin, mixed with a little oil and water left in the soap, creates a hand-lotion-in-soap effect. This allows us to create a bar that cleans and removes oils, while soothing sensitive skin.
What about glycerin clear bars?
True transparent soap is made by boiling the soap base in alcohol and sugars. Heat and pressure may also be used. Pluses are a high glycerin content and mild pH. Negatives are a bar that dissolves quickly, and often contains alcohol which can dry your skin.
Propylene glycol (antifreeze) and triethanolalamine (TEA) are used to make the "melt and pour" soap base of many so called vegetable glycerin bars. Not our idea of natural.
Isn’t lye harmful?
To answer that question quite simply, yes. In its raw form lye can cause very severe burns or at least severe irritation. During the saponification process (when combined with the water and oils) the lye chemically changes as do the oils forming glycerin and the sodium salt of the fatty acid. If properly calculated, there will be no remaining lye and therefore no harsh chemicals remaining. We use 5% extra oils compared to what the lye needs to fully change ensuring a mild bar plus leaving some unchanged oils and butters to act as an extra moisturizer. This is known as “superfatting”.
If you back a ways in time you may remember your grandmother or mother made “lye soap” at home. Back then the soap was often made using lard or bacon grease and the lye was guessed. This soap could often be harsh on your skin and may have even left you red and itchy. That is because the amount of lye was not properly measured to match the SAP (saponification values) of the oils and fats used. Each oil and fat has its own value of how much lye (sodium hydroxide) is needed to ensure a mild soap. At Crazy Times Candle & Bath Co. we measure all of our oils, butters, and lye to 0.00 oz. (one hundredth of an ounce).The saponification process is complete in about 3 days at which point the lye and oils have finished their chemical combination. You "could" use the soap at this point, but it wouldn't be very mild and the bar would be very soft and used up quickly. That is the reasoning behind allowing soaps to "cure". Curing is a 4 - 6 week process where the bars sit on a shelf and "dry out" evaporating off the excess water used to mix the lye and oils. The end result is a hard mild bar with great lather that leaves you skin clean and smooth.
How can using something made from oils and greasy butters and fats get me clean?
Most soap removes grease and dirt because some of their components are surfactants (surface-active agents). Surfactants have a molecular structure that acts as a link between water and the dirt particles. This loosens the particles from the underlying fibers or surfaces to be cleaned. One end of the molecule is hydrophilic (attracted to water), and the other is hydrophobic (attracted to substances that are not water soluble). This peculiar structure allows soap to adhere to substances that are otherwise insoluble in water. The dirt is then washed away with the soap.
Here is a more in-depth explanation of the chemistry involved from chemistry.about.com:
“Each soap molecule has a long hydrocarbon chain, sometimes called its 'tail', with a carboxylate 'head'. In water, the sodium or potassium ions float free, leaving a negatively-charged head.
Soap is an excellent cleanser because of its ability to act as an emulsifying agent. An emulsifier is capable of dispersing one liquid into another immiscible liquid. This means that while oil (which attracts dirt) doesn't naturally mix with water, soap can suspend oil/dirt in such a way that it can be removed.
The organic part of a natural soap is a negatively-charged, polar molecule. Its hydrophilic (water-loving) carboxylate group (-CO2) interacts with water molecules via ion-dipole interactions and hydrogen bonding. The hydrophobic (water-fearing) part of a soap molecule, its long, nonpolar hydrocarbon chain, does not interact with water molecules. The hydrocarbon chains are attracted to each other by dispersion forces and cluster together, forming structures called micelles. In these micelles, the carboxylate groups form a negatively-charged spherical surface, with the hydrocarbon chains inside the sphere. Because they are negatively charged, soap micelles repel each other and remain dispersed in water.
Grease and oil are nonpolar and insoluble in water. When soap and soiling oils are mixed, the nonpolar hydrocarbon portion of the micelles break up the nonpolar oil molecules. A different type of micelle then forms, with nonpolar soiling molecules in the center. Thus, grease and oil and the 'dirt' attached to them are caught inside the micelle and can be rinsed away.”
Please check back tomorrow for our featured Etsy artist article and stay tuned because next week we are planning to have more detailed pictures of the soap making process as well as hopefully some video for you.
David and Erin Powell
Crazy Times Candle & Bath Co.