How do I make soap, and why do I do it that way?

I am frequently asked questions about how I make my soap; here is my attempt to put together a little FAQ – please feel free to ask any unanswered questions, and I’ll happily add them!

Why did you start making soap the way you do?

At first it was because I wanted something easy, something wherein I wouldn’t have to cook lye inside my house (more on this later). As I started doing it though, it appealed to me the same way my slipcast ceramics do – I loved all the molds, and all the different things you could make soap look like. As I got more involved, and got more soap molds, it sort of… took over! I loved being able to make small batches, I loved being able to do requests in a short amount of time, and I loved being able to make different sized and different shaped soaps.

Is your soap all natural/organic?

Sigh. There is a huge difference between something being NATURAL and something being ORGANIC; unfortunately the two words are frequently misused to mean the same thing. Everything in the base of my soap is natural in that they are all compounds found in nature; however, they are not organic as in legally certified by the USDA to be organic. Just because I use coconut oil – a natural substance – doesn’t mean that the coconut wasn’t sprayed with a pesticide and thus is no longer organic. Unlike “organic,” there is no national standard or policy for what makes a product “natural.”

As an aside, I would caution anyone purchasing a soap that someone calls “organic” to please look for the Certified Organic label, which is a professional standard, and the certification must be validated and annually reissued. Many companies (and not just small home-based soap crafters) allege that they sell organic products but in fact are not officially certified. Without certification from the USDA, it is illegal to make the claim of “organic” and by doing so they are breaking a national policy.

(Edited to add this is a really long post! More after the cut!)

My friend makes soap using lye. Do you use lye?

Sort of, but not really.

The flip answer is that since we don’t live in the 1400’s, I don’t see the need to mix up a caustic substance that gives off toxic fumes inside my home (where my family and pets can breathe it in) in order to make something I’m going to use on my body. But there’s more to it than that — because the base I buy has already been through the saponification process, and that includes lye. I just don’t like to mix it up inside my house.

So while the soap base that I use as my product has lye in it, I don’t mix it up in my house.

So, where do you get your base, then?

I buy my base from a small women-owned soap supply company out of Washington. I’ve been using them since I discovered them in late 1990’s.

Why do you use them?

For a number of reasons– they give me a reliable product; they have reasonable prices; I like dealing with small companies; they know their customers by name (and read and comment on their blogs); I like supporting women-owned businesses. I like that when I started using this company, it was run out of the owner’s house, and now they’ve grown to a 16,000 foot warehouse (without losing anything that gives them the personal touch).

I also like that they’re an energy-neutral company. This means that for every kilowatt of energy that they use, one kilowatt of renewable energy (wind, solar or other “green” energy sources) is put back into the power grid. They reuse packing peanuts, will accept packing peanuts back from customers, and are even an official Peanut Recycling Center. They use recycled paper, and recycled boxes. And I appreciate that they give back — a portion of their profits are donated to charity (one day I’ll make enough money to be able to do that!).

And I very much like that I’m buying a quality product from them. I’ve been using their soap base since 1998 or so, and I’ve never had a single complaint (other than I need to give more of it to my friends for Christmas, because they’ve usually used it all up by February). The base is stable and consistent, and this allows me to pass on a stable and consistent product to my customers and friends.

What goes into the base?

Vegetable oils and glycerin, primarily. I like to use the goats milk base, which includes… goat’s milk. I list the ingredients in both my individual descriptions and on the soap label, but let me list them here and try to explain them a little bit more.

Glycerine, which has been around and used in soaps at least since the 1850’s. The easy answer (without breaking out some chemistry diagrams) is that Glycerine/glycerin/glycol is what you get after the saponification process. Saponification is the process of making soap out of vegetable or animal fats combined with a strong base. Glycerine is a moisturizing agent, and is very dry-skin-friendly in that it is so moisturizing.
– Palm Oil is an edible plant oil extracted from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm. It is a highly saturated fat and is almost solid at room temperature.
– Coconut Oil is another highly saturated fat, extracted from the pulp of matured coconuts.
– Lauric Acid is a saturated fatty acid found in coconut oil, palm kernel oil (not to be confused with palm oil), and according to Wikipedia, is believed to have antimicrobial properties. It is also found in milk; cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and human breast milk.
– Purified Water is pretty self-explanatory. Water, that has been through a purification process such as reverse osmosis, distilling, or some sort of filtration system.
– Sodium Hydroxide is the lye and caustic soda mix I was mentioning earlier; and is the whole reason why I started using pre-made bases instead of mixing it up inside my home. The mixing has already been done for me, the fumes contained by (I’m assuming) the company’s air filtration system. Without a strong base such as this, the saponification process can not occur.
– Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is NOT to be confused with the similar sounding Sodium Laureth Sulfate. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate is a surfactant and is used to assist in cleaning. It makes a good lather, and is also found in shampoos, toothpastes, shaving foams, bubble baths, and even in some dissolvable medicines.
– Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol commonly found in apples, peaches, and pears. It is often used in soaps and toothpastes as a thickener and a humectant (humectants draw water from the air and thus make good moisturizing agents in things like soaps, conditioners, and lotions).
– Triethanolamine is an organic chemical compound that is similar to the Sodium Hydroxide mentioned above in that it acts like a base in soaps.
– Sodium Chloride is a fancy name for something you probably put on every meal — table salt. Salt is especially helpful in hard water because it reduces scale and mineral deposits.
– Goat’s Milk Powder – let me just quote from what I already say on Etsy: Goat’s Milk has been celebrated for its moisturizing and skin-softening properties for centuries. Natural vitamins and minerals in fresh goat’s milk are easily absorbed into the skin, along with protein, healing rough skin and making you feel soft and rejuvenated when you rinse away the creamy lather.
– EDTA is also a water-soluble solid, mostly produced in salts, that also aids with dissolving limescale (similar to the table salt talked about above).
– Titanium Dioxide is a mineral whitener used in opaque soaps. It is actually the world’s most widely used white pigment and is found in everything from soaps and toothpastes to ceramic glazes, papers, medicines, and food.

Is it really soap, then?

Yes, it really is soap, in that the base I buy has been through the saponification process. Otherwise I would legally have to label mine, as a leading company calls theirs, a “beauty bar.” And I very much like the fact that all of this is taken care of for me — this allows me to not stress over home soap-making products gone wrong (stories that I hear a lot from people who make their own base). While I completely understand that making one’s soap base can be a fun and rewarding experience; for me, I prefer the consistent high quality and stability of the soap base I purchase and work with.

But if you don’t make the base, how can you say you make the soap yourself?

I know a lot of jewelry makers, but they aren’t down in their basements like Medieval alchemists, turning different metals into gold; does this make their jewelry less of a hand-crafted product? If my friend sells a necklace and earring set that contains pearls, and she didn’t make the pearls by sucking on sand for years by herself, is she any less the creator of that necklace and earrings? The fact that I purchase a pre-made base shouldn’t make my soap any less hand-crafted, considering that I do the same melting, the same mixing of additives, and the same additions of fragrance oils or exfoliants into my soap that someone else does by making their base from scratch. I’ve merely cut out a step — and that means that custom orders for my soap have a much quicker turnaround, as my soap base doesn’t need four weeks to dry before you can use it. And unlike some cold-process soaps that need to be used in a matter of weeks before turning rancid, my soaps can sit on the shelf as long as you can stand not using it (or in the case of some of my friends, it can sit in your knitting bag, making your projects smell divine).

So, you use fragrance oils instead of essential oils? Why is that? My friend uses only Essential Oils and says those are the best.

They’re probably the best for her, but not for me. I prefer to use fragrance oils for a number of reasons. But first, the difference between the two: fragrance oils are a combination of natural and synthetic compounds; essential oils are liquid or resin distilled from different parts of plants. Although you can find many people willing to argue their points on the Internet, I believe that neither one is inherently better than the other — they’re just different. And just as one person might like crochet more than knitting, or one person might not like onions, it comes down to personal preference. So I can tell you why I like to use Fragrance Oils, but if you’re looking to hear why Fragrance Oils are better than Essential Oils, I can’t tell you that.

The primary reason I prefer them is the expense; I can afford to offer 60 different fragrances using fragrance oils rather than 20 different fragrances if I were to use Essential Oils. Another is the variety — it’s hard to find an essential oil that smells like Fresh Baked Bread. Fragrance oils last longer than Essential Oils, which means I can buy larger quantities without worrying that my oil is going to go bad before I sell enough to use all of it. They have a more consistent aroma, and I can trust that if I purchase the Rosemary Mint it’s going to smell just like the other Rosemary Mint I purchased (well, provided I get it from the same vendor).

There is one thing I’d like to add as a warning, similar to what I said above in the natural vs. organic section. Essential Oils do have many extremely wonderful properties. Many soap makers choose to use Essential Oils because of their well-known therapeutic properties (properties which I freely admit that Fragrance Oils do not have); however, the untrained soap maker can inadvertently add too much Essential Oil while mixing the soap, and this can be extremely harmful or even toxic to the soap user — especially if they are pregnant, breast feeding, or have asthma or epilepsy.

One more thing about fragrance – why does the fragrance last so long in your soap?

I pride myself on that, actually. I’ve used some scented soaps that after the first couple of uses, don’t smell like anything at all. But because I add my fragrances while the soap is in liquid form, and mix generously (think of mixing the milk in when making a buttercream icing — you want it distributed throughout the whole thing!). I don’t stop mixing until all of the fragrance has dissolved and been incorporated into the soap, after which I pour the soap into the molds where it hardens.

What are some things that people who have used your soap have said?

This is the first soap that kept me so moisturized after showering that I didn’t have to run and use lotion after! I have eczema and it really, really keeps me moisturized! — PurpleRaven

This soap is completely made of win. The only “complaint” I have is that I want to mash it up in my blender and drink it over ice, and I don’t think that’s a great plan. Will buy again! — Sciencemonkey

Wonderful, spicy soap that’s creaming on the bottom and gently exfoliates on the top. Shipment was fast. Thanks for a great product! — Nebelhexe

I got it really fast and the soap smells SO good! I used it today for the first time and fell in love! It’s so cute I almost hate to use it. Almost. Can’t wait to order more!

I thought I was going to have to fight my husband over this one. And apparently, the cats love the smell of almond – since they thoroughly sniff us when either of us uses it! — Saffenn

Haldecraft makes the best soap, hand down. — JacquieBlackman

I can’t say enough about this amazing soap. I am totally addicted! — terrybiehl

Wonderful scent, very nice creamy soap with lovely understated packaging. Very present-able. — bcamero

The only three things I want to know about your soap is why it lasts about twice as long as everyone else’s soap, why doesn’t it lose its scent after the first time I take a shower and can I have more? — Rachel

I notice with yours, my hands don’t dry out so much as with the regular commercial soaps.– Alice

I gave your guest soaps to a friend with VERY sensitive skin and psoriasis on her hands and arms. She asked me for your website because that soap was the only kind that she could use without a reaction – and she loved the scents too. If anyone asks, your soap has been used without a problem for very sensitive skin. — Mim

3 Comments

  1. Alice

    Interesting to see all the details of how you do it. Now all can know that there is so much more to your product than a kit from Michaels.
    I like that you are helping the soap base women with their business by buying from them. Lets them do what they do best so you can focus on the creativity of the shapes and fragrences.

  2. Great article! Thanks for the clarification. I already knew your products were wonderful. I love how you have such an honest passion and care about your craft.

    Your post doesn’t mention anything about your supplier for the unicorn farts and fairy dust. Are those ingredients organic or all natural?

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