By Liz Hottenstein
Stand aside, lye. Today’s “melt and pour” handcrafted soaps are easy enough for kids and versatile enough for artisans. They make lovely gifts, and will make your home smell fabulous. Traditional cold-process soap making is the result of mixing fatty acids and sodium hydroxide (oil and lye), which triggers the saponification process. With melt-and-pour soap making, this has already been done for you.
Melt-and-pour bases can be bought in blocks of various kinds—my favorites are shea butter, goat’s milk, aloe vera, and honey, any of which can be mixed with melt-and-pour glycerin (clear or white). You can do this yourself, or my favorite source, bambleberry.com, offers melt-and-pour bases that are already mixed.
Glycerin is both a humectant (it draws moisture from the air to moisturize your skin) and an emollient (or skin softener), so there is no need for the addition of preservatives and chemicals like those found in detergent soap to make it smell good or to increase lathering.
You will need:
• Melt-and-pour soap base
• Essential oils (optional)
• Colorant (I like India Tree)
• Herbs, oatmeal, flowers (optional)
• Rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle
• A double boiler or microwave
• Glass bowls for mixing
• Large spoons or a whisk
• Various flexible molds—purchased online or made of simple recycled objects
The base you choose will determine which colorants you can add. For example, aloe vera base is green, honey is a golden tone, and goat’s milk and shea butter are cream colored. Adding a white base will mute the color and produce pastel-like colors when the colorants are added.
Before you start I recommend the Julia Child approach: Lay out all of your supplies and tools so you aren’t searching for something at a critical moment.
1: Melt the base
A double boiler works best, but if you don’t own one you can make one with a glass or metal bowl that will “sit” in a pot and not touch the bottom. I have found that a bowl with a lip works best, as it will hang onto the rim of the pot and leave ample space between the bottom of the bowl and the pot. The rim also guarantees that no water will end up in the soap base, which can cause splashes of extremely hot soap.
Fill the bottom pot with water, leaving about three inches of space between water and top container, and bring the water to a boil. Cut your soap base into 1-inch cubed chunks and place them in the pot. The steam created by the boiling water will begin to melt the soap. The soap needs to be stirred to facilitate melting; do not walk away! When the soap is melted with no chunks left, remove the top pot. A microwave can also be used to do this: zap the soap at thirty second increments, stirring in between, until in is smooth.
It can get tricky if you melt a lot of soap base at once. After you remove it from the heat, the soap will slowly begin to thicken. I suggest working in small batches for the sake of avoiding panic as your soap begins to solidify. Expect approximately two cups of melted base per pound of solid melt and pour. This may not sound like much, but if you are using small molds it yields quite a bit.
2: Customize your batch
Add colorant in small increments, and stir to evenly distribute it; remember, you can always keep adding more, but if you add too much you can’t get it back out!
Next, add the essential oils. Some essential oils are more concentrated than others—so, like with color, small increments are the way to go. My favorite essential oils are lavender, cinnamon leaf, citrus notes, and peppermint. Oils can be mixed together prior to adding to the soap to ensure even dispersal.
If you would like to add flowers or herbs to the soap, now is the time. If you are using large herbs or oatmeal, pulsing them in a coffee grinder is a good way to break them up. Citrus rind is a nice colorful and scented addition. Depending on the weight of the additions, some will mix evenly, some will sink, and some will float to the top. All options end up looking nice; just be open-minded so you won’t be disappointed when they don’t mix perfectly.
3: Pour the soap into your molds
You can use literally anything that has some flex to it for a mold. I like silicone ice cube trays (you can find them in various shapes and sizes), tartlette tins, and silicone mini-cupcake liners. Make sure to set your molds up in a “catch tray” for overspill (I use an old cookie sheet).
Spray the soaps with rubbing alcohol to break up any bubbles, and then patiently wait while they set up overnight. Gently pop the soaps out of the molds and enjoy!