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9 soap making tips to help you succeed!

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Making soap is not hard. It should be fun and definitely not stressful. The reason I decided to write about this topic this week is because I had several friends message me recently about problems they were having with their soap.

1. Start with easy projects

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Lavender Castile soap

I know it’s tempting to start off with something like the Dancing Funnel Technique but you really want your first soap making experiences to be a success. Start off with a simple soap recipe (like the basic cold process recipe) with a single fragrance or essential oil. Once you have understood and mastered the soap making process itself, you’ll find it easier to start adapting recipes and adding colour and changing the design of the soap.

Here are some other simple recipes to get you started with additives and colours.

And the same goes for more experienced soap makers: do a simple soap every now and then, just for the simplicity and the zen of making soap. I love making a single essential oil Castile soap. Instead of having to worry about intricate colour designs or advanced soap making techniques, I can just relax and enjoy the experience of making pure soap. I do them not only because these make for beautiful soaps, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes simple is enough.

2. Research the ingredients

Especially when using ingredients that you have never used before. Find out how they behave in soap. Will they react or discolour in hot/cold process soap? Are they suitable for melt and pour?

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Soap seizing due to the fragrance

It is important to understand the effect an ingredient can have on the soap making process and in the soap itself. Some fragrances, like those containing vanillin, will change the colour of your soap to a tan or brown colour. Other additives, especially fragrances, will accelerate the chemical reaction, which will make your soap thicken quickly and render it unsuitable for any colour work. Also find out how to use a particular ingredient. Different colourants, for example, will need different preparation before you can add it to your soap. Micas are best diluted in oils, whereas pigments are mixed with water. Other ingredients can change the oil/water ratio of your recipe. Fresh ingredients add additional water to the recipe, clays, on the other hand, absorb water.

Check out the following articles for more information:

3. Preparation, preparation, preparation!

I can’t emphasise this too much. The worst thing that can happen to a soap maker is having to prepare an ingredient while you’re soap is already at trace and thickening. Make sure you have all your ingredients and materials prepared and laid out, ready for use. Prepare your colours. Measure out your fragrances and essential oils. Pre-mix any additives, such as clays, that you will be using. One of my early mistakes was assuming I had enough oils for my soap, only to start measuring out and realising that I had run out of olive oil. Always prepare before you start soaping and don’t forget to have your equipment ready as well!

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Everything laid out and ready for my cupcakes!

4. Tick off all the ingredients as you go

Often I get a help message from a soap maker asking what to do when they have forgotten an ingredient. Fragrances and colourants don’t really matter, they’re just annoying if you left them out. Likewise other additives, such as sodium lactate or forgetting to spray the surface with alcohol, have little impact on your soap. However, forgetting to add one of the oils or fats, or adding them twice, can ruin the whole soap. Even after years of making soap, I will still tick off the ingredients I added as I go. It’s a habit that I follow religiously, because I can be quite scatter-brained and easily distracted. So being able to look at the recipe and see what I have and haven’t yet added helps me keep track and has saved me many, many times from making a bad mistake!

5. Forget temperature

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Adding the lye to the oils when both are roughly at room temperature.

My pet peeve in a lot of soap making literature is temperature. Having made soap for over 20 years and starting off without the cool soap books and websites that are around today, I learned a lot through trial and error. And let me tell you this, temperature was never a huge factor in my soap making. The one lesson I learned early on was to avoid heat! If I soaped too warm, all sorts of funny things would start to happen, which is why I soap at room temperature. So please relax and stop obsessing about temperature. Your lye and your oils don’t have to be at a certain temperature, and you’ll have perfectly good soap without the added stress of trying to get the temperature exactly right. Let both your oils and your lye cool down to approximate room temperature, which is when the outside of the oil and lye container will feel cool to touch or at most lukewarm. Cooler is better, especially when using ingredients such as sugar and milk.

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Goats milk soap

6. Patience!

I’m talking about curing time here. This is the most difficult part for any soap maker, as they will tell you, waiting for the soap to be ready. Unfortunately, soap is not something that will be ready the next day, unless you’re using a melt and pour soap base, or re-batching, but even then it will take a few weeks to be fully ready. The golden rule for hot and cold process soap is “the longer the curing time, the better the soap”. Soaps that haven’t had a full curing time, will still contain a little moisture, and such soaps end up getting mushy in your soap tray. You’ll find soaps that have had the longest time to cure will be the ones that are the hardest and longest lasting and the ones that remain nice in your soap tray. So be patient and leave those soaps to cure for months!

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Margarita soap

Tip: when I give away my soaps, I usually tell my friends to not use them straight away but place them where they keep their towels. That way their towels get to smell lovely and the soap gets additional curing time!

7. Keep a record of your soaps

One of the most annoying things that can happen is when you use one of your soaps, after having cured for half a year or so, and then absolutely loving it, but when you try and remember what you put in it, you find you lost the piece of paper you wrote the recipe on. Particularly, when you start experimenting and creating your own recipes, make sure you write it down. Not just the recipe, but the method (did you use a stick blender), how the soaping process went (did it accelerate or thicken too quickly), how the ingredients behaved (did the fragrance discolour the soap), and how it cured (how long, DOS, any discolouring?). These notes will help you for future recipes and will also be a record of how certain ingredients behaved in soap. Have a separate notebook, just for your soap making. Write down the date and the recipe and then keep adding notes as you check and use the soap.

8. Less but more often

A lot of soap makers don’t have special soap making rooms or areas and just make soap in their kitchen, as do I. And it seems logical to dedicate a whole afternoon or a day to just soap making, like having ‘baking days’ or ‘canning days’. But unlike baking or canning, making soap is actually a quick and easy thing to do. You don’t need an oven or a lot of equipment, there’s not a lot of preparation and apart from the cooling down of the lye and oils, it doesn’t take that much time either. So instead of making a lot of soap in one time, make smaller amounts but more often. I love preparing my lye and oils in the morning after everyone has left the house, and then I’ll do some blogging or writing (or housework), and about 1-2 hours later, I’ll go and make the soap, which should take no more than half an hour.

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My favourite soap mold is this 4-bar square silicon mold from Pure Nature.

Regular practice makes perfect, the saying goes, and by making soap more often but only a batch at a time, means you get more practice. After a long break from soap making, like my annual summer break, I always find I need a few batches to get back into it. Making a simple soap at least a couple of times during my break, keeps me from getting too ‘rusty’!

9. Don’t get discouraged

Thomas Edison never gave up. The story goes it took him over 10000 tries to invent the light bulb and when asked why he never gave up, he replied: “I didn’t fail. I just found 10000 ways that didn’t work.” I love reminding myself of this, when a soap doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.

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Don’t be afraid to try new techniques, experiment with new ingredients or play with a new idea. It might not turn out the first time, or even the second time, but you will learn from those experiences. Get up, brush off the disappointment and try again. Find out what went wrong and how you can improve it or avoid it. My biggest lessons in my soap making journey came from my failures, and I am willing to bet that every other soap maker will tell you exactly the same thing. So don’t get discouraged and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all about the journey. Making soap should be an enjoyable, fun experience, regardless if you are making one small batch or hundred bars of soap at a time.

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Aargh, the dreaded soap ash!

And lastly, we are usually our worst critics. The soda ash on your soap? The glycerin rivers? Not quite the colours you were aiming for? What you see as a mistake, others won’t notice and they will love your soap! Trust me!

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Testing Fragrances Part 2

In part 1, I discussed vanillin discolouration, but it is quite possible to have a fragrance with 0% vanillin that will still discolour your soap. Fragrances are comprised of many different components, some contain 100 or more ingredients to make up a unique scent. Any of these can affect the colour as well as other aspects of soap, which is why not all fragrances are suitable for soap making. Fragrances that are considered safe to use in soap making must be skin-safe, suitable for cosmetic use and have undergone strict testing to comply with international standards. Only source your fragrances from responsible distributors, such as Pure Nature, who can provide safety data and certification from their suppliers.

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Even if the fragrance doesn’t contain vanillin, they can still cause discolouration, as the different shades of white of these soaps show.

To create a fragrance, different essential oils, resins, as well as natural and synthetic aroma chemicals are mixed together to a unique blend. Unfortunately, in most countries, fragrances do not need to list their exact constituents, because it falls under ‘trade secret’, so we usually don’t know what exactly is in them. Certain components will change the colour of your soap, just like vanillin, but because we don’t know the exact make up of the fragrances, it is difficult to pinpoint which component causes discolouration or even to predict what a fragrance will do to the soap.

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The top soap was an early test for one of my tutorials and instead of remaining white, turned a rather bright yellow during the curing time. The fragrance contained no vanillin, yet still caused significant discolouration.

The most common discolouration from a non-vanillin component is off-white, ivory or a creamy colour, although there are other possible colours as well. Oakmoss and amber, from Candlescience, for example, can cause your soap to turn a shade of mauve.

Then, there are some fragrances or components of fragrances, which have a natural tint to them and can also discolour your soap. For example, orange essential oils range from yellow to bright orange in colour, which may cause soap to turn yellow. In general, my rule of thumb is if the fragrance is not clear, that’s a warning sign! But that doesn’t mean that all tinted fragrances discolour, just like not all clear fragrances won’t discolour. And to complicate matters further, your soap recipe, the oils you use, your soaping method and the temperature can all have an influence as well. This is why you often get conflicting reports of fragrance discolouration. The only fail-proof method is to test a fragrance using the exact recipe and method yourself, to be absolutely sure of no discolouration. However, in most cases, slight changes don’t matter that much, and for the extreme discolourations that vanillin causes, looking up the vanillin content, or reading the fragrance reviews are often a good help. Or you can go for one of the water white fragrances.

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Although not a water white fragrance, the discolouration is only subtle and doesn’t distract from the overall design.

Water white fragrances are fragrances that are clear liquids, have 0% vanillin content and cause no discolouration.  There is no standard that labels these fragrances as such, and the only way to know which fragrances are water white fragrances is usually from testing or from test results that other soapers have done for you.

Here are four Candlescience Skin-Safe fragrances that can be considered water white fragrances:

And lastly, another option is to add titanium dioxide to your soap. Titanium dioxide acts as a whitener in your soap, although it will only work on light discolourations. It won’t magically turn your brown soap into the pure white! The good thing is that you only need a tiny amount to counter the discolouration, I use a maximum of half a teaspoon in one kilo of soap. Don’t use too much or you’ll end up with the unsightly glycerin rivers. Incidentally, titanium dioxide added to micas can make the colours pop, stand out more!

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Testing Fragrances Part 1

Why test fragrances? Fragrances can wreak all sorts of havoc in soap making due to the many different components that make up a fragrance. Fragrances can discolour soap, can raise the temperature during the saponification process, can increase acceleration and cause seizing, just to name a few possible problems. But don’t think essential oils are any different, these issues can also arise when using particular essential oils! Here, I’ll be discussing why and how these problems are caused and how to prevent them. And as an extra bonus, I’ll post the results of the Candlescience Skin-Safe Fragrances, available from Pure Nature, that I’ve tested in the past month, to help you choose the right fragrance for your next project.

The main problem for soap makers is discolouration in soaps. The discolouration is usually caused by the ingredient vanillin, which the primary component of the vanilla bean extract, the bit that gives vanilla its unique scent. Fragrances that contain vanillin will inevitably turn to brown. How much the discolouration and how quickly a soap will turn brown, depends largely on the percentage of vanillin a fragrance contains. Fragrances with a high percentage of vanillin, 10% or more, will turn to a dark brown, whereas those with only a small amount, less than 1%, will only discolour slightly and often only after some time has passed, which is why fragrance testing takes a while. You only know the full extent of the discolouration after a soap has been completely cured. Incidentally, discolouration also affects melt and pour soap bases and other skin care products. The reason for the discolouration, as it often is, is caused by the villain oxidation. Oxidation occurs when chemicals react with the natural oxygen present in the air. You could, of course, try and wrap your soaps airtight, but that would only work for a limited time and only with melt and pour soaps and lotions. Cold and hot process soaps need to cure, which can only happen if they’re unwrapped. And curing causes discolouration…. see the dilemma?

 

In the above two pictures, you can see vanillin at work. The picture on the left was taken after 1 day of curing, the picture on the right after 5 days. Discolouring will continue until the whole soap has become the same colour as the edge. Vanillin discolouration is a totally natural process, and you cannot prevent it from happening. But there are chemicals that can slow this process down. They don’t completely eliminate the discolouration, but can stabilise the fragrance and postpone the discolouration for several months. Now if you’re like me, I’d like my soap to keep looking like it did when I gift or sell it, and having it turn brown in someone’s pretty soap dish after half a year seems a bit misleading to me. Nevertheless, if you would like to explore this option, the product is called Vanilla Colour Stabiliser, and it works by counteracting the oxidation of the vanillin, but as I mentioned before it won’t last for ever. The longest I have seen it working was about half a year.

The much better solution is to work with the discolouration. If you know the fragrance will turn your soap in a shade of beige, caramel or brown, use this in your design. You can leave a small portion of your soap unfragranced, which keeps parts of your soap white. For example, adding a white swirl or white layer in your otherwise brown soap. A fragrance that only discolours slightly can be ‘coloured over’ with other colours, such as oranges and reds. However, remember that some colours don’t mix well with brown shades. Green, for example, mixed with brown will result in a rather unpleasant shade. And lastly don’t forget that often those fragrances that contain high percentages of vanillin, tend to be fragrances that we naturally associate with warm, brown colours anyway: creme brûlée, chocolate, and anything vanilla or custard-like.

Check out this cool Pumpkin Spice Soap, which uses the fragrance to enhance its design.

If you absolutely do not want your soap to discolour in any way, I suggest you choose a water white fragrance – fragrances that are clear in colour, contain no vanillin, and do not cause discolouration. More about this next week!

 

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Jelly soap: tips and tricks

My son loves jelly soap and I used to buy the (very expensive) Lush jelly soaps, before discovering that you can buy the jelly soap base and make your own jellies. Naturally, thanks to my son, jelly soaps ended up on my monthly to-do list. Thankfully, Pure Nature stocks jelly soap base here in New Zealand and I don’t have to get it from the US anymore.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, here is what I learned during the testing:

Tips and tricks for using jelly soap base

  • don’t cut the soap into cubes (cut soap creates more air bubbles)
  • add the colour to the soap before melting (less stirring)
  • if using the microwave (faster, but slightly more bubbles)
    • use in a low setting (I used 250W setting)
    • use a high, narrow jug rather than a flat bowl with a wide surface
  • if using the double boiler method (slower, but less bubbles)
    • make sure you cover the bowl
  • add one teaspoon of 99% isopropyl alcohol to each cup of melted jelly soap base just before pouring and give a quick stir to get rid of air bubbles
  • spritz the soap immediately after pouring with 99% isopropyl alcohol to get rid of the air bubbles on the surface

Jelly soap is very easy to work with. According to the manufacturer’s instructions (Stephenson is still the only one who makes this soap base as far as I know), you cut, melt and pour. Just like any other melt and pour soap base.  The problem I have in general with the jelly soap base is that the melted soap is so viscous that air bubbles can’t escape before the liquid cools down and traps them. Some people aren’t bothered by this, and in some projects the air bubbles would even add a nice effect to the soap, but I would really like to know how to create some very clear jelly soaps without any bubbles.

Stephenson recommends using a double-boiler method to melt your soap, but I know many soap makers like using the microwave instead. So I wanted to test which method would work best and create the clearest jelly with the least amount of bubbles.

For each method, I cut up roughly 2 cups of soap into small cubes and melted it according to the method I was testing, before pouring it into a little jelly mold. I tried without colour first, but realised that the bubbles and clarity are more visible in tinted jellies, so I re-did all the tests with coloured jellies using soap pigments in a little alcohol to colour them.

I tested three methods:

  1. Double boiler
  2. Microwave on high setting
  3. Microwave on low setting

A note of warning: Jelly soap is very viscous and sticky, and melted jelly soap is also very hot. The stickiness makes it hard to get it off your skin and makes it more likely to get burned. Be careful when working with this soap base!

1 Double Boiler

This is the recommended method by the manufacturer of the jelly soap base. Using a bain-marie bowl, I placed it in a pot of water on the stove and brought it to a gentle boil. Despite covering it, the soap took more than half an hour to melt the soap and because of it’s viscosity, it wouldn’t melt evenly, the surface and the middle would never become as liquid as the sides. It did say not to stir, but I had to stir a couple of times to mix the unmelted soap to the sides. Note the soap is a lot more viscous and sticky to work with than for example melted chocolate, so there is a lot less movement of the liquid and also the heat won’t distribute as easily throughout the liquid. Also because of the long time it took to melt, you may have to top up the water in the pot.

2 Microwave on high setting

Usually when melting a pre-made soap base, I melt it on high setting in short bursts of 10-20 seconds until the soap has just melted but before boiling. This works fine for normal melt and pour bases, which are a lot less viscous than the jelly soap base, and air bubbles readily escape to the surface. However, while heating, a lot of air bubbles would develop in the jelly soap base. I also found that it was difficult to keep the soap from boiling and you would have to keep a very close eye on it! As you can see in the picture above, I did manage to let it boil over in one of my tests! Oops!

3 Microwave on low setting

I figured that one reason air bubbles would form in the jelly soap base in the previous method, is that the soap would be heated unevenly and too quickly, causing it to come to a partial boil in some areas causing the air bubbles to form. A more controlled and slower heating might prevent this, similar to a double boiler method. I set the microwave on the second lowest setting (250W on my microwave), just above the defrost setting, and placed the soap in the microwave for 2 minutes. After 2 minutes, I’d give a quick stir and then placed it back in the microwave for a further 1-2 minutes. This seemed to work well and took only 7 minutes to melt, but keep an eye on your soap to avoid boiling. It was definitely a lot faster than the double boiler method.

The results

The first thing I learned is that taking pictures to show the bubbles is hard, so I’ll describe the results instead. FYI yellow is the double boiler method, orange the microwave on low setting, and red the microwave on high setting.

The double boiler method (yellow jelly) does work best and produced the soap with the least amount of air bubbles. However, it took ages to melt, particularly because the soap melts unevenly. Using the microwave is faster, but if you use it on a high setting, you will end up with a jelly soap with lots of bubbles (red jelly). On a low setting (orange jelly), it’s a different story, not only is a lot faster than the double boiler method, it also creates only slightly more bubbles. So in the end, it will come down to how much time you have and do a couple of air bubbles matter. I guess if you’re making soap for your kids, the bubbles won’t be an issue, but if you want to sell your soap, I’d recommend to take the extra time and go the bain marie/double boiler method.

PS I also found out a nifty trick: adding a teaspoon of 99% isopropyl alcohol to your melted soap at the end and giving it a quick stir gets rid of bubbles! Not all of them, but quite a few that it’s worth doing it. The alcohol pops the air bubbles and the heat of the soap will evaporate the alcohol. This trick works particularly well for soap that I accidentally let reach boiling point!