Marla Bosworth is the founder and owner of Back Porch Soap Company. She teaches classes, corporate events and experiences including candle making, soap making, organic skincare and perfumery.

September 12, 2010

How to Choose Oils & Butters for Soap Making

"How do I choose oils and butters for soap making?" is one of the most frequent questions I hear from want-to-be soapmakers. Whether you are making natural skincare products, cosmetics, or cold process soap, you'll want to choose liquid oils as well as solid oils and butters based on their respective properties. What will the oils you choose bring to your recipe and to your customer's skin? What I emphasize in my soap making classes and private natural skincare consulting is that the more you know about the oils you are using, the more results your products will offer.

Most plant oils are available in organic and non-organic. In addition, there are refined, bleach and deodorized (RBD) solid oils and butters. I personally am not a fan of RBD oils and butters as the processes (high heat, bleaching, etc.) often strip the natural ingredients of their valuable properties. In addition, some of the oil processors use chemical solvents to extract all the oils for higher yield for their company.

Fatty acids play an important part in cold process soap making. Let's take a look at some of the fatty acids and the properties they lend:

Lauric Acid: Creates a hard bar, is cleansing, and has a light and fluffy lather
Linoleic Acid: Moisturizing/Conditioning
Myristic Acid: Creates a hard bar, is cleansing, and has a light and fluffy lather
Oleic Acid: Moisturizing/Conditioning
Palmitic Acid: Creates a hard bar and a stable lather
Ricinoleic Acid: Conditioning/Moisturizing, and has a fluffy, stable lather
Stearic Acid: Creates a hard bar and has a stable lather

One of the reasons I like the lye calculator over at Soap Calc is the valuable information it gives on the fatty acids in the oils/butters you choose for your recipes.

If you're looking for the quick low-down on which oils I recommend for soapmaking, then here is my list. It's hard to narrow down to these, but here are my top five tried-and-true choices for soapmaking oils and butters:

Coconut Oil: Creates a hard soap with a fluffy lather. It boasts vitamin E, K and minerals such as iron. Use up to 30% in recipes.

Palm Oil: Creates a hard bar with a creamy lather and contains antioxidants and vitamin E. Use up to 30% in recipes. If you are looking to create a sustainable product, you may wish to eliminate palm or find a sustainable palm resource. (There is valid concern about the palm oil farming in Malaysia and the affect it has on the environment and living beings.) I have been working on a palm-free soap recipe for several months.

Olive Oil (Grade A or Extra Virgin): Besides being moisturizing, olive oil contains vitamin E, A, betacarotene and vitamin K, cholorophyll, phenols, oleocanthal and squalane. Use as much as you'd like in soap recipes, just know that if you use more than 30 percent your soap will be softer and take longer to cure. Too much olive oil (40 percent or more) creates a bit of a slimy lather, in my opinion.

Soybean Oil: Mild, moisturizing and creates a low, creamy lather. Use at 20 percent or less. I suggest that you purchase only non-genetically modified (GMO) soybean oil. (It is a sustainable oil produced in the U.S. and by purchasing it you are supporting American farmers.)

Shea Butter: Creates a moisturizing, soothing, nourishing soap that softens skin. Wonderful for damaged skin and full of Vitamin E. Use at 15 percent or less.

There are many other wonderful oils and butters from which to choose. In a recent poll on our Back Porch Soap Co. Facebook Fan Page, many soapmakers chimed in their favorites ranging from sweet almond oil to mango butter.

If you're looking for a reliable supplier for soap making oils and butters, Jedwards (Quincy, MA) is a family-owned business located just outside of Boston. For a minimum $100 order, you can pick up your order and save on shipping. Just call a day or two ahead and prepay, as they do not have a showroom at this time. One of the reasons I purchase all my oils and butters from them (besides offering high-quality ingredients and being able to pick up my order), is that their products are extremely consistent from order to order.

Which butters and oils do you use for soap making?

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