In this post, we're going to tackle some of the myths and misconceptions about natural or "cold process" soap. Natural soap used to be the only kind of soap, but the industrial revolution changed all that. What was an art and careful science, became a job for factories and machines. However, in recent years, there's been a huge resurgence of artisan soap-making, which means good things for our skin and the environment (granted it's palm oil-free, of course!)
What is soap /cold process soap?
Soap is the product of an alkali reacting with a triglyceride (fat). The resulting product is a "surfactant," which allows otherwise insoluble particles of oil and grease to be washed away easily. Cold process soap-making requires carefully balancing different plant oils and butters to achieve the perfect bar of soap...without synthetic detergents! (Historically animal fats were used, but we prefer sticking to sustainable plant sources.)
Different plant oils and butters lend different qualities to the finished bar. Coconut oil, for example, creates a very hard and cleansing bar of soap, but it can be (surprisingly) too drying on its own, so it must be balanced with a more moisturising fat like, shea butter or olive oil.
The term "cold process" is used when the ingredients are combined at room temperature, allowing the saponification process to occur over several hours/days, as opposed to "hot process" which employs an oven or other heat source to speed up the reaction. They are both natural methods, but cold process is just more popular as it usually results in a smoother bar of soap.
But isn't lye dangerous?
Most of what you've heard about lye is well, a lie! First of all, lye is short for "alkali," and it's not a dangerous toxin that's out to get you and everyone you love.
Lye is a naturally occurring substance! In some parts of the world, wood ash from cooking fires is rubbed onto greasy pots and pans to create a weak lather. Why does wood ash convert grease to soap? The reason is that wood ash is a natural source of alkali. Most of the time nowadays, we use lye crystals, which are more concentrated and easier to measure accurately, so that we can make larger, more consistent batches of soap.
In its concentrated form, lye can burn the skin, which is why we wear gloves when we make soap. But once the process is complete, no lye remains in the soap. All of it reacts with the oils to become soap. Many natural substances can be irritating and caustic in their concentrated forms...this does not mean lye is bad or harmful. On the contrary, it is necessary to make a really lovely substance that has transformed modern civilisation, drastically lengthened lifespans (and undoubtedly improved the quality of romantic relationships!).
Is cold process soap hard to make?
It can be! Natural soap-making requires quite a bit of skill, practice and most importantly, patience When we make a batch of natural cold-process soap, we must wait 24-48 hours for it to fully saponify, then cut it into bars before waiting another 4-8 weeks for it to "cure" prior to boxing or wrapping to sell. Curing allows water to evaporate, which improves the lather and longevity of the bar.
This is a time-consuming process, which is why most companies have abandoned it in favour of melt-and-pour slabs and machine-made bars that contain solvents, stearic acid hardeners, and synthetic detergents (SLSs) to create quick, mass-produced soap that can be made easily in a factory or workshop setting by unskilled labour and/or machines.
Despite the heavy marketing to convince us otherwise, even those "triple-milled" French soaps are just cheap, machine-made bars with a pretty stamp and wrapping.
Is natural cold process soap okay to use on my face?
Natural soap is the best thing you can use on your face!
There are as many different recipes for naturally saponified soap as there are skin types (partly flakey, partly oily, partly has-no-frickin-clue-from-one-day-to-the-next, anyone?). But really, one well balanced soap bar should be all you need for your face and body. You heard me correctly. The perfect bar of soap cleanses without leaving skin dry or tight. Naturally saponified plant oils grab onto dirt, oil and makeup, allowing them to be easily washed away, while leaving skin lightly moisturised.
Before I started making my own soap, I had about a gazillion bottles of product, each promising to perfect a certain part of my face or body. Still my skin seemed too oily or too dry. Now I use just one kind of soap. My skin has never been clearer or more "normal" - no dryness, no oiliness, no need for a moisturiser!
It's funny how our bodies seem to normalise when we cut out the unnecessaries and turn to science and nature for the answers.