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All About Soap-Making Oils

The oils you choose to make your homemade soap with will greatly affect the final outcome—the soap’s bubbles, ability to condition the skin, its hardness and therefore durability, just to name a few. Often beginning soap makers use oils readily available at the grocery store, which is fine, but if you want to have more control over the soap, the oil you use is a great place to start.

Soap Qualities

First, a basic understanding of soap’s qualities is helpful. You might not have ever thought so in-depth about soap, but there are many important properties a good bar of soap has: hardness, scent, lather, skin-nourishing, aesthetics, durability (i.e. being long-lasting), and, of course, how well it cleans. Not all of these qualities are determined by the oils used, but many are.

In general, bars of soap made from a single oil are substandard—they are too soft, too drying, don’t lather well, etc. The majority of commercial or artisan soaps sold are made with no fewer than three different oils. The only single-oil soap generally available is made from olive oil—this is called castile soap. It’s a softer bar but nevertheless gets the job done. Because olive oil contains everything needed to make a good bar of soap and is readily available and affordable, you’ll find it used as a base in practically all artisan soaps.

All About Olive Oil

Because of olive oil’s excellent soap qualities, every soap maker should become a connoisseur of olive oil. There are two types of olive oil: virgin and pomace. Virgin olive oil is the result when the meat of the olives are separated from their pits and pressed for the first time. Pomace olive oil is the result when the olives are pressed after that. This oil is the pressed olive pits and leftover matter from the virgin pressing. Pomace olive oil contains the same fatty acid content as the fancy extra virgin stuff, so it’s great for soap making. Two downsides of the pomace olive oil are that it is harder to locate and can give your soap a bit of a greenish hue. The difference between virgin and “extra” virgin olive oil is in the free acidity level. Olive oil marked “refined” or “grade A” will still have the same ratio of fatty acids and will not change the properties of your soap for better or worse.

Fatty Acid Properties

Oils contain various types of fatty acids: ricinoleic, lauric, stearic, linolenic, myristic, palmitic, oleic, and linoleic. Each of these fatty acids will help determine the soap’s properties. For example, oils high in lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acids will make your soap hard (and, therefore, more long-lasting and durable). Lower iodine values can also make soap hard.

Oils high in lauric and myristic acids cleanse particularly well. These fatty acids grab on to the oils of your skin better. In general, soap cleans by having the oil it contains latch onto the dirty oils found on the skin. Certain oils grab onto other oils better—those that contain lauric and myristic fatty acids. In fact, if your soap contains too much of these fatty acids, it can dry out your skin by taking off the natural layer of protective oil that we all have. To avoid this, don’t use more than 30 percent of oils high in lauric or myristic acids for your soap base.

Lauric, myristic, and ricinoleic acids create a bubbly lather, whereas palmitic and stearic acids create a creamy lather. It’s pretty much impossible to create a bar of soap with both a bubbly and creamy lather—your soap will be one or the other.

Ricinoleic, oleic, linoleic, and linolenic acids nourish the skin. Why? Because they create an emollient effect. This means that they will allow your skin to retain moisture. Emollients are a bit different than “humectants” (another term you’ll want to familiarize yourself with). Humectants actually pull moisture to your skin, whereas emollients cause your skin to be softer and smoother. Finally, these skin-nourishing fatty acids can help reduce soap’s natural tendency to dry the skin.

Oil Ratios

Each soap maker tends to have their own preferences and secret soap base recipe. Personally, I like 25 percent coconut oil, 25 percent palm kernel, and 50 percent olive oil. If you’re new to soap making, this soap base recipe is a good place to start. Some of the most popular soap making oils that you’ll want to experiment with include olive (virgin and pomace), coconut, palm and palm kernel, castor, canola, soybean, sunflower, and almond.

Certain oils you may try should not be used over a certain percentage in your soap base.

  • Avocado Oil: less than 30 percent
  • Calendula Oil: less than 20 percent
  • Canola Oil: less than 50 percent
  • Castor Oil: less than 30 percent
  • Coconut Oil: less than 30 percent
  • Cottonseed Oil: less than 25 percent
  • Hazelnut Oil: less than 20 percent
  • Hemp Seed Oil: less than 30 percent
  • Kukui Nut Oil: less than 20 percent
  • Lard: less than 70 percent
  • Monoi Oil: less than 60 percent
  • Neem Oil: less than 40 percent
  • Palm Oil: less than 30 percent
  • Palm Kernel Oil: less than 30 percent
  • Peanut Oil: less than 20 percent
  • Safflower Oil: less than 20 percent
  • Sesame Oil: less than 10 percent
  • Soybean Oil: less than 50 percent
  • Sunflower Oil: less than 20 percent

Soap-Making Oil Guides

For more information on oils commonly used in soap making, you can reference the myriad of soap-making oil property charts online. These charts will tell you the fatty acid levels in each oil so you can craft your very own preferred soap base with the properties you desire. You’ll find my favorite and one of the most complete soap-making oil guides available at TheSoapDish.com.

Where To Buy Soap Making Oils

There are a wide variety of online suppliers that provide bulk oils packaged and sold especially for soap making. Shipping oils can be expensive as liquids are so heavy, but if you need bulk quantities, there really is no other way to go. I recommend Brambleberry for up to thirty-five pounds of oil and Jedwards International for even larger orders. Jedwards specializes not in soap supplies but in oils, so you’ll find many of the more exotic oils available there in sizes from less than a gallon to an entire drum.

For smaller amounts of oil, stores like Costco or Sam’s Club are great. This is where you’ll want to buy your base oils like olive, canola, or soybean. For smaller quantities of more exotic oils, try your local health food store. Even the smallest health food stores typically offer castor, almond, and grapeseed oil. They will no doubt be expensive, but so too is ordering large bulk quantities plus shipping—especially if you’re making only small batches of soap or just looking to experiment.

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