Soap - where to begin?

Soap - where to begin?

Welcome to our first soap blog here at Twenty Three Living. I started making soap at my home in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, just over two years ago, initially as a hobby and then as a business once I had totally fallen in love with this way of expressing myself using beautifully natural plant oils, butters and other natural ingredients. Making soap offers unlimited possibilities to be creative with colour, designs, scents, patterns and ingredients, with the added benefit of being a consumable art form that others can enjoy. The possibilities for creating beautiful and skin beneficial soaps, using a variety of different methods are endless which we will explore further in later blogs. Firstly, I thought the history of soap, how it works and how it is made would be a good place to start. Being a bit of a soap geek I hope I don’t get too sciency and that you enjoy this introduction.

Soap making has gone on for thousands of years with many different methods and ingredients found around the world. There is evidence of soap dating back to Ancient Babylon 2800BC, Egyptians were documented as making a soap from vegetable and animal fats for treating skin diseases and for washing. It is believed the English started making soap in the 1200’s for commercial purposes and spread to the USA in the 1680’s when a number of commercial soap making companies are recorded. Further developments from the French in soap chemistry in the 1800’s led to cheaper, commercially available soap products being readily available, with Germany discovering synthetic detergent products in the 20th century due to a shortage of animal fats during the 1st World War.

Modern commercially available soap products are very different to the soap traditionally made from just fats and alkaline. Mass manufacturing uses accessible, stable and economically ‘attractive’ products to enable fast and profitable operations that allow ‘soap’ to be sold often at very low prices meeting consumer demands for low pricing. Industrial manufacturers will sometimes advertise that they incorporate ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ nutrients into their products – making it a key selling point on the label, when in fact the percentages of these ingredients within the product are minimal and often insignificant in terms of effectiveness. How often do we see ‘with organic rose’ or ‘aloe vera’ on a front label only to see it at the bottom of the ingredients list meaning there is less than 1% in the product.

Most modern commercially available ‘soap’ is in fact a mixture of synthetic ingredients including detergents (to clean), SLS Sodium Laurel Sulphate (to provide lather), Synthetic fragrance (to scent), artificial colourants (to colour) and stabilisers or preservatives to ensure the product has a very long shelf life. Rather than being soap in the true sense it is in fact a detergent providing a much harsher clean.

Always having had a love of nature, cosmetics and chemistry, my inquisitive nature got the better of me and I decided to learn how to make soap for myself. Initially starting with melt and pour soap, the easiest way to make your own soap, I soon moved onto the more natural form using plant oils and butters to create my own cold processed soap with endless possibilities for formulations and additives.

How does soap clean?

When you wash your hands with soap and water Amphiphile molecules are released. These molecules have Hydrophilic heads (they love water) and Hydrophobic tails (they hate water). These molecules hold together oil and water, which wouldn’t normally get along. Soap therefore works as a surface-active agent helping to wet the skin. Once the soap molecule has helped water do it’s job it next removes the grease and dirt. The oil loving tail of the soap molecule is attracted to oil and grease embedding its tail in the dirt, and the water loving head of the soap molecule pulls toward the water. The tail of the soap molecule holds the dirt and grease in suspension until it is rinsed away with the water. This is important in the case of viruses like Coronavirus, the Amphiphile molecules work like an emulsifier to the fat like substances that provide a protective coat to the virus. The amphiphile allows the virus to be removed and washed away, unlike alcohol hand sanitiser, which is why soap and water is the best defence against bacteria and viruses when water is available. Whilst liquid soap is OK for washing, bar soap is more efficient due to its structure and is also less impactful on our environment. There is also no evidence that viruses and bacteria live on bar soap as we know that viruses hate soap as explained above. It is also not necessary to use antibacterial soaps as just using any soap & water will clean them effectively enough. However, we do know that constant hand washing when using harsh detergent-like products will wash all the natural oils from our skin making them dry, sore and more prone to infections.

How do you make soap?

At Twenty Three Living we use the traditional cold process method to make our soap. Cold Process means that it requires no heat source during the mixing stage, although the chemical process itself does create some heat – more about that later. We take natural plant oils and butters in liquid form (melting the butters if needed) and add Sodium Hydroxide solution. The mixture is mixed thoroughly and it starts to thicken (called trace), then we pour it into moulds. We insulate the moulds so that any heat produced by the reaction is retained, and then leave it untouched for 24/48 hours for the mixture to fully saponify. Once saponification has completed  we have soap containing glycerine, which is then un-moulded, cut into smaller user friendly bars and left to cure (allowing any remaining water to leave the bars) resulting in a hardened, long lasting, mild bar of soap. In commercial soap manufacture, the glycerine is often removed from the soap and sold off separately as it is highly profitable. In traditional cold process soap making all of the glycerine, which is highly beneficial for conditioning skin, remains within the soap and benefits the user each time they wash with it.

Soap using the cold process method can use many different fats and oils to produce soap. Traditionally soap is made from animal fats, lard or tallow which is extremely cheap and produces a bar that is nourishing and has good cleaning ability. The preference for many now is that plant oils and fats are used to make soap, especially for those who are vegetarian or vegan. Each fat or oil has its own unique chemical composition and imparts different qualities to the final product. An example is an oil that is high in saturated fats i.e. Coconut oil, will have good lathering qualities, cleans well and adds to a bars hardness, whereas an oil that is high in unsaturated fats e.g. Avocado oil, helps with moisture and conditioning of the skin but will have less lathering qualities. Therefore, when CP soap is made, a calculator is used to calculate how much Sodium Hydroxide is needed to fully saponify the different fats found in the oils or butters. It is essential that these calculations are done correctly to ensure that saponification happens fully, otherwise the end result is a greasy non cleansing pile of mush or if you add too much sodium hydroxide, results in a caustic bar that is highly alkaline and dangerous to use.

As soap works by producing a lather that attaches to dirt and grease, it can also have the effect of being drying to the skin. Extra oil in the soap can assist to replenish the skins natural oil barrier and moisturise.  Therefore many traditional soap makers ‘superfat’ their soap, meaning they under calculate the amount of lye required for full saponification to allow a percentage of fats to retain in the soap after saponification. There is a fine balance to be had between leaving too much fat in the soap leading to a soft bar without much lather or too little, a very bubbly bar that is very drying. At Twenty Three Living we superfat our soap to ensure that it retains some of the beautiful oils and provides a nourishing bar that doesn’t strip the skin whilst still providing a rich creamy lather.

Finally, and for me the favourite bit, soap can be coloured, patterned and scented with a huge variety of ingredients. These additives are usually added to the liquid soap mixture before it is mixed to trace and poured into the moulds. At Twenty Three Living we scent our soap with 100% pure essential oils. We love the beautiful fragrance these oils impart, in addition to their beneficial effects on wellbeing. Whilst essential oils are ‘natural’ in that they are distilled or pressed from plants, they should be used with caution as can be toxic if used incorrectly or in excessive quantities. All of our soaps have undergone assessment by a qualified chemist in line with UK legislation and are registered with the EU portal. We colour our soaps with natural clays, plant extracts and pigments producing visually pleasing soaps that we hope our customers take pleasure from. Our ‘Yoga One’ soap is coloured using alkanet root infused in olive oil, on adding the lye to our plant oils this soap turns a beautiful bright lilac blue before turning mauve after saponification and then to a delicate dusty pink following the cure. Natural alchemy at its very wonderful best.

Louise Haisman

Founder of Twenty Three Living

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