People often ask me what the difference is between commercial soaps and handmade soaps. I also get the question of why handmade soaps don’t last a long as “regular” soaps. Well the easiest thing to say is that they are almost completely different animals that cannot be accurately compared or put into the same category.
Here is the ingredients list for Irish Spring: sodium tallowate (animal fat), sodium cocoate (coconut oil), and/or sodium palm kernelate (palm kernel oil), water, sodium hydroxide (the saponifying agent otherwise known as lye), hydrogenated tallow acid (skin conditioner), coconut acid (skin conditioner), glycerin (skin conditioner), fragrance (of unknown origin), sodium chloride (table salt to increase the hardness of the bar), pentasodium pentetate (an agent that improves the bars performance in hard water), pentaerythrityl tetra-di-t-butyl hydroxyhydrocinnamate (an antioxidant that prevents the soap from becoming rancid over time), titanium dioxide (a mineral whitener), D&C green No. 8, FD&C Green No. 3 (dyes).
Here’s the general list of ingredients I use to make my soaps: distilled water/homemade beer/pure carrot juice/organic coconut milk; olive, organic coconut, castor, rice bran and avocado oils; sodium hydroxide; herbs/oats/coffee grounds; and essential oils.
Clearly, there’s a lot more going on in the Irish Spring. It’s animal fat based and they’ve added hardeners, conditioners, fragrances, dyes and other ingredients that make it vastly different from a handmade bar. Keep in mind, your skin is your largest organ and what you put on it does seep into your body and is processed internally. I think we conveniently like to forget that. I can’t say which you will or should prefer. That’s completely up to you. But for those who are looking for the longevity of a commercial soap but want to go handmade, here are my tips:
* Keep bar soap away from water when not in use. If your soap dish does not have drainage, throw it out or make some sort of craft project out of it but certainly don’t use it for handmade soaps. Standing water will most definitely turn your soap to goop and waste your hard-earned bucks.
* Ask your soapist how long ago the soap was made. Generally speaking, most soaps are considered cured and ready to sell and use in four to six weeks. This waiting period is mostly to let the excess water evaporate and allow the soaps to shrink. After that time it’s safe to package them without the labels getting dewy and not fitting properly. I find that the longer the soap is allowed to sit, the harder the bar is and the longer it lasts because even after six weeks it’s still losing some moisture. So letting soap sit for a few more weeks is certainly not the worst idea if you’re looking for a harder, longer-lasting bar. There is a threshold here though. I wouldn’t let it sit for too long because: 1. the excess oils may turn rancid and 2. those skin-benefiting oils may be drying out. So store your soaps in a cool, dry, dust-free location and aim to use them within a few months of purchase. Honestly, I’m still using soaps that I made a year ago with no problems. They’re super hard and lasting me forever, however, I’m creating a trade-off because I’ve more than likely lost some of the benefits of the excess, superfatted oils drying up over time. I try to tip the scales back in my favor though by slathering my body with a lotion or butter after my shower. My advice is to figure out where your sweet spot is and go with it.
* Consider the base oils. 100% olive oil soaps take a long time to fully cure, months in fact, and will remain softer compared to a coconut oil/olive oil combo which takes only a few weeks to cure. Compared to olive oil, coconut oil is a lot harder and will lend itself to a longer lasting bar with a great lather, however, saponified coconut oil is nowhere near as conditioning to the skin and will often give you that tight feeling if it’s present in too high of a concentration. So there is a trade-off. It just depends on what you’re looking for.
* Salt. I was taught that adding a little bit of table salt to the mix creates a harder bar but due to my general disdain for the stuff, I’ve yet to try. Commercial soaps use it as a hardener and it certainly can be added to any handmade recipe. Gourmet salts, such as Himalayan pink salt, are now all the rage so you can easily find a wealth of luxurious handmade salty soaps on the market if you do a little exploring.