The Basics of Base Oils and Butters
When deciding on a recipe for your batch of soap, you have a TON of choices to make! What method are you going to use? What scent do you want? What color? Finish? Texture? Additives? Oh my!! Like I’ve mentioned before, with soap making the possibilities really are endless. It’s such a creative process and so much fun to create such a customized product. An important thing to know when making these choices is how the base(s) that you select will function in your finished bar of soap. Understanding the oils that are commonly used will help you make the perfect bar of soap for the purpose you want to use it for. Whether you’re hoping to achieve a bar that will produce a super thick and luxurious lather, or you need something with ingredients that are mild and moisturizing for sensitive skin, the oils that you choose will be important.
So, let’s do a little run down on base oils and butters. Did you know that a well-formulated bar of soap typically requires at least two kinds of oils? Yep- just because one boasts some great qualities doesn’t mean it will be the best bar of soap by itself. Some oils make great combinations by balancing out each other’s qualities and enhancing their performance. So, let’s get started on the basics of base oil and butter education!
Apricot Kernel Oil– High in unsaturated fatty acids.This oil is great for conditioning the skin but doesn’t produce a great lather. It’s best when combined with other oils and used at about 15 percent of the oil amount in a recipe. If used at a higher percentage of the total oils in a recipe, you’ll end up with a very soft bar of soap.
Avocado Oil– Containing vitamins A, B, D, and E, this oil has amazing moisturizing and conditioning properties! With a high percentage of fatty acids, avocado oil will not react with lye, so in a bar of soap it will leave a nice amount of moisturizing oil. But- since its high in fatty acids, you’ll want to make sure that it’s kept to 20 percent of a recipe’s total oils.
Canola Oil– Yep, the same oil that you have in your kitchen pantry! It’s moisturizing and produces a nice creamy lather. During soap making, canola oil also slows the process of trace giving you longer to work with additives and scents. This oil make a great white bar of soap on its own, so when adding colors to the mixture the results are pure and can be vibrant. Use this oil at no more than 35 percent in a recipe.
Castor Oil– This oil has a more unique makeup, composed mostly of ricinoleic acid which is a monounsaturated fatty acid. Most people recognize castor oil as a thick, viscous oil- but it actually produces a soft bar of soap if used at more than 10 percent in a recipe. If you’re just using it to achieve a nice stable lather, use at 3-5 percent of your total oils.
Cocoa Butter– As a solid, cocoa butter is hard and brittle. It can be found in its natural raw form, or deodorized. I love the natural form because it smells like warm cocoa and mixes well with like scents. If you’re using it in a recipe that will have a floral scent, go for the deodorized form. Cocoa butter produces a hard bar of soap with small bubbles. Use it at up to 15 percent of your total base oils.
Coconut Oil– Solid at room temperature. Most coconut oil is sold as RBD (refined, bleached, and deodorized) leaving it with a neutral, light scent. It has a high cleansing power, produces a hard bar of soap, and works best when combined with other oils. In soap recipes, use it at no more than 35 percent.
Hazelnut Oil– Produces a small but stable lather and is great for conditioning the skin. Hazelnut oil is low in unsaturated fatty acids so it takes longer to trace. It also has a shorter shelf life (so be sure to use it in recipes that will be used quickly and not stored for long periods of time). Use this oil at less than 15 percent of your total oils.
Hemp Seed Oil– This oil is all about the luxury- just not for a long period of time. Use it at 20 percent or less in recipes and the high amount of unsaturated fatty acids will contribute to a moisturizing and condition bar of soap. Just remember- it will have a shorter shelf life.
Jojoba Oil– This is actually liquid wax, not oil! What does that mean for soap? Well, adding jojoba oil to your recipe will result in a more stable bar that will have a longer shelf life. The soap will have a smooth, conditioning lather when this oil is used at around 10 percent of the total oils.
Mango Butter– Did you know that mango butter actually comes from the seed of the fruit, not the flesh! It’s adds a rich conditioning property to soap and is wonderful for moisturizing the skin. Use this butter at 15 percent or less of the total oils.
Olive Oil– Another pantry essential (and cost-effective!). It makes soap creamy and produces a long-lasting bar with small bubbles. When using this oil, remember that it will speed up tracing, so it may not be the best choice when making delicate designs. Also, it won’t produce a pure white bar so mix in like colors (oranges, yellows, reds, greens) depending on the color of the oil. This oil can be used at up to 100 percent and has an incredibly long shelf life.
Palm Kernel Oil– This oil if refined from the kernel of the palm fruit and comes in the form of flakes that are melted before mixed with other oils. It makes for a really hard bar of soap with wonderful sheen- but is brittle so should be used at no more than 15 percent of the total oils.
Palm Oil– Same fruit, different part! This oil comes from the fleshy pulp of the palm fruit, not the kernel. It contributes to a hard bar of soap and works wonderfully with coconut oil, producing an amazing lather. Use at 25 percent of less in recipes.
Rice Bran Oil– This oil is a great addition to soap as it adds moisturizing and conditioning qualities. It produces small bubbles, it quite stable, and can be used at up to 100 percent- just like olive oil.
Shea Butter– Coming from the nut of the shea tree, it’s solid at room temperature, moisturizing, and emollient. Use at 10 percent or less in recipes since it doesn’t contribute to lather or hardness.
Soybean Oil– Hydrogenated soybean oil (solid at room temp) results in a harder bar of soap. Liquid soybean oil has a different fatty acid profile so the results will differ. Both forms produce a creamy lather with great conditioning elements. Use this oil at 50 percent or less in soap recipes.
Sweet Almond Oil– Light, moisturizing, and conditioning resulting in a soft bar of soap. Use this oil at 25 percent or less in your recipes.
So there you have the basics of the most commonly used base oils and butters. Mix and match as you please choosing oils that compliment each other and serve the purposes of the soap your making! If you’re unsure of where to start- a fool proof combo that works great is olive oil, coconut oil, and palm oil. If you’re just starting out, these three oils are also very cost-effective and a wonderful beginning to your soap making journey.
Have any favorite combinations of base oils and butters? We’d love to know what your go-to formulations are!