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How do you make your soap?

Updated: Feb 10, 2022

“How do you make your soap?” is a question I’m often asked, and like anyone who

loves what they do I can talk about it for hours. And I know I’m not alone in this,

because it’s a hot topic in every soap maker’s group I’m in. Soap making has rules,

but it is also infinitely flexible, and the ‘how’ of soap making definitely depends on

who’s doing it, bar a little bit of science.

All soap – commercial and handmade – is made with, essentially, just two

ingredients: an acid and a base. The chemical reaction that occurs when these are

mixed is call saponification, and results in soap and glycerine.

At home, lye (or sodium hydroxide) is used as the base. It is extremely caustic and

requires care to work with – all soap makers use safety equipment, including gloves

and eye masks, to protect themselves from splashes, and as even the fumes from

the reaction can ‘burn’ your nose and throat, ventilation is a key requirement for any


The lye is completely transformed during the saponification process, so there is none

of it left in the final soap bars, making them safe to use.

The acids needed for the process come from the fatty acids in animal fats or plant

oils. Fatty acids determine the properties of the fats and oils, and so also the

properties of the finished product. For example, saturated fatty acids, tend to be solid

at room temperature and are called ‘fats’ (like coconut oil and palm oil). They are

high in the specific acids which contribute hardness, lather and cleansing properties

to a bar of soap. Olive oil, on the other hand, is liquid at room temperature and high

in unsaturated fatty acids. These types of oils make a softer, more nourishing bar.

What about the glycerine? Glycerine is natural humectant, meaning that it holds

moisture near the skin, and is found in all homemade soap. During saponification, it

is separated from the oils and settles between the soap molecules, where it acts to

nourish and soften the skin.

So, to make a bar of soap you need a recipe that includes, at least a base (lye) and

an acid (fats and oils), but also water, or something to dissolve the lye in, and things

to make it pretty. And that’s where it starts to get exciting.

We already know that there are a variety of fatty acids, and that they all have

different properties, and add different elements to the finished soap. How then do

you formulate a recipe for soap? You think about what you want your soap to be like,

and you get to know your ingredients.

Making soap is fun, but it requires preparation and practice. Knowing the science

behind the process can help with making decisions about what, and how, to use

different ingredients to get the most out of your finished products.

What makes the perfect bar of soap ultimately depends on the user – for me, the

perfect bar of soap is one that lathers in our hard water and doesn’t leave the skin on

my face feeling dry. And I think I’ve got it pretty close!

What’s your perfect bar of soap? Why don’t you try a Shepherds Cottage bar today

and see if it fits the bill?

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