Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Archive for the ‘Handmade Soap’ Category

When the soap gremlins swarm

If you do a google, etsy, or Facebook search for “handmade soap”, you’ll find thousands of gorgeous bars, each lovingly handcrafted by soap artisans around the world. Unfortunately, not every soap we make turns out the way we envisioned it.

Mica can morph from pink to blinding orange, fragrance oils can discolour the soap (hello vanilla) or accelerate the process so fast that you end up with what we Soapmakers lovingly refer to as “soap on a stick”. We blame these mishaps on the soap gremlins that sometimes move into your house and wreak havoc on everything you touch.

So today I’m showing you the dark, dirty, hidden side of soapmaking….the fails!

This fragrance oil turned my beautiful blue soap into an ugly grayish purple, and also accelerated it so much that I had to plop and push it into the mold.

It eventually turned back to dark blue, but the bar was full of air holes, so I chopped it into cubes and added it into a new batch.
This pile is what happens when you wait too long to cut your salt bars. You have to cut them when the soap is still so hot that it almost burns your finger, which for me is about an hour after pouring in the molds. With this batch I was 15 – 20 minutes late, and this crumbly mess was the result….still fantastic soap, but destined only for my own shower, not for customers.
 Here for your viewing pleasure is the aforementioned “soap on a stick”. Many fragrance oils, especially some florals and spices will react when you add them to your raw soap batter, causing them to seize almost instantly.

INSERT PHOTO (Okay, surprisingly I don’t seem to have a picture of this! If any of my Soapmaking cohorts would like to add one into the comments below, that would be great.)

Then we have an example of what happens when you soap too hot when using honey. Anything that contains sugar, be it honey, milk, beer etc, heats up like crazy in the soap causing cracking, volcanoes (yes it does exactly what it sounds like!) and other messes. Usually when I make my oatmeal and honey soap, I premix my lye solution and let it cool down completely overnight before mixing the soap. This time, I forgot and poured it in while it was still around 200 degrees F. Oops. Totally unsalvageable.

For comparison, this is what it should look like!

Finally, we have my newest Christmas soap. I had such a vision for this one: just enough fir needle to make you think of the holiday without feeling like you’d been slapped in the face with a Christmas tree. A touch of frankincense and myrrh for warmth and depth. Just a kiss of vanilla to brighten the blend. It smelled divine. Unfortunately I made two mistakes with this one: I didn’t stir my palm oil well enough, which left small spots of undissolved stearic acid in the soap (you can see them easily because the vanilla formed little circles around them), and I didn’t use enough colorant to cover up the rather unattractive beigey green caused by the vanilla and Frankincense & myrrh fragrance oils. Sigh.

The good news is that one of my guinea pigs (er, I mean good friend and valued consumer tester) just PMd me that this is her favourite fragrance of all my soaps, and believe me she’s tried most of them! I happen to agree….it smells divine, so will make its debut this Christmas as Winter Solstice, without the spotty complexion, and a beautiful deep green, I think. Watch for its unveiling soon!

So the next time you see a beautiful handmade soap, think about not only the hours spent on formulating the perfect recipe, and envisioning the design, but also the dozens of test batches and disheartening fails that led to that gorgeous bar. Behind every bar of handcrafted soap is a soapmaker who puts his or her heart and soul into every batch.

Handmade Soap is Hard on Your Skin

imageNo, actually it isn’t. I’m going to immediately qualify that statement…A well made bar of handmade soap is not harsh.

This summer we have been supporting a new local Community Market by selling our products there. It has been an extremely valuable experience, as it has allowed me to meet our customers face to face, which doesn’t happen very often when you only do online and wholesale orders.

Aside from hearing what people would like to see in our lineup, the most valuable thing for me has been hearing what their concerns are. The most prevalent concerning handmade soap is the belief that it is harsh and hard on your skin. First I’m going to talk about why so many people believe this, then we’ll look at why this belief is incorrect.

When most people are asked about handmade soap, they think about the lye soap that our grandmothers (or great grandmothers) made at home. The ingredients were rendered fat from the cows or pigs that they butchered for food, and lye made from wood ashes produced by the wood stoves used to heat their homes.

The process was simple: throw wood ash into a pot, fill it up with rainwater, let it soak until an egg dropped into the water floats with about 1/4 of its surface above the water. Strain the ashes out and use the remaining solution to make soap.

The difficulty in making soap with homemade lye is that there was no way to measure the strength of the lye. Let’s do a quick and easy review of basic high school chemistry….I promise it will be quick, hang in there! This is a molecule of water:



Each hydrogen atom has the ability to attract and hold two oxygen atoms, giving water the chemical formula of H2O.

In this same fashion, when we make soap, the individual atoms of fatty acids that make up the vegetable oils pair off with the sodium (NA), oxygen (O), and hydrogen (H) molecules that form a molecule of lye (NAOH), forming two new molecules, soap and glycerin. If we used olive oil, we would have roughly 1 molecule of glycerin for every 3 molecules of sodium oleate (olive oil soap).

Still with me? Back to our grandmother making soap. With no way of measuring how strong the lye was, ie how many molecules of lye were in the lye and water solution, there was no way to measure how much animal fat she would need to add to pair off with, thereby neutralizing or consuming, each molecule of the lye. More often than not, the end product contained free molecules of lye within it. Lye is a caustic substance, so this active lye would sting and burn the skin when the soap was used.

So it wasn’t the handmade soap that was harsh, it was the unneutralized lye suspended within the bar of soap that caused the problems.

Fast forward to now: lye is commercially produced by passing an electrical current through either sodium chloride (salt) to produce sodium hydroxide, or through potassium chloride (potash) to┬áproduce potassium hydroxide. The end product is 100% pure lye (plus some other substances that aren’t used in soapmaking), which allows us to calculate precisely how much of any individual vegetable oil or animal fat is required to consume one molecule of lye. Each oil has a different chemical composition, so the amount of lye required to saponify (change to soap) one gram of olive oil is different than the amount required for one gram of coconut oil.

Modern soap makers use special lye calculators to create our recipes. Each type of vegetable oil contributes different qualities to a bar of soap, and we spend a great deal of time coming up with the perfect blend. Once we have that blend perfected, the lye calculator will tell us exactly how much lye and water we need to add to our batch of oils to convert every molecule of oil to soap and glycerin, and leave no lye in the finished product.

However, we don’t stop there! We add extra oils to each batch. This is called ‘superfatting’. Superfatting our soap does two things: it ensures that we never have any lye left in our soap, even if our scale is out of balance resulting in small discrepancies in the amounts measured, and it leaves a small amount of unsaponified oils in the finished product, which leaves your skin feeling lightly moisturized after your shower.

So that is why modern handmade soap is not harsh. This is not your grandmother’s soap!

If you purchase a bar of handmade soap that irritates your skin, there are three possible explanations:

1) You are allergic to one of the ingredients;

2) The Soapmaker has produced a lye heavy soap. Natural and handmade products are a growing industry, and when there is money to be made, you can be sure there will be people who try to cut corners to maximize their profit. Rushing to get product ready for sale can result in errors. Sometimes beginners will run out of an oil in their recipe, and replace it with another without running it through a lye calculator thinking that ‘it’s just a small amount, it won’t make a difference’ ;

3) You may have extremely sensitive skin. While most people with skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea etc can use a fragrance free handmade soap, there are some who cannot. Try a bar of authentic Castile soap made with 100% olive oil, which is the gentlest soap,and if that doesn’t work you should probably stick with synthetic cleansers such as Cetaphil.

One final comment on lye: there are two types of lye, potassium hydroxide, which our grandmothers made, is now used to make liquid soap, sodium hydroxide is used to make bar soap, and a blend of the two are used to make cream soaps and most shaving soaps.

Mike Michalowicz

Thoughts from The Queen Bee


Thoughts from The Queen Bee

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