by Donna Adams
Let's face it:
we love the idea of Aromatherapy soap but can't always trust that what
we find in the stores is True Aromatherapy, or even natural or beneficial
at all. Reading the ingredient label would certainly help - however,
there often is no ingredient label due to loose FDA guidelines - anything
labeled as "soap" is assumed to contain oils and lye, and is not required
to list all of its ingredients if it makes no specific health claims.
(If it does claim any health benefits, it's considered a cosmetic and
is supposed to fall under far more stringent rules (1)
- whether those are followed or not is another story.)
So what do we
do? We can trust that our local health food store will carry some brand
or another that lists its ingredients and is trustworthy, and pay the
hefty price tag - or the industrious among us may venture to make our
own soap. The result is well worth the effort.
But where to start?
The best thing to do is to figure out how deeply involved you want
to be in the soapmaking process - do you simply want to experiment
by trying your essential oils and blends in a melt-n-pour soap base,
or do you want to get "down-n-dirty" and make your soap from scratch?
Either method is fine from an Aromatherapy standpoint - just be sure
to duly research the essential oils you're using to make sure they're
safe for external application, and keep the amount of essential oils
at a therapeutic level of 1 - 2 ˝ (2) of the
total weight of your soap batch (depending on sensitivity and strength
of the essential oil - i.e. lighter notes like citrus oils will need
to be closer to the high range, where strong oils like peppermint should
be kept closer to the lower end.) This same principle can also apply
to mixing essential oils into unscented lotion, liquid soap/bath gel
or even shampoo & conditioner.
The "from scratch"
method is much more laborious, but is by far the most rewarding way
to go. The soapmaker has control over every single ingredient that
goes into their soap, and can pick and choose from a huge variety of
carrier oils and butters, essential oils, hydrosols, herbs, clays and
colorants, and thus derive exactly the benefit they want from the finished
We're going to
assume you've chosen the path of most resistance and decided to dabble
in the alchemy of saponification. "Saponification" - the abracadabra
of soapmaking. This is the process that turns your oils, lye, scents,
herbs and whatever else you've tossed in the cauldron into wonderful,
therapeutically scented, moisturizing bars of soap . . . and your magic
wand is a stick blender.
The chemical reaction
that results in saponification occurs when lye is mixed with a liquid
and a fat; or to put it technically, alkaline hydrolysis of a fat or
an oil creates soap (3). A by-product of this
process is glycerin, a natural emollient (4).
One of the benefits of making soap by hand is that this glycerin, which
is removed and resold by commercial soap manufacturers (5),
remains in the finished product and contributes its protective qualities.
Fun fact: those "glycerin soaps" you buy in the store are usually made
from detergents and are not soaps at all, and any glycerin they've
added back into it was probably robbed from some poor, innocent batch
of soap, which they tell you not to buy because it dries out your skin,
which it wouldn't do if they'd left the glycerin in it in the first
place! Go figure.
In order to make
soap, there are a few things you need to know in advance: you will
have to purchase lye, you will have to handle lye, and you will have
to not be afraid of lye. Purchasing lye is simple if you have seen
the "Red Devil" brand in the household cleaning section of your local
hardware store or supermarket. If you cannot find it locally, lye can
be ordered from one of the suppliers listed at the end of this book.
There are certain dangers associated with this adventurous hobby, and
handling lye is the foremost (the other dangers being addiction to
soapmaking and driving your pets insane with the incessant whirring
of your immersion blender). Lye (a.k.a. sodium hydroxide), when mixed
with water, hydrosol or other liquid of choice, instantly turns the
water about 160° F. The heated water and resultant steam are very caustic,
and can cause severe burns to eyes, skin, mucous membranes or lungs
if inhaled directly. So, if you can avoid sticking your face in the
bucket to see how the chemical reaction is going, you should be OK.
But seriously, your area must be VERY well ventilated, or preferably
do your lye-water mixing outside. Avoid all contact with the steam.
If you fall under the "afraid of lye" category, it is advisable that
you purchase goggles and wear rubber gloves during this portion of
the process. There are a few tips to minimize contact with the lye-water
which I will work into the step-by-step process.
So, if you haven't
been scared away yet, let's make soap! The materials you will need
to make an approximately 3-lb. batch of soap (yield about 10 bars)
- a kitchen scale,
preferably digital, that can be read to 1/10th of an ounce (the main
ingredients are weighed, not measured)
- a cup to weigh
the liquid (plastic drinking cup is fine)
- a sturdy, pourable
small bucket or large Rubbermaid-type pitcher, (1/2 - 1 gallon size)
- a pot or heat-safe
bowl to melt solid fats in (enameled metal or Corningware® type will
- a stirring spoon
(I use a heavy-gauge plastic slotted spoon)
- a heat-safe,
but not too stiff, spatula
- one or preferably
two glass candy thermometers that can read as low as 80° (with lettering
on the inside or it will melt off!)
- measuring spoons
for essential oils & additives (not necessary to weigh scents & additives)
- a stick blender
(immersion blender) unless you want to stir for 3 hours!
- a soap mold
of some sort - a large, rectangular Tupperware® container is good
to start with since you don't have to line it. I don't advise trying
to do a bunch of little molds at this point.
- a bath towel
to wrap around the mold for insulation
- about an hour
prep time + 24 hours before unmolding.
Your basic soap
ingredients are (remember, these are by weight, not volume, so use
- 9 oz. Water
(or you may substitute brewed tea or hydrosol for some or all of the
- 3.4 oz. Lye
- 12 oz. Olive
oil - not Extra Virgin (extra Virgin has too strong an odor)
- 9 oz. Coconut
oil (can be found in many Health Food stores or ordered online)
- 3 oz. Palm oil
(can substitute Sunflower since Palm is not easy to find except online)
- Essential oils
- Up to 2 Tbsp. (1 oz.) depending on strength/sensitization factor
of oil. Examples: Peppermint - use no more than ˝ Tbsp. or menthol
feel will be too strong; Grapefruit - use the full 2 Tbsp. because
the scent evaporates quickly. Take advantage of your EO knowledge
here! Blends should total no more than 1 oz.
- Optional - up
to 2 tsp. dried herbs, tea, oatmeal, ground spices, clays, cocoa butter
Instructions (a.k.a. "Test Your Multi-Tasking Skills"):
- Weigh your lye
by spooning it into the dry, empty bucket or pitcher (plastic picnic-ware
spoon will do but throw it out after). Set aside.
- Measure your
water (or liquid of choice) in the designated cup. Carry these 2 containers
outside if possible for the next step - or do this in a very well
- Holding away
from your face & standing upwind if outside, tip the lye bucket/pitcher
at an angle (30° or more) and slowly pour the water down the inside
of the bucket wall - DO NOT DUMP IT IN. (Think of pouring beer into
a glass slowly and at an angle so that you won't have any foam - this
is the exact same motion.) When finished pouring, give the pitcher
a quick, careful swirl to mix - it will begin to steam so hold away
from your face! Set it down and go back inside, or set it by an open
window or other ventilation (I actually try not to breathe until I'm
at a safe distance). If it's really cold outside, just keep the lye-water
outside until it stops steaming (give it a test-swirl to make sure)
and then bring it in and set it aside.
- While the lye-water
is cooling, melt your solid oils in your pot over very low heat (include
cocoa butter or shea butter in this melting process if using). Once
the oils are melted, add the liquid oil (Olive & Sunflower if using).
After you've stirred in the liquid oil, measure the temperature with
a glass thermometer. If it's more than 90°F, remove from heat. If
less than 90°, leave on low heat until it rises between 90-100°F.
- Measure the
temperature of the lye-water (it should have stopped steaming by now,
so it's a bit more approachable). If it's over 100°F, let it sit longer,
or put the pitcher in the sink and surround with ice. Carefully. Measure
periodically until the desired temperature range is reached.
- When both the
lye-water and oils are between 90-100°F - you can get away with up
to 5 degrees difference between the two - pour the oils into the lye-water
(do I need to say "carefully"?) and then mix well with your slotted
spoon. The frugal among us will want to use the spatula to scrape
the sides of the oil pot to make sure it all goes into the mix.
- When the oils
& lye-water mixture is well homogenized (about 30 seconds of vigorous
stirring), you may immerse your stick blender into the pitcher and
whir away until the "batter" turns pearly in color and begins to thicken
slightly. This should only take about a minute or three. This is called
"trace" - i.e. the mixture is thick enough that a drop will suspend
or a spoon will leave stir-marks for a second before disappearing
back into the batter (the mixture should be pancake-batter-thick but
- Now you can
add your essential oil(s) - pour in the oil and stir with the slotted
spoon to homogenize. This stirring should thin out your mixture, so
you will then need to use your stick blender again for a minute or
so until it traces once more.
- After the 2nd
trace, stir in any herbs, tea, colors or clays using your slotted
spoon. If it's still really thin, use the blender again, but if it's
at least as thick as cake batter, it's ready to pour into the mold.
- Pour evenly
into the mold. (Again, use the spatula to coax out the stuff that's
stuck to the sides of your pitcher if desired). Put the cover on your
mold and wrap it in the bath towel to insulate, being careful not
to disturb the contents too much. No peeking for 24 hours please (or
at least overnight). You will know the soap is ready the next day
if you can poke it with your finger without leaving an imprint - if
it's too soft, leave for another 24 hours.
- To unmold, cover
your counter with cooking parchment or heavy-duty freezer paper and
put the mold upside-down over it, pressing gently from the edges toward
the center to loosen. If this is really difficult, you may put the
mold in the freezer for 30 min. - 1 hour, and then as it warms to
room temperature you should have no difficulty unmolding as the condensation
will make it slippery. Cut into bars, and let it sit for two or three
weeks in a position that will allow each bar to air. This waiting
period is called "curing".
Answers about the Soapmaking Process
"Why do I need
to insulate the soap? What happens to it while it's wrapped in that
towel? Why can't I peek at it??"
process generates heat as the lye breaks down the oils into fatty acids
& glycerin. Insulation is required so that the heat will not escape
- it is needed to further fuel the reaction and properly "cook" the
soap, and to prevent separation (6). If you were
to cheat and unwrap or peek at the process and thus reduce the temperature,
the soap would know it and behave accordingly.
"Why do the
oils & lye-water have to be the same temperature?"
If the oils and
lye are not within a few degrees of each other temperature-wise, they
will separate and your soap will not saponify (7).
This is why you need good multi-tasking skills. Trying to heat up your
oils while cooling down the lye solution and have them arrive at the
same temperature at the same time is the reason I laid out my process
in the order in which I did. It was a trial and error discovery from
which you, dear readers, can reap the anxiety-saving benefits.
"Why does it
have to sit for three weeks?"
The soap takes
this long to harden properly. The saponification process is not complete
until most of the moisture has evaporated out of the soap (8).
do I have as far as ingredients? Can I use other oils besides olive,
coconut, palm & sunflower? What about colors? Can I do this with all
There is an almost
endless array of goodies you can add to your soap; however there are
certain desirable qualities in soap that can be best supplied by specific
ingredients. Those qualities are lather, hardness and skincare contribution.
Scents, colors and textures are generally more subjective, and in the
world of Aromatherapy, are something we'd probably prefer to keep natural.
Most of this can be done with ingredients that are already in your
qualities mentioned above are the reasons why coconut, palm and olive
oils specifically were chosen - however there are alternatives. If
you want fluffy lather, there are really only two choices: Coconut
oil or Palm Kernel oil. Both oils lather wonderfully and are very moisturizing
- to a point. For reasons undiscovered in my research, if either oil
is used at greater than 30% of your total batch, they can actually
dry the skin rather than moisturize it. Coconut tends to be easier
to find and slightly less expensive, which is why it was chosen for
For hardness (and
hence longevity of your bar of soap), Palm oil works best. It can certainly
be substituted with other oils such as the easily-available Sunflower,
but Palm will help your soap trace faster, cure quicker, and last longer.
It should be used in only about 10% quantity to keep the soap from
being too hard or harsh (drying).
Olive oil offers
the best of (affordable) skincare. It is an adaptogen, meaning it will
help moisturize dry skin while controlling oily skin (9).
It is humectant, attracting moisture to your skin while allowing it
to breathe naturally. Olive can be used by itself to make a super-healing
skincare soap (this is known as Castile), but the disadvantages of
that are feeble lather and so much glycerin that it can feel slimy
and be difficult to rinse off. This is not a bad thing if you have
seriously dry skin, eczema or other problems, but to make your soap
more user-friendly, keep the Olive oil at 50-60% of your batch.
One head start
that Aromatherapists have over other beginner-soapmakers (besides the
obvious essential oil expertise) is a knowledge of the benefits of
a large array of carrier oils. This will certainly help you to choose
what oils you want to combine with your aromas to achieve the desired
healing effect. Use the same type of judgement that you would when
making a topical or massage blend, and substitute one or two ounces
of either the palm/sunflower oil or the olive oil with your Rosa rubignosa
or whatever; or for supremely luxurious, silky lather, substitute an
ounce or two of Apricot Kernel oil. (I am almost reluctant to divulge
that little secret!)
The fun part is,
of course, scenting, coloring and texturizing your soap. The options
are almost endless - and as a bonus we can use a combination of aromatherapy
and color therapy. For example, a soap intended to have a calming effect
might contain Lavender essential oil and chamomile flowers, plus be
colored in a soothing shade of Lavender. An energizing soap could be
colored orange, a mentally or physically healing soap could be green.
However, if you want to use exclusively natural colorants, there is
a limit to the shades you can produce - but this does not stop you
from being able to accomplish your desired effect. Some great natural
colorants are paprika or annato for orange, alkanet root for a range
of blue or purple shades (including lavender), chlorophyll or sea clay
for greens, pink clay or ground rosehips for reddish tones, and cinnamon
or even instant coffee for brown (use these last two in very small
amounts). These will all be earthy versions of their respective colors
- so please don't expect to see baby pink or teal as an outcome. If
you desire bright colors and don't mind going with synthetics, there
are pigments and dyes available in just about any color you can imagine.
In case you were wondering, food coloring will not work in this method
of soapmaking - I once tried green food coloring and ended up with
a dull shade of lavender for my finished product.
Herbs and herbal
tea can be wonderful additions to soap - don't be fooled, alas, that
your red raspberry tea will make a red raspberry colored soap - once
the lye hits it, anything goes. Most leafy herbs or teas will tend
to look brownish in finished soap, but they are great gentle exfoliants
and offer a beautiful visual texture plus aromatic enhancement as well.
Some wonderful additives that will not lose their color are calendula
or sunflower petals, rosemary (when powdered, it can add a tint of
green as well as a wonderful texture), and oatmeal. The more ground
up the better when it comes to the rougher herbs - I've subjected myself
to many an "ouchy" bar of soap before I learned to buy herbs in powdered
form or run them through the coffee grinder first. And the same "Golden
Rule" that is usually touted with essential oils also applies to the
additives - less is more.
oils are the heart and soul of your soap creation. Having the proper
EO levels in soapmaking is just as important as in massage oil or other
therapeutic blends, but there is a demon to fight in saponification
that doesn't exist in other methods of delivery. That demon is the
"Red Devil" - lye. Since many essential oils tend to be squeamish about
being higher than room temperature, their susceptibility to evaporation
is increased during the saponification process. I have discovered this
to be particularly true with citrus oils. Grapefruit, for example,
if used at a level of 2˝%, will become nearly undetectable after it
is "cooked", and especially after it has cured for a few weeks. In
this case, it might be a good idea to blend it with something that
is a fixative such as benzoin (10), or simply
use it at its maximum recommended level of 4% (11).
Generally, the stronger the scent of the oil, the less of that scent
you will lose. This does not necessarily "jive" with the perfumery
notes - I have a soap made with cinnamon leaf (top note) and peppermint
tea leaves that has been happily scenting my shelf for a year, and
a new batch of Grapefruit & Ylang Ylang III that smells only like the
latter. Keep the soaps covered after curing (a cardboard shoebox makes
a perfect home) to minimize disappearance of the aromas.
that needs mentioning is price. Your soap will be worth its weight
in gold without having to cost its weight in gold. Substitute hydrosols
for rose, jasmine or melissa, and consider less costly oils that will
create the desired therapeutic effect.
I would briefly
like to address the topic of natural vs. synthetic. When it comes to
fragrance, there are two simple reasons to stay natural - first, synthetic
fragrance oils have a strong reputation for seizing up your batch of
soap (i.e. it can harden and clump before you're ready for it to do
so); second, we know that in the world of Aromatherapy, synthetics
just don't work. There is room for experimentation in the field of
colorants, but let it be stated that although the FDA has strict guidelines
on how much arsenic & lead can show up in synthetic dyes or pigments,
there are carcinogens that have managed to escape through the cracks
(12). Enough said.
Taking care of
your homemade soap is easy - keep it tucked away in a cardboard box,
or even a paper bag will suffice to preserve the fragrance. Unless
you desire your aromas to mingle, it is a good idea to store each scent
separately. To maximize the life of the soap you're using, invest a
dollar (if that!) in a "soap saver" - those spiky little rubber things
that you put on your soapdish to elevate the soap and allow it to air.
I buy them in Linens 'n Things at 2/$1 for the mini ones, and give
them away as a thank you to new customers.
As an aromatherapist,
you are now able to offer your clients yet another method of delivering
the therapeutic benefits of your art, coupled with the tactile pleasure
of silky lather and the renewing properties of gentle exfoliants. And
you have the pride of knowing you created this masterpiece with your
some "one-stop-shopping" soapmaking suppliers that I have found to
be very helpful:
- they have an indispensable Lye Calculator which tells you exactly
how much lye you need to use if you decide to vary the carrier oils
in your recipe (oils vary in their saponification values). They also
sell coconut, palm kernel and many other carrier oils and supplies.
You can purchase a limited number of essential oils from them, but
keep in mind this company is geared toward soapmaking, not aromatherapy.
- friendly English fellows with a huge array of herbs, natural colorants,
carrier & essential oils, and hydrosols. Wholesale pricing without
having to buy wholesale!
With Love, www.from-nature-with-love.com
another comprehensive supplier for soapmaking and then some - they
have food-grade hydrosols and a great selection of clays.
- if you have a resale or tax ID number, you can purchase at wholesale
prices. These are the folks that supply almost every health food store
I know of. A large player and (in my opinion) trustworthy name in the
natural products arena.
& The Healing Heritage, sisters-of-the-moon.org
- the author's own soap and bath products businesses.
Maria Given. Soapmaking for Fun & Profit. Prima Publishing, Rocklin,
Katherine Graf. Aromatherapy Home Study Certification Manual. Aroma
Studio, Warwick, NY: 2001
Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Ruth MS. A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. Three Rivers
Press, New York: 1994
Susan Miller. The Natural Soap Book. Storey Publishing, Pownal, VT
Susan Miller. The Soapmaker's Companion. Storey Books, Pownal, VT:
Soapmaking for Fun & Profit.
Soap web site. www.rosnersoap.com.
Julia. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Barnes & Noble Books:
| 11 Tisserand,
Robert & Tony Balacs. Essential Oil Safety. Churchill Livingstone:
Natural Soap Book.
About the Author:
has 3 years of experience in the natural health field, and has trained
in the United States with a leading aromatherapy trainer. Her
Foundation and Advanced Level Certifications are recognized by NAHA
and ABMP. Donna has just completed her thesis for Master Level Aromatherapy
Certification, and is currently working on articles for trade publication,
and a book on Soapmaking for Aromatherapy. She
is available to give seminars and workshops on Aromatherapy or Soapmaking,
and may be contacted via her websites, Sisters
of the Moon, and Healing
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