Soap is something that we often take for granted, yet it’s something we can’t live without. We pick it up at the pharmacy for a couple dollars, it cleans, and somehow melts away, only for the process to be repeated again. Soap has existed for centuries, yet the average person knows little about how it is made, save for glimpses of the process in the movie Fight Club. Of course, there’s no better way to create interest in a hobby than having Brad Pitt’s face attached to it.
Brad Pitt was not the reason that Teresa Mak, my sister and an engineer by trade, got interested in soapmaking. Teresa was given a gift of handmade soap several years ago, and she realized how much she liked it – it lasted much longer and was much more moisturizing than a conventional bar of soap. However, upon a return trip to the store to pick up another bar, she was dismayed to find that the soap was no longer available.
What else is an engineer to do?
“I decided to make my own soap. It turns out that if you had the ingredients and you experimented enough, it wasn’t so hard, and actually it was really fun!”
Leave it to my sister to find soapmaking fun. She ended up turning this side experiment into a sometime business venture called Sherlock Soaps.
Below, Teresa Mak provides her five takeaways of soapmaking.
1. Basic soap is made from a combination of a base and fat.
The essence of soap making is a process called “saponification”. As Mak describes, “Saponification is where a strong base, the lye in this case, reacts with fats to form soap. As a by-product, glycerin is formed, and it naturally occurs within the soap. I’m not sure how true this is, but apparently in ancient times the way that soap was discovered was that ashes were accidentally mixed with animal fat and then formed suds, and Romans would wash their clothes with this mixture.”
The miracle of the whole process is that the mixture of strong bases and fats, which on their own seem so useless, can create something so useful.
2. Most commercially distributed soaps are made of unsavoury fats and/or strange chemicals.
Soaps these days rely on the supply of cheap fats, in which today it is often beef fat, palm oil, or petroleum by-products. Which seems odd, considering that these products on their own are things that one wants to keep away from their body.
“I’m not sure how comfortable you are with rubbing saponified beef fat onto your body, but essentially that’s what it is when you’re using Ivory Soap,” explains Mak.
So much for that pure image of a baby bathing with Ivory Soap. Mak prefers to use fats like olive oil or coconut oil.
If not strange fats, then commercial soaps also contain a whole range of synthetic chemicals.
“In a commercially available soap, detergents help to clean, sodium laureth sulphate helps to bubble, and artificial fragrances help to make it smell nice. This combination creates something ‘soap-like’, but isn’t quite soap,” says Mak.
3. Making a bar of soap takes about an hour, but the whole process can take a month before it is completely finished.
If you are one of those people who are interested in making your own soap rather than buying it off the shelf at the store, Mak explains the soapmaking process below.
“The process of getting the soap to react initially takes about an hour. Here, you have to melt the fats, add lye, and mix until initial saponification. After you ‘cook’ the soap, you pour it into the moulds, after which it goes through the gel phase. As the name suggests, the gel phase is where the soap goes through a crazy reaction where it gets very hot and starts looking like gel. After about an hour, it cools down and turns into a harder piece of soap. What it hardens, that’s when I cut it into smaller pieces. As for curing the soap, after I cut it I let it sit for about a month before it’s ready to use.”
4. You can tell if a soap is done by tasting it.
The prospect of tasting soap does not sound particularly tempting, considering that many years ago washing your mouth out with soap was considered a punishment. However, Mak assures me that tasting your soap is the way to tell if your soap is done.
“Glycerin is slightly sweet, and nice hand formed soap with glycerin should taste sweet.”
5. Always remember to keep some vinegar at hand for any safety mishaps in soapmaking.
If the above process hasn’t deterred you from making your own soap, it is important to remember that when making soap, lye is a very strong base and should be treated with caution.
“I recall one time I tasted a bar with what I thought was glycerin on top, but it was actually lye. Gross!”
Vinegar, an acid, helps to neutralize any lye splashes. And of course, when the soap ingredients are mixed, it is close to neutral.
Barring burns, the time commitment, and labour, making your own soap is a great way to build an appreciation for something we so often take for granted. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.
You can also keep yourself clean with Teresa’s soaps, which can be found online at www.sherlocksoaps.com.