Sweet Pea's Groceries

Commercial VS Handmade Soap

handmade soapPeople often ask me what the difference is between commercial soaps and handmade soaps. I also get the question of why handmade soaps don’t last a long as “regular” soaps. Well the easiest thing to say is that they are almost completely different animals that cannot be accurately compared or put into the same category.

Here is the ingredients list for Irish Spring: sodium tallowate (animal fat), sodium cocoate (coconut oil), and/or sodium palm kernelate (palm kernel oil), water, sodium hydroxide (the saponifying agent otherwise known as lye), hydrogenated tallow acid (skin conditioner), coconut acid (skin conditioner), glycerin (skin conditioner), fragrance (of unknown origin), sodium chloride (table salt to increase the hardness of the bar), pentasodium pentetate (an agent that improves the bars performance in hard water), pentaerythrityl tetra-di-t-butyl hydroxyhydrocinnamate (an antioxidant that prevents the soap from becoming rancid over time), titanium dioxide (a mineral whitener), D&C green No. 8, FD&C Green No. 3 (dyes).

Here’s the general list of ingredients I use to make my soaps: distilled water/homemade beer/pure carrot juice/organic coconut milk; olive, organic coconut, castor, rice bran and avocado oils; sodium hydroxide; herbs/oats/coffee grounds; and essential oils.

Clearly, there’s a lot more going on in the Irish Spring. It’s animal fat based and they’ve added hardeners, conditioners, fragrances, dyes and other ingredients that make it vastly different from a handmade bar. Keep in mind, your skin is your largest organ and what you put on it does seep into your body and is processed internally. I think we conveniently like to forget that. I can’t say which you will or should prefer. That’s completely up to you. But for those who are looking for the longevity of a commercial soap but want to go handmade, here are my tips:

* Keep bar soap away from water when not in use. If your soap dish does not have drainage, throw it out or make some sort of craft project out of it but certainly don’t use it for handmade soaps. Standing water will most definitely turn your soap to goop and waste your hard-earned bucks.

* Ask your soapist how long ago the soap was made. Generally speaking, most soaps are considered cured and ready to sell and use in four to six weeks. This waiting period is mostly to let the excess water evaporate and allow the soaps to shrink. After that time it’s safe to package them without the labels getting dewy and not fitting properly. I find that the longer the soap is allowed to sit, the harder the bar is and the longer it lasts because even after six weeks it’s still losing some moisture. So letting soap sit for a few more weeks is certainly not the worst idea if you’re looking for a harder, longer-lasting bar. There is a threshold here though. I wouldn’t let it sit for too long because: 1. the excess oils may turn rancid and 2. those skin-benefiting oils may be drying out. So store your soaps in a cool, dry, dust-free location and aim to use them within a few months of purchase. Honestly, I’m still using soaps that I made a year ago with no problems. They’re super hard and lasting me forever, however, I’m creating a trade-off because I’ve more than likely lost some of the benefits of the excess, superfatted oils drying up over time. I try to tip the scales back in my favor though by slathering my body with a lotion or butter after my shower. My advice is to figure out where your sweet spot is and go with it.

* Consider the base oils. 100% olive oil soaps take a long time to fully cure, months in fact, and will remain softer compared to a coconut oil/olive oil combo which takes only a few weeks to cure. Compared to olive oil, coconut oil is a lot harder and will lend itself to a longer lasting bar with a great lather, however, saponified coconut oil is nowhere near as conditioning to the skin and will often give you that tight feeling if it’s present in too high of a concentration. So there is a trade-off. It just depends on what you’re looking for.

* Salt. I was taught that adding a little bit of table salt to the mix creates a harder bar but due to my general disdain for the stuff, I’ve yet to try. Commercial soaps use it as a hardener and it certainly can be added to any handmade recipe. Gourmet salts, such as Himalayan pink salt, are now all the rage so you can easily find a wealth of luxurious handmade salty soaps on the market if you do a little exploring.


How to make herbal salves

As a follow-up to yesterdays post on making your own herbal infusions (here), today, I’m showing you how I use those oils to make beeswax (or candelilla wax for the lovely vegans out there) salves and lip balms. So without further ado…balms away!


Gather all your goodies into one central location because this requires some hustling.
Portion out some of your infused oil into a measuring cup. I like a 4 to 1 ratio of oil to wax. Some people on the internet suggest 2.5 cups of oil to 1 ounce of beeswax. However, the amount of beeswax depends on how hard you want your salve to be. The more wax, the harder it will be. It’s all a matter of personal preference.
Create a double boiler by filling your pot with water so it reaches the same level as the oil in your measuring cup. Put the pot on the stove and begin heating your water and your measuring cup.
Melt your wax or if you’re using wax shavings/pastilles you can skip this step and just throw them straight into your measuring cup with the oil.
Add the desired amount of wax to your oil and stir like crazy until they begin to melt together. Then turn off your stove.
Add a couple drops of vitamin E oil.
Add a couple of drops of grapefruit seed extract. This and the vitamin E oil will help preserve your oils. These are optional steps though.
Are there any essential oils you’d like to add? Or if you’re making lip balm, now’s the time to add a flavoring oil (you can usually find them in the cake decorating/baking aisle in the grocery store) and perhaps some stevia so it tastes yummy. This is all optional of course. Personally, I prefer mine without all the bells and whistles.
Add a few drops of essential oil at the very end just before you begin to pour the mixture into the container(s). You don’t want to get your mixture too hot at any point in this process. You just want the oil and the wax to combine. If it gets too hot your essential oil(s) will evaporate.
This is where the cold spoon comes in handy. Take your chilly spoon and dip it into your mixture. This will give you an idea of the consistency of the salve when it solidifies. Now is the time to tweak your oil to wax ratio if need be.
Pour your salve into clean, dry containers. Let them sit until they solidify (like the two on the left). Now enjoy! You’ve just made something totally awesome!


How to make herbal oil infusions & tinctures

Unfortunately for me, I lost almost half of my blog posts when I split my two blogs last year. I have no idea where the heck they went but they’re long gone. Most of these missing posts were tutorial in nature and it would be a shame to not repost them. Luckily, I was smart enough to save all of the photos so I can do just that. My first re-do is how to make herbal infusions. Most of the olive oils I use for salves, lotions, butters and sometimes conditioners are made from these herbal infusions. Olive oil is merely one oil option, however, it’s usually the most affordable. Coconut oil would be a fabulous substitute or sweet almond oil or rice bran or avocado oil…the list goes on. You can also follow the same steps below (just substitute the oil with 100-proof vodka or vegetable glycerin for the kiddies) to make medicinal tinctures that can be taken orally to help heal certain ailments. If you want to go a step further and gather your own herbs from mo’ nature, let me direct you to my post on harvesting and drying your own herbs here.

There’s a lot of confusing and sometimes dangerous information on the internet regarding the medicinal uses of plants. I suggest not looking to the internet and instead investing in a few good books. My personal favorite is The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants: A Practical Reference Guide to over 55o Key Herbs and Their Medicinal Uses by Andrew Chevallier. This is, without a doubt, worth the investment. It’s the best book I’ve seen on the subject and I’m pissed at myself for returning it to my former housemate Thom. Sometimes honesty does nothing for you. With that said, let’s get started!


Gather your CLEAN jars. You can use spaghetti sauce jars if you want, it’s all good. Just make sure they’re clean and dry. I either boil mine in hot water or bleach them beforehand. Label them now so you don’t get confused later.
Procure some herbs. I used a combination of herbs found in the bulk section of a local health food store and some I had gathered and dried from the wild. You can also go out into the garden and pick some fresh stuff. Dry or fresh, it doesn’t really matter just make sure your freshies are clean.
(Skip this step if you’re making a tincture with vodka.) Start heating your oil. Do not boil, scorch, or super heat your oil to the point of smoking. If you do so, your herbs will be pissed and you can kiss their medicinal properties goodbye. What you want is to feel a gentle warmth when you hover your hand above the oil in the pot. Yup, it’s not rocket science.
While your oil is warming, place your herbs in the correspondingly labeled jars and get your funnel ready to earn its keep. You don’t need to overstuff your jars with herbs either. Halfway is fine, even less is okay–use what you have. If you’re using fresh herbs, you’ll want to use more.
(Skip this step if you’re making a tincture.) Add a couple drops of vitamin E oil to your jars. This is totally optional but it helps to slow down the oxidation process. In other words, it’ll help to prevent your oil from turning rancid. If you plan to use your oils quickly, you probably don’t have to sweat this step.
Pour your warm oil (or room temp vodka) into the jars via the handy funnel.
Take a break for a second because your arms are probably on fire at this point. Okay, break’s over. Now pour until you can’t pour no mo’!
Give it a few minutes for your concoction(s) to cool down a bit, especially if you’re using fresh herbs because the water in them needs to evaporate, and then seal em’ up. Now shake!
Shake your jars as often as possible. Leave them in a cool, dark place (like my heart) for at least a week or two before using. If you’re making a medicinal tincture, I suggest leaving them for three months, ideally six months if you can manage it. Remember to put the date on the label so you know how much time has passed. Enjoy!