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Tips for handmade soap

People frequently ask me about the best way to get the most life out of their handmade soap. In the interest of folks who may not want all the detailed reasons for my suggestions, I will skip to the end first, then go back and explain everything.

  • The most important “rule” with handmade soap: keep it soap dry! Use a soap dish! Your soap dissolve quickly if it is sitting in a puddle of water.
  • Cut your soap in half. Use one half and put the other in a dresser drawer. Your soap will last longer and your clothes will smell nice.
  • A bath poof will help to get a lot of lather without wasting soap.
  • Put soap scraps in a soap saver bag. These hang in the shower and you use them like a washcloth. There are many different options on Amazon: plastic mesh, natural sisal fibers or terrycloth. 

Now for the long explanation; skip if you aren’t interested in all the details--but, really, who wouldn’t want to know all this? Exactly.

First, a little bit of chemistry: not all soaps are actually soap. Huh? Many of the big name products you see at stores are actually detergents. Soaps and detergents are both surfactants (surface active agents), an ingredient with two primary roles: to reduce the surface tension of water so that it can more uniformly penetrate a surface and a chemical structure with one end that attracts water and another that attracts dirt and grease. The basic difference between the two is that soap is made with natural ingredients while detergents are made from synthetic sources. Natural ingredients mean fats (animal or vegetable) or oils (generally plant based) and an alkali (sodium hydroxide for solid soap or potassium hydroxide for a liquid soap). This reaction is called saponification.

Detergents are in countless products we use every day (dish “soap”, laundry detergent, household cleaners) and the do have some advantages over soap in some applications. Detergents work well in any temperature (good for laundry) and do not leave a film which needs rinsing (this “film” is actually glycerin and it’s great for your skin but not necessarily what you want on your clothes). It’s easy to end up in the weeds of soap making chemistry so I’ll just leave you with this, the chemical “equation” for saponification in its most basic form looks something like this: oil or fat + an alkali = soap + glycerin.

So what does this all actually mean? There’s the fundamental difference between using a natural vs a synthetic product. I would argue that a natural soap is better for your body and the environment but there’s also a practical difference between the two. Saponification results in soap plus glycerin. Commercial products extract the glycerin and use it for other purposes whereas a handcrafted soap still contains glycerin. This natural byproduct is terrific because it helps soften and moisturize skin. (A small tangent: the irony here is that some commercial products take the glycerin out then put it back in! Try to figure that one out). However, glycerin attracts water which is why a handmade soap can dissolve more quickly and why you need to keep your soap dry.

Finally, a bit of unsolicited advice: Take a moment to appreciate your handmade soap--the color, scent, the moment to yourself (hopefully). In our hectic busy world, it's sometimes easy to forget to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. But I think we can all agree that life is better when we do.

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