Sunday, April 14, 2013

Art of Soap Making

The art of soap making dates back to ancient Babylon around 2800 B.C.  Since then soap making has evolved.  Soaps have become more than just something to wash with.  People love finding just the right soap that makes them happy.  I love watching people when they pick up a bar of my soap.  They will either wrinkle their nose if the smell is not right or they will have a happy reaction followed by a happy comment when they find just the right one.

So how is soap made?  It all begins with the term saponification (sa•pon•i•fi•ca•tion – or -  sah-pon″ĭ-fĭ-ka´shun).  This is the chemical reaction that occurs between an acid (oils and fats) and a base (lye) to form salt (soap). 

The base is normally sodium hydroxide (lye).  Commonly used acids are: Coconut Oil, Olive Oil, Palm Oil, and Shea Butter, just to name a few.  The list and combinations of acids are truly endless.  Each acid has a unique combination of triglycerides which combine with the base (lye) differently. The amount of base needed to react with the acid will vary depending on the chemical makeup of the acid. 

The most common method of making soap is called cold process.   Within this method the oils and fats are heated until melted.  Separately the lye is combined with a liquid.  The two mixtures are combined when they reach the desired temperature.  The mixture is then blended until it comes to “trace”.  Once the mixture reaches trace the saponification has started. 

Planning out the look and smell of the soap is the fun part.  So many things can be added to soap to enrich it even more.  Some soap makers keep the look natural and simple; some become very elaborate in their design.  There are so many wonderful choices to pick from. 
Here is something to keep in mind when you are purchasing homemade soap.   There are no regulations surrounding the making or selling of homemade soap?  The only real requirement is the label most say “homemade”.  

These two facts concern me.  As a soap maker I want to make sure people know what is in my soap in case of any allergies they may have.  I also want to make sure the soap is safe to use.  Testing to make sure the lye has processed out takes but a moment.  I use Phenol (Phenolphthalein) to test my soap.  One drop on a bar of soap is all it takes.  If the drop of phenol stays clear when it comes in contact with soap, then the lye has processed out.  The soap is ready to use at that point.  If it turns pink, there is still lye in the bar.  At this point the bar of soap needs to cure longer and should be retested.   In some cases the lye will not process out properly and the batch of soap should not be used.  I have made hundreds of batches of soap and I have had a few not turn out. 

I tend to make a big deal out of testing soap and it is covered thoroughly when I teach soap making.   I have had so many people ask me why their skin burns or itches when using homemade soap.  I know it is one of two things, allergies or more than likely there is still lye in the soap.  Lye is caustic.  It should not be feared but it should be taken seriously when making soap!  I have yet to have a mishap when making soap either on my own or in a class.  When taught how to handle lye properly, people normally have a great time making soap and the fear of lye goes away.

I recommend asking the soap maker what is in their soap and if the soap has been tested.  There is no harm in asking them how they test their soap.  If they say their soap cures for a certain amount of weeks before they sell it, that is not the same thing as testing the lye content.

Happy soap making!!!

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