What is Soap?
This discussion is on making solid bar soaps. Info on making liquid is presented separately.
Soap is a chemical substance, created by combining, fatty acids, an alkali and heat in a water medium through a chemical reaction called saponification.
What are Fatty Acids?
Fatty acids are chemical components of oils and fats. Different oils and fats have different proportions of different fatty acids.
What Oils or Fats are used in soapmaking?
The accepted basic vegetable oils used in soapmaking are olive oil, coconut oil and palm oil. Animal tallow is often used in soapmaking as well. Many other oils and fats are available and can also be used to make soap.
What is an Alkali?
An alkali is a chemical that is strongly basic - The exact opposite of an acid. Concentrated alkalis are caustic or corrosive and may cause damage or injury if mishandled.
What Alkalis are used?
Sodium Hydroxide (lye, NaOH) is used to make solid bar soaps. Potassium hydroxide (KOH) is used to make liquid soaps.
What is the role of Heat in soapmaking?
Heat energy is needed to "fuel" the chemical reaction (saponification) that creates soap. The warmer the mixture of oils and alkali, the faster the chemical reaction.
Does Heat have to be added?
The chemical reaction that creates soap also creates its own heat. If the mix of oils and alkali is warm enough to begin with, the reaction will begin and create enough heat itself to continue the reaction until it is complete. Planning and managing the amount of heat is very important in making handcrafted soap. Different ways of handling heat during soapmaking are at the heart of the different methods of making the handcrafted soaps in use today. (More on this later...)
What is the role of water in soapmaking?
Water is needed as the solvent medium in which molecules of fatty acids in oils and fats are chemically combined to create soap. Water is not used or changed in the soapmaking process. After the soap is made, most of the water is removed by evaporation.
How do I choose which oils or fats to use?
Each oil contributes its own mix of fatty acids to the resulting soap, as well as other components of the oil which may add their own character and attributes to the soap, In the basic three oil mix for making handcrafted soap, Olive Oil contributes lots of a fatty acid that makes soap that is easy on the skin, Coconut Oil contributes fatty acids that make a hard soap that produces lots of lather and Palm Oil contributes fatty acids that make soap that is hard, cleans well and has a "quality feel" when used. Proportions of oils can be varied and many other oils and fats are available to experiment with, each contributing something different to your handcrafted soaps. Researching what fats and oils do what is one of the fascinations of soapmaking.
What about "Superfatting"?
Superfatting refers to using more oils than the amount of alkali in a soap recipe formula can saponify completely. Calculators such as our own SBM Crafters Soap Calculator express this as a percentage of superfatting. This will leave some "extra" oils in the finished soap and will allow the oils' properties to be expressed in the soap. This, along with careful selection of the oils used in the recipe, will affect the feel and qualities of the soap produced. Choosing a particular oil to be the superfatting oil and adding it to the new soap just before pouring it into the mold will emphasize the qualities of that just added oil above the general mix of oils used. Finding a preferred superfatting percentage along with the properties of the oils used is one of the attractions of soapmaking.
How do I know how much Alkali (Lye) to use?
First choose the amounts and proportions of the different oils and fats you will be using in your soap recipe. Then use a lye calculator such as our own SBM Crafters Soap Calculator to compute the correct amount of alkali needed to combine with the amounts and kinds of oils you have chosen. Note that the accurate measurement of alkali to be used is extremely important. A precision scale such as an electronic scale accurate to 1/10th (0.1) of an ounce is adequate and can be found at local postal offices or large department stores for about $40 or a brand name unit can be bought at office supply stores for about $50 or so.
How much Water is needed?
Because water is not used or changed by the reactions of soapmaking, the amount of water used is not a critically exact measure. Enough water must be used to dissolve all of the alkali used. Too much water will result in soap that "shrinks" when the finished bars are dried. Water solutions of approximately 30% Sodium Hydroxide (lye) by weight are usually used in making bar soaps. Our SBM Crafters Soap Calculator will compute the minimum amount of water by weight to use for any bar soap formula recipe input there.
More about Managing Heat and the
different methods of soapmaking:
Two basic methods of making solid bar handcrafted soaps are known as Cold Process and Hot Process soapmaking.
Cold Process means that no additional heat is added after mixing the initial ingredients other than that produced by the soapmaking chemical reaction (saponification) itself. Note that this concept is "stretched" a bit in that the initial lye solution and oils mixture are usually heated to about 90-110 degrees to begin with and the mold into which the new soap is poured is kept insulated so that it maintains a high enough temperature to ensure that the reaction is as complete as possible. The resulting soap is then cut into bars and put aside to "cure" for at least 3 to 4 weeks or more. Curing time is very important for cold processed soaps as during this time any uncompleted chemical reaction will slowly finish and excess water will dry out of the bars of soap.
Hot Process means that additional heat is added while the chemical reaction is happening. Depending on the temperatures used, the soap solutions may be gently boiled until the water is mostly removed and the new soap is itself melted. Alternately, the soap solutions may be heated in a slow-cooker pot or an entire wood mold of new soap may be kept heated until saponification is complete. Hot process soaps are more completely saponified by the time they are cooled and require much less drying time.
Is one method of making soap better than another?
Like the many different mixture formulas of oils and fats that can be used to make soaps with different qualities, the different methods of making handcrafted soaps can result in finished soaps with differing qualities of scent, feel and usability. Learning and choosing a favorite method is one of the attractions of handcrafted soapmaking.
Making your own handcrafted soap is a matter of balancing the oils and fats used to achieve the qualities you desire in the finished soap, precisely calculating and measuring the amount of alkali to be used, using adequate but not excessive water and also managing the amount of heat present throughout the soapmaking process.
So How Do You Get Started Making Soap?
There are many formula recipes and process descriptions available online for various different methods of making your first batch of homemade, handcrafted soap. Take some time to research this fascinating hobby, but be careful....it can be addicting!
Get Started With 3-Oils Soap
We've taken the time and effort to scan as many soap formula recipes we could find to arrive at a good, average soap formula to serve as a starting point for beginning soapmakers. You can view our results by following the 3-Oils Soap link in Make Your Own Soaps directory to the left of this page.
Create your own soap formulas
with the SBM Crafters Soap Calculator
When you graduate to trying other soap recipes or designing your own soap formula, our SBM Crafters Soap Calculator will accurately compute the lye and water you need and our Recipe Resizer will allow you to resize any recipe to fit in any size rectangular or round mold of your choice.
A safety note... Read this!
Lye dissolving in water releases considerable heat - Almost enough to bring room temperature water to a boil. Therefore, be sure to mix your lye with cold water only and be sure to carefully pour your lye into your water, not the other way around. Always wear proper eye protection, wear protective gloves and work near a source of running water for rinsing when creating, pouring or handling a lye solution.
Proper procedures and safety measures are a must
whenever making handcrafted soap.
Learn how before you start!
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