Our soaps are created by the cold process method, which means that very little external heat is applied – only enough gentle heat to melt the coconut oil and shea butter which are both solid at room temperature in a cold climate. The advantages of this method are that the curing process is slow and gradual, creating a more natural, mild and creamy soap, filled with moisturising glycerin that is better for your skin. The natural saponification process results in about 75% soap and 25% glycerin, an emollient that softens, protects and heals the skin.
With a pH of around 8 or 9, our soaps are gently alkaline and cleansing on the skin, which can have a varying pH between 4.5 and 6.2. Skin’s relatively acidic pH plays a role in keeping its delicate microbiome (or the skin flora, which refers to the microorganisms which reside on the skin) balanced. An acidic microbiome makes it more difficult for harmful pathogens to invade, and one of the main roles of the epidermis is protection from the latter.
Hand made soap is the neutral end product of combining an alkali and several acids.
The alkali (with a pH of around 14) is sodium hydroxide which is mixed with water to create lye - a necessary ingredient in the creation of soap. Sodium hydroxide is a compound containing three elements - sodium, hydrogen and oxygen - and it is transformed during the soap making process because the mixture is saponified.
The acids are oils or fats (olive, coconut, almond and essential oils and shea butter). They are listed as sodium olivate, sodium cocoate, sodium almondate and shea butterate in the ingredients list on the label because they are transformed into the sodium salts of the fatty acids during soap making. Some of our fragranced oils are created by macerating fresh organic herbs or flowers with oils in a sterile jar, stored in the dark for six weeks.
Soap making is carried out in a sanitised workshop with protective clothing and up-to-date batch documentation in order to comply with good manufacturing practice.
There are seven main stages in the making of Farm Soap Co. soaps.
Weighing ingredients and melting solid fats
In our workshop we firstly weigh all the ingredients - all the different oils, sodium hydroxide and water - and we gently melt the solid fats till they are liquid. This takes just a few minutes, then the pot is removed from the heat and left to cool to around 40 to 48 degrees Celsius. We use bain marie style water cooling methods.
Making the lye and cooling it
The lye is created by dissolving the sodium hydroxide into cold water (an exothermic reaction that gives off heat) and leaving it to cool until it also reaches 40 - 48 degrees Celsius.
Mixing and emulsifying
When the right temperature is achieved, the lye is gently mixed into the oils and we keep stirring until it reaches the moment of trace. This is the transformative moment in the soap making process and it requires focus and steady hands. With no fat molecules left at the sides, the uniform coloured mix leaves a viscous and definite trace on the surface when it is thoroughly emulsified. At this stage it looks like a thin, pale custard. The essential oils or sea salts (for the Dorset Sea Salt soap) are mixed in carefully at the beginning of trace as they may cause the trace stage to accelerate and the mixture begins to turn to gel uncontrollably.
Moulding and unmoulding
The soap mix is first poured into jugs and then poured into silicone moulds, the tops levelled and the moulds are then covered to retain the heat. The gel phase of soap making is the heating stage of saponification. Once you pour your soap into its mould it will start to heat up. Gel phase starts with the soap turning translucent in the middle and then spreads out to the edges. The soaps are left to solidify for 24 – 48 hours then unmoulded onto trays and carried to curing racks, where they are left to dry and cure for 30 - 40 days. The racks are labelled with soap names, batch numbers and dates.
During the curing stage the soaps are fully saponified and they dry out, oxidising in the air and lightening in colour. During this phase we monitor them closely, and if they contain seaweeds we turn them. This ensures that even amounts of air circulate. We cure our soaps on stainless steel and wooden racks with clean sheets of paper and linen to cover them so that they are covered from dust.
Checking and packaging
Once the soaps are cured, and prior to packing, each batch is checked for neutrality, polished with a clean cloth, each box is batch numbered and the soaps are then packaged, ready for dispatch.
Cleaning and washing up
There is one stage that we mention at the very end because it’s the messy one! Cleaning – there is so much to wash and sanitise before, during and after the soap making process. The soap mix is very oily, considering what a high proportion of the mix is made up of oils. You would imagine that making soap is a very clean activity but in fact soap is only the eventual product that is magically transformed into what you would recognise as clean and fragrant after the curing process. In the meantime, thank heavens for hot water, scrubbing brushes and washing up liquid. We use natural products to clean and sanitise our workshop areas and we write about it here.