Alchemy & Artistry – What is in that soap?
We know that handmade soap is bubbles above its commercially manufactured counterparts. Sans synthetic chemicals, detergents, and harmful ingredients…we know that handmade soap is a better alternative. We know that using handmade soap supports small businesses and we know that handmade soap is better for the environment. But, why?
Before we talk about the ingredients of handmade soap, specifically the ingredients used in 8nfinity Homestead’s handmade soap, let me list what is NOT in our soap. Triclosan is an ingredient found in most soaps manufactured to be antibacterial or antifungal. Yes, the antibacterial and antifungal properties make it an attractive option for soap companies, but triclosan is actually a pesticide. It can irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs, and can also mess with your hormones. Long term use may lead to a resistance to antibiotics and emergence of resistant super bugs. Detergent PEG-6, a possibly carcinogenic compound found in several personal care products to increase foam, has been linked to reports of breast cancer in women. Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, can often be found in soaps. Parabens, used as a preservative, is a hotly debated ingredient that may mimic estrogen in women potentially causing breast cancer, as well as possible neurological effects. Phosphates and sulfates are chemicals used to increase lather but can also lead to skin irritation and drying. Beyond our own health and wellbeing, the mass production and waste distribution from commercial soap making pollutes the surrounding ground, water, and limited natural resources.
Caring for our skin, as the body’s largest organ and first defense against the outside elements, is paramount to our total health and wellbeing. Ultimately, as routinely stated, soap is just a tool used for cleansing the skin from dirt, foreign debris, reduce bacteria and germs or viruses that make us sick and make us stink. However, as we also know, having the right tool for the job can make all the difference in our satisfaction.
Handmade soap offers more than a simple cleanse without the muck and yuck ingredients as indicated above. There is a distinction, both in alchemy and artistry, that we must first address. Handmade soap is as unique as the crafter who creates it. Handmade soap, by ingredients and design, can be simple or complex. It can be rustic, or it can be highly advanced.
For starters, handmade soap contains coveted glycerin. Glycerin acts as a humectant drawing moisture to the skin. Commercially manufactured soaps often extract the glycerin and use it for high end body lotions and creams. Essentially manufacturers create a product that might leave your skin feeling tight and dry only to then sell you a more expensive product to alleviate the condition their product caused in the first place. In fact, nearly 90% of the commercially available bath products on the market are not even soap and cannot be labeled as such. Therefore, they’re called body wash, beauty bars, and so on. Real soap, more importantly handmade soap, starts with lye or sodium hydroxide. The science or alchemy of soap making turns lye, liquids, fats, and oils into soap through a process known as saponification. The end result is soap. There is no lye in the finished bar. The rest of the ingredients in handcrafted soap is where the fun begins.
Let’s dive in there. Coming up is a detailed list of the more common ingredients in handmade soap: what benefits they bring, how they behave in soap, the qualities, and consequences (intended or unintended) of various components.
Water - Water is used to dissolve sodium hydroxide (lye) so it can react with the oils and start the saponification process. As the soap cures, the water evaporates and creates harder, longer-lasting bars.
Milks – Goat, cow, donkey, almond, coconut, buttermilk, cream, etc. produces a creamy, moisturizing bar of soap with a fluffy lather. Breastmilk also makes an amazing soap. It cannot be sold to the general public, but it can be commissioned by a nursing mother using her own milk for her own personal use.
Spirits – wine, beer, champagne etc. These liquids contain sugar, which give the soap a stable and fluffy lather. Some alcoholic beverages do contain beneficial properties like antioxidants, but it is debatable whether these properties make it through the saponification process. “NOTE – using alcohol in soap making is for experienced or advanced soap makers.”
Aloe Vera - behaves well in soap and leaves the skin feeling refreshed. It lends to a moisturizing lather well supported with big fluffy bubbles.
Fruit & Vegetable Juice/Purees - Like little bundles of vitamins that can boost your lather due to the amount of sugar they contain. It is debatable however if the vitamin properties survive saponification.
Olive Oil - generally the #1 oil in most soap makers' recipes - and for good reason. Olive oil soaps are very moisturizing, make hard white bars of soap, and are exceptionally mild. Castille soap is created with a 100% olive oil only.
Coconut Oil – One of the most common base oils for handmade soap making, coconut oil helps produce a bar that lathers well and increases hardness. Coconut oil can be drying in high concentrations making the skin feel tight.
Sweet Almond Oil - produces a rich conditioning lather. High in Vitamins E, A and D as well as Oleic and Linoleic fatty acids, this oil is perfect for soothing dry, flaky, and irritated skin. It is said to be beneficial for skin ailments like rashes, psoriasis, and eczema. Always keep in mind that soap is essentially meant to clean. That is the only guaranteed promise that can be made.
Castor Oil – There is no other oil quite like castor. For soap making, this is the only oil without a comparable substitution. Castor oil in soap results in a stable lather that is dense and creamy.
Palm Oil – Use of palm oil is debated in some circles. The cultivation of some palm oil is not sustainable and leads to deforestation. Palm adds a unique feeling to cold process soap. It helps harden the bars and it creates lather when paired with coconut oil. All uses of palm oil in our soap is consciously supplied by known sustainable suppliers.
Lard/Tallow – One of my personal favorite ingredients. Lard or tallow will produce a decadent, creamy, and stable lather. In addition, it has mild moisturizing qualities that will prevent the soap from drying the skin. Lard soap is highly compatible with the structure of the human cells. Our cell membranes are largely composed of saturated fats, just like the ones found in lard. The lard used in our soaps is ethically sourced on our homestead ensuring very little waste from the pigs we raise. However, for those living a vegan lifestyle lard or tallow soaps may not be preferred.
Hemp Oil – nourishes the dermis at the cellular level. Hemp oil may provide anti-inflammatory properties that soothe and calm irritated skin. These fatty acids can also help with breakouts by reducing redness and inflammation.
Butters – cocoa, shea, kokum, mango hemp, etc. – These are the “extras” so to speak for many soap makers. In my opinion the benefits that butters bring to handmade soap far outweigh the cost. Butters are high in fatty acids and help moisturize the skin and improve skin elasticity. Kokum butter is lightweight and absorbs quickly.
Clays – Clays come in several different varieties. I primarily use white kaolin, pink kaolin, and French green. Clays help anchor the scent, so it is not destroyed during saponification. Clays are often touted for their detoxifying properties. Clays also lend to a nice “slip” or textural feeling of the bar as it glides across your skin.
Micas - Micas are most typically, but not always, made by naturally occurring minerals that are ground to a fine powder and used in several industries. We only use micas deemed safe for cosmetic or soap making.
Fragrance Oil vs. Essential Oil – Essential oils are naturally sourced from plant-based derivatives. Use of essential oils dates back thousands of years. Predominantly seen in holistic medicine and Eastern world practices, essential oil use has gained in popularity over the past couple decades both for its physical and emotional benefits. Fragrance oils are typically synthetic, or lab created scents. Not all essential or fragrance oils are created equally. It is very important to follow usage guidelines. The fragrances we use in soap are phthalate free, contain zero ingredients on the CA Prop 65 list, and are sourced from reputable wholesale companies only.
Salts – adding a liquid salt or sodium lactate to the soap prior to mixing helps create a stronger, harder, longer lasting bar. Adding sea salts to the top of a finished bar of soap not only look aesthetically pleasing the salt works as a natural exfoliant. Coffee grounds, sugar, poppy seeds, apricot seeds, and loofah also work as a natural exfoliant and create a stunning look to handcrafted soap.
This list is by far complete. There are so many various oils, butters, and embellishments that one can incorporate in handmade soap. It is part of what makes this craft so sexy and satisfying. Admittedly once a soap maker has settled on a favorite recipe, they rarely change the core ingredients. However knowing what this does, and how that reacts, or tweaking something to alter the outcome is why soap making is so fascinating.
There is one final ingredient to handmade soap. It cannot be imitated, and the limit is infinite. I would be remis to not mention the artistry and passion incorporated into each and every bar of soap. Handcrafted soap makers like myself have a yearning to create. It is an enthusiasm to blend our practical and utilitarian side with our longing for the unique and mystical in everyday life. Our customers encourage, support, and challenge us to grow and evolve in the alchemy and artistry of handcrafted soap. It is a blessing beyond comprehension, and we are eternally grateful.