For those unfamiliar with making soap, seeing lye, aka sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide as an ingredient in handmade soap can be a little scary. Today I thought I’d share why it’s in there and why it’s nothing to scare you away from handmade soap.
The basic soapmaking process involves adding a solution of lye and water or some other liquid to oils. The lye reacts with the oils to make soap (saponification). Lye is necessary for saponification to occur and is therefore used in making all soap. In other words, if there wasn’t sodium hydroxide (potassium hydroxide for liquid soap) , aka. lye involved in making a product, it’s not soap.
Is there lye in the finished soap?
Short answer: No, absolutely not. Assuming the maker’s calculations are correct, all of the lye reacts with the oil, thus leaving no trace of the lye in the final product. Because of this, you will often see terms such as “Saponified Coconut Oil” or “Sodium Cocoate”. Both terms refer to coconut oil that has reacted with lye to saponify.
Many soap makers, including myself, also take a small discount in the amount of lye used. This adds a cushion to further ensure that there are no traces of lye in the final product. It also produces a milder bar without sacrificing the cleaning properties of the soap.
A word about labeling
When labeling soap, you can either list the starting ingredients or list the end products. So, some soapmakers’ labels will list things like “lye (or sodium hydroxide), olive oil, coconut oil,” etc. Some will list “saponified coconut oil, saponified olive oil,” etc. Others choose to list ingredients as “Sodium Olivate, Sodium Cocoate,” etc. All mean the same thing.
Personally, I find listing the starting ingredients simpler and more easily understandable. It does mean that my labels list lye or sodium hydroxide, which might seem scary if you don’t know that there are no longer traces of it in the finished product.
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Shampoo bars have become more popular recently. They are convenient for traveling. Unlike liquid shampoo, you don’t have to worry about travel limits and leaking bottles with a shampoo bar. Because they don’t require plastic bottles, shampoo bars are a great option for people trying to reduce waste.
Not all hair types are alike, so it takes some trial and error to find the right one. With the recent interest in shampoo bars, I thought now would be a great time to reshare my Shampoo Bar 101 post.
I began using bar soaps as shampoo about four years ago. Whenever I tell people this, they always look at me kind of strange or have tons of questions about how it works, so I thought I’d share it all here. Please keep in mind, this is all based on my personal experience and research.
What type of soap to use?
While there are some bars that are specially formulated to be shampoo bars, I’ve found that just about any good quality natural soap will work. You definitely want to avoid most of the bar soaps you’d find at your supermarket, because they don’t have the same properties as natural soaps and can dry your hair.
Among natural soaps, I’ve found that bars with little or no waxes work the best. My hair tends to be oily, so I also avoid soaps with a high percentage of butters (shea, cocoa, etc.) as they seem to add too much oil to my hair.
Some of the oils that work well in a shampoo bar are coconut, castor, olive, jojoba, and avocado. Most of the bars I’ve used contain at least the first three. I wouldn’t count out a bar that didn’t have them, though, until I’d tried it a few times.
What are the some of the benefits of using a bar soap?
Natural bars don’t strip your hair like shampoo.
Hair feels thicker
Has eliminated my need for a seperate conditioner
No more scalp and hairline irritation like I had with many shampoos
Convenient for travel-no worries about leaky bottles or (as far as I know) airline carry-on limits
Same bar can be used all over-no need for a seperate body wash or soap cluttering your shower
Tipsfor using a bar soap as shampoo:
Expect an adjustment period of 2-4 weeks. Your scalp is used to producing more oil to make up for the natural oils that are stripped by the detergents in shampoos.
You may want to use a simple clarifying shampoo or even a baby shampoo prior to the first wash with a bar. I’ve found that this helps speed up the adjustment period by removing buildup from shampoos, conditioners and styling products, giving the bar a clean slate to work with.
Periodically doing an apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice) rinse can help improve shine and seems to help if I feel like my hair isn’t rinsing out as well as it should. I use about 1/2 Tablespoon of ACV to about 3 cups of water and pour over my just washed hair, then rinse. I used to do this about every other wash, but now I do it about once every week or two.
Many styling products seem to need the detergents in shampoo to be fully removed. I try to avoid products with dimethecone and other -cone ingredients as these seem to be the hardest to wash out with a bar soap. Hairspray doesn’t seem to be a problem. You can also use pure aloe gel as a hair gel that’s also great for your hair.
I’m sure there are many things I’ve left out. Feel free to ask any questions or add to what I have here.
Oh, and before I forget, here are my favorites from my shop to use as a shampoo:
Over the past few decades liquid hand soap and body wash have gained popularity over bar soaps. Bar soaps have gotten a bad reputation for being dirty and drying. While we’re pretty solidly team bar soap now, fifteen years ago we may have had one or two lonely bars sitting dry and cracked in soap dishes while bottles of the liquid variety cluttered the tub and counters. As with any personal care product, needs vary and it’s important to find what works for you.
Before I start the comparison, I should mention that not all soaps, bar or liquid, are created equally. Many things sold as soap are actually synthetic detergents, sometimes called syndets. To be a true soap, the product needs to be a fat or oil added to an alkali (lye) to form soap salts, glycerine and sometimes excess fats or alkalis. Some find syndets harsher on their skin while others actually find them to be gentler. True soap is what I know, so that’s what I’m referring to unless I say otherwise.
Since soap’s primary function is to clean, let’s start there. My searching has found many references to a 1988 study where e.coli and another contaminant were put on a bar of soap then subjects washed their hands with the e.coli soap. When their hands were tested afterward, the e.coli hadn’t transferred to their hands. One such article can be found here http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/science/10qna.html?ref=science&_r=0.
My personal, non-scientific thoughts: Liquid soap requires a dispenser of some sort. Unwashed hands have to touch said dispenser (unless it’s an automatic dispenser). The dispenser itself doesn’t get washed after each use, so some bacteria may be transferred to your hands when you use the dispenser. They will most likely be washed away when you wash your hands.
Likewise, you touch bar soap with unwashed hands. The process of rubbing your hands over the bar with it under running water for a few seconds to create lather probably removes some of the bacteria. Properly washing your hands removes the bacteria from your hands as shown in the above study.
My verdict: They will both get you clean, so use what you like.
Before delving into natural, handmade soaps, when I thought of bar soap I either imagined “manly” deodorant soaps or the “lye soap” my granny talked about burning her scalp when she was little. Ouch! While the soap my granny knew was natural and possibly handmade, if it burned, it was not formulated properly for cleaning people. Back to my brief lesson on soaps vs. syndets, a soap with excess alkalis would burn. This might be okay for heavy house cleaning purposes, but not for personal use.
Most all soapmakers, myself included, formulate their soaps to both fully bond the lye and leave a “buffer” of unsaponified oils to protect your skin. This is known as superfatting. When done properly, you won’t feel the oil, but your skin will feel clean and hydrated, not dry.
Another factor with natural soaps, whether liquid or bar, is that they should contain glycerine as it is a natural by-product of saponification. Glycerine is a humectant, meaning that it attracts water. This helps your skin feel hydrated. Unfortunately, the glycerine often gets removed to be used in other products. This can leave your skin feeling dry.
Syndet bars and liquids often contain added moisturizers to hydrate the skin. Some people are sensitive to the detergents and other ingredients, which can cause dryness and other irritation.
My verdict: It depends. Everyone’s body chemistry is a little different, so what works for me may not work for you. Personally, I am one who reacts badly to syndets. If you are looking to avoid syndets, either because you react poorly to them or because you want a more natural product, it seems easier to find natural soaps in bar form. Natural liquids are becoming more available, though.
Waste is a subject more take into consideration, either from a frugal or a “green” standpoint. Liquid soaps generally come in plastic containers. Some are recyclable depending on what recycling programs are available in your area. Bar soap comes unwrapped or wrapped in a variety of materials. Even if wrapped in plastic, the wrapping uses less plastic than the plastic bottles used for liquid soap.
As far as the product itself, with a bar of soap, you tend to use just as much product as necessary. With liquids, I find it harder to get just enough. This is especially true with pump dispensers. I usually find they give enough soap for at least two people to use.
My verdict: Bar soap is the clear winner if you are looking to reduce waste.
All in all, the deciding factor should be what works for you. If you’ve decided to give bar soap a second chance and would like to learn more about the soaps I make, please visit my shop. I’m also more than happy to answer any questions you may have via the contact form at the right or at email@example.com.
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Soap, Bath and Fragrance
SubEarthan Cottage offers unique, gift-ready handmade soaps, essential oil rollers, bath salts and other bath and beauty products. All of my bath and body products are sodium laurel sulfate-free and phthalate-free. I welcome custom orders, so feel free to contact me if you don’t see what you need.
Frankincense and myrrh was one of my first customer requests years ago when I began soap making. Over time, there’s been a few variations in the recipe.
For the first time ever, this year’s Frankincense and Myrrh soap is 100% synthetic fragrance free. Instead, I used pure frankincense and myrrh essential oils. Then, I added a touch of orange Valencia essential oil to sweeten it. The end result is a warm, piney scent. It is a bit more subtle than what you get with synthetic fragrance oils, so the scent isn’t overwhelming. Plus, you get the benefits of true essential oils.
I also formulated this batch to lather up like my other shampoo bars. For travelling, shampoo bars are the way to go. With a bar, there’s no worries about leaking in your luggage or TSA liquid restrictions. No plastic bottles also means no BPA concerns and less environmental impact.
Everyone needs soap. Frankincense and Myrrh handmade soap makes a great stocking stuffer or small gift for teachers or coworkers. Right now, use coupon code “ShopSmall18” for 30% off your entire order at the SubEarthan Cottage shop.
Newish because I added it to my shop last summer. I haven’t shared all the yummy goodness of it here, though.
I’ve wanted to make a soap with activated charcoal for a while. Traditionally, activated charcoal is used to draw out impurities. I’m not sure if that quality carries over to the soap due to the fact that the lather is rinsed away fairly quickly. It definitely adds a kind of soft, creamy feel to the lather and a gorgeous, deep marbled grey color to the soap. This is most impressive after one or two uses when the water has polished the soap. So pretty!
While it can be used as a hand or body soap, the activated charcoal made me take it in a facial soap direction. I love my Tea Tree Oil facial soap, but wanted to change it up a bit, so I added lavender essential oil as the main note with the tea tree oil as a mellower, supporting note. I think the reduction of tto in this soap makes it a bit milder than my Tea Tree Oil soap as well. Both essential oils are thought to have beneficial properties for your skin, and they smell lovely together.
I wrap my soaps in fabric because it looks nice, it allows the soap to breathe (read here for why), and because it feels better than plastic. I often wonder what happens to the wrapping. I’m sure there are some that toss it. I know of one person who collects the fabric for quilts. For those of you who, like me, don’t want to throw away something that could be useful but don’t know what to do with it, I have a tutorial for a drawstring pouch, just for you.
This is done with the wrapping from one of my soaps, but you could make it in any size you like.
Cloth wrapper from soap (roughly 8×11 inches)
Jute string from soap (about 29 inches)
Needle or Sewing machine
Safety pin or Bodkin
First, iron your fabric flat. Then, fold down a long edge about 3/4 of an inch to one inch and press. This is for the casing. It doesn’t have to be super precise.
Sew a straight seam along the bottom of the flap to form the casing. All the sewing can be done by hand or machine. I have no time or patience, so I choose machine. Fold your material in half with right sides together like a book.
The fold is at the bottom of this photo.
Next, starting just below the casing seam, sew down the side and across the bottom. I use anywhere from a 1/4 to 1/2 inch seam allowance for this. Again, it doesn’t have to be precise.
With scissors, clip the bottom corners, being careful not to cut your stitching. You could probably skip this step, but it helps the corners look square and crisp. Turn your bag right side out.
Now it’s time to thread the string. Tie one end of the string to a safety pin, large paper clip, or attach a small bodkin. This makes it easier to work it through the casing. Thread it through the casing, safety pin first.
Once you get the string to the other side, remove your safety pin or other tool and adjust the string so that the ends are even.
Knot the ends together once or twice to keep it from coming out.
Ta-da! It’s done! Perfect for organizing your purse, storing jewelry or other small items, or as a small gift bag.
Or holding your favorite bar of soap.
Tutorials are always a little complicated to write because it’s easy to overlook small steps in things you do frequently. If something is unclear, please ask. 🙂
If you have any other creative uses for a SubEarthan Cottage soap wrapper, I would love to hear it!
One of my peeves is soggy, mushy bar soap. One, it’s gross. Two, it makes a mess. Three, it’s a waste of soap to let it melt away in a dish rather than being used. There are a few ways to prevent the mush and have a long-lasting bar of soap.
The biggest enemy of soap is moisture, so the key to a long lasting bar of soap is to keep it as dry as possible. All soap requires some liquid as an ingredient. The trick is to keep it to a minimum and allow it to cure properly. The longer a soap cures, the more moisture will evaporate and result in a harder bar. This is one reason I wrap my soaps in cloth: the cloth allows the soap to continue to harden even after it’s wrapped.
One thing you can do at home is to allow your soap to harden is to store it away from the humid bathroom and, if it is packaged in plastic or other non-breathable material, unwrap it. You can take advantage of fragrant soaps by storing them in someplace like a linen closet or dresser drawer. That way, you’ll scent your linens or clothes while hardening your soap.
Once you’re ready to use your soap, consider where you put it. The absolute worst place is in the shower where the water will hit it continuously. Observe where the water flows and use a soap dish out of the water’s path. If you don’t mind an extra step, take it out of the shower when not in use. Personally, I don’t do this or I would probably forget to grab it on my way in and have to step out dripping to get it.
Finally, the most important thing you can do to make your soap last is to let it dry out between uses. To accomplish this, you need a soap dish or surface that allows proper drainage. The best option is something that raises the soap up and allows water to drip away and air to circulate under the bar of soap. Something like this is good for a handmade option. If you already have a soap dish you like that doesn’t drain well, I’ve found spiky plastic soap savers similar to this in packs of two at the dollar store. You can use them with a soap dish or alone on the counter. Depending on the shape of your soap, you can also rest the soap up on it’s side rather than flat. This doesn’t allow the soap to dry as well on that edge, but it does limit the surface area that stays damp. I’ve used all of the above methods to allow my soap to dry and have had success with each. I’m sure there are others I haven’t tried.
Nobody likes to see money washed down the drain. Whether you buy your soap at a supermarket or handmade from a soap maker like me, I hope these tips help you to get the most out of your soap.
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