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How is Handmade Soap Made?

Jul 13th 2016

The History of Soap

The production and use of soap started around the world at about the same time, 3000 – 2500 BC. There are several stories about how soap was discovered. The most believable goes like this:

Early people burned meat in fires for cooking or for religious reasons, often near running water. Burning the meat rendered fat from it, and produced a weak alkali called potash from the burning of wood. The accidental mixing of the water, fat and potash produced a weak liquid soap.

Early people must have been curious about the sudsy mixture and noticed its cleansing properties, eventually improving the soapmaking process with better fats and lye.

Types of Soaps Commonly Hand Made

The most common handmade soap is hard bar soap. This soap is made with vegetable oils like palm oil, coconut oil, olive oil. Sodium hydroxide (lye) is the most commonly used alkali for making hard bar soap. Old fashioned “lye soap” is often made with lard (rendered pig fat), and isn’t very successful commercially anymore.

Liquid soap is made with the same kinds of oils as hard bar soap, but a different alkali, usually potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide is sometimes called “potash” and is the same chemical used to make the very earliest soaps.

Don't fear the lye - Don't be afraid of handmade soaps just because we use lye in the process. When the process is correctly done, the lye reacts completely with the triglycerides (three molecules of fatty acids and one of glycerol) in the oils, and when the reaction is complete there's no lye left - just the result of the process - the soap itself (a kind of salt), glycerin (which makes handmade soap very softening,) and other ingredients that the soap maker may have added to give the soap various therapeutic or cleansing properties.

The Soapmaking Process

There are three common processes used to make Hand Made soap, and one not so common.

Melt and Pour – Melt and Pour isn’t so much a soapmaking process as it is an arts and crafts thing. You don’t actually make the soap, rather, you buy it in bricks and then melt it, add a few ingredients like color and fragrance, and then pour it into molds.

You can find Melt and Pour bases and supplies at hobby shops. Some (but not all) Melt and Pour bases are not real soap, rather they are commercial detergents similar to cheap store-bought soaps.

You can usually tell when a soap has been made with Melt and Pour. It will often be transparent or translucent, and soft. It is very difficult to make transparent or translucent soaps so most home soap makers won’t go to the trouble.

These are Melt and Pour soaps.

Melt and Pour soap might have seeds or herbs embedded, which will often tend to settle to one side of the bar. If you see a soap where most of the embedded material has migrated to one side, that’s usually Melt and Pour.

You can also identify it because it melts very evenly and easily in a microwave oven in about 15 seconds.

Cold Process – The Cold Process is the most common for handmade soaps. Some say it makes the highest quality soap. It is less dangerous than Hot Process (see below), and because the soap is mixed at much lower temperatures it is considered a safer process.

Cold Process soaps must cure for six weeks or so to allow residual water to evaporate, for the saponification process to complete, and for the pH to stabilize, making the soap safe to use. Never use cold processed soaps before they are completely cured and tested to make sure they are safe. They are rarely safe to use sooner than four weeks after unmolding.

With Cold Process soaps, the soap maker can get much more creative, and can have far more control over the quality of the soaps.

These are cold processed soaps.

Cold Processed soaps tend to be opaque, and may have bright contrasting colors, and artistic patterns of swirls, dots, streaks, shades and layers.

Hot Process – The Hot Process is similar to the Cold Process except that the soap mixture is heated until it jells and begins to rapidly cure. Some of the benefits of the Hot Process are that the soap will not need to be cured as long, and clear soap can be produced this way.

These are hot processed soaps.

Handmade Hot Processed soaps tend to be opaque and rough looking – far less smoothly surfaced than either cold processed or melt and pour. They usually have few distinct color markings or patterns, and may not have as strong a scent as the other processes. This is because when it’s time to work with the soap after making it, hot processed soap is really hot. It will easily burn hands, and any volatile essential oils can burn off very quickly.

At Cosgrove & Lewis we use cold process, hot process, and our proprietary pressure process, where we subject the mixture to very high pressures during soponification. Some of our soaps are pure cold process soaps, and some require hot processing (the African Black Soap, and anything that is translucent or transparent). We use our pressure process for most of our soaps because we think it produces our best quality soaps with the shortest, safest curing time.

Before we sell any soaps we test a sample from the batch in our own lab. We test the hardness, pH, lather, water content, and other properties to make sure it is safe, and up to C&L's high standards.

Stop by and say hi to us at any of the farmer's markets and festivals we attend. Check this page for our schedule. We'd love to see you!