Soap, we use it every day but do you really know what it is? What is the difference between the soaps at the store and the handmade soaps you find at Farmer’s Markets and small boutiques? How has the process of making soap changed over time? Lets take a look and see!
Soap has been made for centuries. The most ancient civilizations began making soap by mixing fats with ashes. This is the way we still make soap today. The difference between those early soaps and those made by artisan soapers today has to do with the quality of ingredients we now have available.
Chemically speaking, soap is a salt. It is a combination of an acid (the oil component) and a base (the lye component). Through the chemical process of saponification the lye breaks apart the oil molecule. During this process the lye is broken down (or used up) creating molecules that act like small magnets, attracting dirt allowing water to wash it away. The remainder of the oil molecules become glycerin – a wonderful component that contributes to soft, moisturized skin.
Making soap in a factory process uses highly active salts and alcohols to ensure the large amounts of raw materials react predictable and completely. This process pulls out the naturally occurring glycerin, producing a byproduct they can sell. As a result, to achieve a bar with the skin nourishing properties of a small batch soap factories must add back in chemical compounds to moisturize skin. Larger companies use this process because it allows them to make a bar that hardens quickly and is inexpensive to produce.
Home soaping works with batches much smaller that factories, using fewer ingredients. This allows us to create a natural bar of soap, but can be a bit more finicky. The cure time of our soaps can be affected by humidity. The final appearance of the bar can be manipulated by allowing, forcing or preventing the soap to go through a gel phase.
Using these variables, in addition to the base oils and the type of lye used and the other natural components that can be used in soap making allow for a huge variety in the types of artisan soaps available today.