Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Additives and The Kind Suds

When I first started soap making I was so anxious to try everything. I wanted to make the super hero bar of soap. If it made it harder, lather better, glow in the dark and sing, then I was going to put it in there. I still love to experiment, but this made for a LOT of really bad batches of soap. My next few pages of my notebook are lots of notes taken on how I was going to construct my perfect bar. It is a grocery list of hardeners, natural preservatives , skin softening agents and anything else I heard in a soap chat/forum that would make you have better soap. It is amazing how much rumor and how little chemistry is behind all this stuff! I don't claim to be a chemist, but when something went badly or worked well, I wanted to know the why-I had to have the scientific fact of it.

Here is a list of the ingredients I tried and my personal results:

Borax: Scratchy! Borax is reputed to be a hardener and to help create a fluffy lather. Now I have seen people admonish others for using this additive because they "use it in ant insecticide". Boric acid is NOT the same as cosmetic grade Borax. It is like the difference between vinegar and hydrochloric acid. We all use vinegar with varying degrees of success, but wouldn't think of putting HCL on our salad. I have found that Borax is a safe mineral that is best used in lotion preparations as a binder in emulsions (holds the oil and water together) but didn't impart any great hardening properties to my bars. As to the lather, I think it was mildly scratchy enough to make the lather appear to be fluffier. If it ain't broke, don't fix it , right? I didn't find it to be worth the expense.

Salt: Soap itself is a salt, but not the same kind as regular table salt. I am not sure why it is here on my list anymore, or what I was hoping it might impart. Probably it was hardness. In my past post I recommended using either salt or vinegar to neutralize a lye burn. Yes, I found out the hard way that salt will neutralize your lye and thus your saponification will be disrupted. I did hear some ladies on a soap forum (I am such a sucker for rumor!) talking about adding table/healing salts in the last minute of soap making to form "salt bars". I imagine they would be very drying and might only be good in situations where you need to remove a lot of grease/oils from your hands, like a mechanic would? If someone wants to tip me off with a recipe, I'll try it and let you know how it goes.

Sugar: Sugar is purported to also increase lather. I have not noticed a significant increase in lather but it will help to get your soap to the gel stage. If you want to make sure you have a good and strong gel without "dog-boning" (differences in soap texture generally around the corners of your mold where gelling was not complete) then sugar is your man. You can dissolve it in the lye water, but I prefer making a simple syrup and slipping it in right before adding the scent. If you are making a milk soap, skip this step. A quicker gel means the soap gets hotter faster and may burn the milk turning your soap a caramel color.

Glycerin: The more the merrier right? Not necessarily. More often than not when I added it the soap would sweat it out later.

Vitamin E/Tocopherols: Vitamin is touted as the greatest anti-oxidant in skin care. It is the cheapest out there and is most common in wheat germ and sunflower oil. There are conflicting studies as to the actual benefit when applied topically. Some studies show that it can cause many to develop hives or contact dermatitis, and usually less than 10% will notice a benefit to their skin. Do I think this makes it worth the expense of adding it to my formulas? I will go into this more with my next ingredient, but I think this may just be a case of "don't believe the hype". I think most of us have heard that Vit.E is good for the skin for so long that we believe it, and we expect out customers will believe it too and be attracted to soap that has it as an ingredient. As to the antioxidant properties..we move on to the next and possibly most debated ingredient in soap making...

Grapefruit seed extract: Many of us believe that GSE was antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial. It just isn't true. More rumor and conjecture led people all over the natural loving world to believe that this stuff could cure yeast infections and cancer. It has been used in Chinese medicine for many years, and it was never used as a germ fighter-that should tell you something. The studies that showed it had germ fighting properties used samples that were contaminated with preservative. The reason it would work as a preservative in your soap is because it contains preservatives in its manufacture that are not natural. If you buy GSE that is made without the preservative, it will not fight germs, that's it plain and simple. And as for preservatives...(as I get upon my box) soap doesn't need them. Even formulas that have oils that are prone to spoilage don't need them. So maybe you have to plan a little better...

Like, don't go crazy on the superfatting. The more free oils running around, the more prone the soap will be to spoilage (orange spotting) . I like 3%, but if you want to play with 15% then make sure it is not sitting around too long. If you are going to use oils that are unsaturated and spoil easily, then make small batches more often.

Sodium lactate: This ingredient was not in my first few pages, but one I experimented with nonetheless. It is a by-product of the fermentation of lactic acid. Why anyone wants to ferment lactic acid I am not sure, but it is a "natural" process. My experience? ROCK in the pot. I followed instructions specifically, made sure my formulas were rock solid, and I couldn't get sodium lactate to perform consistently for me in cold-process soap making. I had ricing, overheating, and caustic messes. I think most are looking for a quick cure (no pun intended) for a bar they can get off the shelves and in the customers' hands sooner. Where I did find sodium lactate to have significant benefit was in hot process soap making. Add some of that to your hot-process soap and it helps keep it more fluid during the cook and harder when it gets to the mold.

Here is where we get to the crux of the matter. From the list we can clearly extrapolate that I was obsessed with harder bars and fluffy lather. Why? Ivory soap. We are still following a standard of commercial soaps. Isn't it about time that those of us who make soap come clean with the truth that harder and fluffier bars are not better for your skin? Babbasu, Palm, coconut, tallow, etc are not oils that nourish and make skin feel happy. That bar made with 15% superfat that can take a dent from your fingernail and is softer than some cheeses is the kind you want to rub on your skin. Weak lather from a 100% soybean oil soap gets you clean AND makes your skin soft. I dare you! Throw out your coconut/palm/palm kernel oil/ tallow out of your formula and see what happens. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

So here's one of my first soap recipes. It cures to a nice olive green and makes about a pound. I used to call it my "soap on the dope"bar. Right after it came out of the mold I would poke hemp bracelets/necklaces in the corners with a bamboo skewer.

2 oz Hemp seed oil
7 oz Olive oil (I recommend Pomace as dark as you can get it)
2 ox Palm Kernel Oil
1.5 oz lye
1.5 oz H2O
2oz hemp milk
1 1/2 tsp Clary sage
1 1/2 tsp patchouli

Notes: I put this mold into a little sample cardboard box I got from chestnut farms. It is so cute and handy for little batches. It is what I have pictured. The hemp milk is not necessary and if you would like to omit it, then use 3.5 oz water instead.
Measure lye and water and make your lye mixture. Measure out Palm Kernel oil (PKO) and melt. Add hemp oil and stir, so as to warm the hemp oil up a little. Measure Olive oil and add that to hemp and PKO. Measure essential oils and dump them in oil mixture. We are not really concerned about accelerating trace, we are trying to encourage it. The high amount of hemp and olive can take a long time to trace, so we are going to ride it like a trick pony! Go on and dump the hot lye in. Stick blend it until you get a soft trace. Not custard, but runny gravy. Now we add the hemp milk and stick blend until we have custard. Honest it shouldn't take but a minute. Place it in a warm place to encourage a gel. You don't have to, but I think having a good gel on this soap really accentuates the pretty green color from the hemp and Olive oils.
you may want to let this one set in the mold for 72 hrs if you can stand it. It will be softer than other soaps at 18-24 and if you are logging it, you may have to let air get to it before it is firm enough to cut. Once it has a full cure it makes a gorgeous green bar.


  1. A not about the salt bars- I did experiment and had a sucess. Make soap with your usual recipe and add sea salt (table salt sized granuals) In equal amount to your oils right after your trace. Since I will have to experiment more to see if this was a typicalo reaction or my choice of fragrance oil, but it seized up super hard as soon as I added the salt. I glopped the mess into my mold and pressed it down hard and hoped for the best. I took the bars out of the mold and cut them in a few hours because they were already rock hard and I was afraid they would be brittle. I sawed my way through these ugly things with a serrated knife ready to call it a loss, but go figure they are superb! They were ugly and craggy looking, but when I tested them I found the knobbier the bar, the better. I applied the bar directly on the skin for an exfolitaing effect. I must say, that the exfoilation didn't see remarkable, and the lather was weak if practically non-existant but BOY was my face soft after my shower. Noticable smooth for sure. Next time I would add some herbs for greater exfoliation like some tea leaves or oatmeal, maybe powedered loofah and I would recommed moisturizing right afterword if you know you have skin that tends to dry. Not for Mechanics after all, I was secretly please with this experiment and I think you would be too. So many salts to experiment with! Maybe next time I will try a Hawaaian aiea red salt.

  2. Hmmm. Sorry you had such rotten luck with so many things. I'm surprised by some of your results.

    Borax - cannot imagine why you would need it, but I cannot see why it would scratch either. If used, it needs to be completely dissolved in water. It's not very soluble so you may want to heat the water first, and double check it's all dissolved.

    Salt - salt does not interfere with saponification. Really, sodium chloride will do squat in small amounts - and you've already found that it's odd but interesting in large amounts.

    Sodium lactate - it shouldn't cause your soaps to seize. It's popular in CP soaps to create a harder bar, and in HP soaps to keep the soap more fluid for slamming into the mold. It will interfere somewhat with lather, though.

    Antioxidants - they are added to the oils to extend their shelf life, and some have been shown to retard DOS (rancidity) in finished soap.

    Superfat/Lye discount - some work done by Dr Kevin Dunn (the Caveman Chemist) shows that the level of superfat does not impact the likelihood of DOS, but the selection of oils does.

  3. Oh, want to add that you should be careful with the level of hemp oil - it goes rancid/gets DOS really fast.