As we head into the season of festive markets and gift giving I thought I would focus this months seal blog piece on the wonders and benefits of handmade cold process soap. If you didn't already know, all seals soaps are handcrafted by myself meg in small batches, utilising the best natural plant oils (all vegan) botanical exfoliants, natural clays and scented with essential oils. Hopefully those familiar and those less so will find this interesting and give some insight into my choices of ingredients and processes whilst also aiding you with some soapey facts for when you choose to gift soap this Christmas.
A brief history of cold process soapmaking
Cold processed soap has an history going back to at least 2800bc when the ancient Babylonians mixed together fats and ash to make the very first soap. The process remains relatively unchanged although we use vegetable and seed-based oils, butters as well as animal fats (dont worry not at seal! We are plant based only) and the ash has been replaced with a substance called ‘lye’. Mesopotamians, Egyptians, as well as the ancient Greeks and Romans were amongst the first soap makers. All of them made soap by mixing fat, oils and salts. Soap wasn't made to use for bathing and personal hygiene but was rather produced for cleaning cooking utensils or for medicine purposes. This ancient process of soap making stayed relatively unchanged until the late 1700s when a french man discovered a cheaper means of production making soap much more accessible and 20 years after that another Frenchman discovered another link between cold process soap making and glycerine that lead to the start of commercial soap making at the turn of the 19th Century. Since then there have been no major changes in the process of soap making. However it could be said with the invention and development of dyes, fragrance oils, decorations and moulds the way soap looks and smells has been revolutionised. Youtube videos and blogs full of tutorials have helped people all over the world learn to make soap from their kitchens- this is how I taught myself infact.
the science of making
The process of making soap is called Saponification and all cold process soap goes through this process to come into being a soap. Saponification is a process that involves the conversion of fat, oil, or lipid, into soap and alcohol by the action of heat in the presence of aqueous alkali (e.g. NaOH )
NaOH is Sodium hydroxide, also known as lye or caustic soda. It is an inorganic compound with the formula NaOH. It is a white solid ionic compound consisting of sodium cations Na⁺ and hydroxide anions OH⁻. Sodium hydroxide is a highly caustic base and alkali that decomposes proteins at ordinary ambient temperatures and may cause severe chemical burns. It is highly soluble in water, and readily absorbs moisture and carbon dioxide from the air. It forms a series of hydrates NaOH·nH₂O. The monohydrate NaOH·H₂O crystallizes from water solutions between 12.3 and 61.8 °C. The commercially available "sodium hydroxide" is often this monohydrate- (Science from Wikipedia)
To create the lye solution you add the white crystals to water (never the other way round) stir for a few minutes to prevent crystallisation- the temperature will increase dramatically and then leave till the solution reaches the desired temperatures. It is really important to work in a well ventilated space and with some PPE, like gloves and a mask as the lye solution is quite toxic and horrible to breathe in or get on your skin- remember fight club. Its not quite that bad but its not great either so be careful and take some precautions.
Plant based oils should be heated to within 10C of the lye solution and then mixed and blended to a custard like batter. I personally like to add lye and oils at around 40cor lower and I would never do it higher than 60c. Mixing lye and oil at higher temperatures can cause soap volcanoes so its a great skill to be patient to wait for everything to cool.
qualitys of plant based oils
Traditionally soap was often made from tallow (a rendered form of beef or mutton fat) or Lard (Pig Fat) and although this is pretty disgusting for alot of people and I would include myself here, there is something to be said for the sustainable qualities of these ingredients. Such as they are often a waste product from animals being slaughtered for meat and if you can eat an animal then surely all of it should be used. If people are happy to wear animal products such as leather and eat meat then using animal fats in cosmetic products is not so different. The other green credential of these fats being that they can generally be sourced locally so less air miles on your ingredients which is always a plus.
This being said I tend not to wear leather and am a vegetarian so its not something I feel comfortable doing and for this reason I use only plant based oils. I also choose very early on in my soap making life to avoid using palm oil because of the devastation of natural habitats often attributed to palm production. ( maybe I will explore this a bit further in a follow up post). All oils have their own special properties and learning these is one of the joys of this craft. Both Palm and Animal fats tend to lend a hardness to bars which is why they have been favoured. To compensate for using softer oils you can work with water reductions in your recipes and increased curing time. I do both of these with all seal soap bars curing for an average of two months.
So some of my favourite soap oils are
Coconut oil- Loved by skins everywhere- CO has loads of great properties- it is both antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral, moisturising and aids skin healing. It creates a rich and bubbly lather
Shea butter-Also aids cleaning power as CO but with 4-9% unsaponifiables (ingredients which cannot transform into soap), makes it even more skin-friendly. Those unsaponifiables are the fats which soften skin instead of stripping away your natural skin oils while cleansing- kind of lotion like. It is a medium hard oil that creates a smaller more stable lather and can help to create a longer lasting bar
Cocoa butter- Working similar to Shea butter, Cocoa butter is a Harder Oil that creates stable lather. The best thing about this butter is that it smells of chocolate and its amazing
Olive oil- Very gentle for cleansing and makes a mild and nourishing bar. Great for more sensitive skins or those that suffer with eczema or psoriasis . Gives a good clean feel but creates very little to no lather
Castor oil- Needed in very small amounts this thick and sticky oil can turn a soap batter into exactly that. In a nice small amount it can help create a richer and creamier soap.
Sunflower oil- A nice lightweight oil high in vitamin e that can help to protect skin and retain moisture. Mildly cleansing with a medium lather
I wanted to dive a bit deeper into the relationship between commercial soap making and glycerine but Christmas is nearly here and I have market prep do so it will have to wait for next month
Merry Soapmas me old pals