How to make your own soap in a campervan

Are you looking for ways to make your own soap? Perhaps you’ve been searching for homemade soap recipes but are worried about how complicated they seem, or that they need equipment or space you don’t have? This article will cover how to make soap for vanlifers with all levels of experience.

Contents:

Part 1: Melt and Pour Soap:

What is melt and pour soap?

What is different about making soap in a campervan?

What do I need to start making melt and pour soap?

How to make melt and pour soap in a campervan without a microwave

Easy, natural melt and pour soaps with essential oils

How to get stronger fragrances in melt and pour soaps

Experimenting with colours

How to store your soap in a campervan

How to wrap your soaps without plastic: twenty great options

Part 2: Cold Process Soap

Why I don’t recommend cold process soaping to vanlifers

Sodium hydroxide aka lye: Safety.

One-oil soaps

Castile soap recipe

Three-oil soaps (including recipe)

Problems with palm oil

A quick note on hot process soap

Part 3: Selling your soap

EU Cosmetic Regulations for Europe

Brexit and EU Cosmetic Regulations

Prohibited ingredients in cosmetics Europe

FDA Cosmetic Regulations for America

Prohibited ingredients in cosmetics USA

Part 1: Melt and Pour soaps

What is Melt and Pour soap?

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Melt and Pour soap is the easiest, beginner-level soapmaking method. You buy a melt and pour soap base such as the Stephenson SLS-free and SLES-free white soap base, you cut it into chunks, weigh it, melt the soap, mix it with your ingredients and pour the lot into soap moulds then leave them to harden.

Voila.

Your own handmade, customized soap without needing to handle dangerous chemicals such as sodium hydroxide, which is required for cold process soap (the main other type of soap).

There are dozens of ready-made melt-and-pour bases you can use, such as ones containing aloe vera or carrot seed oil, and even African black melt and pour soap (I’m looking forward to getting my hands on that and I already have an idea for a cinnamon-scented soap recipe I want to make with the African black melt and pour soap base).

If you’re looking for a starting point with homemade cosmetics that are suitable for vanlife (vanmade cosmetics?? Haha), I 100% recommend melt and pour soap bases.

What is different about making soap in a campervan?

Electricality

When it comes to melt and pour soap, the biggest issue with vanlife cosmetic making is that (unless you have a seriously clutch electrical system) a campervan will not have the power to run a microwave. Last year, when I was searching for my own van, I did view a campervan conversion with full 240v (British) electrics, converted from an old Network Rail work van, which had a proper domestic microwave, but that was the exception.

Most vanlifers have a solar-powered electrical system. The sun shines on some solar panels, this converts to energy, which is then used to charge a leisure battery (usually 12v but 24v is also possible) and an inverter distributes that electricity at the correct ampage to make all the appliances in the van work correctly.

Vanlife is a trade-off between having things that make life comfortable and not getting bogged down with a clunky, heavy snail shell of junk. Vanlifers, myself included, don’t want to be tied down like that, or we wouldn’t have a van!

Most vanlife setups that I’ve seen have a fridge, somewhere to charge phones and laptops, a fan for hot nights, lighting for night time and a water pump. One vanlife couple run a high-powered blender on their electrical system. You might prefer an electric kettle, for cups of tea, or a coffee maker, or a television… the list of things is endless, and that leisure battery can’t power them all.

I’m not saying you can’t have a microwave in a campervan, you can, if it’s a priority for you. Most vanlifers will need to make their melt and pour soap without a microwave. This is not only possible, it’s actually a better way of doing things.

Ventilation

Another key difference between a vanlife cosmetic making setup and one in a house or apartment is that you need to pay more attention to adequate ventilation. Your van is where you eat, sleep and… hello? Breathe! To do that effectively, you need to get rid of any fumes right away.

Cleanup issues

The third main difference relates to cleanup. In a campervan, unless you’ve installed a water heater, you won’t have hot water on tap to wash your soapmaking equipment in.

The best way to clean soapmaking equipment is to rinse it several times in hot water then scrub it out. If this isn’t possible, rinsing it in cold water will work, too, but you will have to rinse it more times.

This probably seems obvious but it took me a couple of soapmaking efforts to realize, you don’t need washing up liquid or dish soap because you’re cleaning something that already has soap in it!

Storage is limited in a van!

Keep your soapmaking equipment separate to cooking equipment. You should have separate equipment that’s only used for soap making. This is because eating soap is not good for you, and the soap making ingredients can get into even microscopic parts of your equipment.
In a campervan with limited space, you will want different soapmaking equipment to someone with an entire kitchen cupboard where they can store their soaping things.

What do I need to start making melt and pour soap?

The most basic equipment you will need is as follows:

  • Melt and pour soap base. If you plan to sell your creations, I strongly recommend Stephenson bases because they are available around the world so you won’t have to reformulate (or pay for product safety testing again, in the EU). If you go abroad and can’t get your melt and pour base from the small business you were buying it from, how will you make your soaps? In the EU, you cannot switch between suppliers if you are selling cosmetics and for melt and pour, that means you can buy Stephenson soap base from any soap company but you couldn’t buy another soap base instead, and vice versa. I will discuss safety and regulations in a dedicated section, below.
  • A knife to cut the soap base. I prefer a ceramic knife.
  • A glass jug or bowl to melt the soap base in. I prefer a jug because it’s easier to pour, but bowls will melt the base more evenly.
  • A plastic or glass stirring spoon.
  • Weighing scales
  • Moulds to make soaps in.
  • A saucepan that fits the jug or bowl in. Ideally, the jug or bowl should not touch the bottom of the pan.

How to make melt and pour soaps without a microwave in a campervan

The key to making this work well is to ensure the soap base is cut into really small pieces before you try to melt it. If you’ve ever made a chocolate krispie cake, using melted chocolate, you’ll have a pretty good idea about how this can be done.

Here is an overview of how to melt the soap base to make melt and pour soaps when you don’t have a microwave (this is not a recipe):

  • Cut your soap into really tiny chunks. It’s a trade off between spending a lot of time cutting and spending a lot of time waiting for your melt and pour soap base to melt. Any cubes bigger than 2cm (or an inch) need cutting down smaller.
  • Heat some water in the pan on your campervan stove. Bring it to a gentle boil then turn the heat down to a simmer (if your bowl or jug touches the bottom of the pan, it’s safest to turn the heat off completely and remove the jug/bowl to re-heat the water in the pan if necessary).
  • Put the soap cubes in the bowl or jug, and gently lower the glass container into the pan of boiling water. Don’t let the water get inside the bowl or jug.
  • The boiling water will heat the bowl, this will transfer heat energy into the soap base and that will melt the soap. This will take several minutes. If the heat is off, you will need to re-boil the water at some point. Don’t let the water get too cold.
  • Once the soap is all completely melted (no chunks), remove the bowl/jug from the pan of water.
  • Now follow the rest of your soap recipe. For melt and pour soaps, you can add cold pressed oils, essential oils, colourants and even exfoliators such as salt, sugar, loofah or rope! The possibilites are vast!

Easy, natural melt and pour soaps with essential oils

The easiest recipes for melt and pour soap are ones involving essential oils. These are the natural oils that come from plants, such as lavender essential oil soap or spearmint essential oil soap.

I would recommend practising without using colourants for your first batch.

Here’s a very easy recipe you can follow right away in your campervan kitchen:

This makes one soap.

You will need:

  • A glass jug
  • A spoon for mixing
  • A knife
  • A rectangular soap mould
  • 100g (or 4oz) Stephenson’s white melt and pour soap base
  • Scales to weigh soap base.
  • 15-25 drops lavender essential oil (you can sub lavender with any essential oil you prefer, some have a stronger scent profile than others. I recommend 5-fold or 10-fold orange, rose geranium, or spearmint essential oils). This recipe isn’t designed to be used with an oils blend, so I recommend choosing one individual oil for this first soaping adventure.

Method:

  1. Cut 100g of soap base into small squares, like you’re chopping a potato to make mashed potato. Any cubes bigger than 2cm (or an inch) need cutting down smaller.
  2. Heat some water in the pan on your campervan stove. Bring it to a gentle boil then turn the heat down to a simmer (if your bowl or jug touches the bottom of the pan, it’s safest to turn the heat off completely and remove the jug/bowl to re-heat the water in the pan if necessary).
  3. Put the soap cubes in the bowl or jug, and gently lower the glass container into the pan of boiling water. Don’t let the water get inside the bowl or jug.
  4. The boiling water will heat the bowl and melt the soap. This will take several minutes. If the heat is off, you will need to re-boil the water at some point.
  5. Once the soap is all completely melted (no chunks), remove the bowl/jug from the pan of water.
  6. Add 15-25 drops of your essential oil and stir. You don’t need to stir much to mix this in.
  7. Immediately pour the soap into your soap mould, using your spoon to scrape any off the sides if it’s hardened and set inside the jug/bowl while you were stirring/pouring.
  8. Let your soap set and voila!
  9. Congratulations, you just made a soap!

How to get stronger scents in melt and pour soaps

One problem with homemade soaps, especially using natural essential oils, is that the scent doesn’t always smell as strongly as you would expect, or it doesn’t smell the same as store-bought soap.

You have two options if your soap is lacklustre in the scent department:

First, you can opt to go for an artificial fragrance, there are plenty of artificial fragrances for every different herb imaginable. But it won’t have the same properties as using the real essential oil. The way commercial soapmakers get around this is usually to double up – so they add the essential oil, for its properties, and then they add an artificial scent to make the soap smell more like the essential oil than… well… than the essential oil did.

You can tell if a company has done this because their ingredients will list the essential oil, then at the end of the ingredients they will also say “parfum” or “fragrance” (depending on which country you are in).

Second, and definitely the easiest and safest for vanlife soapmaking and all homemade soaps, is to just use more essential oil. In the EU, we have rules on how much of an essential oil can be safely used in a soap. You can use up to that amount if you need a stronger scent. If you are selling your soaps, when you get your safety testing done, just write down the exact amount of essential oil you are using for your cosmetics safety test and the cosmetics chemist who does the test can check that your products are safe to sell. Never ever be tempted to misrepresent the ingredients in a safety test, the safety limits on ingredients are there to protect customers from harm.

Experimenting with colours

There are a few types of colours available in the UK for soapmaking. and there are an infinite number on sale in the US. In the EU you are limited on what you are allowed to put into cosmetics. You cannot use any plastic-based glitter anymore because it is contributing to the microplastics issue in our European water. Your options for glitter are very, very limited right now but hopefully that will change when more companies find ways to make plastic-free biodegradable glitters.

Since I’m not a huge fan of artificial colours, the two types of colourants I work with are clay powders and mica. Mica and clay are both minerals. Mica comes in more vivid colours. Clay tends to come in more natural colours. Alongside clay, other colors for a found-in-nature look to your soaps (haha as if you’d ever just find a soap in a forest or a meadow) would include indigo powder (a very dark blue), green tea powder (or the brighter matcha powder), and activated charcoal. Aside from micas, all these colourants have beneficial properties when put into cosmetics, as they can all draw impurities out, making your soaps and other cosmetics even more effective. I tend to put green tea powder in my shampoo bars after discovering how good green tea cosmetics were when I was in Japan. I’ll talk more about making shampoo bars and conditioner bars in separate articles.

Using clays in melt and pour soap

The advantages to using clays then are pretty clear cut, but there are also disadvantages. They don’t color very strongly, even when you use a lot you tend to just get a flat sort of tint. They really don’t mix. I tried mixing yellow and red French clays and the result was grainy, just like someone had got a yellow and red felt tip pen and done lots of little dots, instead of a smooth block orange colour which is what I was trying to achieve. The third drawback with clays is that they don’t mix directly into the soap. And the fourth problem is, in white melt and pour, the titanium dioxide (which is what makes the soap white to start with) makes the clay colours even lighter, while in transparent melt and pour, the clay powder is grainy and makes the soap look like it has bits of dust in it (which technically it does—clay dust).

For mixing clays (and any other colourants that aren’t soluble), you need a small amount of alcohol. This is an added expense. It also smells disgusting and that smell permeates the soap. I looked up tutorials on how to get clay to mix into soap and they said one tablespoon of alcohol to one teaspoon of clay powder. Well, I used half a teaspoon of clay powder and I still ended up with a lot of residue in the bottom of the mixing jug, and to make things worse, when I poured that into my hot soap mixture, the alcohol fumes got right up my nose. The tutorials I’d read all said the alcohol would disappear and I can only imagine that in America, people are using so much fragrance that you just can’t smell that alcohol anymore because there’s no way to get rid of it at all.

If you don’t use alcohol to mix clays, charcoal, green tea and indigo powder, you end up with clumping, no matter how well you mix the soap or how even the colour looks when you’ve finished. The colour will separate from the soap and you’ll get these big weeping blobs of highly-pigmented (brown or grey) gloop mixed in with your soap.

Using micas in melt and pour soap

Micas are a lot more enjoyable to work with. The colour results are nuanced and graduated, giving you a lot of options for colour effects even with melt and pour soap. I saw so many tutorials that said you can’t do any good colours with melt and pour soap but as you can see from my pictures, I found it was doable (although it takes time and practice). What I really like about mica is that you can control how pigmented the final soap is. If you use a lot, your soap will be very pigmented, if you only use a little, the soap will only be a little pigmented.

Another thing I discovered about micas, which I only found out after I’d made about half a kilo (one pound) of soap, was you don’t actually need to mix it with alchohol before putting it in the melt and pour soap. You can just drop it in with a spoon and mix it, because the mica mixes really beautifully and can create a smooth, even result, with a little shimmer.

Mica is also available in a lot more colours, if you want a pop of pink or a tango of orange, you can achieve that with mica.

How to cool your soaps in a campervan

Once you have made your soaps, you need to let them cool until they are ready to be stored. They should not be left anywhere damp, which can be a problem in a van. You may need to wrap them in something, such as greaseproof paper or kitchen towel, to keep moisture away.

If melt and pour soap is kept in the fridge, it will suck the liquid out of the air and the top of the soap will become slimy. This is known as glycerin dew, or sweating. It can ruin the visual appearance of a soap, so be careful especially if you are planning to sell your soaps.

Even the normal air inside a campervan might be too humid for soaps to cool in, I’ve had glycerin dew form when I’ve just had my soaps cooling by my stove because the amount of water in the air was too much. If you have this problem, try opening the doors to get some airflow going. This might be difficult in a country with cold winters.

How to wrap your soaps without plastic: Twenty great options.

Of course, plastic is problematic. It damages the environment and it’s not biodegradable. Many vanlifers try to keep their plastic use to a minimum (I’m saying that rather than “eliminate plastic” because anyone who drives a vehicle is using some plastic, in the form of door handles, gear stick, car battery etc). So with that in mind, here are twenty great ways you can package your soaps without resorting to plastic:

  1. Grease proof paper
  2. Waxed paper
  3. Beeswax reusable sandwich wrap
  4. A glass jar
  5. A cardboard box
  6. Wrapped in tissue paper
  7. Tie a string around it (works best with “low glycerin” melt and pour soaps)
  8. A wooden box
  9. A paper bag
  10. In a porcelain or other ceramic dish with a lid. There are lots of these on sale in charity shops/thrift stores so you can buy preloved and find something with a history!
  11. In a square of cotton
  12. In a muslin bag
  13. Wrapped in a square of towel, which can double up as a washcloth.
  14. In a piece of burlap fastened with string.
  15. In a cork container.
  16. In brown parcel paper
  17. Bamboo
  18. Recycle! There are so many things in the recycling bin which you could use to make a soap container, such as a stackable potato chip tube (Pringles has a plastic lid but some other brands don’t), an empty glass jam jar or an empty bolognese sauce jar.
  19. Get creative: You could make a papier mache or plaster of paris container!
  20. Just leave it out. If you are only making one soap at a time and it’s for your personal use, just leave the soap out on a nice wooden soap dish!

Part 2: How to make cold process soap in a campervan

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Why I don’t recommend making cold process soap to vanlifers

Cold process soap requires the use of sodium hydroxide lye (NaOH). You may remember from high school chemistry (which I used to teach) that NaOH is a strong base (it is very alkaline). To use sodium hydroxide, you need to take safety precautions:

  • Wear safety goggles
  • Wear long sleeves
  • Wear an apron
  • Wear appropriate footwear with no open toes.
  • Be parked on a flat, stable surface with your van door open away from moving vehicles, animals, children or strong wind.
  • Be near a source of running water in case of contact with skin or eyes. If sodium hydroxide (in aqueous solution or in its solid form) gets into your eyes, you need to rinse your eyes with water for at least 10 minutes.
  • Somewhere to store your soap for several weeks while it cures.

The second big issue with making cold process is it requires you to have a stick blender, and you’ll need a power supply that can support it.

Assuming you can do all that, you’re good to make cold process soap in your campervan. Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it and I don’t like the idea of then waiting weeks before being able to wrap my soaps to sell. If I made more than one batch every few weeks, my van would quickly be full of nothing but soap, which isn’t the look I’m going for with my camper van.

A question I keep asking myself, and maybe you’re wondering it too, is if cold process soap is such a bad idea for vanlifers, why am I writing all this down to tell you how to do it?

I suppose I am writing about how to make cold process because vanlife is unpredictable. Crazy things happen during vanlife adventures, and when you’re in your camper van, hundreds of miles from the nearest city or thousands of miles from home, you might need to know how to make soap completely from scratch.

Maybe all you have is half a bottle of coconut oil and some sodium hydroxide and you’re covered in oil from fixing the engine on your T1 splitty on your way through Western Sahara. Or maybe you were in an accident in Mongolia and had to respray your driver door with a ridiculous colour to avoid rusting and now your hands are covered in paint (this happened to my new car the day I arrived in Northern Ireland and I was seven months pregnant and had to repair my door). Maybe you need the soap to wash your car to avoid getting a fine at the Serbian border (this actually happens).

My point is, you live a life of adventure, who knows why you might need to make handmade soap during a day in vanlife? I’m going to warn you not to make cold process soap in a campervan, then I’m going to show you how to do it anyway.

Making homemade soap in a campervan then, is a lot easier with melt and pour. If you are set on making cold process soap and your van has the right setup, this is how to do it.

Sodium Hydroxide Lye Safety

Sodium hydroxide is a dangerous alkaline. Its role in soap making is to turn the oils into soap through a process called saponification. Too much sodium hydroxide can cause an issue known as soda ash. Not enough sodium hydroxide will result in a fatty soap (this can be a desirable trait that makes soap nourishing and skin-loving… up to a point, after that it goes too soft and greasy and its ability to clean is diminished).

Sodium hydroxide is commonly used as a drain-unblocker (but don’t use drain cleaner to make soap, it often has other ingredients). It is also used for a wide range of other applications. If you want to learn some really disturbing facts about the uses of sodium hydroxide by the Mafia, check out my article, “the dark side of soapmaking” (warning, it’s very dark). To get soapmaker’s quality sodium hydroxide you need to buy it from a reputable soapmaking store and there are restrictions on where it can be shipped to.

Because sodium hydroxide is very corrosive, it can burn your skin very easily, especially the solid base (rather than the very watered-down version you will have used under adult supervision at school).

Always follow these steps with sodium hydroxide:

  • Long sleeves
  • Strong shoes
  • Goggles
  • Apron
  • Tie long hair back
  • No unexpected movements such as winds or the chance of being involved in a fender bender if you are parked.
  • Don’t use outdoors where wind could blow the NaOH into your eyes or onto your skin, or where droplets of rain could fall on the powder and create a highly exothermic (very hot) reaction.
  • Don’t use it near children or animals.
  • Keep the door open in case of an accident causing fumes.
  • Never mix anything like fragrances or colors with sodium hydroxide.
  • Always add your sodium hydroxide to the water not the other way around (see above about exothermic reactions).
  • Weigh your sodium hydroxide and only use as much as you need. Never ever feel tempted to add extra “for luck”.

Above all, if you must make cold process soap in a camper van, be very cautious, vanlifers, and good luck.

One-oil soaps

Soap is usually made from at least three oils and some sodium hydroxide, but you can actually make soap from one oil.

A traditional soap made this way is Castile soap, which is Italian and made from olive oil (not pomace olive oil, that’s a different soap ingredient entirely). The disadvantage of Castile soap is that it’s quite a soft soap.

Another one-oil soap that can work is coconut oil soap. It has a good lather but it’s not very moisturising.

The thing about one-oil soaps is they’re not in the repertoire of most handmade soap makers because they always lack properties that can be found in soaps with more ingredients. The more commonly-made cold process soaps have three oils to ensure bars of soap have a range of properties.

Overall, one-oil soaps are fun to experiment with, and good to have in your soapmaking arsenal especially as a vanlifer because it’s definitely possible that you might end up in a remote location where you need some soap and all you have is olive oil and a small container of sodium hydroxide.

A simple Castile soap recipe:

The soonest this is likely to be ready is 24 hours, although if you do it wrong it can take up to 2 weeks, and it will still be quite alkaline and need to cure for 4-6 weeks.

You will need (this makes one bar of soap, scale up as necessary):

  • 100g olive oil
  • 13g sodium hydroxide
  • 25ml water (for the water discount – using a little less water gets this soap to harden faster)
  • A stick blender
  • Two jugs
  • A soap mould
  • A spoon
  • A thermometer
  • A pan of boiling water

Method:

  1. Slowly add the sodium hydroxide to the water (not the other way around) and stir it in. Don’t stop stirring until the liquid is clear (i.e. no longer cloudy and with no bits). You now have aqueous sodium hydroxide (remember at school, you used to write this as NaOH aq). It will get warm as the process to make NaOH (solid) into NaOH (aqueous) is exothermic. Leave it for now and move on with the next step.
  2. Add the olive oil to your mixing bowl or jug. Place the jug or bowl inside the pan of boiling water and keep an eye on the temperature of the oil. On the stove, heat until the olive oil reaches about 50 degrees (this will not take long, olive oil heats quickly).
  3. Once the NaOH has cooled to about 50 degrees and the olive oil has heated to this temperature, add the sodium hydroxide to the olive oil slowly. WHILE YOU ARE DOING THIS, with your hand blender (stick blender), pulse until the oil starts to thicken and turn opaque (called a trace in cold process soapmaking).
  4. Blend for several minutes, until the oil has thickened to about the consistency of custard or brown gravy.
  5. Pour the soap into the mould(s).
  6. Cover the mould (e.g. with plastic wrap or foil) and if you’re in a hurry, put in a warm place to ensure it goes through gel phase. It will take about 24 hours.
  7. Let it cure for 4-6 weeks and it will be ready to use (to speed this up, put the soap in a very dry place, e.g. next to a bowl of salt or a salt rock)!

For a faster soap, use melt and pour soap base or use a soap base with palm oil and coconut oil because they help the soap harden faster.

Three oil cold-process soaps

A three-oil cold process soap requires more ingredients, but it will produce a better bar of soap and, with a water discount, it will be ready sooner.

Basically the simplest three-oil soap recipe ratio is 33% coconut oil, 34% olive oil, 33% palm oil. The amount of sodium hydroxide changes depending on which oils you are using and what superfat (excess fat, good for moisturising) you want.

So to make 146g of soap, this simple recipe will work:

33g coconut oil

34g olive oil

33g palm oil

14g sodium hydroxide

32ml water

You can scale up or down the recipe depending on how many bars you want to make and the size of your soap mould.

The method is the same as with the olive oil recipe:

Equipment:

  • A stick blender
  • Two jugs
  • A soap mould
  • A spoon
  • A thermometer
  • A pan of boiling water

Method:

  1. Slowly add the sodium hydroxide to the water (not the other way around) and stir it in. Don’t stop stirring until the liquid is clear (i.e. no longer cloudy and with no bits). You now have aqueous sodium hydroxide (remember at school, you used to write this as NaOH aq). It will get warm as the process to make NaOH (solid) into NaOH (aqueous) is exothermic. Leave it for now and move on with the next step.
  2. Add the oils to your mixing bowl or jug. Place the jug or bowl inside the pan of boiling water and heat until the palm oil has completely melted, stirring it all to mix.
  3. Once the NaOH has cooled to about 50 degrees and the oil has heated to this temperature, add the sodium hydroxide to the oil slowly. WHILE YOU ARE DOING THIS, with your hand blender (stick blender), pulse until the oil starts to thicken and turn opaque (called a trace in cold process soapmaking). This will not take long compared to the Castile soap recipe.
  4. Blend until the oil has thickened to about the consistency of custard or brown gravy.
  5. Pour the soap into the mould(s).
  6. Cover the mould (e.g. with plastic wrap or foil) and if you’re in a hurry, put in a warm place to ensure it goes through gel phase. It will take a few hours.
  7. Let it cure for 4-6 weeks and it will be ready to use (to speed this up, put the soap in a very dry place, e.g. next to a bowl of salt or a salt rock, if you’re in a pinch you can technically use this soap after a few days but be careful as it will be a harsh, strong soap if you use it before it has fully cured)!

Problems with palm oil

At the end of this section on making cold process soap in a campervan, I wanted to mention a problem you might be wrestling with at this point. Palm oil is really bad for the environment. You can buy ethically sourced, sustainable palm oil, but some people prefer to avoid it entirely. You can find cold process soap recipes for almost any combination of oils and there will definitely be a recipe that becomes your go-to. If you decide to substitute, you will need to change the quantity of your palm oil substitute and your quantity of sodium hydroxide lye so it’s best, especially when starting out, to find a tried and tested recipe.

A note on hot process soap

There’s another type of soap, it cures faster than cold process because instead of leaving it to cure by itself, you heat it. Saponification (the process of turning oils into soap) is a chemical reaction. You might remember from high school science that you can increase the rate of reaction in two ways: Temperature and pressure. Hot process soap methods do one or both of these. Obviously, it’s easier to increase the temperature of something.

A lot of people make their hot process soap in a crock pot (which I’ve found out is what we call a slow cooker in Ireland), and I don’t know if buying a separate soapmaking pressure cooker is on anyone’s list of things they want to fill their van with.

If you want to look up hot process soap there are lots of tutorials on other websites. I have no experience with it at all so I can’t really say much about it but if you leave it too long or too hot, it can turn into a soap volcano, so it has the potential to get messy, and I’m not a fan of van mess.

Part 3: Selling your soap

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This part is going to look at the legal aspects of selling your soaps. I’m not a lawyer, but I am a soapmaker and a businesswoman (haha) so I know when it’s important to play by the rules.

EU Cosmetic Regulations for Europe

The EU has some of the most stringent cosmetic regulations in the world. Animal testing is banned both for ingredients and finished products, and has been since 2004. Microplastics (tiny plastics, such as in body scrubs, or glitters) have been banned since 2019. And there are rules on other ingredients, too, which I’ll go into further down.

When you make a product to sell in Europe, including the UK, you have to get a Cosmetics Product Safety Report (aka the CSPR), also known as a product safety assessment. This means a qualified cosmetic chemist has to test your product and write a report on it. For Ireland, you have to have additional toxicology reports done, and the whole thing costs about £250 or €270.

Once you have a CSPR, you have to go to a website called the European Cosmetic Product Notification Portal (CPNP), register as a business and notify them of every single product you intend to sell. You must include evidence for any claims you’ve made (anti-ageing, for example) and you have to upload images of your packaging so they can see it complies with EU regulations.

Unfortunately, the database is not searchable and so no one can actually check you have done all this. Legally you are also supposed to keep a “Product Safety File” which is a hardcopy of all the info for your product, including the full safety assessment report.

You might find the lack of anyone enforcing the rules frustrating if you’re a rule follower, especially if you’re nomadic or on tour in your van and trying to sell soaps at craft fairs, because a lot of unethical crafters sell their soaps without getting safety assessments.

You can buy with confidence by asking to see the product safety file. If they don’t have one, or start making excuses, you know they haven’t had a safety assessment done. Another way to prove to customers your soap is legal and safe is to join the Guild of Soapmakers, who only accept people who hold valid CSPRs for their products.

European rules about ingredients:

Here’s a brief lowdown on the rules you might easily fall foul of in Europe:

  • Fragrances must not contain an ingredient called “lyral”
  • Soaps must not contain glitters, microbeads or other plastics
  • Any product marked “baby soap” or sold for babies must be subject to additional testing, particularly around toxicology, at present baby cosmetics are allowed to have a small amount of very specific non-toxic fragrances but the EU are in the process of changing that so soon, only unscented and uncoloured products can be marketed for babies under 6 months.
  • There are different rules on whether a fragrance can go in lip products or not.
  • There is a maximum amount of fragrance you are allowed to use in all cosmetics. For soaps, this is between 2-3% of the total mass, depending on the essential oil (so for 100g of soap, 2-3g can be fragrance).
  • Formaldehyde is completely banned in the EU (it’s found in products in the US)
  • Five types of parabens (artificial preservatives) are banned: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben and pentylparaben.
  • Methoisothiazolinone (another preservative) is also now banned.

This is absolutely not an exhaustive list, there are over 1300 banned ingredients in the EU! I encourage you to do your research before trying to sell a product. The most reputable soapmaking supply companies don’t sell anything that can’t be sold to customers, and Soap Kitchen will even tell you of one of their ingredients can or can’t be used for specific purposes.

Brexit and EU Cosmetic regulations

As far as we know, the rules are not changing for UK cosmetics any time soon.

FDA Cosmetic Regulations for the USA

I’ve spent a lot of time in the US and one of the things I saw was the bigger range of cosmetic products available. In the US, the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) is in charge of regulating cosmetics.

There’s an interesting article on Soap Queen discussing what a visit from the FDA looks like and including some of the ways you might fail an FDA inspection. Most soapers never hear from the FDA, but labelling your products with nonsense claims (this shampoo bar contains aloe which cures cancer!) is a fast-track pass to an inspection.

One of the main things you have to follow is hygiene practices. If you are unsure about how to follow hygienic soapmaking, look up the rules or take a course on food hygiene.

Prohibited cosmetic ingredients in the USA:

According to the FDA’s website, the following are banned:

“Regulations restrict or prohibit the use of the following ingredients in cosmetics: bithionol, mercury compounds, vinyl chloride, halogenated salicylanilides, zirconium complexes in aerosol cosmetics, chloroform, methylene chloride, chlorofluorocarbon propellants and hexachlorophene.”

You are unlikely to use most of those in your handmade vanlife soap making and cosmetics making.

Conclusion

So that’s my brief (haha) overview of making soap in a campervan and selling soap for vanlifers. I hope you found it helpful. Let me know in the comments.

Author: MsAdventure

I am a thirtysomething lifestyle blogger in Northern Ireland. As a writer, I have written articles that are published in Offbeat Bride and on Buzzfeed, and as a photographer, I have taken photographs that are published in local and national news outlets in the UK. I have a blog at www.mamaadventure.com

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