Friday, 11 May 2012

Misconceptions about soapmaking

You know what really annoys me? People who have no idea about how real soap is made, who have an absolute hissy fit when they hear that to make soap you have to use sodium hydroxide (caustic soda). If you don't use caustic soda you don't have soap - if the thing you use to clean your body doesn't have caustic soda in it (listed sometimes as saponified ...oil) then you are washing with a synthetic detergent - you know the type of stuff you wash your dishes and your car with! When you mix oil and caustic soda/water (lye) together it causes a chemical reaction called saponification and changes to a safe item called soap - there is no mystery in it - it is a very basic chemical reaction and once the saponification is complete - usually about 24 hours with cold process soap and a couple of hours with hot process soap then what you have has no sodium hydroxide/caustic soda/lye in it. If it did it would burn your skin! Handmade soap got a bit of a bad name in the good old days of "make it yourself or go without" they didn't have access to sodium hydroxide from the hardware store or supermarket like we do - they used soda ash - this is the ash left after burning wood. Sounds safe doesn't it? Well no, because you mixed the ash with water to make the lye but you never knew how much to put in and whether you were making a mild soap or a very harsh burn-your-skin-off soap. It was pretty much guess work. So the old soaps sometimes were not the best for the skin even though they were completely natural. These days we have access to soap calculators online that tell you exactly how much sodium hydroxide you need, how much water and you put into the calculator the oils you are using and it works it all out for you. No guesswork and a completely safe soap in the end. 
People seem to think that the caustic soda is still in the finished soap - well it isn't! You MAKE soap with caustic soda but it is NOT in the the finished soap due to saponification.
So if you see sodium hydroxide, or lye, or saponified on your soap ingredient list don't worry - you will probably find the only other ingredients are very natural, like oils and a bit of colour and fragrance - compare that to the chemical list on the back of your shampoo and conditioner bottles, the wrapping on your soap free shower gel and other items you put on your skin.  
Another thing that people get confused about is the curing time for cold process soaps. They think that this has something to do with making the soap safe to use - well it isn't - the soap is safe after it is completely saponified which is around 24 hours if you made it correctly. The cure time is for the soap to harden. When you first make the soap it is pretty soft, safe to use but soft - so you would use it up very quickly. When the soap sits on a drying rack for 4 weeks the moisture in the soap evaporates and you end up with a nice hard bar that will last well. Soaps also get milder as they age too. Some soaps that are made with a high amount of olive oil need over 6 weeks to harden enough for use, some need even longer (months). But the soap is safe to use even if its soft. Most soap makers test their soaps the next day to see what its like - they wouldn't do that if they thought it was going to burn their skin off. 
Not sure I have allayed all your fears about soap but perhaps if you check the labels on your shower items and compare to a handmade soap you might see what I am on about. You can always look up those ingredients online to see what they are (but be prepared to be shocked).
Check out how I make my soaps here  

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