Soap is the result of a chemical reaction called saponification, when a fat is combined with a powerful alkali. The process has been around since the time of the ancient Babylonians, who boiled wood ashes and animal fats together to produce a crude soap used for cleaning wool and cotton. As the centuries passed and across many cultures, ranging from the ancient Egyptians and Romans to developing European countries, the process became more sophisticated, eventually producing a result refined enough to use not just for the cleaning of textiles and pottery, but for bathing as well. Bar soaps were first produced commercially during the Industrial Revolution and the art of making soap at home, once a common chore, faded into novelty.
Although the practice of making soap by hand has become less common, it has its advantages. Many commercial soaps produced today use a variety of artificial colors, scents and other additives. Making soap at home using natural ingredients can produce soap that’s rich in the skin-moisturizing glycerin often lacking in commercial soap. Making soap by hand also means that those with allergies can avoid irritants and that ingredients can be customized, balancing oils and tailoring scent and abrasives to suit every preference.
Want to try your hand at making soap at home? This recipe for basic hand soap is a good place to start. Different oils have different value when producing soap. Olive oil is a gentle moisturizer, coconut oil adds lather, and palm oil hardens well. Once you’ve tried your hand at the process, you can begin to explore adjusting oils or adding scents or texture with herbs or essential oils. Bear in mind that soapmaking is both art and science, and straying too far from the balance of fat to alkali may lead to undesired results. Inexperienced soapmakers should become comfortable with proven recipes before experimentation.