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What Soap Making Process Do I Choose? October 26, 2014

Filed under: Business,Soap — Meghan Hamilton @ 4:08 pm
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When I started this soap making journey, I had some decisions to make.  I knew I wanted an all natural product free of synthetic fragrances and petroleum products.  Those are my own body’s enemies.  The petroleum products make me itch and can even cause me rashes.  The synthetic fragrances make me dizzy and can trigger migraines.  I suspect they also are the trigger in my son’s stuffiness when I use synthetically fragranced laundry detergents.

So that narrowed it down to:

  • Melt and Pour – the soap is already made, you just melt it in a double boiler and add your own fragrances, then pour it into whatever shaped mold you want.
  • Cold Process – you make the soap from scratch with minimal heating of product and let it sit for six weeks until ready to use
  • Hot Process – you make the soap from scratch using low heat to speed up the reaction between the lye and your oils/fats

Melt and Pour finished product

Melt and Pour Pros:

  • You already have usable soap without having to do anything.  There are several wonderful products on the market that list their ingredients, so that if you are like me and have allergies and sensitivities, you can avoid the things that hurt you.
  • You don’t have to worry about proper storage and use of lye. (Note: lye or sodium hydroxide is a naturally occurring substance that we used to extract from ashes.)  It is caustic and makes some awful fumes.  If, like me, you have a small child underfoot, this is a very big pro.  The last thing you want is for your family to be burned or breathe this stuff in.  Storing lye out of reach of little hands and then measuring it accurately when making soap is a very big deal.  I nearly went with melt and pour because of this, but realized that given the personality of my son and our schedule, it probably wasn’t going to be a big issue.
  • It is the fastest and easiest way to make fancy looking soap. You can make fancy soaps with the other processes, but you first have to make the soap.
  • Minimal equipment – all you need is a double boiler, the scents and the colors you want, and molds to shape your product.

Melt and Pour Cons:

  • You don’t have control over raw ingredients.
  • Can be just as expensive as buying soap at retail stores, especially if your primary objective is all natural ingredients.

Cold Process Soap

Cold Process Pros:

  • Control over raw ingredients.  If you have a sensitivity, you don’t need to use it.  If you have an ethical problem with an ingredient, you don’t have to use it.  (Many palm products are a source of controversy from farming methods to farmer salaries.  Some people want to use 100% organic and/or free trade products.)  You can experiment to see which recipes work best for your skin.
  • Less process time than hot process.  Once you’ve mixed your ingredients, pour them into the molds.  Next day, remove and cut the bars as necessary, then leave them to cure for six weeks.
  • You can make up large batches of plain soap to use as melt and pour later if you wish to add different shapes into the centers of your product.
  • It’s easy to use detailed molds and swirl colors together to make a marbleized effect.
  • You know that the glycerin hasn’t been removed, leaving your soap to be much gentler and more moisturizing.
  • If you have particularly dry skin, you can formulate your recipe to leave a bit more oil unused in saponification so that you have an extra moisturizing bar.

Cold Process Cons:

  • More equipment: all of the oils, lye, colors, scents; a thermometer to make sure your lye water and your oils are both at the proper temperature; accurate scale for weighing ingredients; stick blender (unless you enjoy stirring for hours at a time); pots, bowls, spoons, etc… that won’t react to lye; protective clothing/gear to prevent burns should the lye spill or splash on you; molds for shaping product; and probably a few more things that I’m forgetting.
  • More learning time so that the soap comes out correctly.  You wouldn’t want to give yourself or anyone else a chemical burn.  On the other end of that spectrum is you want to use the appropriate amount of oil to avoid a greasy mess.
  • Long curing time: You have to wait six weeks to use your soap.
  • Proper storage and use of lye:  It needs to be kept sealed so it doesn’t react with moisture in the air when in storage.  You don’t want children getting into it, so it needs to be out of reach and childproofed if that’s a concern in your work space.  When you use it, you must have adequate ventilation and consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing in the fumes.  It can be very nasty stuff.  You should always have vinegar on hand to wash any spills off of yourself as it will neutralize the lye.  Also, plastic gloves are a good idea to protect your hands.  If you’re clumsy, have kids, or need to work in an enclosed space with little ventilation, this is not the stuff for you.

My Own Hot Process Soaps

Hot Process Pros: Almost identical to Cold Process

  • Control over raw ingredients.  If you have a sensitivity, you don’t need to use it.  If you have an ethical problem with an ingredient, you don’t have to use it.  (Many palm products are a source of controversy from farming methods to farmer salaries.  Some people want to use 100% organic and/or free trade products.)  You can experiment to see which recipes work best for your skin.
  • No curing time. You can use it immediately. I use mine the next day. Leaving it to air out makes it even harder and nicer, but there aren’t any safety concerns if you’ve cooked it up correctly.
  • You can make up large batches of plain soap to use as melt and pour later if you wish to add different shapes into the centers of your product.
  • You know that the glycerin hasn’t been removed, leaving your soap to be much gentler and more moisturizing.
  • If you have particularly dry skin, you can formulate your recipe to leave a bit more oil unused in saponification so that you have an extra moisturizing bar.

Hot Process Cons: Almost identical to Cold Process

  • More equipment: all of the oils, lye, colors, scents; accurate scale for weighing ingredients; stick blender (unless you enjoy stirring for hours at a time); pots, bowls, spoons, etc… that won’t react to lye; protective clothing/gear to prevent burns should the lye spill or splash on you; molds for shaping product; and probably a few more things that I’m forgetting.
  • More learning time so that the soap comes out correctly (even more than cold process).  You wouldn’t want to give yourself or anyone else a chemical burn.  On the other end of that spectrum is you want to use the appropriate amount of oil to avoid a greasy mess.
  • Longer process/mixing time.  Once you’ve mixed the batch, you need to heat it to speed the reaction between the lye and the oil.  This means checking it and mixing it every 15 minutes or so.  Some people do it in their slow cookers or on the stove top and constantly stir to keep it from bubbling over the sides of the pot.  I use a tall pot and take my chances in the oven.  This can take anywhere from one to two hours.
  • More difficult (though not impossible) to get multi-colored swirls and to use finely detailed molds.  The hot product out of the pot is rather like a stiff cookie dough or bread dough, but it’s very very hot, so pressing it into molds can prove problematic.  If you like “pretty” soap, go with one of the other methods.  If you just want a plain bar, this works great.
  • You must be more careful with essential oils used to scent the soap.  Your soap out of the pot will likely be too hot for the oil and can burn off the scent. But if you wait too long to add it, your soap will begin to harden and even mixing becomes difficult.
  • Proper storage and use of lye:  It needs to be kept sealed so it doesn’t react with moisture in the air when in storage.  You don’t want children getting into it, so it needs to be out of reach and childproofed if that’s a concern in your work space.  When you use it, you must have adequate ventilation and consider wearing a mask to avoid breathing in the fumes.  It can be very nasty stuff.  You should always have vinegar on hand to wash any spills off of yourself as it will neutralize the lye.  Also, plastic gloves are a good idea to protect your hands.  If you’re clumsy, have kids, or need to work in an enclosed space with little ventilation, this is not the stuff for you.

My choice: Hot Process

I chose hot process because I didn’t have any place to set bars of soap to cure in a well ventilated area for six weeks.  Most of the advice I read advised against starting with hot process if you’re new to soap making, but I went for it.  I’ve had good luck, but then again I did a lot of research and was willing to lose a few batches in the learning process.  I also wasn’t interested in the decorative potential for soap (though there are some people who manage it with hot-process).  Mine was and remains to be a purely functional interest.  That is my personality.  I like plain and simple.  I also like the near instant gratification while remaining in control of my ingredients that hot process gives.  If you get gratification from making beautiful looking things, go with either melt and pour or cold-process.  The loss of ingredient control, or the wait time on curing will be worth your while.

If all of this sounds fascinating, but you’d rather just buy some soap, you can find me on Etsy and just order some.

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