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Why Is Handmade Soap Better?

commercial soap

 I stood in the “soap” aisle of my local big box store the other day contemplating the array of mass produced “personal cleansing products”, picturing the massive factories where they are manufactured  and thinking, “How big is there mixing pot”?  A young mother was trying desperately to choose a product before her young child went into complete meltdown mode.  She frantically grabbed plastic bottles off the shelf and gave them a quick sniff as if the only quality that mattered was the fragrance of a product she will use on her skin every day.  Does she know what is in that stuff, I thought to myself?  In fact, most of us never ask ourselves that question until we begin to experience various skin issues. Let’s answer a few questions about “soap”.  What is it anyway?  What is the difference between handmade soap and other soaps? And finally, why should I choose Kulturology Soap Company products?   

What is Soap?

According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, soap is “a cleansing agent, made usually by action of alkali on fat or fat acids (in the form of their glycerol esters), and consisting essentially of sodium and potassium salts of such acids”.  Not to be confused with the slang definition, “money used for bribery”.  If we continue down the list of entries in the 1961 edition of Webster’s, past “soapbark” and “soapberry” both of which are found in South America and contain natural saponins; past the entry for “soapbox” we come to “soapless soap” and are directed to “see DETERGENT”.  We will return to that in a moment.

handmade soap
Handmade soap

True soap is comprised of oil…vegetable or animal, water, and sodium hydroxide (lye).  Soap is created via two processes…hot process in which heat is introduced through an outside source (this is the traditional method) or cold process in which only the heat from the reaction of the lye water with the oils drives the saponification process. Traditionally, hot processed soapmakers used animal fats primarily due to its availability on a working farm.  Soapmakers would collect fat drippings from cooking and then render the fats (yet another risky process) into tallow ready for the soap pot.  Some soapmakers would add flowers and herbs but many bars were made simply for expediency.  These soaps would not only be used for bathing but also for laundry and cleaning.

A Note About “Lye”

Before you freak out and tell me that you don’t use any chemicals such as lye (sodium hydroxide) or that your soapmaker doesn’t use lye please read ahead.  Soap cannot be made without lye, period.  Sodium hydroxide is the strong alkali that unites the oil molecules and launches the saponification process…the magic simply won’t happen without it.  Keep in mind that the lye our grandmothers used to make their soap was produced by dripping water through wood ashes, preferably hickory ashes.  The soapmaker never really knew the strength of the lye so sometimes the soaps they produced were mushy and sometimes it would take your skin off along with the dirt!! Lye is very caustic and proper precautions and safety procedures must be followed carefully.  Thankfully soapmakers no longer have to produce their own lye but can purchase it in standardized form…we know its strength.  Properly crafted and cured soaps no longer contain lye. 

Lye making
Lye Making

Back to the Process

Many soapmakers today choose the cold process method and prefer vegetable oils to animal fats.  Both types of soap will clean equally well, however, the cold process method allows for the retention of glycerin within the formula.  Vegetable glycerin is a natural emollient that draws moisture and keeps your skin hydrated.  Also, many people have ethical reasons for choosing vegetable soapmaking oils.  And finally, cold processed soap reacts slower in the pot meaning the soapmaker can add additional ingredients and still have time to pour the batch with pretty swirls of color etc. Cold-processed soaps can take 4-6 weeks to cure properly while hot processed soaps are ready for use within a week.

In Part II we will take a look at commercial soap ingredients.

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