An Introduction to Soap Making: Why not all soaps are the same

by Helen Prout

Making your own soap, for use in the bath or at the kitchen sink to wash your clothes or hair with, is not any cheaper than mass produced bought hand or liquid soaps.  So why would you want to make it?  Well – it gives you control over what goes on your skin.  Plus, by making your own, you can quickly learn which kind of soap suits your family and tailor your recipes to suit your needs.  This is especially important for anyone with skin allergies, sensitive skin, or with an interest in reducing their ‘chemical consumption’.

There is one more advantage of handmade versus mass-produced soaps, and that is that hand-made soaps have all of their glycerine, a natural humectant or skin moisturiser, still intact.

Glycerine is typically removed during the production of mass produced soaps.  The glycerine is then sold on for use in higher end beauty products, drinks and even foodstuffs.  Removing the glycerine from a bar of soap makes it harder and longer lasting, but it will not be as moisturising on your skin.  It will do a good job of cleaning, but can leave your skin feeling dry.  This is when you reach for a tube/jar of expensive moisturising cream whose main ingredient, after water, is typically glycerine – the same product removed from your bar of soap in the first place!  So whilst you save on the cost of a typical bar soap, you pay a lot more for your creams and

So, down to business: what exactly is soap made of?  It is a mixture of butters, oils and lye, or, in chemical terms, fatty acids and an alkali.

At one time, lye was produced from running water through wood ash, but that produced a product of varying strength and quality, and so now all lye is made in laboratories.  Should the use of lye in your soap concern you?  No.  The reality is, it’s not possible to make soap, whether liquid or as a solid bar, without some type of lye product and indeed, soap has been made this way for millennia.

This is not to say that when you are using soap that you are applying a chemical to your body, as the soap is made in such a way that all the lye is used up in the soap making process, otherwise known as saponification.  In addition, handmade soaps are superfatted (ie. soapmakers use more oil than is required to turn all of the lye into soap).  This ensures that there is no leftover lye at the end of saponification and the excess oil also acts as a skin moisturiser.

If you don’t already use natural soap for your skin or shampoo bars, you might like to take a look at what you are currently using.  Some ‘soap bars’ such as the Dove Beauty Cream Bar, with ‘Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate’ as the main ingredient, are obviously not soap at all but a detergent:doveings

Other soaps, like those produced by ‘Palmolive’ and ‘Simple’ are definitely soap, but contain cow tallow as one of the main ingredients, and, in the case of Palmolive, a lot of additional  ingredients that wouldn’t be found in a home-made bar:simplesingspalmpingsjohns

jingsOf course, when you start to really examine the contents of your soap, and other cosmetic and personal hygiene products, you will begin to see lots of other questionable ingredients.  For example, the main ingredient in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo after water – Cocamidopropyl Betaine – was given the dubious award of ‘Allergen of the Year Award’ in 2004 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society ( ).  This fact on its own should not lead you to throw out all your current products, as even natural products can irritate the skin, and some essential oils are known allergens and must be used with caution.  Having said that, I would think twice about using known allergens on a baby’s delicate skin, particularly when it is possible to make unscented and preservative free shampoo bars at home.  Or, you could always do as my sister did and only rinse your child’s hair with water for the first few years.  My nephew’s hair always looked glossy and shiny.

The use of Palm Oil has become a ‘hot topic’ in the beauty industry in recent years.  Although most palm oil makes its way into everyday foodstuffs like cakes, margarine and biscuits, it is also used in the soap making industry to produce a hard, long-lasting and cheap bar of soap.  As demand for palm oil outstrips supply, it has led to the destruction of rainforests in places like Indonesia and Malaysia.   More expensive ‘sustainably produced’ palm oil is available on the market, but questions remain over how sustainable it really is?

If you, like me, are not entirely happy with the cosmetic and personal hygiene products that you and your family use everyday, then join me in exploring the world of DIY soaps, lip balms, body butters, laundry soap, etc. as we remove unnecessary chemicals, preservatives and non-sustainable products from our shopping baskets, one by one.

In the next few articles, I will provide step-by-step tutorials on how to make your own hand and shower soap, body butter, laundry soap, vegan lip balm, bath and toilet bombs.