Making your own soap: A beautifully complex process
Soapmaking is an art—we’d even say a science! Shout out to our workshop la Science du Savon (note that all our workshops are offered in French only)! But even when you’re working from a recipe, soapmaking can be a little challenging at first. So, developing your own cold process soap recipe is definitely no small feat!
First, you have to master the , but there’s a lot more to it than that! The oils and butters you choose will also have a direct impact on your final creation. They influence not only the final colour of your soap—as we explain in this article—but also how hard or soft it is, how mild or harsh it is, and the volume and quality of its lather. This is all due to the chemical composition of the oils and butters. During the saponification process, they react to produce a cleansing product with its own specific properties.
For example, let’s say you were thinking about making a soap composed entirely of your very favourite jojoba oil. We’d strongly advise you against it! While your soap would be very gentle on your skin, it would also be completely mushy. Where one oil will yield a very mild, gentle soap, soft with rich lather, another oil might yield a much stronger and very hard bar of soap with no lather. That’s why almost all soap recipes use a combination of different oils and butters.
So how do you know which oils you should use in your cold process soap? That’s where this article comes in!
How to create your first cold process soap recipe
Have you just started out on your journey into the great world of homemade soap? Welcome! This article will provide you with a lot of information that you’ll find useful. But if you’re just beginning, we recommend that you not attempt to develop your own recipe right away. It can be quite tricky, and you’ve already got a lot of new things to master: identifying trace, working with sodium hydroxide, and the whole soapmaking process. So, it’s best to not add any further challenges just yet!
To get started, we recommend this customizable beginner soap recipe. Begin by having fun with it and playing around with other recipes on our blog. When you’re more comfortable making soap, you’ll be ready to try formulating your own recipe!
The secrets of saponification
The chemical reaction that produces soap is called saponification. To cause saponification, you react oils or butters with sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Vegetable and animal fats are triglycerides, which are made up of a glycerol and three fatty acids. When you combine them with a strong base like sodium hydroxide, they break up into sodium salts of fatty acids—that’s the soap!—and glycerin. Glycerin is also very useful because it’s a humectant, meaning that it helps your skin maintain hydration by capturing water molecules from the air and retaining them on your skin.
The sodium salts of fatty acids may be sodium oleate or sodium cocoate, or others, depending on the oil or butter. In the saponification process, the fats lose their properties as fats but gain others that will give your homemade soap its characteristics, such as hardness, gentleness, and lather.
We hope we didn’t lose you with all this chemistry, which can seem a bit complicated or hard to follow! For the visual learners among us, here’s a small diagram to help clear things up.
How to choose the right oils and butters for your cold process soap recipe
In general, butters and oils that are solid at room temperature will help harden your soap. Liquid oils soften your soap and make it dissolve more quickly, but they yield a soap that’s gentle on your skin.
You want to find the right balance between solid and liquid fats, or in other words, between hardening and softening oils and butters. In general, we recommend that solid oils and butters make up 40 to 60% of the total fat in your soap recipe.
There are other factors to take into account in choosing your fats, including lather quality, superfatting, and how likely a fat is to go rancid.
To help you choose the right oils and butters for your cold process soap recipe, here’s a list of the properties of all of our oils and butters after saponification.
- Apricot kernel oil makes soap gentler.
- Argan oil makes soap gentler and provides a little lather.
- Avocado oil makes soap gentler.
- Baobab oil makes soap gentler and provides a little lather. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant. It’s best used as a superfatting oil so that you can benefit most from its softening, comforting, and revitalizing properties.
- Black cumin seed oil makes soap gentler. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
- Borage oil makes soap gentler. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
- Caprylis oil is a neutral ingredient. It will have no strong impact on your soap’s final consistency.
- Castor oil is composed mainly of ricinoleic acid. When combined with an oil that’s rich in lauric acid, like coconut oil, it yields a lather. It also makes for very mild soaps, but in too large quantities it will make your soap too soft. It should be used at a rate of 5 to 15% of the total fats in your soap recipe.
- Cocoa butter hardens your soap.
- Coconut oil is an indispensable oil in soapmaking; it provides your soap with excellent cleansing properties. It’s also very effective in hardening soap and provides a lovely lather. But watch out, if you use too much of it, your soap will dry out your skin. We recommend using it at a rate of 20 to 30% of the total fats in your soap.
- Evening primrose oil makes your soap gentle. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
- Grapeseed oil helps form a lather with large bubbles. It softens soap, so it should not make up more than 10% of the total weight of fats in your recipe.
- Hazelnut oil makes soap gentler.
- Hemp seed oil makes soap gentler. It goes rancid easily so you’ll need to add an antioxidant. Its softening and comforting properties make it a good superfatting oil.
- Jojoba oil is composed of a large amount of unsaponifiable matter. It makes soap very gentle on your skin, but it will also make it very soft, so it shouldn’t make up more than 10% of the total fat of your recipe.
- Kokum butter helps harden your soap.
- Macadamia oil makes soap gentler on your skin.
- Mango butter hardens soap and makes it gentle on your skin.
- Neem oil makes soap gentler.
- Olive oil yields very gentle soaps.
- Palm oil* is widely used in soapmaking for its hardening properties and its creamy lather.
- Prickly pear oil is best used as a superfatting oil to take advantage of its wonderful softening and revitalizing properties. We recommend using it in face soap recipes.
- Red palm oil* has the same properties as palm oil, with one exception: because it’s rich in beta-carotene, it will give your soap a lovely orange colour.
- Rosehip oil is best used as a superfatting oil to take advantage of its wonderful revitalizing properties. We recommend using it in face soap recipes.
- Sea buckthorn oil is very orange and may colour your soap. This oil is rich in antioxidants, so it’s best used as a superfatting oil so you can benefit most from its antioxidant, revitalizing, and softening properties.
- Sesame oil makes soap gentler. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
- Shea butter yields a very gentle soap. Even though this vegetable butter is solid at room temperature, it won’t help harden your soap because it’s made up of 50% unsaponifiable fatty acids.
- Sunflower seed oil makes soap gentler. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
- Sweet almond oil makes soap gentler.
- Tamanu oil makes soap gentler. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
- Wheat germ oil makes soap gentler and provides a fine lather. It will soften your soap, so it should not make up more than 10% of the total fat in your recipe. It goes rancid easily, so you’ll need to add an antioxidant.
You’ll note that some oils are more expensive than others. In many cases, these precious oils alone have really wonderful skin benefits, so it would be a shame to saponify them. But they’re still a great addition to soap! That’s why precious oils, like prickly pear oil, are best used as a superfatting oil, which you add at trace.
You’ll also need to keep in mind that some oils are more susceptible to rancidification. For these oils, we recommend adding an antioxidant, like vitamin E or rosemary oleoresin, at a rate of 0.5% of the total fat in your recipe. Also note that these oils should make up no more than 10% of the total fats of your recipe.
*At Coop Coco, we only offer high-quality ingredients produced through environmentally and socially respectful processes that encourage fair and sustainable development. We are committed to offering high-quality organic palm oil imported from trustworthy producers in South America, who are certified by EcoSocial and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
As you may have noticed, some oils that we sell are missing from the above list, like our St. John’s wort or calendula macerations. That’s because the macerated plant won’t impact saponification. Instead, you’ll need to check what base oil was used for the maceration and refer to its properties. Most macerations are made with olive oil.
We generally recommend using macerations as superfatting oils so you can get the most benefit from them.
We hope that you enjoyed this article and that it helps you formulate beautiful cold process soap recipes!