Facts About Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is great for the skin. When my husband lived in Colorado he always had a container of coconut oil on the edge of the tub for after-shower moisturizing. Since coconut oil melts on contact with skin, it’s a great way to treat your cracked heels and elbows, leaving them soft and much smoother. However, be cautious of using coconut oil on your face, as it can clog your pores or in the case of sensitive skin, can cause a rash or reaction.

In soap, coconut oil plays a different role. I know that some folks are very big on all coconut oil soaps, but unless you’re a mechanic, sailor or have very tough skin, you’re probably going to be disappointed. In soap, coconut oil is very cleansing and makes a very hard bar of soap, but it’s so cleansing that it can leave your skin feeling really dry. In the soap making world, it’s important to be sure that you “superfat” your soap in order to counteract the drying properties of coconut oil. In this case, superfatting soap means adding an extra 20% of another, more moisturizing oil to those hard coconut bars. Oils in this category include olive, avocado and sweet almond, as well as many others.

Most soap makers use coconut oil at 30% or less in their soaps, but if coconut oil is first in the list of ingredients in a bar of soap you’re buying, be sure to ask the soap maker what their superfat percentage is. They should answer somewhere in the neighborhood of 20%. They’ll be impressed that you’re knowledgeable enough to ask the question. Unless they can’t tell you the answer, in which case they’ll probably get annoyed. 

Photo by Ahunt

Fun fact about coconut oil soaps: they are cleansing even in salt water. Something to keep in mind if you’re taking your yacht to Monaco for the weekend or are going on an Outward Bound adventure.

Photo by Lukasz Grochal

On the plus side, coconut oil does create wonderful, big bubbles in soap that many people love. I think a lot of times we believe that the more big bubbles we get, the cleaner we’ll be after the shower. This isn’t necessarily true, but I can’t tell that to my brain. I like the bubbles.

And those beautiful soaps you find at markets and festivals are all supposed to clean, right? Coconut oil is the ingredient in those soaps which you’ll need after those marathon-prepping runs or after a session at the gym. It’s the oil in soaps which provides that all-important cleaning.

So, use coconut oil out of the jar on your elbows and heels, make sure that it’s not the first ingredient in soaps you buy, and enjoy the bubbles it provides you in the shower.

And if you have questions about particular oils in soap, click the contact button. You can always ask me.

It’s A Process

I had a friend once who set about an hour’s worth of alarms to get him up in the morning. He would eventually make his way out of bed and into the bathroom, where he would lie on the rug while the water in the shower warmed up. When asked why on earth he would wake up so early just to go through that excruciating ordeal every day, he would always say, “It’s a process.”

So is soapmaking. As much as I never want to wait to see a new soap cut or how excited I get about seeing whether my vision for a project has been realized, it really is all about the process. I love watching the lye water slowly pouring down my stick blender into the pot of oils. 

For whatever reason, the anticipation of waiting for that oil and water combo to completely combine almost makes me want to hold my breath. I’ll use the immersion blender in short bursts followed by using it to stir manually, watching as oil and water morph into something that looks like vanilla pudding. Once it gets to that point, there’s the next thrill of anticipation because I know I’m about to impose my vision onto that soap batter. It may not turn out the way I expect. But it might. Or it might not. <virtual hand wringing>

Now is the time that my plan gets put into action. I’ve already decided into what proportions the batter will be split. My colors and scents are mixed and ready. I separate my portions and add my colors. Are they the tint I had envisioned? Did I use too much and now there’s no going back? Can I add more? Next come the scents. Are they going to translate well into the soap? Do they accelerate the process? Do I still have enough time to make whatever design I had decided on?

And then…..The Pour. Sometimes this is a seriously complicated step and requires undivided attention which might not even be enough to realize the vision. Warning to my nearest and dearest: For your own safety, do not talk to me or in any way distract me during this time.

Even after all of that, when the soap has been poured and the deed is done, comes the real wait. I have to wait two or three whole days until the process of saponification has been completed and I can unmold and cut the loaf of deliciousness. It’s like waiting for Christmas morning to hurry up and get here after I’ve already heard Santa on the roof!

There are a lot of aspects in life where we’re fearful of the unknown. So much of what we do is completely out of our control and we’re always trying to control it anyway. It adds so much stress to our lives – trying to bring everything we touch under our firm and determined hand. And life just doesn’t work that way. This is one small way in which I’m trying to let go of that need to control and let things happen as they will. Almost all of the time, the design or scent I get is beautiful and works well, even if it’s not what I had envisioned. This happens all the time. I think soap making is a good way for me to practice anticipating life. I may not get what I originally intended, but what I do get is often way better than I could have hoped for.

After all, soap making, like life, is a process.

If it doesn’t contain lye, it isn’t soap

There’s a lot of misinformation and misconception about lye. I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want soap “made with lye”. Well, I have news for them. That’s not happening. 

Lye is a necessary ingredient in soap making. This very strong alkali the dissolves well in water. Once dissolved and cooled, the lye water is mixed with a cocktail of oils such as coconut, olive, soybean, palm and sunflower. Each oil contains a mix of fatty acids. Note that they’re not acidic, like we think of some tomato sauces or orange juice. They contain fatty acids.

Think of it as the marriage between oils and lye.
The two become one.

When the alkali lye water is mixed with the oils and their fatty acids, soap is formed. Molecules of lye water bond with molecules of oils. This chemical process is called saponification. (By now, you’ll realize I love science and even if you’re not interested, I have to tell you because it really jazzes me!) During the saponification process, we no longer have any lye. We no longer have any oils. This process changes the components completely and they become soap. Think of it as the marriage between oils and lye. The two become one.

Most soapers, including myself, make sure that there are more oils in the soap than lye water. Not only do I consider this a safe practice to prevent getting lye heavy soap, it also makes the soap more moisturizing and luxurious. By “superfatting” soap, we make sure that all lye water molecules are bound to oil molecules with additional oil molecules left over for conditioning, lathering goodness.

I have really sensitive skin, and in public restrooms the soap irritates my hands so much that they hurt and I need to use some lotion on them pretty much immediately because the soap in the restroom was too harsh. This is why I love handmade soap. My skin doesn’t get dry, doesn’t need lotion in order to not hurt, and actually feels pretty darned good. Those moisturizing fatty acids in the oils I use in my soap, while perhaps not turning back time, treat my skin very well.

In the last paragraph I really used the word “soap” loosely. Did you know that most commercial “soaps” are actually detergents? That’s why I said earlier in this post that it’s not possible to make soap without lye. Soap made without lye is detergent. The jury’s still out for me about the effectiveness of using soap for washing clothes, but that’s for another blog post. Right now though, I am absolutely sure that I want to be washing my skin with soap rather than detergent. 

It took me a long time to understand the difference, but soap is natural. It’s made with naturally occurring elements. Lye is natural and plant based oils are natural. But a lot of what’s in detergent is synthetic and is present is almost all commercial soaps. It’s much harsher to the skin and while you might think that squeaky clean feeling means you’re clean, it really means that the detergents in your products are stripping your skin of its natural moisture. This can leave you feeling really dry. Do the experiment of trying some handmade soap and discover the difference – healthier, better hydrated skin.

I Started Making Soap By Accident

I never set out to start a business selling my soap. It happened through a series of circumstances. I used to use a beautiful olive oil and Vitamin E soap from a northern New England manufacturer of natural body care products. Sometime in 2017, I could no longer get this product. When I wrote to the company (once you get to know me better you won’t be surprised by this!) they responded that the soap was on “indefinite backorder.” Sigh.

I followed up with the company later that year, but had no joy. I tried buying it on the internet and couldn’t find it anywhere! This is the point at which I decided I would make my own.

At first, I tried my hand at melt and pour soap. You can buy a base, which means that someone else has already created a scent-free, color-free soap. It can be melted in the microwave and you add your own color and scent. That was okay, and for some soap makers it’s the end product. It was certainly better than the detergent we buy commercially. More on commercial soaps in a later post. Since I had already been doing the research, I decided to try my hand at making cold process soap. Also a later post.

My first batch wasn’t so much a mess as a poor representation of what I wanted. I thought for sure I had ruined the whole batch. It smelled nice, but the color was completely off. It awful and I couldn’t figure out where I went wrong. I set it out to cure for several weeks rather than throw it away, and then basically forgot about it. A series of personal issues prevented me from even remembering to look at it for a good six weeks.

One weekend morning my husband and I were sitting at the table when my 20something son came traipsing through the kitchen in his boxers mumbling something about needing more soap. As he made to leave the room, it finally dawned on me what he was talking about. The conversation went something like this:
Me: Wait! Andrew, what?
Andrew: I need more soap.
Me (whipping my head around to look at the soap bars I had left to cure on the bakers rack): You’ve been using it?!
Andrew (now thinking he’s in trouble): Yeah….was I not supposed to?
Me (smiling big by this time): So…how is it?

Thus began my latest love affair.
With soap.
Who would’ve thought?!