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Beauty By the Batch's Guide to Purchasing Vegetable Soaps

I adore vegetable soaps. From the simple, to the beautifully creative, vegetable soap cleanses my skin without drying or irritating it. The natural aromatics included in the vegetable soaps that I purchase brings a smile to me upon every use. Vegetable based soaps are generally more expensive than mass-marketed detergent bars, but the benefits are well worth the price.

It has been years since I last purchased "soap" at my local grocer or discount center. The idea of using mass-marketed cleansers on my skin now makes me cringe. Even when I travel, I pack a vegetable soap or two.

Soap has been traditionally defined as a cleansing product that is produced using fats, water and lye. Soap may include the addition of aromatics and other nutritive ingredients. For instance, additional oil, vegetable butters may be added so that the soap moisturizes the skin as it cleanses it. The commercial brand name "soaps" that are generally available in multi-packs in discount stores, drug stores and grocery stores are not authentic bars of soap based on the original definition of the term soap. Instead, these commercial bars are synthetically derived and more appropriately referred to as detergent bars or deodorant bars.

Sodium Tallowate, an ingredient commonly found in commercial detergent bars is reported to cause eczema in certain individuals. Upon my check of the ingredients of several popular brands of detergent bars, every single one that I checked contains Sodium Tallowate. Another ingredient of concern in detergent bars is BHT, an ingredient known to cause allergic reactions in some individuals.

Natural soaps are sometimes made using animal based ingredients including goat's milk, tallow (animal fat) and/or honey. For the purposes of this article, Vegetable based soaps are soaps that are made without animal fat, but that may be made using dairy ingredients (milk) or honey.

How Vegetable Soap Is Made

Vegetable based soaps are produced using one of several processes. The fundamentals of each process is pretty simple. For the everyday consumer, understanding the specifics of the each process isn't essential. The three primary methods that artisans use to make vegetable based soaps are as follows:

  • Cold Process
  • Hot Process
  • Melt & Pour
    (Melt & Pour is not really a process to make soaps from scratch, but we will include it here. Some artisans make incredibly beautiful and nourishing vegetable soaps by this method.)

When making hot process soap, the artisan adds lye to water (not the other way around or an explosion might ensue) and then adds this mixture to a vegetable oil blend that has been heated to a specific temperature. Other additives can also be incorporated at particular phases of the hot process method.

Cold process soap making is the most popular process used for vegetable based soaps. The primary difference between it and the hot process method is that lower temperatures are used. Some consumers find that soaps made using the cold process method are less drying than those made via the hot process method.

"Melt" & "Pour" soap is a ready-made glycerin-based soap, most commonly sold to artisans and crafters in "brick" or "block" form. Melt & Pour soap bases allow artisans a level of creativity in soap creation that can be hard or impossible to achieve when working with hot and cold process soaps. Some artisans prefer to use Melt & Pour soap bases as no caustic lye is required when working with the premade Melt & Pour soap bases. Melt & Pour soap bases are available to the artisan in an array of colors and in specialty bases. Most Melt & Pour soap bases are not 100% natural, but many are available that are primarily natural in composition.

Common Ingredients in Vegetable Based Soaps

Vegetable Oils:
Natural vegetable oils, derived from the fatty components of botanicals such as avocado seeds, coconut meat, olive pits, and palm kernels, are the primary ingredient used in vegetable based soaps. The choice in vegetable oil(s) and the quality/freshness of the oils used will impact the overall quality of the soap. Each vegetable oil offers its own array of advantages and disadvantages. Cost, availability, ability to provide a good lather, ability to leave the skin moisturized, and the ability to produce a hard bar of soap are all considerations when artisans select the particular vegetable oils that they include in their soaps. Most frequently, vegetable soaps are made using a precise combination of vegetable oils so that the ideal blend of lather, moisturization and hardness can be achieved.

Vegetable Butters:
Vegetable butters are manufactured by blending the nutritive natural fatty fractions of a vegetable oil. Depending on the butter, the fraction may come directly from the original vegetable oil, a hydrogenated version of the oil or by use of the unsaponifiable fraction. Some butters (i.e. avocado butter) are spreadable at room temperature while other butters (i.e. cocoa butter) are extremely hard and rigid. The addition of vegetable butter to soap leads to a more moisturizing, creamy bar of soap with the added nutritive properties contained within the butter.

For information on one of our favorite vegetable butters, read our Introduction to Shea Butter.

Essential Oils or Fragrance Oils:
Natural essential oils are the aromatic oil of choice used by artisans that make soap (artisans that make soap are nicknamed soapers. An added advantage to the use of essential oils is that the therapeutic properties of the essential oil will be integrated into the batch of soap. For instance, lavender essential oil is not only a favorite natural fragrance, but it is emotionally calming and is beneficial for those with oily skin and acne (amongst other skin conditions). Fragrance oils, on the other hand, do have a lovely aroma, but they do not offer the therapeutic benefits that essential oils offer.

Essential oils are more costly for artisans to use than synthetic fragrance oils. Some artisans do use fragrance oils in order to compete more effectively with companies selling lesser priced soaps, and in order to offer fragrances such as "ocean rain" or "cucumber/melon" that are not possible when strictly using natural aromatics. Some artisans offer two lines of soaps, one fragranced with essential oils, and the other with fragrance oils.

For more information, read The Important Distinctions Between Essential Oils and Fragrance Oils.

Botanicals (Herbs):
Natural botanicals are sometimes included in vegetable soaps for their nutritive properties and visual appeal. Some intensively colored powdered herbs including red sandalwood powder, turmeric powder and carrot root powder are used to naturally color vegetable soaps.

Oatmeal can be added to vegetable based soaps to soothe, nourish, gently exfoliate and moisturize the skin.

Milk/Milk Powders:
Pure goat's milk and other milk or milk products are sometimes added to vegetable based soaps. Milk ingredients are naturally emollient and are rich in vitamins and minerals. Milk can help to soothe and moisturizes the skin and help to relieve dryness and itchy skin. Once an animal product like milk is added, the soap is no longer a 100% vegetable soap, but often they are still classified as such since animal fat wasn't used to create the soap.

Natural exfoliants can be added to soaps to remove loose dead skin cells. More abrasive natural exfoliants can also be included in hand soaps intended for gardeners, mechanics and others who require more aggressive cleansing to remove grease and dirt. A wide array of natural exfoliants exist:

  • Salts
  • Sugars
  • Fruit Seeds
  • Fruit Fibers
  • Nut Meals
  • Ground Loofah
  • Ground Pumice
  • Grain Powders

Cosmetic grade powdered clay can help enhance the rich lather produced by vegetable soaps. Clay is sometimes used in bars intended for acne-prone skin as it helps to absorb excess oil. Powdered clays are also sometimes used to add natural color to vegetable soaps.

For more information, read The Benefits of Cosmetic Clays in Personal Care Products.

Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, is the "magical" ingredient that chemically interacts with pure vegetable oil or other fats and converts it to soap. Although lye is a caustic ingredient that must be handled with care, lye is not present in the final bars of soap.

Why are some soaps more moisturizing than others?

Saponification is the chemical process in which vegetable oils mixed with the lye solution becomes soap. The lye solution will only react with a specific quantity of the vegetable oil that it comes into contact with. For that reason, soap makers must carefully formulate exactly how much of each oil is needed for their batch of soap. Usually, soapers will also add an additional percentage of their chosen vegetable oils to their soaps beyond what is needed to interact with the lye so that their soaps are extra moisturizing to the skin. Adding additional vegetable oils or vegetable butters is called super-fatting. Excess vegetable oils and butters added to soap, however, can go rancid. Some lipids, most especially those high in essential fatty acids, tend to go rancid more quickly then other oils. The unsaponified oils in a soap, therefore, are prone to to go rancid over time, and the artisan is challenged with deciding what is the ideal percentage and types of lipids to include in each batch of soap.

Tips for Purchasing Handmade Soap

  • Have fun shopping for handmade soaps. The packaging, visual appeal and aroma of handmade soaps can range from the simple and extend into the extraordinary.

  • Begin your quest for handmade soaps by visiting the Bar Soaps section of Beauty By the Batch's Artisan Directory. The artisans that advertise on BBTB have agreed to our Artisan Code of Conduct. Each artisan pledges that their marketing and product information is honest, their soaps are of the highest quality, that they strive to provide excellent customer service and that their shipping policies are clearly stated. Begin by shopping with these wonderful artisans that support the efforts of Beauty By the Batch.

  • Soap makers are not required to list the ingredients they use in their soaps, but many do. We encourage all soap makers to help consumers by listing their ingredients. Ingredients that include the word fragrance are made with synthetic fragrance oils. Those that include oils in the format of Lavandula officinalis (Lavender) Oil are essential oils derived directly from natural botanicals.

  • Because natural soaps are made using vegetable lipids (oils and butters), the bars can go rancid over time. Ideally plan to use the soaps that you purchase within six months.

  • The artisans that advertise on Beauty By the Batch pledge within the Artisan Code of Conduct to sell only quality products and that includes products that are not old or about to go bad. Have confidence in the artisans that you meet through Beauty By the Batch. If you purchase soaps through other means, it is best to ask them when that batch of soap was done curing (it can take six weeks for soap to cure). In stores, watch out for soaps that have dusty labels or that appear old or dried out.

  • Avoid purchasing or using soaps that contain orange spots. Those orange spots can indicate areas of the soap where the natural oils have turned rancid.

Shop Confidently for Soaps and Other Artisan Made Products With Beauty By the Batch

Beauty By the Batch is a practical resource for assisting you in finding artisans that provide natural and nearly all-natural soaps and other personal care products. Begin your search by visiting the Skin Care category of Beauty By the Batch's Artisan Directory. Not only do the artisans that appear within the Artisan Directory support the efforts of Beauty By the Batch, but they have all agreed to adhere to Beauty By the Batch's Artisan Code of Conduct. By agreeing to our Artisan Code of Conduct, artisans promise to abide by truthful and accurate marketing and a number of other practices that are in the best interest of consumers.

Visit the Beauty By the Batch Artisan Directory

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