I am no chemist, history is my subject, I spent most of my chemistry lessons doodling on lab coats or hiding under the desk while Dr Proctor tried to wow us with chemical explosions! If you’d asked me back then what I’d be doing in the future, there is no way I would have said I’d be experimenting with acids and alkalis on a regular basis.
All soap is made by combining oils and butters (acid) with sodium hydroxide/lye (alkali). There are several ways to make soap but the main two methods are the Cold Process Technique and the Melt and Pour.
The Cold Process technique is making soap from scratch where you control the ingredients used. With the Melt and Pour method you use a premade soap base which is melted down, coloured, flavoured, decorated and poured into moulds of your choice. The soap base has still been made using lye, but this stage has already been done for you so you don’t have to handle the sodium hydroxide.
The Cold Process Technique was the option for me: I’m able to select my ingredients and at the same time rekindle a traditional craft dating back to the Babylonians of 2800 BC. In those days, soap was made from their cooking fires where the combination of fats and the fire ash resulted in a soap. This soap wasn’t made for personal hygiene but was used to clean textiles and wool and for cleaning cooking utensils; soap wasn’t used for hygiene for another thousand years.
For me, soap making is a wonderful way to unwind, switch off from the noise, be fully present in the task at hand, and as I use beautiful essential oils, it’s like escaping to a different world of tranquillity and peace – well, that’s if in your sanctuary you wear protective gloves, goggles and are happy battling the cats as they try to jump through the open shed windows straight into the sodium hydroxide (lye)!
Lye is a dangerous chemical which needs to be treated with care; protective gloves, safety goggles and a well-ventilated area are a must. The Cold Process may not be the choice for all but the results are rewarding and beautiful.
One question you might be asking is how can using a chemical mean that the soap is natural?
All soap made uses lye; no other substance can be used in place of sodium hydroxide (otherwise known as caustic soda which is made from common table salt) or potassium hydroxide. When lye is added to the oils the molecules in the fats are broken apart, they then bond together and a new compound, soap, is created. This process is called saponification. Once the soap has been made it is left to cure for 4-6 weeks to ensure that the process has completed.
If starting out I would recommend following a simple recipe. When creating new recipes, the ingredients have to be carefully balanced to ensure that you are not left with an oily unusable mess or with scratchy lumps of lye in the soap, not kind to the skin at all!
Working out the flavour of your soap is a wonderful part of the process. Not all essential oils can be used or survive in soap making, and as with perfumery it’s important to have a balance of top, middle and base notes; you want the fragrance to be detectable for the life of the soap.
As for colours, I prefer to use natural colourings such as madder root which has been used as a dye since antiquity; cloth dyed by madder was found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Not only will the madder dye turn your soap an orangey colour, it has its own health benefits, an extra bonus for me; the challenge is to see what else I can grow in the garden alongside the Marigolds!
I´ve now turned a really rewarding hobby into a business and last year my soaps passed their Cosmetic Safety Assessment and are available to buy online.
To see my current collection, please visit www.angelofwellness.co.uk/gifts-from-nature. I´m happy to post to you, would welcome feedback and I look forward to adding to the range in the near future.
Written by Nicola @boddingtonnicola