Archives for posts with tag: Handmade soap


Melt and Pour Soap (aka Glycerin Soap)

If you’ve searched for handmade soap on crafty websites such as Etsy, you have probably come across melt and pour (MP) soap.  Etsy is filled with beautiful, brightly colored, sometimes translucent soaps in any array of interesting shapes, colors and sizes, also referred to  as “glycerin soap.”  MP soap is actually a blend of true soap ingredients (natural oils and lye) plus glycerin and synthetic ingredients ranging from alcohol-based emulfsifiers like sorbitol and sorbitan oleate to solvents like propylene glycol.  These chemicals allow the soap to melt (true soap doesn’t melt), giving the crafter a product that they can melt and form into any shape desired.  MP bases may also contain synthetic foamers such as sodium lauryl sulfate (also a detergent) and some are part soap/part detergents such as triethanolamine (one of the first ingredients in those clear Neutrogena bars, FYI).  Since MP soap is a less natural product to begin with, it’s also more likely that synthetic fragrances may be  used instead of true essential oils.

clear soap with duck

Another tell-tale sign of MP soap is that glycerin is in the ingredient list.  MP soap bases are  more drying (in soap-maker jargon, they are not “super-fatted”) so glycerin is added to keep the soap from being too harsh for skin while still allowing the product to be translucent (though not all MP soap is translucent and many MP soap bars actually look exactly the same as soap made from scratch).  In comparison, true handmade soap (made from scratch) has glycerin too, but it is part of the natural soap-making process and not added to the recipe.

On the bright side, MP soap bases can be purchased at local craft stores and are safe to use around children.  MP soap is made with lye, just like true soap, this step is just done for you beforehand (do not add lye to a MP base, you can make a soap that will burn you!). MP soap base is easy to work with and can be poured even into thin plastic molds and removed easily.  Depending on the recipe, it can even be remelted (alcohol-based MP bases are often a one-shot product, while bases with propylene glycol can be melted repeatedly).

If you are looking into making soap for the experience of the craft – coloring, using fun shapes or making attractive gifts, or you are afraid of working with lye, making MP soap is a nice alternative.  If you are looking to learn the skill of making true soap from scratch the way our ancestors did, or want to make the most natural and mild soap possible or suffer from chemical sensitivities, buying soap made from scratch or making soap from scratch yourself may be the best route for you.  Click here for our class schedule.  MP soap  may not be suitable for sensitive skin since it will some of the following synthetic ingredients:

Sorbitol:  Alcohol-based emulsifier & skin-softener.  Helps soap to melt.

Sorbitan oleate: Emulsfier.

Sodium lauryl sulfate:  Foamer.

Propylene glycol:  Solvent. Allows soap to melt.

Triethanolamine:  Petroleum-based detergent.

EDTA:  Chelating agent.

Fragrance OilFragrance Oils

One of the most common sources of chemical sensitivities are synthetic fragrances.  An ingredient  called “fragrance” or followed by FO (Fragrance Oil) tells you that the fragrance is synthetic. There is an enormous variety of synthetic fragrance oils and they can be tough to spot – some “sound plausible” like lilac, gardenia or blueberry, while others are easier to spot, like “baby powder.”  The key is whether it says FRAGRANCE or ESSENTIAL OIL. In comparison,  essential oils are highly concentrated and often medicinal plant essences.  They are also much more expensive than synthetic fragrance oils.


So that I don’t repeat myself, click here for my detailed look at the difference between soaps and detergents.  This review also covers what to look for on a label – to know if you are buying a bar of soap or bar of detergent.  To summarize, detergents are most often petroleum-based (though some are vegetable-based), while true soap is created using vegetable or animal fat.  Petroleum-based detergents lack the nutritional benefits (vitamins, minerals, anti-inflammatory compounds, etc.) that natural vegetable oils are loaded with.  Detergent-based cleansers are less expensive to make than olive oil-based true soap, which is why conventional “super-market” soaps are often more detergent than soap and are so inexpensive.  Labels can be tricky.  Soap-makers may EITHER list individual oils used (olive, coconut, castor, etc.) OR they may list each soap chemical name.  When soap-makers list the oils, the labels are self-explanatory.  If they list the soap’s chemical name, these names are usually two words and start with sodium or potassium.  “Sodium oleate (olive oil), sodium tallowate (beef tallow), sodium cocoate (coconut oil).”  Detergent names are more variable in their number of words.  “Sodium lauryl sulfate, triethanolamine, etc.”

So what?

When it comes to shopping for personal care products, find a brand that you trust and stick with it.  It can be an overwhelming process to always feel like you have to scrutinize and translate every label (though I HIGHLY recommend that people do this at least once or twice – pick a product that you love and look up every ingredient – it’s actually more fun than you might think and VERY enlightening).  As the owner of a company dedicated to using natural ingredients, of course I’d love your business.  But more importantly, I want people to feel informed and confident enough to purchase products that are a good fit for their skin and their conscience.  Know what’s in your products, know WHO is making your products (click here for a great blog on this topic by fellow natural product-maker, Yancy of Five Seed…e.g. Burt’s Bees is owned by Clorox, Aveeno by Johnson & Johnson), don’t be fooled by well-funded advertising or flashy product labels and certainly not by words like “natural” (this is not a regulated word)…the ingredient label is all you need to worry about.


If you are making soap at home, it is helpful to know how to test your product’s pH at various stages, especially if you plan to give or sell to others.

First of all, what is pH?  pH is defined as the “potential of Hydrogen” and is a measurement of free hydrogen.  Put simply, it measures how acidic (low pH) or basic/alkaline (high pH) a substance is.  Either extreme can cause skin irritations and/ or burns.

Here is a scale with a few commonly known substances:

Measuring the pH of soap is tricky without a pH electrode, results can vary due to interferences with surfactants. pH electrodes are worth the cost if you plan to sell your soap.  However, if you prefer the simplicity pH strips, I highly recommend the brand Macherey Nagel.  They are known “in the biz” to be robust enough to test soap accurately and also the color interferences of lotions are minimal compared to other brands.  Look for strips in the full 0-14 range or if they are just for soap, 7-14 will do.

There are several stages in the soap-making process that you may be curious about the pH of so I’ve included a picture to demonstrate the progression of pH through saponification.

When the fats and oils are initially combined with the lye and the soap thickens, the pH is quite high and the soap is still caustic.  If you are making soap by “cold process,” this is the pH of the soap that goes into the mold and is why it needs to be insulated for 24 hours and 4-6 weeks to cure.  The majority of saponification will happen in the first 2 weeks, but the soap will also remain soft and dissolve quickly if used before the 4-6 week cure time.  It will continue to get mild over the next several weeks and even months.

If you are making soap by “hot process,” you are heating the soap and causing it to saponify rapidly, within roughly 1 hour.   As you heat the soap, it reaches a stage where it looks like Vaseline and is runny again.  The pH is still high, but you can see that it’s dropping.  This stage takes about 1 hour to reach.

In the final stage the soap is more taffy-like in consistency and has a thicker texture.  The soap has finished and the pH should be < 10.  It is now time to put the heat processed soap in the mold.  The pH may continue to drop a little over time, but most likely will hover above 9.  Depending on the recipe, some handmade soaps may have a lower pH, but typically they are in the 8.5-10 range.

So, how exactly am I measuring the pH?

While the soap is still liquid, I make a 10% soap solution (1 g soap + 9 g water works).  Dip the pH strip and compare to the color chart.

Finished bar soap is most accurately tested by cutting the bar first, adding a few drops of water to the freshly cut piece and dipping the pH strip in the water on the soap.  You can do this to monitor the pH progress of curing soap and to be able to accurately determine when it’s safe to sell or give away (<pH 10) You can alternatively make a 10% solution but make sure that the soap is well dissolved before reading or you will get a falsely low pH reading.


Visit for a current class schedule.

Almond and Apricot kernel oil:  Lightweight and high in vitamin E, these oils have similar qualities and will both soften your skin without leaving a greasy feel; great oils for summer.

            Soap-making:  Both almond and apricot kernel oil add a silky feel to lather, both also make soap soft in high concentrations so use sparingly.

Jojoba oil:  Jojoba “oil” is actually a liquid wax that mimics human sebum.  It absorbs well and makes skin incredibly soft.  An expensive oil but worth the cost as it is highly anti-inflammatory and can improve skin conditions such as eczema and acne.  It is also known to reduce fine lines and lighten scars.  Long shelf-life.

            Soap-making: A great oil for facial soap and bar shampoo recipes.  Resists saponification so attributes of jojoba oil will be  prominent in your final soap.  Costly, so add small amounts at trace instead of large amounts into base recipe.

Coconut oil:  A solid fat, coconut oil has a unique makeup that gives it a lighter feel than most solid fats.  Highly moisturizing yet not greasy, coconut oil is packed full of anti-oxidants, vitamins and anti-inflammatory compounds.   Coconut oil is also naturally anti-microbial.  Long shelf-life.  Makes a fantastic lightweight moisturizer.

          Soap-making:  Limit to < 30% of total recipe.  High in lauric acid, soap from coconut oil can be moisturizing in low concentrations but drying in high concentrations because it is so water-soluble.  Pure coconut oil soap can be ground and combined with borax and washing soda to be used as laundry soap.  Liquid soap made from pure coconut oil makes wonderful laundry soap.

Cocoa butter:  Well-known for lightening scars and stretch marks, cocoa butter provides a protective barrier on the skin.  Melt to combine with other oils to create a spreadable moisturizer.

            Soap-making:  A nice addition especially to shampoo recipes.  Adds hardness to bar.  Safe to use in dog shampoo recipes as it does not contain theobromine, the chemical in chocolate that is toxic to dogs.  Use unrefined cocoa butter to keep that chocolatey smell and the most benefits for skin. Since it is a solid fat, cocoa butter has a long shelf-life.

Sunflower oil:  A wonderfully moisturizing oil with a lightweight feel, sunflower oil is high in vitamins A, B, D & E.  Sunflower oil is uniquely high in lecithin, which may improve more severe skin conditions such as psoriasis.  A great oil for most skin types.

          Soap-making:  Less costly than olive oil, sunflower oil can be used to replace some olive oil in a recipe.  Sunflower oil doesn’t have as long of a shelf-life as olive, though, so use bars within a year.

Olive oil:  A perfect medium-weight oil to start with if you are looking for a natural facial moisturizer.  High in omega fatty acids and vitamin E, olive oil has a long history of use in cosmetics.

            Soap-making:  Olive oil makes a very mild, highly moisturizing bar. While pure olive oil bars make wonderful soap, combine with solid fats (coconut, palm) to prevent overly-soft bars.  Use Grade A, Grade B or pomace olive oil.  Extra virgin olive oil has fewer unsaponifiables so will be less moisturizing.  A recipe too high in pomace oil will trace quickly, so keep hand mixer on low or use higher grade oil.  Only 100% olive oil was historically considered “castile” soap.  Nowadays, depending on who you ask, castile soap may mean anything from simply vegetable-based soap to being a certain percentage olive oil to being 100% olive oil based.

Rice bran oil:  High in tocotrienol, a form of vitamin E found to inhibit cancer cell growth, rice bran oil is a medium-weight oil with a long history of use for it’s anti-aging properties.  Rice bran oil also protects skin from UV rays.

            Soap-making:  Rice bran oil is a nice oil for liquid soaps as it prevents them from being overly drying and adds a soft, silky feel to the lather.  A less-costly substitute for olive oil.  Look for it in cooking supply stores.

Shea butter:  Gives lotions a slippery but not greasy feel.  I prefer to use refined shea for both lotion and soap applications as unrefined shea has a strong (and not pleasant) odor.   Helps to heal sunburns and reduce eczema.  Contains cinnamic acid, which may provide a natural barrier to UV rays.

            Soap-making:  A nice addition to both bar soap and solid shampoo.  Since it is a solid fat, shea butter has a longer shelf-life than the liquid oils.

Castor oil:  Healing and anti-inflammatory, castor oil’s high ricinoleic acid content makes it a good fit for people with skin or scalp conditions.  Used historically to treat everything from acne and eczema to dandruff, castor oil is a versatile healer.  It is a heavier oil and has some mild odor, so use sparingly.

            Soap-making:  Resists saponification, so if castor oil is in your recipe, you will have characteristics of castor oil in your final soap.  Adds a viscous and moisturizing lather.  Makes good all-around soap and is ideal for problem skin (acne, eczema, allergy bumps, other sensitivities) as well as shaving soap and shampoo bars.

Note:  These are some of my favorite oils, ones that I’ve personally worked with and so know well. 

There are, however, many more fantastic oils out there so keep the education going and keep on learning!

Use 2-3 drops of any oil as a natural facial moisturizer.

Interested in taking a class to learn how to put all of this information together to create beautifully handmade products?  Visit us at for a current class schedule.