Soap Making

For this post, I would like to talk about the ways to create/craft soap and how this relates to the proper ways that the soap should be wrapped.

There are 3 ways which crafters use to create their soap and before I get into each one, let’s talk about lye. Lye is an alkaline substance that is needed to make soap. You cannot have soap without lye, it just cannot happen, even natural soap contains lye. The reason is that soap is made through a process called “saponification” which is the chemical reaction that occurs when fats/oils mix with an alkali and water. Some people may think that natural herbal soap doesn’t contain lye because it is a caustic substance, but that is not true, all soap contains lye, even natural ones, because soap cannot be made without lye, you must have saponification in order to have soap. But by the time the finished soap is cured and ready to use, the lye has evaporated from it. So if you hear someone say that their soap doesn’t contain lye, well….that’s a lie. Ok sorry, I couldn’t resist. Actually, some crafters may claim that their natural soap doesn’t contain lye, but what they probably mean is that they crafted their soap in a method that did not require them to use lye…I know this probably sounds confusing but I will explain.

Method #1 is to make the soap from scratch, think of it like you’re making a cake from scratch – you gather together your flour, eggs, extracts, pans, etc., and mix them together properly to make your cake. In soap making this is called the Cold Process method or CP. You gather together your materials such as oils/fats, pots, molds, thermometer, etc., and of course the lye…and I know some crafters are nervous about working with a caustic substance like lye, but when it’s used with the proper precautions it is safe. In the CP method, the lye is dissolved in water (lye is always added to the water, not the other way around because that can cause an explosion!). Also, any fats and oils required for that particular recipe (shea butter, almond oil, coconut oil, etc.,) are melted together and the lye/water solution is then added to the oils and saponifaction begins. At this stage you add herbs/fragrance oils/colors, etc., and scoop your mixture into the prepared molds. CP soap needs time to cure, generally about several weeks, as lye and moisture evaporate and the bars become hard.

There is also another method of soap making from scratch with is called Hot Process or HP. This method is almost identical to the CP method but with one extra step – when the lye/water solution is added to the oils/fats, the combined mixture is heated even further in a crockpot for several more hours until the soap reaches a “gel” phase and this is when the additives such as herbs/fragrance oils/colors are added to the mixture and poured into the molds. Also, HP soaps are generally ready faster than CP soaps which require a longer curing time.

Method #2 – What if you want to make soap but you don’t feel comfortable working with lye? Again, think of it like you want to bake a cake but you really don’t want to make it from scratch. You go to the grocery store and you buy a premade box of cake mix right? In soap making, this is what we call the Melt and Pour method or MP. You can buy a Melt and Pour soap base, which is essentially a base of premade soap that comes in either a solid brick or shredded flakes. This soap has already gone through the saponification process by the manufacturer, so that means that you don’t have to mess with the lye, it has already been done. The way MP soap is made is that the base is melted either in a double boiler or the microwave until it reaches liquid form, you add herbs, oils, colors, fragrance oils, etc., and pour it into the molds. Since MP soap usually comes out smoother than CP/HP, this method is very good for detailed molds. Also, MP soap does not need a curing time.

Method #3 is called Rebatching or Hand Milled. This method is similar to the MP method in that you are working with a premade bar of soap, so again you are not working with lye. Rebatching is essentially shredding a bar of soap and recreating it. MP soap bases contain high amounts of glycerin and moisture and that means that they liquify very well when heated, but in the Rebatch method a shredded bar of soap will not liquify completely, it will reach an oatmeal like consistency and it requires the addition of water and oils while it is being heated. As it is heated, it will reach what is known as the “string stage” at which point it is removed from the heat and colors, herbs, fragrance oils are added and the clumpy mixture is scooped into the molds. Because the soap mixture is so clumpy, it is obviously not meant for detailed fancy molds, but it looks great in loaf type molds and the end result is a rustic looking soap.

All in all, no method is really “better” than the other, it depends on the preferences of the individual crafters. As far as packaging is concerned, as I mentioned, MP soap contains a lot of glycerin and moisture which is great for your skin, but if the soap is left unwrapped it will dry out and look shrivelly and spotty. Also if the weather is humid the unwrapped soap may begin to sweat because the glycerin bleeds out. That is why MP soap needs to be wrapped in plastic wrap when it is removed from the mold and has cooled. You can then wrap it with fancy wrappers like the cigar style ones, or fancy papers, or put them in boxes. Think of it like the soap is wearing an undergarment underneath it’s dress.

Regarding CP soap, does it need underwear or does it go naked? As we have seen, it needs to cure in order for the water to evaporate. Lye usually evaporates in about 48 hours, but water takes longer to evaporate. Even after the soap has been curing for weeks, there still may be excess moisture that needs to evaporate, so generally it’s a good idea to wrap CP in breathable wrappers. You can wrap them in breathable plastic wrap and attach the label, or put them naked in cigar style wrappers with no underwear, or put them in muslin bags with no underwear. Some crafters put their soaps naked in cello bags and poke a little hole in it for air to circulate.