The Top 5 Soap Making Oils and Butters for Beginner DIY Soap Makers

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Have you ever wanted to make your own soap from scratch? With the rise of handmade and DIY products, soap making has become an increasingly popular hobby. Not only is it satisfying to whip up a batch of soap yourself, but you can control exactly what goes into your soap, from the oils and butters to the scents and colors. Making soap allows you to customize the ingredients to create soap that leaves your skin feeling soft, smooth, and nourished.

But with so many different oils and butters to choose from, how do you know where to start when formulating soap recipes? Oils bring different fatty acid profiles to a soap recipe, resulting in bars with qualities ranging from a hard texture to creamy lather. It can be overwhelming trying to understand how each oil will affect your soap.

This guide breaks down the top 5 soap making oils and butters for beginners. Whether you’re new to soap making or looking to expand your oil collection, learn what makes these ingredients so popular in soap recipes and how to pick the best ones to suit your soap making needs.

An Introduction to Soap Making

Before diving into the top oils and butters, let’s do a quick overview of soap making for beginners.

The most common method for homemade soap is cold process soap making. This involves combining oils and butters (your soap making fats) with sodium hydroxide lye and water. Through a chemical reaction called saponification, the oils and lye solution turn into soap. Cold process soap making typically follows these basic steps:

  1. Prepare the lye solution and allow it to cool
  2. Melt any solid oils and butters
  3. Combine the lye solution with the oils/butters and mix well
  4. Add fragrance or essential oils if desired
  5. Pour the soap batter into molds and allow it to set up
  6. Unmold, cut, and cure the soap for 4-6 weeks

Compared to other methods like melt and pour or hot process soap making, cold process allows you to completely customize your recipe from scratch. But it also means you need to carefully calculate your oil and lye amounts to safely make soap.

Choosing the right soap making oils and butters is an important part of formulating your own recipes. Each oil contributes its own set of fatty acids that determine qualities like hardness, bubbly lather, cleansing ability, and moisturizing properties. Balancing different oils is the key to creating great cold process soap recipes.

Why the Oil/Butter Blend Matters

Fats high in lauric and myristic fatty acids produce abundant lather. Oils like coconut oil and palm kernel oil are prized in soap making for their bubbly lather.

Oils that are predominantly oleic and linoleic fatty acids are great for moisturizing skin. Olive oil is a common example.

Stearic and palmitic fatty acids help harden soap and make it last longer. Ingredients like palm oil and butters help produce a hard, long-lasting bar.

Without the right balance of oils, you may end up with soap that is too drying, or too soft. The art of soap making is finding the perfect blend of oils and butters to achieve your ideal bar.

Some examples of common fatty acid profiles:

  • Coconut oil – Very high in cleansing lauric acid (40-50%). Produces fluffy lather.
  • Olive oil – Mainly oleic acid (55-85%). Mild, very moisturizing.
  • Palm oil – Balanced blend with palmitic, oleic, and lauric acids. Hardens and stabilizes soap.
  • Butters – High in conditioning stearic and oleic acids. Creamy lather and moisturizing.

Now let’s look at the top 5 soap making oils and butters to use in your recipes!

The Top 5 Oils and Butters

1. Olive Oil

One of the most popular soap making oils is olive oil. Known for its rich moisturizing abilities, olive oil makes up a large component of many novice soap makers’ recipes.

Grade/Type: Pure olive oil comes in several grades, from extra virgin to pomace. Extra virgin is typically recommended for soap making, as it has the mildest aroma that won’t accelerate trace in your soap batches. Pomace oil can be used but may speed up trace.

Fatty Acid Profile: Depending on the source, olive oil contains 55% to 85% oleic acid. Oleic acid is very moisturizing and produces a mild, gentle soap. Olive oil also contains linoleic and palmitic acids.

Use Rate: On average, olive oil is used at rates of 20-30% in soap recipes. Up to 100% olive oil soap can be made, but needs a long cure time before it is hard enough to use.

Benefits: Olive oil makes a gentle bar that won’t strip or dry out the skin. It’s great for babies, those with sensitive skin, or winter soap recipes. Combines well with oils like coconut or palm for a balanced bar.

Typical Recipe Blend: A typical beginner’s olive oil soap recipe is 60% olive oil, 20% coconut oil, 14% palm oil or lard, and 6% castor oil.

2. Coconut Oil

A soap making staple, this tropical oil is prized for its bountiful bubbles. Coconut oil is commonly used around 20-30% in soap recipes.

Grade/Type: Refined coconut oil has no discernible scent. Unrefined or virgin coconut oil has a light coconut aroma. Either type can be used for soap making.

Fatty Acid Profile: Lauric acid comprises around 50% of coconut oil. This fatty acid produces a delightfully bubbly, cleansing lather. Coconut oil also contains cleansing myristic acid.

Use Rate: 20-30% is commonly recommended for coconut oil in soap recipes. Too much can be drying for some skin types. Any higher than 30% should be used with care.

Benefits: With its abundant lather, coconut oil adds cleansing and bubbly personality to soap. Combine with moisturizing oils so the lather isn’t overly stripping.

Typical Recipe Blend: A typical use rate alongside olive oil is 20-30% coconut oil. It combines well with most other oils.

3. Palm Oil

While a bit controversial, palm oil creates a hard and stable soap bar that’s difficult to replicate with other oils. With balancing fatty acids, palm oil is a versatile soap making oil.

Grade/Type: Standard palm oil works well in soap. Look for sustainably sourced palm oil if possible.

Fatty Acid Profile: Palm oil contains a balanced blend of palmitic acid (for hardness), oleic acid (for moisturizing), and lauric acid (for lather). This makes for great soap.

Use Rate: Palm oil is commonly used around 10-25% in soap recipes. Too much can make the soap slimy.

Benefits: Palm stabilizes the soap so it hardens quickly and lasts a long time. It also boosts lather and moisturizing properties.

Typical Recipe Blend: Combine palm oil around 10-15% with other oils like olive, coconut, or shea butter for a well-rounded bar.

4. Shea Butter

For an ultra-moisturizing bar nothing beats shea butter. Made from the nut of the African shea tree, this creamy butter is a fantastic soap making ingredient.

Grade/Type: Unrefined or raw shea butter has an earthy, nutty aroma. Refined shea has less scent. Either can be used. Opt for fair trade certified shea butter.

Fatty Acid Profile: Shea is high in oleic acid (40-60%) and stearic acid (30-50%). This makes a moisturizing, creamy soap.

Use Rate: 10-25% shea butter is common in recipes. Up to 50% can be used but may make the soap soft.

Benefits: Skin-loving shea butter leaves your skin touchably smooth and conditioned after using the soap. A moisturizing marvel.

Typical Recipe Blend: Combine shea butter around 15-20% with palm oil, coconut oil, and olive oil for a balanced soap recipe.

5. Cocoa Butter

For hardcore moisturizing power, cocoa butter is another excellent choice. Like shea butter, cocoa imparts a creamy lather and soft feel to soap.

Grade/Type: Opt for unprocessed, natural cocoa butter without any fragrance or additives.

Fatty Acid Profile: Cocoa butter is over 50% oleic acid. It also contains palmitic and stearic acids. Deeply conditioning.

Use Rate: 10-20% is a common amount in recipes. Higher amounts can be used if blended with hard oils.

Benefits: Extremely moisturizing. Makes a gentle, creamy bar. Leaves skin soft and supple.

Typical Recipe Blend: Pair 10-15% cocoa butter with shea butter, coconut oil, palm oil, or olive oil for a decadent soap.

Tips for Choosing Oils and Customizing Recipes

Here are some tips for selecting oils and customizing soap recipes based on your desired qualities:

  • For a hard bar, use more palm oil, palm kernel oil, or butters like shea or cocoa butter. Hard oils help the soap harden faster and create a long-lasting bar.
  • For creamy lather, use more high-oleic oils like olive oil, shea butter, or other butters. Oleic fatty acids make a smooth, creamy lather.
  • For bubbly lather, use coconut, palm kernel, or babassu oil. Lauric acid makes fluffy bubbles. But don’t go over 30% on bubbles or it may be drying.
  • For moisturizing soap, opt for more olive oil, shea, cocoa butter or other soft oils high in oleic or linoleic acids. Limit the coconut oil.
  • Substitute oils based on fatty acid profiles, not necessarily a 1:1 swap. If a recipe calls for shea but you don’t have it, use another high-oleic acid oil.
  • Superfat at 5-8% to ensure a moisturizing bar, especially when using predominantly coconut or palm oils which can be drying.
  • Run recipes through a calculator to balance the fatty acids before making the soap. Aim for around 25-50% oleic acid for a moisturizing bar.

Don’t be afraid to play around with oil combinations in your recipes to find your perfect soap! Testing batches is part of the learning process. Record what went right or wrong each time to adjust for the next batch. With some trial and error, you’ll be making soap like a pro.

Common Soap Making Ingredient FAQs

If you’re new to soap making, chances are you have lots of questions about ingredients. Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about oils, butters, and additives:

What’s the shelf life of soap made with different oils?

The shelf life of your soap depends more on proper curing and storage rather than the oils used. Fully cured cold process soap lasts 9-12 months when stored in a cool, dry place. The exception is that soap high in olive oil may last longer–up to a few years.

Does the type of oils matter for handmade soap vs. body bars?

Handmade soap and body bars use similar oil blends. For bars you’ll use all over the body, opt for oils that are extra moisturizing. Oils like olive oil, shea butter, or sweet almond oil make nice body bars.

How do I substitute butters if I don’t have specific ones called for in a recipe?

Substitute based on fatty acid profiles, not a direct 1:1 swap. Shea and cocoa butter are both high in oleic acid so you can use one instead of the other. Mango, avocado, illipe and kokum butters also make good substitutes.

Is palm oil necessary for a hard bar of soap?

No, palm isn’t mandatory for hardness, though it does help the soap harden faster. Other oils like coconut oil, animal lard, or butters like shea or cocoa can be used for hardness. But you may need to adjust amounts to get a similar effect as palm oil.

Can I use pomace olive oil instead of extra virgin? How will it affect my soap?

Yes, pomace olive oil can be used, it just may speed up trace so you have less working time. The resulting bar of soap will be pretty similar. Pomace oil has a higher unsaponifiable content (fats that don’t turn to soap) so it may make the bar a bit softer. But in a blended oil recipe, the effect should be minimal.

What should I use to make a 100% olive oil castile soap?

The only oil that should be used for a true castile soap is olive oil. But to make the bar harder, you can add small amounts of castor oil (5-10%) or coconut oil (5-15%). Some artisan soap makers also use a pinch of salt to help harden a 100% olive oil soap.

If I want to make soap with food oils like canola oil, how should I adjust my recipe?

Soap made solely with food oils like canola or vegetable oil makes a very soft bar that is difficult to use. For soap with food oils, limit the use to 50% or less by combining with oils like coconut, palm, or lard for hardness. Superfat at 8-10% since food oils can go rancid quicker.

What are some good oils for shampoo or acne-prone skin?

For hair and scalp bars, use lighter oils that won’t leave residue like coconut, olive, sweet almond, sunflower, castor, or hemp seed oil. For acne-prone skin, avoid oils high in oleic acid which can be comedogenic. Use oils like coconut, palm, grapeseed, or hemp seed oil.

Ready to Get Soaping!

As you can see, there is a whole wide world of soap making oils, butters, and additives to explore. While it can be daunting at first, learning which ingredients have what effects will help you become a kitchen chemist, crafting custom soap recipes. Don’t be afraid to experiment with small batches at first to dial in your perfect soap formula.

The top five soap making oils and butters – olive, coconut, palm, shea, and cocoa – are great beginner ingredients to start expanding your oil collection. Play around with blend percentages to find your favorite combination. Before you know it, you’ll have handmade artisan soap bars that are gentle, moisturizing, and bountifully bubbly.

Now it’s time to grab those oils and get soaping! Make it a fun, creative adventure rather than following recipes exactly. The joy is in the experience and end result of whipping up a batch of nourishing, customized soap you crafted from scratch. Your skin will thank you for it!

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