Understanding Oils and Soap

When you first start making soap at home, you usually begin with the simplest method, the melt and pour. Eventually, you explore the cold process and the hot process, perfecting your lye measurements and your stirring or mixing techniques. Throughout this process, you follow the recipes you find online, buying only what you need for those recipes. Once the basic skills and techniques have been perfected, however, many soap makers want to begin experimenting and creating their own unique soaps. This is especially true for those who want to turn their soap making hobby into a business. After all, they need to have produce something one-of-a-kind in order to capture the attention of their market.

To be able to create unique soaps, a soap maker must understand oils and soap. As beginners must notice, almost every soap recipe will involve adding some kind of oil. They must also notice that different soaps have different characteristics or effects on the skin. These special characteristics or effects are thanks to the oil being used in the soap.

Oils and soap have a very special relationship. Oils contain fatty acids. These fatty acids vary in their structure and components, which means they give the oil certain qualities. Given that different oils have different fatty acids, these varying components naturally vary the characteristics of the soap. Often, the components that give the soap these unique characteristics are those non-saponifiable components of the fatty acids. Since they are non-saponifiable they do not become part of the soap itself, but they remain in the soap, lending their special properties to the soap.

Some examples of fatty acids and the effect they have on soap are listed below:

Linoleic Acid – gives a conditioning or silky feel to the soap. Found in grapeseed oil, wheat germ oil, and sunflower oil, to name a few.
Myristic Acid – gives the soap a great fluffy lather. Difficult to find in high percentages, except maybe in coconut oil.
Oleic Acid – very good and gentle on the skin, but feels slippery. Found in avocado oil, hazelnut oil, and mango butter, to name a few.
Ricinoleic Acid – produces a conditioning soap with a soft bar. Difficult to find in high percentages, except in castor oil.

When you mix different oils together, you further the uniqueness of the soap since you are working with different fatty acids. In mixing different oils, you can create completely unique soaps, which is why understanding what happens when you combine certain oils, or rather their fatty acids, is integral to properly working with oils and soap. This is where creativity and experimentation comes in. You can choose specific oils based on their fatty acids and tailor your soap according to the characteristics these acids have been known to give soap.

For a complete list of oils and soap products, you can check out the Super Soapmaking Secrets book. It discusses each of the soap making oils and their properties or how they affect the final soap product.