The different types of ‘Handmade’ soap.

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There are many types of soap out there that claim the label ‘handmade’, but are they all the same, and how can you tell the difference? Many people have assumed that they are the same, and been disappointed when the ‘handmade’ soap they have bought doesn’t live up to their expectations, or is not as good as other handmade soaps they’ve used in the past. What you will find on closer inspection, is that there are different values of ‘handmade,’ depending on how strictly the soap-maker/seller sticks to the definition of ‘handmade’. In fact, if you look into the chemistry of it, you find that some products sold as handmade soap do not even qualify as ‘soap’. Here is a list of the different types of soap you might come across, that may be labelled as ‘handmade’.

What exactly is ‘soap’? According to the Compendium of Chemical Terminology, a soap is the salt of a fatty acid, or to be more precise, the alkali metal salt of an ester. True soap, we can thus state, is formed by the reaction of naturally occurring fats or oils with a strong alkali solution. These oils can be anything such as coconut oil, tallow or sunflower oil, for example, while the ‘strong alkali solution’ is usually called ‘lye’ made by dissolving a strong alkali such as sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide in water. The process by which oils and fats are converted to soap is called saponification.

Cold Process

This is considered the gold standard of soap making, and produces the highest quality bar, as it allows complete control of the soap making process, from selection of ingredients and their amounts in the recipe, to control of the temperatures at which the ingredients are combined. It is also the most difficult soap making method to master, though people often exaggerate the extent to which it is difficult to learn or master. Just as with most other things, if you make the effort, and keep trying, you can master this way of making soap, just as thousands of other people have. Cold process soaps are made by mixing oils and lye without the addition of heat during the mixing process. Heat may sometimes be applied to the oils prior to mixing in order to melt any oils which would normally be solid at room temperature, such as coconut oil, shea butter, or tallow, for example. This gentle heating is only in order to facilitate the mixing of the oils with the lye solution. After mixing, cold process soaps usually take about 24 hours to set, and are usually then cut, after which they usually require several weeks of drying before they are hard enough to use. The low temperatures used for the cold process allow a wide range of natural ingredients such as plant extracts or essential oils to be used, as the temperatures reached are not usually high enough to break down or degrade temperature-sensitive molecules.

Hot Process

The hot process method uses the same raw materials of ingredients that you would find in the cold process. The main difference with this method is that rather than mixing the oils without any heating, the oils are mixed while heat is being applied, and the soap is ‘cooked,’ reaching a translucent ‘gel’ phase, at which point the soap is ready to be poured (or more often, scooped ) into a mould. The hot process speeds up the saponification reaction due to its elevated temperatures, and hot process soaps reach a lower pH and are usually hard enough to use within a day or two of being made. Hot process soaps often have a ‘craggy’ or rocky appearance. The main disadvantage of the hot process method is that the heating during the ‘cook’ can reduce the beneficial properties of many temperature-sensitive ingredients. Despite this, hot process soaps are among the best you are likely to find. The hot process method is popular with soap makers who use synthetic fragrance oils, as these oils can cause soap to ‘seize’ with the cold process method.

Re-batched / Milled

Re-batching is when soap that has already been made, using either the cold or hot process is re-heated and melted down, and usually then mixed with additional ingredients, such as essential oils or plant extracts that are deemed too fragile to use with the strong lye solution in the hot or cold process methods. Some soap makers buy pre-made soap bases that they then grate and melt down to make into bars with their own selection of fragrance oils or extracts, but there is some question as to the validity of calling such soaps ‘handmade’. The debate arises because many of the soap bases made by commercial producers are made using industrial processes, without the care that goes into the hot or cold processes, and the manufacturers often do not provide full information as to the ingredients that have gone into these soap bases.

On the other hand, there are true artisan soap makers who use the cold or hot process to make a soap of their own recipe, which they will then grate or mill and melt down to re-batch into bars so that they can use temperature or pH sensitive essential oils and plant extracts, and these would definitely qualify as ‘handmade’.

Melt & Pour

This is a method in which a ‘soap’ that has already been made or manufactured is melted down and poured into moulds, usually after being mixed with additives which can be anything from fragrances to glitter or ‘bits’. These products are made using a pre-made base, usually in the form of soap “noodles” or blocks or logs. It is debatable whether these are really ‘handmade soaps’ at all, since they are usually simply products that have been bought and re-melted, and there is no knowledge or technical skill necessary to make them, beyond being able to put the base into a suitable container and set the stove or microwave to the correct setting. There is often almost no information given as far as the ingredients of the soap bases in these products, and several of them do not even meet the definition of ‘soap’, as they are found to contain no saponified oils, but rather use various detergents such as SLS or SLES  in a propylene glycol base.

The maker of bars using these products has no control over the ingredients of the base material, and thus no control over its qualities or properties as a skin care or cleansing product. Most genuine soap makers do not consider as belonging in the category of ‘handmade’ or craft soaps, but the people who make them really like to think of their products as handmade soap, so we will include them on this list for the sake of charity completeness.