Handcrafted soaps made from scratch require three things to become soap: oil, water and lye. They may have other ingredients to provide additional benefits, or to color or scent the soap.
The soapmaking process will work with any animal or vegetable fat or oil, but not with petroleum- based oils.
In olden times, soap was typically made with the most available oils/fats - those from animals. Lard and tallow make excellent soaps, but their limited availability resulted in the use of vegetable oils as a suitable alternative.
In current times, the majority of handcrafted soaps use a base oil blend of olive, coconut or palm kernel, soy and/or palm oils. These oils are known to produce a nice hard bar that has good lathering qualities.
In addition to the base oils, soapmakers often add a small percentage of specialty oils to bring additional benefits to the soap. Specialty oils may include castor, apricot, avocado, almond, jojoba, hemp or other nut or seed oils, or butters such as cocoa, mango or shea butter.
Yes, lye is necessary in all handcrafted soaps made from scratch. It is the reaction between the lye
and the oils that produces soap. Once that reaction (called
There are two types of lye used by soapmakers - sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is used to make solid soap; potassium hydroxide is used to make liquid soaps. A combination of the two is used to make cream soaps.
Water is used to create the lye solution that is mixed into the oils. The amount of water is dependent on the specific soap recipe, but it must be enough to allow the lye and oil molecules to get together and make soap, but not so much as to result in a soft bar of soap. Much of the water evaporates out of the soap as it cures and ages.
Handcrafted Soaps are generally scented using either plant-based essential oils or fragrance oils, depending on the preferences of the soapmaker and consumer.
Plant-based Essential Oils
As the name implies, essential oils come from plants and are generally considered "natural". There are several methods for extracting the essential oils, but even so the range of possible scents is limited. Perfumers, and soapmakers who have experience blending essential oils, can produce some amazing scents with just essential oils. Some essential oils are extremely expensive making it unrealistic to use them in true soaps. Real rose essential oil, for example, takes 5,000 pounds of rose petals to produce just 16 oz, which may cost over $3,000.
Fragrance oils are synthesized from aromatic chemical compounds which are then blended to produce the scents we know and recognize. Some fragrance oils blends may include essential oils or "nature identical compounds" (compounds which are produced in a laboratory but have the same molecular structure as those found in nature).
Most food-like fragrances (i.e. butter, coffee, chocolate) or fruity scents (i.e. apple, blackberry, cucumber, mango) are synthesized fragrance oils. Soap scented as real florals, such as jasmine, lilac, or rose are usually made with fragrance oils as essential oils from these flowers are either impossible or extremely expensive to produce.
Dyes, which must be approved by the FDA before being used in soaps or cosmetics, pigments and mica are often used to change the color of soap. In fact, any ingredient used in a soap or cosmetic for the purpose of changing the color must be on the list of FDA approved colorants, and must be approved for the specific use. For example, some colorants are not approved for use on lips, others are not approved for use in eye products.
In addition to color additives, some specialty ingredients may cause the color of the soap to change. For example, adding french green clay to a soap will cause it to have a green color, cinnamon will turn the soap brown and paprika will turn it orange. These ingredients are not used specifically to change the color of the soap, but for other properties they bring to the finished product (although the color change is something that a soapmaker must keep in mind when formulating a specific type of soap).
A wide range of specialty ingredients can be added to soap, either for aesthetic or beneficial reasons. Various herbs, such as sage, lavender, chamomile or peppermint can be added to soap or applied to the outside of the soap bar. Oatmeal, cornmeal or pumice may be added to create an exfoliating soap. Cosmetic ingredients, such as silk amino acids, may be combined into the soap for their skin-beneficial qualities.
True soaps, made from oil, lye and water, don't generally require preservatives. You will rarely find preservatives added to handcrafted soap. Ready-made soap bases may contain or require preservatives.
Ready-Made Soap Bases
Ready-made soap bases may have additional ingredients necessary to make the soap able to be melted down and poured into molds or as a preservative. They can be made as "true soap" or be based partially or completely on synthetic detergents.
A note about Ingredient Lists
The FDA requires that the label for any cosmetic includes a complete declaration of ingredients. In the United States, if a soap is a "true soap" (made primarily with lye, water and oil) and makes no other claims than it is soap and cleans, it not considered a cosmetic and therefore does not require the listing of ingredients. However, if the soap is not a "true soap" (mostly in the case of ready-made soap bases that are detergent-based) or if a cosmetic claim is made for the soap, then the complete ingredient declaration is required.