Lye-Heavy Soaps

I think nearly every soapmaker makes a mistake and winds up with lye-heavy soap.Lye Heavy SoapI unmolded these beauties this morning. This soap was supposed to be a really nice lavender goat milk soap. I’m not happy that I used some nice materials with this result, but it does happen.

I knew something was wrong as I was mixing this soap together. It seemed to trace much more quickly than I thought it would, and I wondered if it was false trace, so I kept blending. I am still not sure if it really did get mixed well.

I check on my soap frequently as it sits to gel, and this one acted up almost immediately. I could see a yellow fluid oozing out of the tops of the bars. And it kept oozing, even after I patted it dry with paper towels. I checked it several more times, and each time, more liquid ooze.

It also seemed to take quite a long time to begin to gel. A few hours passed before I detected the temperature was over 100°F. It also seemed softer than usual. Even if soaps haven’t yet begun to gel, they begin to harden so that you can press lightly on the surface.

Sure enough, when I unmolded the soaps this morning, there was a large amount of that yellow liquid underneath the bars. They were the mottled shade you see in the image rather than a nice uniform lavender shade. I could see the lye much better on the bottoms of the bars, so out of curiosity, I put a pH strip into some of the oozy liquid on the bottom of a bar.

pH TestIf you haven’t used these kinds of test strips before, you might not be familiar with how to read them. Essentially, you hold the strip up to the scale on the package above and compare it to the different sets of colors. I think my test strip looks most like the set labeled 14. If you are not familiar with the pH scale, it works like this:

  • It ranges from 0-14.
  • It measures how acidic or basic (or alkaline) a substance is.
  • Substances with a pH below 7 are acidic.
  • Substances with a pH above 7 are alkaline.
  • Substances with a pH of 7 are neutral and are neither acidic nor alkaline.
  • Each number is ten times greater than the number before. For example, something that is pH 11 is ten times more alkaline than something that is pH 10. Likewise, something that is pH 4 is ten times more acidic than something that is pH 5.
  • 14 is just about as alkaline as you can get. Lye is about 14 on the pH scale.

Yikes! I certainly should not have been handling my soap with bare hands! It was dangerously lye heavy. I immediately washed my hands. The tips of my fingers are a little dry, but other than that, no damage. A quick note: The soap itself was probably not uniformly pH 14. I’m pretty sure the pH strip came in direct contact with a patch of lye in the soap. In any case, I should have been using gloves to unmold. I’m really glad I didn’t try to zap test it.

In the case of this particular batch, I don’t know what I did wrong, so rebatching it in an attempt to fix it is probably not a good idea. If you know exactly what you did wrong to produce lye heavy soap, you can try rebatching it and correcting the problem. For instance, if you know you forgot an oil, or that you used the wrong amount of oil, you can shred the soap with a grater and put it in the crock pot, add the oil, and cook the soap, similar to making hot process soap. I personally hate rebatching. Your rebatched soap is just not going to be as nice as regular cold process or even hot process soap. I have done it once and swore I’d never do it again. However, some soapmakers regularly rebatch their soap and like it just fine.

What can you do if you don’t know what you did wrong? You have two options:

  1. Toss it in the trash.
  2. Use it as laundry soap.

I put on a pair of gloves and shredded the soap. Then I put it in a box in the laundry room. Interestingly enough, the first soaps used were laundry soaps. Ancient Babylonians used soap as early as 2800 BCE. Archaeologists have found evidence of a soap-like residue in containers, and a cuneiform tablet dated from 2200 BCE had a soap recipe on it. The recipe describes the soap’s use for washing clothes. Your grandmother or great-grandmother may even have made soap to use for the laundry. Though lye-heavy soap is too harsh to use on your skin, you can use it to clean your clothes, and that way, at least it doesn’t go to waste. Lye-heavy soap is actually pretty good at whitening whites and cutting grease. It’s best used with some washing soda, Borax, and baking soda to create a nice detergent. The Soap Queen has some laundry soap tips here.

Titanium Dioxide Crackle

If you use titanium dioxide and gel your soaps, you might occasionally run into an issue called titanium dioxide crackle, also known as glycerine rivers. Here is what it looks like:

Winter Sleigh Ride

If you look closely at the swirls, you can see spots that look more clear and there is a sort of crackle effect in the soap.

Candy Cane

You can see it here in this Candy Cane Soap as well, especially in the soap on the left.

Anne-Marie Faiola says in Soap Crafting: Step-by-Step Techniques for Making 31 Unique Cold-Process Soaps that these clear streaks are “caused by a combination of heat and color additives” (235). I have noticed these glycerine rivers even in soaps that I have not colored. They are a little easier to see in person, but if you look very closely at this Vermont Maple Syrup Soap, you can barely see them:

Vermont Maple Syrup

Usually the culprit is titanium dioxide. I never realized this before, but all oxides can actually accelerate trace. In this video Amy Warden of Great Cakes Soapworks describes the effect oxides can have on accelerating trace:

Amy was using some fragrances that were spicy in addition to oxide colorants. Spicy fragrances can cause the soap to heat up quite a bit, as in this Pumpkin Cheesecake Soap. My intention was to do a drop swirl, but I did a sort of combination of a drop—more of a “plop”—and a spoon swirl. Here is the resulting soap:

Pumpkin Cheesecake

You can see I do have some of the glycerine rivers, especially in the part of the white that mingled with the bottom color, which was the only scented portion of the soap. My theory is that part of the soap was much hotter than the soap on the top.

The only problem with glycerine rivers is a cosmetic one. The soap is perfectly usable. In fact, sometimes it looks really interesting and adds a sort of antique effect to the soap.

I haven’t always been successful at preventing it, but these two soaps were both gelled, and I was able to prevent titanium dioxide crackle by monitoring the temperature of the soap and removing towels when it was getting too hot.

Maine Blueberry

Winter Wonderland

I wanted to gel both of these soaps so that the blue would really pop. Colors are often more vibrant when the soap is gelled.

In the summer, I don’t seem to need to cover my soaps much to ensure gel. I just put the soap mold into a large box, and that seems to be insulation enough. As the weather becomes cooler, I need to work a little harder to ensure gel, which means putting at least one towel over my soap mold inside its box. I usually fold a bath towel in half and drape it over the box containing the mold. I use the box so that my tops are not ruined, by the way.

I check the soap’s temperature every once in a while, and if it looks like it’s too hot, I remove the towel or at least unfold it. I didn’t monitor either of the two soaps at the top of this post (Winter Sleigh Ride and Candy Cane), hence the crackle. I imagine that the soap was a little too warm in its bed because the fragrances I used are well-behaved.

There have been plenty of times I thought for sure my soap would have titanium dioxide crackle, and it didn’t. I honestly can’t seem to predict very well when it will happen, but generally speaking, keeping a really close eye on the temperature seems to help. Unfortunately, you don’t always know when the soap is getting too hot. It’s not always easy to tell. In my opinion, partial gel looks worse than titanium dioxide crackle, so I tend to err on the side of letting the soap fully gel rather than expose it to the cooler outside air and risk partial gel.

Once piece of advice Anne-Marie has in her book is to lower soaping temperatures to avoid glycerine rivers; however, in the case of both of the above soaps, I did lower temperatures and wound up with crackle anyway. In the case of the Winter Sleigh Ride and Candy Cane soaps, I like the resulting look. I think it works especially well in Winter Sleigh Ride.

The best way I have found to avoid glycerine rivers altogether is not to gel my soap. I have to put mine in the freezer for at least a couple of hours before moving it to the refrigerator, where I leave it for a day or two (sometimes even longer). When I take out the soap, I have to leave it in the mold at least another day, sometimes more, and sometimes it isn’t ready to cut for at least week after it’s been made. I like being able to cut the soap the next day, especially because I only have two log molds. However, if I really want to avoid the glycerine rivers, I will prevent gel.

Have you had problems with glycerine rivers? How did you solve them?

Woah, There: When Good Fragrances Misbehave

Most soapmakers experience accelerated trace at some point. Trace, of course, is the term for oils and lye that have been emulsified to the point that when a dribble of soap is dropped on top of the rest of the soap batter, the dribble stays on the surface of the batter for a short period of time and leaves a “trace” on the surface. Trace can accelerate for a variety of reasons.

In his book Scientific Soapmaking, chemistry professor Kevin Dunn says that trace can be accelerated based on three elements:

  1. water content
  2. temperature
  3. the presence of catalysts (e.g., ingredients in some fragrances)

If you want to slow down or accelerate trace, the easiest thing to do is control the water content or temperature. For example, if you know the recipe you are using is slow to trace and you want it to move more quickly, you can discount the water and mix the oils and lye at a higher temperature. This is a handy tip for making Castile soap, as olive oil is notoriously slow to trace when it makes up 100% of the oil content. Instead of using full water (38%), you can discount to, say, 33%, and you can mix the oil and lye at 110°.

It’s always a good practice not to discount water or mix at a higher temperature when you are working with a fragrance you haven’t used before, precisely because sometimes fragrances contain ingredients, such as clove oil, that will accelerate trace. If you have already discounted water and mixed at a high temperature, you could wind up with a seize, sometimes known as “soap on a stick.” It takes an experienced soapmaker to save soap that has seized, and sometimes, even experienced soapmakers aren’t able to salvage it.

I recently experienced some major acceleration using a new fragrance called Pumpkin Cheesecake.

Just about as soon as I added the fragrance to my soap, it started to thicken up, and it was just about all I could do to get it into the mold and attempt a swirl before it completely hardened.

I knew the soap would likely discolor because it was such a dark, reddish color. As you can see in the video, I separated the soap into three parts, two of which I colored. I was still able to get a nice swirl with a spoon, but I was really afraid the soap would be ruined because it looked like it was starting to rice in the mold, and if I had tried to stick blend it at that point, the soap would have been utterly ruined.

I took the soap’s temperature before I put it away, and it was already 104° on the bottom of the mold. Even if I had wanted to, there would probably have been nothing I could have done to prevent the soap from gelling. If I had tried to decrease the temperature by putting it in the freezer, it would have at least partially gelled. I am not a fan of partially gelled soap.

I decided the best thing to do was just to let it gel and monitor the temperature closely. If the soap looked like it was heating up too much in the mold, I planned to let it sit in a cool spot, perhaps even turn a fan on it. The temperature stayed within a “safe” range under 140°, so I did not worry too much about it getting hot.

I expected I might have some glycerine rivers in the soap, and I did, but not as bad as you might think, given the way this soap moved. Glycerine rivers can result when soap gets too hot. Essentially, they look like clear veins in soap, and they can give a sort of “crackle” effect to a finished bar. I think they actually can look pretty cool sometimes. But I don’t always want them!

If I use the fragrance again—and despite how it behaved, I might because it smells absolutely delicious—I would not stick blend after adding it to the soap. I would just stir it well. I would also lower the temperature at which I planned to mix the soap to 90° rather than about 100°, which was about the temperature I used. I already used full water, but I think that lowering the temperature and stirring rather than stick blending will make this fragrance more workable.

If you have a fragrance that sets up your soap really quickly, here a few tips to try so that you can save your soap:

  • Examine your recipe. Some oils, such as palm oil and cocoa butter, can accelerate trace. If you are working with a cranky fragrance, try increasing the amount of olive oil and/or eliminating oils that accelerate trace. Always run changes through a lye calculator so you don’t wind up with lye-heavy soap.
  • Lower the temperature at which you mix your soap.
  • Use full water (if you discounted; if you did not, adding more water might cause other problems).
  • Add the fragrance before you add the lye. You can more carefully monitor for signs of acceleration.
  • Don’t stick blend your fragrance in. Just stir it well. Stick blending will cause trace to accelerate more quickly.
  • Bang your mold on the counter. Soap that is accelerating often leaves air pockets.
  • Let it gel. It is already getting hot, and by trying to prevent gel, you will likely cause more problems.
  • Monitor the temperature as it gels. I checked my soap every so often with my infrared thermometer.

I find that gelling the soap will fix a lot of the problems you see with accelerated trace. Just let the soap do its thing. If it doesn’t work, chalk it up to a learning experience.

There are some actual benefits to accelerated trace. The soap is ready to cut faster than soap that took longer to trace. If you want to sculpt the tops, a fragrance that accelerates trace will give you a great opportunity to create peaky tops.

Some types of fragrances that tend to accelerate trace include floral fragrances (I use a lilac one that moves terribly fast) and spicy ones (which often contain clove oil or cinnamon). Sometimes sugars can accelerate trace, too. For instance, using honey or beer in soap can cause it to move more quickly.

The soap actually turned out really well considering the problems I had. You can see I had a little minor “glycerine river” issue, but in this case, I kind of liked the look. Lucky me that i liked it because if I didn’t, oh well! I suspect the bottom part to which I added the fragrance may darken more. So what caused this fragrance to misbehave so badly? It’s hard to say, as companies do not need to publish fragrance oil ingredients, which are considered trade secrets, and this particular fragrance had no reviews.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Mrs. Darcy

I created the next soap in my Jane Austen series, Mrs. Darcy. It is gorgeous!

Mrs. DarcyThe recipe is similar to Sweet Jane:

  • 30% olive oil
  • 25% coconut oil
  • 25% palm oil
  • 10% sweet almond oil
  • 5% cocoa butter
  • 5% castor oil

I used Nature’s Garden’s Plumeria fragrance and colored it with titanium dioxide and ultramarine violet. I used a goat milk base and added silk to the milk and lye mixture.

I had an unfortunate mishap while making the soap. My hard oils were melting in the microwave and tipped over, spilling all over the place. I mopped up the best I could, then started over with the hard oils again. By that time, the goat milk, while still under 70°, was beginning to saponify. It never turned any darker than a cream color (thank goodness), but it was thick. I mixed it with the oils anyway and discovered that some of my silk did not dissolve. Perhaps it doesn’t when you use milk? Not sure.

Mrs. DarcyThen the soap started to thicken up, and I wanted to do a hanger swirl. As you can see, it turned out just fine, but I was sweating!

Next time, I plan to do something a little different with the hanger swirl. This is pretty, but I was looking for a more striking effect.

So what did I do wrong, folks?

  1. I tried a new fragrance.
  2. I used new colorants.
  3. I tried a new technique.

You should probably not try to take on all of that newness in one batch. I have learned!

One thing I’m learning, too, is that less is often more. An in-the-pot swirl is easier than this hanger swirl, but the effect is much more striking. Next time, I will try Celine Blacow’s trick of taping two wooden skewers to the bottom of the hanger for a more striking hanger swirl.

I sculpted the tops a little more than usual, and they look pretty.

Mrs. DarcyI used an in-the-pot swirl for my next Jane Austen soap, called “Marianne’s Passion.” I had meant to make it a Lydia Bennet soap, but the more I worked with it, the more it whispered “Marianne” to me. It’s perfect for Marianne Dashwood from Sense and Sensibility. I’ll post pictures after I’ve cut it. It’s gorgeous!

I originally intended to limit my Jane Austen series to Pride and Prejudice in honor of its 200th anniversary this month, but the more I think about it, the more I want to expand the series to all of Jane Austen’s oeuvre. You knew I was a huge Jane Austen fan, right?

I would be remiss If I didn’t mention there are three new soaps in the Etsy store: Lilac Goat Milk, Sea Salt and Lotus Blossom Salt bars, and Grubby Girl (with shredded loofah!).

Goat Milk Soap, Take 2

So my second batch of goat milk also didn’t turn out too well.

Oil PocketMy soap has a large oil pocket through the entire batch, right near the top. It’s oozing oil, and in some places even looks like a cave with stalactites and stalagmites. Apart from the unsightly oil, the soap seems fine, and it smells wonderful.

I’ve done a little research, and it looks as though a lot of milk soapers just don’t allow their milk soaps to go through the gel phase of saponification, so I will try putting the soap in my refrigerator next time.

I think the problem resulted from using both honey and goat milk. Both have sugar, which raises the temperature when the soap saponifies. I’m thinking that the combination was deadly in this case. I have everything I need to try again except some palm oil, which I should be getting tomorrow. I am going to rebatch later today and see if I can save this soap.

Anyway, third time’s a charm, you think?

My First Big Disaster

I tried to make goat milk soap today. I wish I had taken a picture of this one because it was a true mess, and I can’t find an image online that replicates it. Instead, here is a picture of a goat, in your face.

First of all, the kind of goat milk I used is evaporated goat milk, and there is apparently a big difference between fresh goat milk and evaporated goat milk.

I am not sure where I would get fresh goat milk around Worcester, MA. I don’t know anyone who has goats on their farm, and there aren’t really any goat farms close by that I could find. I could try Trader Joe’s, I suppose, but we don’t have a Whole Foods close by.  At any rate, this evaporated goat milk is relatively easy to find in grocery stores and Walmart.

Things were going swimmingly. I added the lye to frozen chunks of goat milk, stirring the lye well as I went and taking my time, just as I did with the whole cow milk I used in my chocolate milk soap a few weeks ago. I set the goat milk lye aside as I prepared my oils, and about halfway through the process, I took a look at my goat milk lye, just to make sure the temperature was staying below 140°, like I had read it should do in Heidi Corley Barto’s book. It was a congealed orange mess, not terribly unlike thick mashed potatoes in constitution. Perhaps more like peanut butter, even. It was hard and gross. It didn’t smell bad, but I was afraid to use it, so I disposed of it. Some folks on a soap forum I just joined said I could have saved it, but I was too worried about it to use it and didn’t find a solution until after I’d disposed of it anyway. I’d have hated to make a worse mess than I already had. In throwing out the goat milk lye, all I wasted was the lye and goat milk. Had I tried to add it to the oils, I’m afraid I’d have wasted all that, too, and those are expensive.

Needless to say, I’m really disappointed. First of all, I was really looking forward to seeing how this soap would come out. I hear so much about goat milk soap; so many soapers make and sell it, and it seemed an interesting soap to try to make. Second, I used most of my stock of lye, and it’s impossible to buy locally. We called every hardware store around, and no one sells it, likely because it’s used to manufacture methamphetamine, though it’s terribly easy to order on Amazon and not selling it prevents no one from buying it elsewhere. You just have to wait for it. Ordering more is kind of pointless because it’s a holiday weekend, and it wouldn’t ship until Tuesday at the earliest (probably), and I certainly wouldn’t get it any time this weekend, which is when I wanted it. I have some on its way to me right now, but it’s coming from Washington State, so it will be a while. I think I will just stock up next time I order it so that I always have it on hand.

What all this means is that I have three-day weekend with no soaping. I am seriously bummed.

On the plus side, I have learned what not to do when making goat milk soap, so I can avoid some mistakes next time. David Fisher at’s Candles and Soap reference suggests that when you use evaporated goat milk, you use an equal amount of distilled water. So, if your recipe calls for 13.2 ounces of liquid, like mine does, then I would use 6.6 ounces of distilled water and 6.6 ounces of goat milk. I would put all of the lye into just the water, preparing it double-strength if you will, and add the goat milk directly to the oils, mixing them with my hand blender a bit. Then I would add the water and lye to the oils and goat milk and proceed as normal. Making soap with fresh goat milk would work like making soap with any other liquid, and using powdered goat milk sounds like the easiest thing, though whether it transfers its qualities to a finished bar seems to be a contested issue. I think I might put the goat milk lye in an ice water bath as a matter of precaution if I ever use fresh goat milk, even if I freeze it first.

I’m not so miserable about making a mistake. I think every soaper screws up batches now and then. I’m miserable that I can’t try again because I don’t have enough lye.


Amy Lowell’s Lilac Soap

Amy Lowell
Amy Lowell via The Poetry Foundation

Amy Lowell is a Massachusetts poet. She loved the return of lilacs to New England in the spring and wrote a beautiful poem about it. I love lilacs, too. My grandmother had a lilac bush in her back yard. They were beautiful and smelled heavenly.

I tried yet another experiment this weekend: lilac soap. Who better to name a New England lilac soap after than Amy Lowell? I had intended to try swirling two colors for the first time, but things didn’t quite work out as I had planned.


  • 8 oz. olive oil
  • 8 oz. coconut oil
  • 12 oz. palm oil
  • 12 oz. coconut oil
  • 13.2 oz. distilled water
  • 5.472 oz. lye
  • 4 T lilac fragrance oil
  • 2 T alkanet powder

Right about Tuesday of this week, I measured out two tablespoons of alkanet powder and 4 oz. of olive oil into a plastic container, stirred well, and put a lid on the container. I put the alkanet and olive oil infusion in a dark cabinet. I took it out today to use with my lilac swirl soap, intending to make two small batches of soap in different colors. I mixed the oils for each of the colors at the same time, measuring out half of the required amount. I put the infused olive oil in my colored bowl so I could remember which batch was supposed to be colored. In case you were wondering, yes, the alkanet infusion stained the plastic, but it didn’t bother me much because I wasn’t trying to prevent staining. If you use colorants and don’t want to stain your plastic, just use a glass jar for infusing instead.

Alkanet InfusionIt was a little scary to clean up afterward. Perhaps it might be best after all just to use something you can dispose of, like a pickle jar.

I had problems with my lye being too hot again, and this time, I was just using distilled water. The common denominator seems to be the lye, which is a new brand. I think I just won’t buy it again once I’ve used it up. It’s too much of a hassle to put my lye in an ice bath every single time I want to make soap. I would expect it when I’m making milk-based soaps, but not water. The lye I bought from Bramble Berry the first time I made soap costs about the same amount, even factoring in shipping, so I will just be ordering it from them.

I mixed the batch without the alkanet first so that I wouldn’t mix colorant from the hand blender into the light mix. I poured 2 T of lilac fragrance oil into each small batch of soap. The trace was too thick when I tried to pour the soap. The lilac fragrance oil accelerated the trace. At any rate, it was all I could do to spoon out globs of the soap into my mold before it hardened too much to use. I had no idea what I was going to get when I cut it open, but I think that’s true whether you spoon it out or swirl it, especially the first time. I just smashed it into mold as quickly as I could and hoped when I cut it the next day all would be well.

Well, I can say this: it could have been worse. I at least have usable soap, even though it isn’t very pretty.

Lilac SoapWhere to begin? Well, the light color is really not very pretty at all, and I suspect that its yellowish tinge comes from the shea butter I used. It actually looks prettier in these photos than it does in person. Trust me. It’s kind of a gross yellow.

Given that the color isn’t very pretty, I wish I had just colored the whole batch purple. Live and learn. As a result of trying to do too much (swirl, in this case), I wound up having the soap seize up on me, and I desperately shoved the soap into the mold, but pockets formed where there was no soap, and it was really ugly when I cut the bars.

Lilac Soap
Look at that nasty air pocket!

I suppose everyone has a batch of soap seize up on them at least once, but at least now I know that working with the lilac fragrance oil is going to be tricky, and I will need to bring my temperatures down a little to slow down the time it takes to trace and add the fragrance at a lighter trace. I also learned that swirling is really hard with floral fragrance like lilac, so I may just need to make the soap one solid purple color instead.

Lilac Soap

I also had some problems with soda ash, which is probably because it seized up, and I wasn’t able to put it to bed as soon as I should have. I had to cut the bars down quite a bit to make them somewhat presentable, as most of them had air pockets on the sides where the soap globs didn’t mash together well.

The soap smells heavenly, just like my grandmother’s lilacs, and I tried lathering up with some of the cuttings as a test. The lather is smooth and creamy. The soap has cosmetic issues to be sure, but it is something that could be used, even if I don’t think I could give it away or sell it (unless I discounted it like those outlet stores do with clothes that have something wrong with them).

I’m sorry, Amy! Next time your soap will be worthy of your name!

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Amy Lowell’s Lilac Soap by Dana Huff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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