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Soapmaking for Aromatherapists

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 product.

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) are:

  • 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 do)
  • 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 your scale):

  • 9 oz. Water (or you may substitute brewed tea or hydrosol for some or all of the water)
  • 3.4 oz. Lye (Sodium hydroxide)
  • 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 (melted), etc.

Step-by-Step Soapmaking Instructions (a.k.a. "Test Your Multi-Tasking Skills"):

  1. 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.
  2. 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 ventilated area.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 not pudding-thick).
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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".

Questions & 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??"

The saponification 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).

What choices 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 natural ingredients?

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 kitchen.

The desirable 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 this recipe.

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.

Your essential 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.

Another factor 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 own hands.

Following are some "one-stop-shopping" soapmaking suppliers that I have found to be very helpful:

Majestic Mountain Sage, www.the-sage.com - 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.

Cedarvale Natural Products, www.cedarvale.net - friendly English fellows with a huge array of herbs, natural colorants, carrier & essential oils, and hydrosols. Wholesale pricing without having to buy wholesale!

From Nature 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.

Frontier Natural Products, www.frontiercoop.com - 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.

Sisters-of-the-Moon & The Healing Heritage, sisters-of-the-moon.org & healingheritage.com - the author's own soap and bath products businesses.


1 Nerius, Maria Given. Soapmaking for Fun & Profit. Prima Publishing, Rocklin, CA: 1999
2 Jenkins, Katherine Graf. Aromatherapy Home Study Certification Manual. Aroma Studio, Warwick, NY: 2001
3 American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company.
4 Winter, Ruth MS. A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients. Three Rivers Press, New York: 1994
5 Cavitch, Susan Miller. The Natural Soap Book. Storey Publishing, Pownal, VT : 1995
6 Cavitch, Susan Miller. The Soapmaker's Companion. Storey Books, Pownal, VT: 1997
7 Nerius. Soapmaking for Fun & Profit.
8 Cavitch. Soapmaker's Companion.
9 Rosner Soap web site. www.rosnersoap.com.
10 Lawless, Julia. The Encyclopedia of Essential Oils. Barnes & Noble Books: 1995
11 Tisserand, Robert & Tony Balacs. Essential Oil Safety. Churchill Livingstone: 1995
12 Cavitch. Natural Soap Book.

About the Author:

Donna Adams 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 Heritage.


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