Soapmaking: A Science, An Art, A Labor of Love

October 13, 2016

Soapmaking: A Science, An Art, A Labor of Love

If you’ve ever cooked a fancy dinner for friends or family, then you have a basic grasp of the science, art, and labor involved in soapmaking.  It takes time and a great deal of planning to make soap, plus the extraordinary patience needed to wait for the soaps to cure!

The Science
When you make cold-process soap, you need to consider the balance of oils to obtain the properties of the soap. Then comes the measuring of the lye (or sodium hydroxide, a powerful base). Once you’ve considered how much oil you’re going to use, you need to mathematically determine the exact amount of lye required for the saponification process to happen. In short, saponification is the reaction of sodium hydroxide with the different levels of oils to create soap. You can’t have too much lye, or your soap’s pH will be too caustic and could burn your skin (laundry soap, for example, has a higher pH). If you have too little lye, your soap will be really mushy, and possibly unsaponified, leaving a greasy blob.

Once you’ve mixed the lye water solution with your fats, it’s necessary to work fast to mix them together, or you could have pockets of unsaponified oils. In modern times, we have hand mixers, which exponentially shorten the process, but in older times, people would literally have to sit there and stir for hours.

The properties of your soap will be based on the oils, as mentioned earlier, and your additives. Each oil has different beneficial and structural properties, and the same applies for additives. For example, in the video below, we chose to use Dead Sea Salt to create a slightly exfoliating bar of soap.

The Art
The art involved in soapmaking includes the consideration of scent and appearance. There’s nothing wrong with a perfectly plain bar of soap; it’s all a matter of personal preference.  But it’s necessary to plan out what you intend the bar to look and smell like before you start doing calculations.

Because of the handcrafted quality of cold-process soap, once the loaf is cut, each bar will have slight variations; this is part of the artisan beauty. There are dozens of different tools that can be used to achieve different appearance structures, and even more additives. From clays, to salts, to lakes, to micas, soapmaking has the varietal options of any other art form.

A Labor of Love
Soapmaking is dangerous! The lye is an extremely caustic base which can literally burn the skin right off your bones. Soapmakers use a small enough amount that we won’t turn into heaping wods of melted flesh from droplets, but they do cause us burns. It’s absolutely necessary to take safety precautions, such as latex gloves and chemical-proof goggles. Soap is a liquid in its pre-formed state, so the chances for splashes are high, and if it ever got into your eyes, it could absolutely cause blindness.

The measuring of the oils, and the waiting for the cooling, the physical crafting, and the tedious clean-up, turn soapmaking into a true labor of love. It takes fortitude and meticulousness to ensure the beauty and safety of a quality product.

After all is said and done, it takes about 48 hours before the soap can be unmolded. While this time is passing, the soap continues to saponify and begins to harden. After 48 hours, the soap is no longer caustic, and is safe to be used on skin, but is no where near finished. It continues to take 4-6 weeks for the soap to “cure,” or allow for the water to evaporate and bar to harden. The harder the bar, the longer the soap will last.

The video below is just an example of us making some soap in our lab! Shop for some awesome soap right here.

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