How is Soap Made? … One Word – Saponification

Hmmm…have you ever wondered how soap is made?  I mean, have you ever wondered what soap actually consists of? How is one of our most basic commodities actually created? We have been using soap since infancy, yet most of us have never thought about this question before.

“So, how is soap made and where do we get this important salt from?”

Soap is a Salt from a Complex Chemical Reaction

(Pretty interesting…who would have thought that soap is a SALT!)

Soap is created using a chemical process called saponification. In simple terms, saponification is the name for a chemical reaction between an acid and a base to form a salt.  When soap is crafted oil or or fat (acid) is mixed with lye (base) to form soap (salt). When this happens glycerine is released – the moisturizing component of the soap. (BTW .. In most conventional soaps, glycerine is removed and sold separately causing the soap to become drying rather than moisturizing).

Soapmaking in Days Gone By

Soap making was part of the daily household routine at the beginning of the 20th century. Grandma would mix beef or pork fat and ashes from her cooking fires to make kettle soap. Though grandma could cook, her weighing and measuring techniques were probably by taste. Her knowledge of soap chemistry was developed by trial and error. Because of this, soap got a bad name because it was often created with an excessive amount of caustic lye.

Over time the measuring techniques were refined and modernized allowing less chance of a lye heavy soap. Two distinct soap making methods emerged; cold process and hot process. In both methods, oil and fat is mixed with lye and water to create the soap.  Despite this they use different ways to get there.  In Cold Process the natural heat from the chemical reaction between the lye and oils is used.  Hot Process involves adding an external heat source to speed up the saponification.

 

Various Soap Making Methods

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The Cold Process Method

Soap making is essentially composed of blending oils and lye water.  The marriage of these two components (with some heat added) will result in soap.  However, you can get there in various ways. 

If you make soap using the cold process method, the blend of lye and fats is put directly into a mould and left to cure. It is well insulated with blankets to keep the mixture warm.  In this way, the batter will naturally progress through the chemical reaction which turns the lye and fat mixture into soap.  Once ready to remove from the mould, the soap is ‘cured’ for several weeks on a drying rack to remove any remaining lye and to dry the soap. 

Soaps crafted using this method have a smoother finish and allow for more creative design in the end product. Soap created through the cold process method will appear to look more shiny and polished, versus hot process soap, which tends to look more rustic.

The Hot Process Method

In the second method, hot process, heat is added to speed up the curing and neutralizing process of the soap batter. This forces the chemical reaction to happen more rapidly. Therefore, at the end of the soap ‘cook’ the finished product is neutral and no lye remains. It is recommended to still allow the soap to sit for a week or two to help dry and harden the bar. But essentially the soap can be safely used immediately.

This method allows for less chance to create a lye heavy soap as the soap batter can be ‘zap tested’ for any remaining lye before putting it into the mould. It also means essential oils and other additives can be added when the soap is neutralized and cooled, allowing them to better retain their healing properties.

So you see, saponification – the backbone of soap manufacturing – can be reached in two different ways. And ultimately, they are the domain of handmade soap creators because conventional soap is made using a vastly different process.

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Other Soap Making Methods

There is a whole world of people out there that don’t want to expose themselves to the caustic effects of lye.  They don’t want to chance using any chemicals around their kids or feel the other two methods are too involved.   This has allowed for another soap making method to spring up: Melt and Pour

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Doing workshops teaching soap making is challenging for large groups.  That is why many people opt for melt and pour soap.  It has the benefits of being ‘ready made’ so no lye is needed.  Ultimately all you need to do is melt it down and add your fragrance and colour of choice.

All of the soap making methods have their place.  Personally I have opted for Hot Process soap making.  I love the rustic effect this gives my products.  But there are enough other reasons that validate the other methods as well.  Perhaps you prefer not to make the soap yourself at all.  If so, get in touch with me because selling soap makes a great sideline business.  Perhaps you want to try your own hand at soap making.  Its really not that difficult!  I am working on a beginner soap making course, so feel free to contact me so I can add you to the list of interested peeps.  Alternatively, there are plenty of tutorials out there!

I hope I’ve been able to show you that each soap making method has its pros and cons.  But each method leads to beautiful soap, something you will cherish and enjoy!

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