Soap! What kind of soap is it? And Is It Even Considered Soap?


Many people are confused about soap.  Yes, everyone knows that it is used to clean, but many people do not realize the difference between the three forms of hard soap, and the fact that most cleansing items on the market are not soap at all.


So what is soap?

The first thing that needs to be clarified is that all soap has lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide or a combination of the two).  The second component needed to make soap is a fat of some sort (either vegetable or animal).  The chemical reaction, called saponification, formed between the lye and the fat result in soap and glycerine.   


What are the methods of making soap?

Soapmaking comes in many forms.  The three main types (which other methods stem from) are called cold process, hot process and melt & pour.  The first two are considered scratch methods, the latter being an easier, less risky form of soaping and is generally referred to as handcrafted, rather than handmade.  It is like making a cake from a mix, rather than from scratch.


Cold Process Soaping: 

Formed by saponifying oil and lye water.  Most of the time, the oils (both hard and soft) are heated up and then allowed to cool, along with the lye water, until they reach the same temperature and then combined without the addition of more heat.  When poured into the mold, it is a runny consistency, like that of cake batter.  Saponification happens after it is poured into the mold.  24 hours or so later the soap is unmolded and cut, then allowed to cure for 6 to 8 weeks to remove excess water and form a hard bar of soap.


The benefits of cold process soaping are that you can customize the recipe to whichever ingredients you wish to use and you have ample time to make decorative, intricate soap, in most cases. 


Drawbacks include clean up can be cumbersome due to the raw soap on the dishes and utensils, you have to be able to work with lye safely, many essential oils and fragrance oils can flash (disintegrate) on you due to the high heat and curing time is long.


Hot Process Soaping:  

Formed by saponifying oils and lye water.  This process requires the addition of heat to accelerate the saponification process. Saponification happens prior to pouring it into the mold.  The soap batter is a mashed potato consistency when put into the mold. Once unmolded and cut, the soap only needs to cure for two weeks (some people don’t cure this type of soap, although curing provides a much nicer bar that lasts longer).


The benefits of hot process soaping are that that you can customize the recipe to whichever ingredients you wish to use, it has a shorter cure time, being it is saponified prior to molding, it does not undergo drastic heat so essential oils survive better, and cleanup is easier due to the fact the soap is fully saponified. 


Drawbacks include, swirling and decorative work can be cumbersome and you need to be able to work with lye safely.


Melt & Pour Soaping:

*some vendors do not carry actual soap for this, much of the M&P base out there is detergent based, check with your supplier.


Also called glycerine soap base. This is done from a base.  The soap itself is premade and melted to a liquid, where scent, colourant, and additional additives can be added. 


The benefits of this process are that children can help, you are not working with lye or anything caustic, it takes little time, cleanup is as easy as running warm water over all dishes and utensils, if you make a mistake, you can re-melt the soap base and try again, decorative work is relatively easy and you can see your results immediately.  Drawbacks include the inability to customize your soap ingredients other than a few additions here and there.     


Additionally there is liquid soap, which is a different process, but undergoes the same chemical reaction and handmilled/rebatched/french milled soap which is cold process soap grated, rehydrated and then molded (essentially this falls under cold process soaping). 


What are the other cleansing products, if not soap?

Most commercial products on the market are referred to as detergent products.  These include such brands as Dove, Irish Spring, Ivory, and many other well-known brands.  They are produced by a completely different method, using synthetic surfactants that undergo little to no chemical reaction.  They do not include glycerine in their composition. 


Which is better?

The answer is completely subjective.  Some people cannot use soap due to the pH (it’s generally alkaline) and others cannot use detergents due to sensitivity and pH (generally acidic).  Some people benefit greatly from the glycerine in actual soap.


In terms of method, this is also subjective.  If you want to make pretty soap with your kids, Melt and Pour is the only real option for you.  If you want to customize all the ingredients and tailor them to your skin needs, cold process or hot process is the method you are looking for.  Looking at the advantages and disadvantages of each method can help determine what type of soap process you wish to pursue.

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