Yummy Soap

RaspberryI have to admit I have a personal preference for two types of soap: lavender-scented and food-scented. I don’t go in for the perfumy soaps as much, though I do make them and enjoy them. My favorites—the ones I can’t stop smelling myself while they’re out on the curing racks—are the foodie ones.

Back when I regularly bought Bath and Body Works, my absolute favorite scent was Sun-Ripened Raspberry. I also love their Warm Vanilla Sugar for winter. In fact, I love most of Bath and Body Works’ foodie scents. I also liked their Velvet Tuberose and Japanese Cherry Blossom, which are floral scents, but for the most part, the kinds of scents I tend to like best are berry scents or vanilla scents.

The last issue of Saponifier had a great interview of Jo Lasky by Beth Byrne called “Creating a Scentsational Product Line.” Jo covers a great deal of ground in the interview, including what happens in the olfactory receptor neuron and the brain when we smell an aroma, the difference between fragrance oils and essential oils, the top ten list of best-selling scents for 2012 as voted by readers and her thoughts as to why those scents moved more products, fragrance trends, and advice for soap/candle/bath suppliers looking to put together an appealing scent line. If you are soapmaker, it’s worth the price of the magazine subscription to access this article alone.

For the first time since the inception of the annual survey of top ten best-selling fragrances, lavender was not number one in 2012—it was vanilla.

Vanilla Sugar Cane
My Vanilla Sugar Cane soap

I found this revelation interesting, particularly as vanilla products seem to be gaining more traction in recent years in stores like Bath and Body Works than some of their traditional scents. Sun-Ripened Raspberry used to be one of their most popular fragrances, if not the most popular of all, but it has been discontinued in stores and is now only available for purchase online. My personal opinion is that it was replaced with Black Raspberry Vanilla, which has a similar scent, but with the vanilla base, which also eventually went to “online exclusive” only. Bath and Body Works’ website reports the following are their most popular scents (they do not specify if this is in order, but it is probably not because the list is alphabetical):

  • Aruba Coconut
  • Bali Mango
  • Berry Flirt
  • Daisy Dreamgirl
  • Forever Red
  • Honey Sweetheart
  • Japanese Cherry Blossom
  • Moonlight Path
  • Rio Rumberry
  • Sweet Pea
  • Warm Vanilla Sugar

Of the scents on this list, my guess is that Berry Flirt is probably the closest to Sun-Ripened Raspberry because it is described as a blend of red berries and blond woods. However, I haven’t smelled it, so I can’t be sure it’s close at all. I am not surprised to see Japanese Cherry Blossom on the list, as it has been a good seller for a few years now. I am surprised that of the rest of the list, the only ones I’m familiar with at all are Sweet Pea and Warm Vanilla Sugar.

I am sure Bath and Body Works likes to change up their scent line so that they can stay fresh and competitive, but I have always thought they risk alienating customers when they do away with popular scents, which they seem to do regularly. I have certainly found that aspect of their business model frustrating. On the other hand, who is to say that my notion of what was popular was actually moving off their shelves? They may be discontinuing scents I like, but that others don’t seem to buy.

If you are trying to decide which scents to use, it is a good idea to do your own market research. Make products that appeal to you and watch to see how they move. Keep track of which scents are requested. My biggest mover is Lemongrass Sage. I was recently asked if I did a lavender scent, but at the time, I hadn’t used it. I now have two different lavender soaps—Provence and Lavender Spearmint. Take stock of those scents that people request, and watch what moves in bath and body stores like Bath and Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Lush, but ultimately, use your own common sense as a guide. I think a great deal of success in soapmaking depends on your own intuition about what kinds of oils to use, what kinds of fragrances, and what kinds of designs will work. I also think you tend to create more loyal customers than big bath and body stores, and they will seek out their favorite products over novelty.

I know of some soapmakers who eschew fragrances, but given the popularity of scent in soaps, I would recommend treading very carefully if you choose not to use a fragrance at all. The first thing people do when they see my soaps out on display is pick them up and smell them. I do the same thing when shopping for handmade soap. It definitely makes it tougher to move soap online—obviously customers can’t smell soaps in my Etsy store, but I think there are some smart techniques soapers can use to increase online sales. Celine Blacow’s videos seem to help her move products. I know watching a video about the making of the very soap I bought is a little bit exciting. As soon as I can make my work area presentable, it’s something I’d like to try. I just ordered some Lavender Song and Adam and Eve soap from Celine, and I can’t wait for it to arrive. I so enjoyed both of the “making of” videos, particularly Lavender Song, which I have watched several times now.

I also think that sometimes customers don’t know what they want until you make it. Steve Jobs famously said, “[F]or something this complicated, it’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This is true of soap, too. Customers might not think about a certain fragrance as something they’d like, but if they smell it, they like it, or if your description on your online store or video is good enough, their interest is piqued to try it.

Ultimately, I think as a soapmaker, choosing a scent I like is part of the artistry, and though I pay close attention to what my customers like, I tend to make soaps that I know I will like. However, I highly recommend reading Beth Byrne’s article, and think about designing a product line with the most popular scents.

Bookish Goodness

I’m a huge reader, and my new favorite books to read are soap making books (naturally!).

My sister just sent me a package with all these amazing books inside:



How exciting is that? All kinds of soapy goodness to read.

Plus, I made my first batch of soap inspired by my fall reads today. I’m not quite done with Ray Bradbury’s novel Something Wicked This Way Comes yet, but I can’t imagine I’ll read about a more indelible sensory image (at least, not one than can be made into soap) than Mr. Crosetti’s cotton candy. The book explores the theme of recaptured or lost youth and regret. I loved the idea of adding moisturizing yogurt as a lye base. The soap is in the mold now. Look how pretty it is!

Cotton Candy SoapThe pink sugar reminds me of how pink cotton candy looks when you’ve licked it. Smells great! I used Bramble Berry’s Electric Bubble Gum pigment and Nature’s Garden’s Cotton Candy Fragrance Oil. Yum!

More pictures when I unmold it.

Creating Your Own Soap Recipes

As soon as I had made one batch of soap on my own, I was ready to start creating my own soap recipes. I didn’t like the soap I made very much. The directions provided were easy to follow, but I wasn’t and still am not crazy about the soap that resulted. I looked around at many recipes on the Internet, but I didn’t know how to figure out how much oil I should use to fit my mold.

I did some research about different types of oils. Perhaps the three most common oils used in most of the soap recipes I found are olive oil, palm oil, and coconut oil. In fact, many recipes recommend 40% olive, 30% palm, and 30% coconut oils.

Olive Oil

Olive oil contributes to a good conditioning bar, but it doesn’t produce a lot of lather on its own, and pure castille bars can be soft. I buy olive oil at the grocery store. Shop around and see which brands you like best and which grade. Some soapers prefer EVOO. I have not noticed a difference, and since light olive oil is cheaper, that’s what I use. Some soapers buy olive pomace oil. I have not tried it because it’s not readily available in the store, and I buy what I can find locally to save shipping charges. I have to order too much other stuff for soaping to worry with olive oil, too. Soaps with a high olive oil content take longer to saponify and need longer to cure.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil contributes to a cleansing bar with a good lather, which is why some soapers make “bastille” (not pure castille, but mostly olive oil) bars with a percentage of coconut oil. I have a bastille recipe that is 75% olive oil, 25% coconut oil. It is recommended to keep use of coconut oil at 30% or less because more than that can be drying. Coconut oil can be hard to find in the grocery store in some areas. I buy the Louana brand at Walmart. Shop carefully. I saw the same brand of coconut oil I purchase for sale on Amazon via a third party seller. It was described as organic (it isn’t) and cost at least four times as much as the same size container in Walmart. Plus shipping.

Palm Oil

Palm oil contributes to a hard bar. It’s a substitute for tallow when soapers want to create vegan or all vegetable oil soaps rather than using animal fats. Palm oil also contributes to a creamy, stable lather. It’s best to keep the amount of palm oil under 50% of your total oils because some people find it drying if you use more than that. Palm oil use can be controversial because of its association with rainforest depletion in the areas of the world where the oil palm is cultivated. You can buy palm oil from vendors that the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has certified meet criteria and procedures for manufacturing sustainable palm oil. Some soapers have stopped using palm oil altogether. It is an important issue to educate yourself about. I do use palm oil, but after learning more about the issue, I have decided not buy from a vendor unless it is RSPO certified sustainable palm oil. Bramble Berry sells sustainable palm oil. So do other companies, such as Soaper’s Choice.

Most of my recipes have these three oils. In addition, I like to use some of the following oils:

  • Castor oil contributes to a nice, bubbly lather. It is recommended to keep the amount at 5% or less of your total oils.
  • Shea butter adds moisturizing qualities and contributes to a harder bar.

I’m relatively new to soaping, so there are plenty of oils I have not experimented with. I have discovered some of these oils are located in odd places in the grocery store. On my last shopping trip, I managed to find sunflower oil by the Italian foods. Rice bran oil was near the olive oil, but it was on the top shelf, and my store only carried one brand. Safflower oil is also with the other oils. I have only used this oil once (my first recipe called for it), but it has a short shelf life and as David Fisher at Candle & Soap Making at About.com says, it has a “fairly unremarkable fatty acid makeup.” Sesame seed oil is stocked with the Asian foods and is said to be a good conditioner.

Many soapers swear by other products such as cocoa butter, mango butter, apricot kernel oil, palm kernel oil, avocado oil. I want to try some of these oils, but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I have used grapeseed oil, but it has a short shelf life, and I didn’t notice anything missing in my soap when I haven’t used it. I plan to try using it as an oil for sugar scrubs. It is said to absorb quickly in the skin without leaving a greasy feeling.

The important thing is to experiment with the different oils using a soap calculator. My new favorite (and an old standby many soapers use and swear by) is SoapCalc. There are other good ones, too (see my Resources page). SoapCalc can give you a prediction about your soap based on the percentages of oils you use. You can easily change amounts without having to start over, too. I usually start with a base of olive, coconut, and palm oils, and add and subtract amounts from those base oils when I add other oils like castor oil and shea butter. The recipe I use most often uses 38% olive oil, 30% coconut oil, 17% palm oil, 10% shea butter, and 5% castor oil. I also frequently use Heidi Corley Barto’s basic recipe, which calls for 30% palm oil, 30% shea butter, 20% olive oil, and 20% coconut oil. I usually discount my lye by 5%, which leaves some unsaponified oil in the soap for conditioning purposes and also gives me wiggle room for slight measuring errors, preventing a lye-heavy batch of soap that would be unusable. SoapCalc and other lye calculators will help you figure out how to discount lye. By default, SoapCalc figures a 5% lye discount.

Some soapers swear by attending to INS values as a method for producing good soap. INS values were introduced by Dr. Robert S. McDaniel in Essentially Soap as a means for figuring out the iodine value and SAP value (saponification value). Supposedly, an INS value of 160 is the ideal, but many soapers make wonderful soap that isn’t close to that value. My recipe above has an INS value of 158, and Barto’s has an INS of 151. I can tell no appreciable difference between them in terms of quality, and they are both fairly easy to soap. I do notice my recipe has more lather, likely because of the castor oil, and hers produces a harder bar, likely because of the higher percentage of palm oil and shea butter. On the other hand, the first soap I made had a low INS value of about 121. SoapCalc’s scale recommends an INS between 136 and 165. Given that my soap with an INS value of 121 is really soft and just not all that nice to use, the recommendation seems sound to me.

Don’t be afraid to try out a few combinations using the lye calculator. It can be fun to experiment.

Another issue I ran into early on is not knowing how much essential oil or fragrance oil to use. Thankfully, Bramble Berry has a good Fragrance Oil Calculator that can help you figure out how much oil to use. Other vendors make recommendations. How much fragrance or essential oil you use will vary. Some fragrances and essential oils are stronger than others. If your vendor has a recommendation, it is probably a good idea to follow it because they have most likely tested it, and following their recommendation will save you time. However, if you don’t have a recommendation, try using about 5-9% percent of your oil weight. For example, if you have a 40-ounce oil recipe, you might try 2 to 4 ounces of essential oil or fragrance. Many soapers keep it simple by using 1 ounce per pound of soap.

An important note: some essential oils and fragrance oils can accelerate trace and cause your soap to seize, as I discovered when I used lilac fragrance oil. Floral fragrance seem to be especially bad about accelerating trace. When you use a new fragrance or essential oil, it is a good idea to take careful notes about what happens in case you need to make changes for next time. For instance, next time I use lilac fragrance, I will add it at a lighter trace, and I will not try to do anything fancy like swirling. I haven’t noticed a huge problem with most fragrances, and usually, your vendor will warn you if a fragrance can be problematic. I like that vendors like Bramble Berry warn you not to use certain fragrances in cold process soap at all.

Soap Photography Studio Tutorial

Some soapers’ pictures look so awesome, and I was increasingly frustrated by my own photographs. I decided to make a soap photograph studio, and while I was at it, I thought I’d share my process.

I started with the following materials plus a roll of tape that I forgot to put in the picture.

I recently moved from Georgia to Massachusetts, so we have a ton of boxes around. The other necessary items include freezer paper (which you probably have on hand to line your molds), a glue stick, and scissors. I like how my box informs me it’s designed for multiple uses. This use is probably one that U-Haul didn’t have in mind. (Yes, I know, they meant you could use it more than once.)

Next cut two sides off the box so you have three sides left.

Rub your glue stick on the cardboard and line the box with your freezer paper.

Fold the sides over the box and glue them down. I also used tape to fix the ends. It doesn’t have to be pretty. That part of the box won’t show in your pictures.

See? My tape is not pretty.

Fold the paper over the top and bottom. You will need to cut the paper to get it to fold over corners. If you look hard, you can see my kitty Bella in the background.

Now you’re finished. You can see the purple glue stick hasn’t dried on my soap photo studio yet, but that kind of glue stick turns clear when it dries. I think they make it like that so kids using it have better aim.

Here are some pictures of my soap using my new soap photo studio. Full disclosure: I did neaten up a few spots and cropped the images in Photoshop, but this is not by any means a complete retouch.

I considered using this one for my new banner image. My need for a new banner image prompted me to create my photo studio in the first place.

I love how this one came out. Pretty soap! And for once, I’m not distracted by what’s in my background.

A cropped version of this photo is my new banner image. I love the way the shadows look in this one. I took these in the late afternoon/early evening near my kitchen window with just my overhead kitchen light on. It looks like natural morning light.

So that’s it! Now you can make your own soap photo studio so you can take awesome photos of your soap. You can use whatever color paper you want to line the box. I chose white so that the background would draw as little attention to itself as possible. Plus it’s easy since I had it. I took the pictures with my iPhone, so no fancy camera tricks, lights, or techniques.

The Everything Soapmaking Book, Alicia Grosso

The Everything Soapmaking BookThe Everything Soapmaking Book by Alicia Grosso is a good introduction to basic soapmaking. Unlike some other soapmaking books I’ve seen, this book also discusses hot process and hand-milling techniques. The chapters on essential oils and fragrance oils were interesting. Not too many other books I’ve read devote so much space to fragrance, and it’s an important reason why people buy soap. Even though essential oils and fragrance oils are expensive, I can’t imagine making soap without them. Also, Grosso dedicates useful space to chapters on packaging, gifting, and selling soap, which is extremely useful information (and probably my favorite part of the book). The book also includes helpful appendices: a glossary, troubleshooting, DIY molds, and resources.

I think some of Grosso’s information may be out of date. I checked the copyright, which was 2003 and was renewed in 2007. I’m not sure what updates or changes were made for the 2007 edition, but Grosso makes a statement that it’s hard to sell soap online, and I’m sure it is hard if you have a stand-alone website and are slowly trying to build a business, but I think storefront sites like eBay and Etsy are changing that. I know eBay was around when the book was published, but Etsy wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t large enough. Also, I think social networking in the form of sites like Twitter, Facebook, and especially Pinterest can make it easier to spread word of mouth about your soap. I have been sharing pictures of mine on Facebook and Instagram, and I have already have a few inquiries about purchasing it, and I’m not even ready to begin selling yet. I am not saying Grosso was wrong—I think she was probably right in 2003 or even 2007, but I think it’s a little easier to build a web-based business now than it might have been then. You have to be ready to do some serious social networking to move a large volume of soap, I’m sure, and good photography will be critical to your success, but I think perhaps the web is not the near lost cause she intimated it is.

Another issue I have with the book is a lack of pictures. You can’t have a soap-making book without full color pictures of soap! It might be that I’ve just been spending too much time on Pinterest lately, but I am learning that visuals are so important in soaping. I have learned more from looking at pictures and video tutorials than I thought possible when I started making soap. Even an instructional book for beginners, like this one, should have good, high-quality pictures to inspire readers.

That said, this book covers all the basics and is excellent for beginners. Highly recommended!

Note: I borrowed this book via Amazon on my Kindle through the Amazon Prime program.

How Much Oil Do You Need for Your Mold?

One of the most frustrating aspects of making soap that I encountered as a beginner was trying to figure out how much oil to use to make soap fit in a mold. I knew my soap mold held 3-4 pounds of soap, but what did that translate to in terms of amount of oils? My first batch didn’t have enough, and I wound up with squat-looking soap. My second batch had way too much, and I wound up making a weird looking extra bar (that really could have been two extra bars). It turns out I just wasn’t looking in the right place.

Soap Making Essentials is bar none one of the most comprehensive and helpful websites for beginners learning to make soap. Did you catch that terrible pun? I’m sorry. It turns out they had the answer to my problem on their Homemade Soap Recipes page.  You can figure out how much oil to use with a very simple mathematical formula:

Length of mold X Width of mold X Height of mold X 0.40 = Ounces of oil needed

I just can’t believe this simple mathematical formula is not in every basic soap book. The only one I have found that even mentions is is Anne-Marie Faiola’s Soap Crafting: Step-by-Step Techniques for Making 31 Unique Cold-Process Soaps.

I probably should have paid more attention in math class, or I might have been able to figure out the formula myself, but I’m glad I stumbled on it anyhow. Thank you again, Soap Making Essentials, for the wonderful resource.

So what should you do if you have a round mold? Time to go back to Geometry 101.

The area for a cylinder (which is basically what a round mold is, even if it’s a short cynlinder), is Πr²*height of the mold. If it’s been a while for you, remember that Π is roughly equal to 3.14 and r means the radius, which is half of the diameter—the measurement of of the mold from side to side. So, if you have a cylinder mold that is 4 inches in diameter, then it has a radius of 2. Two squared (the little ² by the r) means multiply 2 times itself, which happens to be 4. Multiply Π and the radius of 2², or 4, and then multiply the product of that calculation by the height of the mold. Let’s pretend the mold is 10 inches. Multiply 4 x 3.14 (Π) x 10, which would equal 125.6 ounces. But wait! Remember we have to account for the water, so multiply one more time by 0.4. 125.6 x 0.4 = 50.24, which means your cylinder mold will hold a recipe using about 50 ounces of oils.

Height of mold X Radius of mold squared X 3.14 X 0.40 = Ounces of oil needed

Note: Be careful that you do square the radius (multiply the number by itself) rather than just double it. It will not always be double. For example, if you have mold with a radius of 3 inches, then squared, it would be 9 rather than 6.

If you have an mold with an odd shape, then it is best to calculate how much oil to use by using a water-volume calculation. You should fill your mold with water and then pour the water out into a measuring cup with volume markers. Then, multiply the number of ounces in the cup by 1.8 to calculate the total number of cubic inches in the mold. Then multiply that number by 0.4. For example, if your irregular mold holds 6 ounces of water, multiply 6 x 1.8, which is 10.8. Then multiply 10.8 x 0.4, which is 4.32. You would use 4.32 ounces of oils to make soap with this mold.

Amount of water in ounces X 1.8 X 0.40 = Ounces of oil needed

A final word of advice: I use grams in all my measurements because I find them more accurate, but these formulas work for ounces. I am sure there are similar formulas for grams, but I have not found a good calculation for metric volume. My advice would be to create a recipe using ounces, and then use the metric amounts given in SoapCalc, which always delivers the amounts in ounces, pounds, and grams for easy conversion. Alternatively, you could calculate your amount of oils in ounces and multiply by 28.35 (the number of grams in an ounce) or use an online conversion tool, such as this one, to calculate how many grams your mold will hold.

The Natural Soap Chef, Heidi Corley Barto

The Natural Soap ChefAs I have been learning how to make soap, I’ve been on the lookout for helpful books with lots of beautiful pictures—not just for instructions, but also for inspiration. I have seen several reviews of Heidi Corley Barto’s new book The Natural Soap Chef. It’s a gorgeous book with lots of great tips for additives. For instance, Barto uses baby food instead of pureed fruit, which would be a great time-saver. She also explains exactly how to use liquids other than water (such as goat milk or tea).

The recipes are mostly variations on the same four ingredients: olive oil, shea butter, coconut oil, and palm oil. Those ingredients are the staples of good soap. I think I might have enjoyed seeing a few different types of oils discussed, but it wasn’t a huge deal because of the large variety of ideas. I liked thinking about how many ways I could use the same ingredients to make very different soaps. Also, I think it’s great for beginners to master a basic recipe and still have a chance to experiment within those confines. I had a quibble with Catherine Bardey’s Making Soaps and Scents because she also used the same basic three-oil recipe for almost all the soaps in her book, but frankly, I think what bothered me was that one of Bardey’s ingredients was shortening. I know it can be used in soap, but it just doesn’t seem right to me. I just don’t like the idea of using Crisco® in my soap! However, olive oil, shea butter, coconut oil, and palm oil—I can get behind. They may or may not be more natural than shortening. I honestly don’t know. But they seem more natural, and if I were buying handmade soap, I’d rather see them on the list of ingredients than shortening.

I am confused about one thing. Barto recommends putting the soap into the refrigerator after you pour it, but everything else I’ve read seems to indicate soap needs to cool slowly, and that you should wrap it in towels to keep it warm until it sets a little. I guess I’m having some cognitive dissonance here, and now I’m not sure. My own experience with the first two batches is that wrapping them and keeping them warm works well for me, so I’m not sure I will follow that particular advice. I suppose there are just many ways to make soap, but I admit I am curious as to why Barto does things so differently after the soap is in the mold.

I love some of Barto’s ideas. I had already created my own lemongrass sage recipe, but hers looks good, and I plan to infuse half of my olive oil with sage just like she did, which was something I had not thought of doing (I’m making the lemongrass sage this weekend). Also, thanks to Barto, I now have a good chai tea soap recipe that looks easy (and I already have the chai teabags I need! score!), and I love her idea for creating tissue paper tea bags to wrap those soaps in. Clever!

This is a great book, whether you’re a beginner like me or a more advanced soap maker looking for ideas. Christmas is taken care of this year!