Making soaps from scratch and having full control over the ingredients can be exhilarating, but there are also risks and problems you can come across.
At Craftiviti, we often hear from our customers about the issues they face while making their own cold process soaps at home, and have come to notice that there are 5 common ones. So, for today’s blog post, we’ll be sharing with everyone our knowledge on these common cold process soap making mistakes, why they happen and how they can be resolved ✨
1. Soap Traces (Thickens) Too Quickly
If you’re using an immersion/stick blender, this easily happens. To prevent this, don’t use your immersion/stick blender continuously. Instead, use it for short bursts and try alternating between it and stirring with a whisk.
In cold process soap making, temperature is important but also subjective and flexible. If your oils and lye solution are too cold, then butters (like cocoa, mango, shea and kokum) will revert to their solid form. This causes the soap batter to thicken into a “false trace” because the butters (or oils solid at room temperature) have not saponified but the soap batter appears to be of a thick consistency.
Alternatively, if your lye solution and oils are too hot, you may cause the process to accelerate which leads to a fast trace. The best temperature to make cold process soaps in Malaysia would be room temperature (27°C), or just a little above that.
c) Fragrance/Essential Oil
Some fragrance oils (henceforth FO) can accelerate trace, particularly those with vanillin or alcohol in them. Essential oils (henceforth EO) can also accelerate trace, though how much they accelerate depends on how much is added and what kind of carrier oils you’re using for your soap.
We recommend testing FOs and EOs with small batches of cold process soaps to know which works for you and which doesn’t. You can also try adding FO or EO into your oils first before combining with lye solution and then, stir by hand as that is more controllable.
d) Oils, Butters or Fats Used
There are oils which slows down trace (like olive oil and sunflower seed oil) and also oils that speed up trace (like coconut oil and palm oil). Generally, the higher the percentage of hard oils/butters/fats, the quicker the trace. So to avoid quick traces, increase the percentage of soft oils used instead.
Water discount is the use of less water than usually needed in a recipe. This has many benefits of it’s own, such as decreasing the curing and drying time and helping the soap release from the mold faster. However, this can also cause soap to trace too quickly.
If your recipe uses a lot of hard oils (coconut oil, palm oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, etc) or includes an accelerating fragrance oil (ie: fragrance oils with alcohol or vanillin), it’s best to not use water discounts because the soap will trace quickly.
d) Presence of Sugar
If you’re making soaps that uses honey, beer, milk, fruit juices and purees (or any other liquid that has sugar in it), there’s a chance of trace acceleration. This is because additives with sugar causes the increase in temperature which thus accelerates trace. To counter this, you can more soft oils in your recipe.
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2. Soap Won’t Reach Trace
Stirring soap by hand seems more economical because you don’t have to buy an immersion/stick blender, but in most cases, the soap takes a very long time to reach trace. (We’ve once spent 4 hours hand-stirring soap made with 90% olive oil. It would’ve saved us lots of time and strength if we simply used a stick blender!)
PS: Electric mixers (used for baking) can be used for soap making but it doesn’t have the same effect as stick/immersion blenders. It’s also more likely to incorporate air into soap batter, especially when the whisks aren’t submerged properly throughout.
b) Weak/Expired Lye (a.k.a. Sodium Hydroxide [NaOH] or Potassium Hydroxide [KOH])
A weak lye solution doesn’t heat up a lot, causes the soap batter to take a long time to reach trace, and the final soap feels oily or soft. If there are lumps or clumps in your lye, then it has absorbed the moisture and humidity from the air (pretty common thanks to Malaysia’s tropical climate). Thus, the extra weight caused by moisture absorption may result in lesser lye than needed in your soap. We recommend tightly sealing your bottle of lye after each use and keeping it somewhere with moisture absorbents within vicinity.
c) Too Much Water
Too much water (thus, too little lye) can cause soaps to not reach trace. This is a common occurrence for beginners who are making palm-free soaps or soaps with high amounts of olive oil which requires less water than normally calculated.
If you have never worked with a water discount before, you can start with a 10% discount and go up to 15%. Though, please keep in mind that the amount of water used depends on personal preference.
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3. Freshly Cut Soap is Dark in the Middle But Has Light Edges
When this happens, it means that the soap has a partial gel (it started getting hot and going through gel phase, but cooled down before the edges could undergo gel phase).
To avoid this from happening, use more insulation and keep your soap at a place with a consistent temperatures (Eg: in a polystyrene box kept in a cool and dark place). You can also completely avoid the gel phase by using individual molds, cooler temperatures, and place your freshly-poured soap in the fridge for 24 hours.
PS: The amount of water used also affects gel phase. A soap with lesser water requires a higher temperature to reach gel phase, while a soap with more water will gel easier.
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4. Soap is Separating and There Are Layers/Puddles of Oil
a) Not Enough Stirring/False Trace
As mentioned earlier, “false trace” occurs when the butters (or oils solid at room temperature) have not saponified but the soap batter appears to be of a thick consistency. This means that the butters have become solid again and thus, your soap batter becomes thicker. To check for false trace, after reaching light trace, leave the soap batter aside for 20-30 seconds. If there is an oily sheen on the surface or the soap batter loses the trace, then it’s a false trace.
If you’ve just poured your soap into the mold and it’s separating, you can pour it back into your mixing container and stir until you reach a true trace. If your soap has been in the mold for hours before separation occurs, you can scoop the soap into a slow cooker and cook the soap on low heat for about 1 hour (hot process) before spooning the soap into a mold. The resulting soap will have a rougher look to it, but your soap won’t be wasted!
Certain FO don’t behave well in soap and will cause separation. If there’s only little droplets of oils on the surface of your soap, you can simply blot it away with a tissue. Your soap is still usable. If the separation is more severe, you can salvage your soap via the hot process method mentioned above.
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5. Soap Has a Thin White Ashy Layer on Top
a) Air Exposure
Soda ash (a.k.a. sodium carbonate) forms when the lye in your soap batter meets carbon dioxide in the surrounding air. To avoid this, lightly cover your soap after pouring into the mold to minimize the amount of air it’s exposed to. Make sure to leave a little gap so that the evaporated moisture can escape. You can also spritz the top of your freshly-poured soap with 99% (or more, like our 99.8%) Isopropyl Alcohol.
b) Cold Temperatures
Soda ash is more likely to form when using colder temperatures, whether it’s your oils, your lye solution or your surrounding temperature. Temperature is also a personal preference in cold process soap making, but our preference is room temperature (27°C), or just a little above that.
Want to know more about making your own soaps at home? Check out these posts of ours!
For Cold Process Soap
👉 Get to Know: Cold Process Soap
👉 Cure in Candle Making VS Cure in Soap Making
👉 Testing Every Craftiviti Fragrance Oil for Acceleration in Cold Process Soap
👉 4 Ways to Reduce Fragrance Oil Acceleration in Cold Process Soap
Some Recipes for Cold Process Soap
👉 Basic Cold Process Soap Recipe
👉 Cold Process Dish Soap Using Premium Extra Red Palm Oil
We hope this post helps! ❤
- “Water Discounting Cold Process Soap: How & Why – Soap Queen”, Soap Queen, 2015 <http://www.soapqueen.com/bath-and-body-tutorials/tips-and-tricks/water-discounting-cold-process-soap-how-why/> [Accessed 8 February 2020].
- “What’s Wrong With My Soap?”, The Nerdy Farm Wife <https://thenerdyfarmwife.com/troubleshooting-cold-process-soap-problems/> [Accessed 8 February 2020].
- “Explaining And Preventing Soda Ash – Soap Queen”, Soap Queen, 2018 <https://www.soapqueen.com/bath-and-body-tutorials/tips-and-tricks/explaining-and-preventing-soda-ash/> [Accessed 8 February 2020].