Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Importance of Soap

As of late I seem to have the strangest things stuck in my mind. I’m not talking like a quick passing thought, but things that I have been thinking about and thinking about until they have been fully completely and utterly analyzed to the point of ridiculousness.

So, what types of things am I stuck on? Well…the little things, of course. For example, knobs. I want to replace the knobs on my cupboards and I have put so much thought and effort into something as small as knobs I think my family is ready to label me as one…a knob.

Besides knobs, and other equally small detailed type items, soap is another thing on my mind. In my “fancy guest bathroom where you don’t ever dare to use the hand towels ever – because they are for guests” bathroom I am looking to revolutionize my soap position. Up to this point I have been a liquid soap girl. It’s so easy and I never have to deal with a lovely soap that turns all slimy and white. However, as of late, my liquid soap has started to feel, well, sort of industrial and faceless. Not really sure why but nevertheless, soap has become a big thing in my life apparently.

Chocolate Raspberry soap bars (set of 3) from Naiad

As per usual, whenever I get a one of these thoughts, I start to think, “how can I relate this to my Etsy-obsession?”. And it was very easily answered because Etsy provides a wide array of soap options for all your soap needs. But as I began to explore and discover the soap category more questions began to pop up. Yes, in the long run, all I’m looking for is a beautiful piece of soap to show off to all my guests but what is this cold pressed soap versus hot pressed soap and what in the name of the universe is saponification???

This gave me a great idea for a blog post. Every now and then I’d like to take a glimpse into an entire genre of Etsy category and take a look into the wonderful type of artistry available. And, believe it or not, soap is a fascinating genre to start with!

French Milled Chocolate Oatmeal soap from Ultimate Organic Soap

I was surprised to see that soap and the art of making soap dates back centuries, all the way back to 2800BC. Who knew they used soap back then?! The first recorded recipe for soap also dates back to this time, which falls into the ancient Babylonian category, in 2200BC.

As time progressed so did the art of making soap. In medieval times soap making evolved into a higher level of artistry where those involved in this craft were typically members of a special guild. Most people viewed soap makers as kin to carpenters, blacksmiths, and bakers.

A short time later chemistry (and those who practiced it) started to take note and the art of soap making changed once again. Now soap was seeing an injection of vegetable oils, aromatic oils and lye for the first time. As time ticked by and hygiene became more and more important so did the use of soap (this really took off during the industrial revolution!). In 1885 Unilever, the world’s biggest producer of soap, was born.

Wishing soap, inspired by the book Half Magic by Edward Eager from Latherati Soap

As I mentioned before, there are several ways to actually produce soap. Whichever way you make it, I get the impression that handmade is better (when is it not???) because handmade soap contains an excess of fat. This is naturally more moisturizing and isn’t pure detergent, like many of the store bought varieties.

One of the most popular ways to make soap is through a process called the Cold Process Method. As far as I can tell, this method is more methodical and time consuming than it’s sister…the Hot Press Method. Cold Press requires specific calculations on ingredient quantities. Lye is dissolved in water and added to oils, which have been heated and then cooled. This makes a pudding like consistency and opens up the stage for botanicals, herbs, or what have you, to be added. The mix is then poured into molds and is left to saponify (which basically means, to turn into soap) for up to 48 hours. When hardened, the soap is then removed from the mold and cut, however, some may continue to cure the soap for an additional 2 to 6 weeks thereafter.

Allspice Coconut Milk soap, XL Vegan Bar, from the Soap Store

Now, the Hot Press Method is similar in some regards. In this process, a soap maker will boil together the lye and a fat until saponification occurs. A hot, soft soap is formed and is immediately spooned into a mold. From here the same steps are followed as above with hardening, cutting, and curing.

I would like to mention that I am in no way an expert on the art of soap making. All of the details I have provided are simply what I can deduct from my research into this art and I welcome anyone who sees some…shall we say, misinformation, do let me know in the comments section of this post!

cinnamon spice BIG bar, cold press soap from Besem Natural Scents

So, yes, soap is actually very interesting and can really beautify a bathroom! I can almost see it as a little piece of art laying there in a dish saying, “let me clean you!” Now when I go into a friend’s washroom and see their soap I will have so much more appreciation for all the thought that may have gone into this one small detail!


  1. all method's of soapmaking are methodical cold process isn't anymore methodical than hot process...the only process I wouldn't include is what I'd call the microwave type of soaping which is melt and pour (no serious knowledge in this method) Just please give our Hot Process soapmaker's the RESPECT they need! I do all method's as I teach but lessoning the hot process method isn't nice :)

  2. Hi!

    I definitely meant no disrespect in my description of cold press versus hot press soap making! I think both ways are amazing and you soap makers are true artists!

    When I was in search of info on soap making my source was more discriptive of the cold press method than any others so, I apologize in my lack of detail!

    Thanks for your comments though, it's great to see this and open a dialogue!


  3. Thank you for including a pic of Latherati soap! I make cold process soap but have, in the past, made crockpot hot process soap. The actual process takes longer for hot process as you have to cook it for hours sometimes but is ready to use much sooner since you cook out a lot of the lye/water. Cold process is faster initially but needs to cure for a month or so.

    Great post, by the way! I love soap. :-)

  4. mmm, that chocolate raspberry soap looks delicious! Thanks for this great and informative post - I've been buying soap off Etsy for a little while and it's amazing all the different scents and shapes and colours that artists come up with, but I had no idea how much work went into it either.

  5. LOVE YOUR BLOG!!!!!
    Us soapmakers are a fickle bunch and hot vs cold is almost a biblical debate. I personally am a cold process soap maker... cold process is the basic raw process and I can honestly tell you is not as involved or long or as messy as hot process. The one big difference between the the two is cold process soap need to soaponify for 24 hours but you then ALWAYS cure it for at least 2-4 weeks (not sometimes), while hot process can be used once made (you generally let this cure as well. The two are the same in terms of ingredients and measuring etc except when cold process stops hot process gets cooking and cooking and cooking for many hours after.
    People don't realise the amount of work involved or the range of ingedients we use - when paying your $$$ for a nice hand made bar read the range of oils included because this in itself is usually a closely guarded secret of the soapmaker for their perfect bar, the difference between 5 & 15% castor oil can mean the difference between a nice lather and a bar that sweats in humid weather, that shea butter is imported from Africa and some soapmakers swear by raw and others by refined. But the most amazing soapmakers of all are the purfumers who create their own blend of frangrance from essential ols, frangrance oils and botanical or other ingredients for your bathing pleasure and when you find the soapmaker that makes a bar you want to run off and take a bath with everytime you smell it or stay in the shower longer just to use it more then stop and marvel and let them know. It is an artform - trust me - I marvel at other soapmakers constantly!

  6. I am so happy with this blog post and all the comments that have been left! I am in awe of all of the hard work and passion you soap makers do and have!

    I sort of got the impression that there may be a bit of friendly competition between the hot press versus cold press but what is even more evident is the love that both put into making a great product!

    Keep up the awesome work!

  7. Thanks for the nice post describing your appreciation of handmade soap! Of course, you're right: handmade soap cannot be beat! I fell in love with it years ago and now am a professional soapmaker and teach others, too. ("Addiction" is a word often whispered among soapmakers. :)

    I'll throw in my 2 cents on Hot Process and Cold Process. The work is the same up until you have everything mixed together and ready to turn into soap. For CP, you just pour it into a mold, wait for it to saponify and unmold. For HP, you cook it (as you described) until the saponification is done, then put it in molds to cool, and then unmold. So, if anything, HP takes a bit more attention. But you get your soap finished sooner! Either way: lovely soap is the result.

    BTW, you found some beautiful examples of handmade soap!