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Soap Opera – the drama of soap making

By Seren Charrington Hollins

Soap has gone very artisan in recent years and is a far cry from the artificial smelling, aqua-marine soap that filled the bathroom soap dishes of my childhood. Today soap can still be purchased in cellophane wrapped uniformed bars but home-made soap is a wholly different creature, being enriched with everything from exfoliating seeds to pumice and essential oils.

Thankfully those childhood memories of desiccated pieces of synthetic smelling soap are not the only soapy offerings available today.  For a time soap was a little unfashionable and an array of sleek shower-gels and foaming body washes reigned supreme over the clichéd soap on a rope and meant that the soap-dish remained empty; but the tide has changed and soap has re-invented itself. Handmade and beautifully packaged, these new soaps are made using a ‘cold process’ in which the glycerine base is retained. They’re bursting with great smelling, natural ingredients and essential oils, are free from artificial colours and best of all they can be made at home.

‘Cold-process’ soaps are made using natural fats that, when combined with sodium hydroxide, bring about a chemical reaction called saponification. This is not as complicated as it sounds but the process does require care and time.  The great thing about soap making is that it can be carried out in the home kitchen with quite basic equipment. The actual process is not time consuming but cold press soap will only ready to use are ready to use after 4-6 weeks depending on your recipe.

The art of soap-making is an ancient one that started with the Sumerians using slurry of ashes and water to remove grease from raw wool and cloth so that it could be dyed. This method gave a cleaning result because the alkali reacted with the grease on the objects and converted it into a primitive soap. The more grease and oil dissolved by the alkaline solution, the more soap was created and the better the mixture cleaned. The effect was noticed and, the Sumerians, realising that a little grease improved the performance of the alkali, proceeded to make soap solutions directly by boiling fats and oils in the alkali before using it for cleaning.

There is the belief that the word ‘soap’ is derived from Mount Sapo, where animals were sacrificed, and from where rainwater washed a mixture of melted animal fats (tallow) and wood ashes into the River Tiber below. There, the soapy mixture was found to be useful for washing clothing and skin.

Exactly when soap arrived on British shores isn’t clear, although by the 13th century, soap making in Britain was reasonably well-established and became centred in large towns like Bristol, Coventry and London, with each city developing its own unique blend.

In the 16th century, three broad varieties of soap were available: coarse soap made from train oil (extracted from whale blubber), sweet soap from olive oil and speckled soap from tallow. Soap was heavily taxed and became a luxury item only readily available to the wealthy. Indeed it wasn’t until 1853, that Gladstone repealed the British tax on soap that had been imposed centuries earlier and finally the industry flourished.

A bit of Soap Brand Nostalgia


I must confess that I do delight in the imagery of the old pears soap adverts and I still am attracted to the oval golden coloured cakes of soap. The Pears Soap story started when in 1789, Cornish barber Andrew Pears opened premises in Soho, London  for the manufacture and sale of rouges, powders, and other preparations used by the rich to cover up the damage caused by the harsh soaps of the time. He quickly recognised the potential of a purer, gentler soap that would be kinder to the delicate complexion. The manufacturing process he perfected, using purer ingredients, paying closer attention to each stage in the process, and adding a delicate perfume of flowers, remains substantially unchanged to this day.


In the 1880s, William Lever leased a chemical works in Warrington, where he experimented with different ingredients to manufacture soap. He settled on a formula of palm kernel oil, cottonseed oil, resin and tallow, and named it  Sunlight soap.

Upon the success of Sunlight Soap Lever built a model town, to house his workers, calling it Port Sunlight. Going on to develop other products like Lifebuoy carbolic soap, Sunlight soap flakes and Vim, each of which became a household name.

Did you know?

The term ‘soap opera’ was coined by the American press is the 1930’s to denote the popular genre of serialised radio dramas that were widely sponsored by manufacturers of soap and household cleaning products.

How to make your own Cold Press soap

64g sodium hydroxide (also known as lye)
120g water (bottled, if in a hard-water area)
140g coconut oil (solid)
122g palm oil
198g olive oil
10ml nutrient oil (sunflower, apricot, almond, avocado and so on)
13ml  pure essential oil

  1. Method
    Wearing goggles and thick rubber gloves, weigh out the lye into a clean glass container. Be very careful here lye is better known as drain cleaner and will burn your skin upon contact. Be warned it has a tendency to ‘jump’ when you are weighing it out so keep your skin well covered and only attempt this process when you cannot be distracted.
  2. Pour the sodium hydroxide into the water and stir until dissolved. Measure out the solid oil and melt on low heat. Add any remaining liquid oil and set aside.
  3. Check the temperatures of both pans using a thermometer. You are aiming for the lye and oil to be within a few degrees of each other.
  4. Pour the lye into the oil pan, taking great care. Stir carefully until the mixture resembles the consistency of thick custard or sauce.
  5. Add any nutrient oils and any additions you may want such as herbs, or pumice.
  6. Add the essential oils to the mixture.
  7. Stir well to combine
  8. Pour soap into a mould, cover the top of the mould to prevent contamination and leave for 24 hours to set
  9. Remove the soap from the mould and leave it for two days
  10. After two days your soap should be hard enough to cut into bars
  11. Cover your cut bars and leave for six weeks. In this time the acid and the alkali will neutralise one another. This process is called ‘curing’.
  12. In six weeks time you will need to check if your soap is ready. The traditional way to test soap to see if it has cured is with the tongue. “If it bites, it’s really not ready. If your tongue tingles, it’s not ready. If it just tastes like soap, it’s ready.


What to add to your basic soap base

Cooks Soap

For a bar of soap that deodorises and will exfoliate the skin at the same time then coffee grounds will be the way to go. I call this cooks soap because whether you’ve been gutting fish, pulverising garlic or chopping onions it acts as a powerful deodoriser.  I add two heaped tablespoons of fresh coffee grounds into the basic soap recipe and combine this with sweet orange essential oil.

Home-Farmer Soap


Despite its messy consistency and soot-black colour, charcoal is good for more than just the BBQ. It is the perfect ingredient for the home-farmer soap for it absorbs a remarkable volume of bacteria, toxins, and micro-particles. It’s also is a great deodorizer and leaves your skin fresh and clean.

Exfoliating ingredients

You can add everything from the traditional pumice powder through to dried heather flowers, blue poppy seeds, crushed almond shell or dried lemon peel. There really is a world of possibilities so have fun experimenting.

If you are a little unsure about the whole soap making process then fear not