If you like the sound of handmade soap but:
- don’t know how to go about making it,
- (like me) have done some research but don’t yet feel confident doing it yourself, or
- don’t have the time to make it from scratch
then why not consider soap-crafting with melt-and-pour soap?
Crafting (or customising) your own soap using a pre-made soap base – known as “melt-and-pour” or “M&P” – is a great alternative to making soap from scratch, and it makes for a fun and creative DIY project. I came across M&P whilst doing online research on making cold-process soap, and am so glad I “strayed” and clicked on the M&P link on the website! It’s very simple to get started – especially as you don’t need to invest in too many ingredients, plus it is relatively quick to create what you want.
What is the M&P soap base made of?
Typically, you will find glycerin as a key ingredient in an M&P soap base. Some bases have goat’s milk, shea butter or honey added to them. For my projects, I use bases by a manufacturer called Stephenson (see here for their full range of M&P bases – you won’t be able to buy anything directly from their website, but at least gives you an idea of the kinds of bases that are available and what they’re made of). You can normally buy M&P soap bases in 1kg blocks from shops specialising in soap-making supplies.
Tip: Ask the retailer for an INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) list when you buy your soap base – you’ll find all the ingredients of your soap base listed there.
Between the melt and pour stages
As its name suggests, all you have to do with a M&P soap base is essentially MELT it and POUR it into a mould of your choice. Of course, the most fun bit is what you choose to do BETWEEN the melt and pour stages! Below are some common ways people customise their M&P soap:
- By encasing something inside the soap (e.g. a small toy, dried botanicals or fruits)
- By adding colour to the soap (using liquid colourants; dry pigments like micas, oxides, clays; or food products like ground turmeric, saffron, cocoa powder, even instant coffee!)
- By adding a fragrance (using essential or synthetic fragrance oils)
- Doing all of the above!
Tip: When buying a liquid colourant, or dry pigment like a mica or an oxide, ask the retailer for its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) so you can see the list of ingredients and be sure that the colourant is safe to use for cosmetic purposes.
Choosing the right soap base
What soap base you choose will, in part, depend on the kind of finished product you’re after. Here are a few things to bear in mind:
- If you want to encase a little figurine inside a soap, it’d make sense to use a transparent soap base; use an opaque base if you want a more “milky” look and feel. You can even use one of each to create a two-layered soap! Some colourants (for example micas) mix and look better in transparent soap.
- Some soap bases are already scented (depending on the additives added to the base, such as goat’s milk, aloe, shea butter, honey), so go for an unscented, plain base if you want to add your own fragrance.
- Some soap bases may contain the chemical compounds Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) and/or Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). As types of detergent, surfactant and foaming agent, both are commonly found in commercial personal hygiene and cleaning products. So, if you have an allergy to either of these ingredients or if you simply prefer your soap not to have them, opt for an SLES- and/or SLS-free base. For my projects, I tend to use crystal SLES/SLS-free and white SLES/SLS-free soap bases by Stephenson.
Tools you need
The amount of tools you need depends on the complexity of your project, but the basic ones are:
- a knife (to cut the soap base into small chunks)
- a scale (to weigh out the amount of soap base you need)
- a microwave (for melting the soap base if you’re short on time)
- a double boiler (basically a saucepan and a heatproof measuring jug)
- a heatproof stirrer or spoon
- mould(s) to pour your soap into (silicone ones are good as you can invert them easily to get the soaps out)
- isopropyl / rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle (for removing excess bubbles as the soap is setting; if you have a multi-layered soap, the alcohol helps the layers to stick together)
- small plate(s) for you to rest your spoon(s) on
The number of steps involved in crafting your M&P creations vary depending on the complexity of the design, but below are the basic steps required for the majority of soap creations:
- Remove the block of soap base from the packaging. Cut the soap into small cubes (so it’s easier to melt) and place inside a measuring jug.
- Melt the soap in the microwave (using short bursts) or in a double boiler. Do not let the liquid boil and bubble!
- Once the soap base has turned liquid, colour and/or scent your soap by adding very small amounts of colourants and/or fragrance into the mixture, and stir to make sure everything is distributed evenly. (Note: a little colourant/oil goes a long way!)
- While the mixture is still hot, pour it into your mould(s). You can add any object/herbs at this stage. Spray rubbing alcohol on top of the soaps to remove excess bubbles. If you’re making multi-layered soap, wait for the first (bottom) layer to harden first before you pour the second layer on to prevent the two from mixing.
- Leave the soaps in the moulds to cool and harden completely in room temperature (this may take a few hours), on a flat surface. Avoid moving the moulds around; don’t be tempted to poke the soaps or shake the moulds during this stage – this will break or cause a ripple-effect on the surface (unless you’re after this effect specifically!).
- Once the soaps have hardened, gently pop them out of the moulds by pushing from the bottom and inverting the moulds.
- If you’re not going to use your soaps right away, wrap them up in clingfilm to prevent the glycerin in the soap from drawing moisture to it.
Tip: Not every dried herb, fruit or flower can be easily encased, or is suitable for encasing, in an M&P soap. Some organic ingredients (like rose petals or peppercorns) may discolour the soap, while others (like goji berries or dried flower buds) will soak up the glycerin, expand and misshapen inside the soap. Certain things (like dried orange slices) are harder to encase inside the soap as they tend to float to the top. Remember to make notes on what works and what doesn’t. The trial-and-error aspect for me is what makes soap-crafting so fun and exciting – I learn something new every time I work with a new ingredient.
Pros and cons of M&P soap-crafting
|Much quicker than making soap from scratch||Working with M&P is not really considered as true “soap-making”, since you are not making the soap from scratch|
|Fewer ingredients to invest in||
You have much less control over the ingredients of the soap base, since you’re buying it pre-made
|Does not involve handling lye, a caustic chemical necessary in saponification (the process that produces soap)|
Since you’re not having to spend a long time making the soap from scratch, you can use the time to focus on getting the design right!
I hope you’ve found this introduction to M&P soap-crafting useful. I’ll be sharing more M&P project ideas soon, so watch this space!