what are they?
They are soaps without the added preservatives, parabens, surfactants and other assorted nasties commonly found in the commercial soaps sold in supermarkets (where of course, dear reader, you don't shop), apart from the lye (sodium hydroxide or caustic soda) that is necessary in the soap-making process. They are made largely from various plant oils, although animal fats can be used too.
the chemistry of soap
the soap-making process
a) cold process: the only heat required is to initially melt any hard oils. The reaction itself generates its own heat, and takes up to 48 hours.
b) hot process: the ingredients and methods are the same as for the cold process, but external heat is used to complete saponification - e.g. using a slow cooker for a few hours.
Liquid soaps are made in a similar way to the hot process, but with potassium hydroxide instead of sodium hydroxide (as it has a 'looser' molecular structure, and therefore produces a liquid, rather than a solid soap).
Various botanicals (plants / herbs) and essential oils can be added for different fragrances and properties.
what are the benefits?
benefits for your skin
Different oils, botanicals and essential oils have different properties. For example, castor oil is good for the scalp; cedarwood essential oil is good for oily skin; and benzoin essential oil is good for sensitive skin. You can tailor your soap for the properties you want.
You can also leave out the palm oil. Almost all commercial soap contains palm oil, from plantations that require massive tropical deforestation and / or a change of land use away from vital food crops (sometimes even if the packaging says that it's from sustainable sources).
The cold process is more environmentally-friendly than the hot process, as heat (and therefore energy) input is not required.
what can I do?
You can buy or make soaps for washing your body, hair, laundry, floors or pets. Plus some soaps can be used for shaving, as they contain cosmetic clays that add 'slip', to allow a razor to glide over the skin.
You can buy oils, equipment and other ingredients, and you can buy or make your own essential oils. You can find local ingredients such as vegetables, herbs, oats, goat's milk or honey, or of course you can produce your own. Some oils can be obtained locally too, such as rapeseed; and to reduce ingredient miles, you can choose European oils such as sunflower, grapeseed and olive rather than tropical oils.
Getting the combination of oils right is important. For example, although coconut oil is an excellent cleanser, it dries the skin, and so would usually only constitute part of a soap mix.
After the soap-making processes described in 'what are they?' above, pour into moulds and allow to set; take out the next day and cut into bars; then store on a shelf at room temperature, with plenty of ventilation, and allow them to dry out for up to 4 weeks.
More details of soap-making processes, plus recipes and regulations covering the sale of soaps can be found in LILI's book, Make your own Natural Soaps.
Thanks to Katrina McKenzie of Small World Soaps & Maxine Clarke of Caribbean Paradise Soaps for information.
hand-made natural soap bar on a hand-made wooden soap dish
pouring soap mix into a mould
a range of natural ingredients for soaps, including lemongrass, shea butter, satsuma peel, cinnamon sticks, calendula petals, lavender, star anise, beeswax, oatmeal, nutmeg, cocoa butter and eucalyptus leaves
finished soap bars
cutting soap into bars using a home-made soap cutter
ideas for packaging soaps for gifts or for sale