Soapmaking: What is a water discount?

A water discount is a reduction in the amount of water needed to dissolve sodium hydroxide lye. When you use a water discount, the soap will harden faster because there is less water in its batter (the mixture that eventually becomes soap). You only use a water discount for cold process or hot process soaps that use lye. You don’t need a water discount for melt and pour soap because the oils are already saponified and the lye has been used up before you ever get the melt and pour container!

Advantages of a water discount:

  • Your soap will cure faster
  • Your soap will be harder (ideal for Castile soap)
  • The soap can be taken out of the mold more easily
  • The mold will be easier to clean (less residue = less cleaning of the little corners of your molds is required – a constant problem I’ve had with homemade cosmetics, especially my all-natural conditioner bar).
  • A water discount helps balance the recipe if you’re adding other ingredients that contain water such as if you are using milk (including breastmilk) or if you’ve mixed mica powder with water rather than alcohol before adding it to your soap.
  • If you want to force a strong gel phase for a specific soap design, a water discount is a great addition to the other things you can do such as using heat pads around your soap while it’s curing.

Disadvantages of a water discount:

  • Your soap batter will thicken (solidify) faster, making it harder to work with. If you’re doing a color effect such as a swirl, you will want your batter to reach trace (ideal thickness) then to solidify slowly, to give you time to make your desired effect.
  • It can also effect your colors by messing with the heat of the soap. The reaction between lye and oils (saponification) is an exothermic reaction — it gives out heat. And if it heats up too much, it will affect what the soap looks like. If you want to avoid gel phase (e.g. when making cold process breastmilk soap, you do NOT want it to get too hot or the milk will spoil before the soap is done), don’t water discount more than you need to for the extra liquid in the milk.

To calculate a water discount, you use a percentage:

The usual amount of water to lye is 70% water to 30% lye. That means you use 70ml of water for every 30g of lye.

Discounting the water by 10%, you would have 63ml of water to 30g of lye.

Discounting the water by 20%, you would have 56ml of water to 30g of lye (this is a heavy water discount).

You also need to factor in whether your recipe requires a superfat (leftover oil for more nourishing soap bars). In this case, you usually wouldn’t discount your water.

Stuck? The very best resource on calculating the amount of oils, water and lye for your recipe is the Brambleberry Lye Calculator (it also calculates fragrance, but beware in the EU some of the fragrance results are higher than permitted under EU law if you’re selling your soaps). This tool is phenomenal!

Easy AHA exfoliating melt and pour soap recipe (variations for all skin types)!

This recipe is super-easy and so good for skin, especially in wintertime when dryness can be an issue. It seems like the combination of leggings, hot air indoors and going out on cold wintry days can cause skin to become flaky.

Add to that, on a cold day, no one wants to spend time moisturizing when they get out of the shower. I know at this time of year I’m so busy and cold, my skincare routine always goes right out of the window!

If you need to know how to get started with soapmaking, go here. Otherwise, read on and find out how to make an AHA exfoliating melt and pour soap. This recipe makes 1 bar of soap that should fit into a rectangular silicone soap mould, so scale it up to suit your needs.


10 ml Cherry kernel oil

90g Melt and pour soap base

1 ml Cherry blossom fragrance

A pinch of sliced up loofah

Method (makes 1 soap weighing 100g):

  1. Cut about 90g (3 oz) of soap base from the block of melt and pour base. Chop the base finely and place into a glass jug.
  2. Heat the soap base in the microwave or place the jug in a pan of boiling water until all the base has melted.
  3. Add 10ml cherry kernel oil and about 0.5ml of fragrance.
  4. Mix in the sliced up loofah for extra exfoliating power. Once it’s all stirred up, pour into a soap mould and wait for it to harden.

How it works:

The cherry kernel oil is a natural AHA exfoliator, that helps get rid of dead skin cells on the surface of your face and body, increasing cell turnover and ditching dry skin.

Most AHA ingredients found in shop-bought products are chemically derived, whereas the cherry kernel oil retains its moisturizing properties, making it perfect for exfoliating dry winter skin!

The loofah helps speed up the exfoliating process by physically removing any dead skin (the stuff that can sometimes flake when you’re drying off after a shower).

An advantage of melt and pour soap is there’s no lye to handle, so this recipe is safe to make around pets or children. Having said that, be sure not to let them eat the finished product or any of the ingredients!

You can probably turn this into a cold process soap recipe, if you’re the sort of person who likes to customize every last ingredient in a soap recipe, but if, like me, you’re more excited about the finished product than the process taken to get there, melt and pour is a great choice!

Any melt and pour soap base will work fine with this recipe. I prefer the goat’s milk one but obviously, if you’re vegan, you would want to avoid that. The standard SLS/SLES free Stephenson’s melt and pour soap base is always a good choice, but there are so many choices for melt and pour soap bases, you’re bound to find one which becomes your favorite!


Combination skin (oily and dry)? If you want this recipe to work better on oily skin, switch the fragrance oil for tea tree oil instead. The tea tree oil will help with hard-to-clean blocked pores and encourage spots to clear.

Super-dry, sensitive skin? Add 10ml avocado oil to this recipe, use no fragrance at all, halve the amount of loofah and be sure to use your usual cream(s) after the shower. Avocado oil is super-hydrating without being greasy or weighing your skin down (there’s nothing worse than feeling shiny after a shower, is there?) and many people with extremely dry skin find fragrance oils can dry them out even more, so making it unscented will help, too. By reducing the amount of loofah, you still get rid of dead skin cells but without causing irritation.

Oily skin? Add 1/4 tsp of French Red Clay (ultraventilated) and switch the fragrance oil for tea tree oil. The French red clay will help control oil production from your pores, and draw impurities out of them, while the tea tree oil will help with problem spot areas.

Did you try this recipe? Let me know in the comments!

How to get a swirl effect in melt and pour soap

A lot of soapmakers tell you that you can’t get nice colour effects in melt and pour soap. They are wrong. Today I am going to share some of the colour effects I’ve achieved using swirls and layering techniques in melt and pour soap, and explain how you can do them too. Once you’ve tried it out, you’ll have beautiful soaps crafted artistically, just like in cold process soaps!

What is a swirl?

A swirl is where you have more than one colour in a soap, and usually you would spin it e.g. on a Lazy Susan. What is a Lazy Susan, I hear you ask. A Lazy Susan is one of those plate things that people used to use for Thanksgiving in the 1970s because you can spin it around instead of passing the carrots across the table… which is pretty lazy, hence the name.

A Lazy Susan a bit ugly on the dining table and in this day and age of Instagram and Martha Stewart, people tend to have a nice centrepiece in the middle of the table and just pass the carrots to each other. So people dumped their Lazy Susans in the garage and now you can use it to make soap instead! At least, you can if you are making cold process soap.

It doesn’t work so well in melt and pour. I suspect part of the reason why some cold process soapers look down on melt and pour is because they try to do things the exact same way you would do them in cold process, then they decide it’s the soap that’s the problem when it goes wrong.

There is absolutely a way to get a swirl effect in melt and pour, it’s just you don’t swirl it the same way as you would swirl a cold process soap!

How do you swirl in melt and pour?

To get a swirl effect, I use mica powder colours. I love these because they are available in vivid shades. They have a nice shimmer when you use them in high concentrations. Best of all, they show up really well in melt and pour soap. Colourants have to work extra hard in white melt and pour because, as you’ll know if you have ever done cold process, soap isn’t naturally white. The white colour comes from the addition of titanium dioxide, which can nix your other colour choices, especially if you want natural colours. Clays etc struggle in white melt and pour soap. Mica is a natural mineral so it’s a great all-rounder.

Melt your soap and split it into two separate jugs.

In a separate jug, mix your mica with a little rubbing alcohol (if you have no alcohol, you can put the mica directly into one of the jugs of melted soap as this will dissolve in melt and pour, but for colour effects, you get more control over the outcome if you mix the colour up separately because then you can add a little at a time to one of your jugs of soap). You will want about 2 teaspoons of alcohol to half a teaspoon of mica. You can use more alcohol than this, but it will start to overpower the scent of the soap very quickly.

Add a little of the dissolved colour to one of your jugs of soap and stir it in. Add more gradually until you get the colour you want. For a melt and pour swirl, I find it works best if the two colours of soap you use for the swirl are high-contrast, so, quite far apart e.g. black and white, bright pink and white, etc.

Pastels and white don’t tend to show up very well in a melt and pour swirl, but you could do one jug with some pastel and the other jug with a very intense colour, or a contrasting colour. I did quite a nice pink/dark pink strawberry melt and pour soap with pastel pink and vivid Barbie pink.

Once your colours are mixed up, let the soap cool to about 38 degrees celsius (about 100 fahrenheit). You can test this with an infrared thermometer if you have one, or you can tell if the soap has cooled enough because it starts to thicken very slightly. An infrared thermometer doesn’t need to touch the soap, making it ideal for soaping which can be hard to clean out of a regular thermometer. You may have to stir every few seconds to stop a skin forming on the top of the soap (don’t wait until the skin has formed, if that gets into your swirl it won’t look great). You will probably also need to pour your soap quickly, unless you live somewhere hot with the air conditioning turned off, like Malaysia, or a campervan in the Scottish summertime.

Once the soap is at the right temperature, pick up both jugs at the same time. Pour them into the mould from opposite corners. Where they meet, you should get a nice effect, you can emphasize this by moving both jugs in a clockwise direction (or anti-clockwise. As long as they both go the same way). You may have to practice this a bit to not just mix the two colours when you pour into the mould.

You might be wondering if you can make swirls with clay in melt and pour. You can, but the colours from clays don’t come out very strong so the contrast won’t be there. Indigo powder or charcoal powder could work very well, however, if you contrasted the dark colour with a lighter one like yellow French clay. The benefit of adding charcoal or clay to the soap is that your scent will work better, too, so it’s worth experimenting with using these natural colourants in your soaps!

What is a layer?

In cold process soap, this is where you pour one layer of soap (that’s been blended to medium trace) in one color, then pour another in another colour, often using zig-zag-type movements to get the colour to move around. To get a swirl in cold process, you pour your soap in lots of layers before putting your soap mould on a lazy Susan and spinning it. However, this requires you to work with thicker soap than you can easily get in melt and pour (because melt and pour is chemically different to the trace stage of cold process, it behaves differently and the viscosity is nowhere near the same). In cold process, the layers stay together because after you’ve poured them, the soap gets hot (saponification is an exothermic reaction which means it gives out heat) while it sets. In melt and pour soap, once you’ve poured it, all that happens is it cools down. So because the chemical reaction has already taken place before you ever get your block of melt and pour soap, the soap itself isn’t able to “cook” itself into a solid bar of soap. So in melt and pour, if you try and layer the same way you would in cold process, it won’t work. Your soap will just fall apart.

How do you layer in melt and pour?

This is a surprisingly controversial topic because people who don’t make melt and pour tend to believe you can’t layer it. But you can! And it’s surprisingly simple.

There are actually two ways to layer melt and pour soap. The traditional method and the one I’ve discovered. One is a lot better than the other. 😉 #sassysoapmaking

The first, less good method is to pour a layer, let it set, spray alcohol on it right before pouring the next layer. This makes your soap smell of alcohol because melt and pour doesn’t evaporate any alcohol in the mixture because it doesn’t go through gel phase. Yucky drunk soap.

The Double Melt Method

This second method, which I call the Double Melt method (patent pending… jk haha), produces a nicer result but you need to watch the soap closely to get it right. You will need a microwave for this.

Layer your soap by pouring, letting it form a decent skin (it should flex like a trampoline when you gently press down on it) and pouring the next layer, over and over until you have a full mould of soap.

Next, turn your microwave down to its defrost setting. Put the soap mould inside and turn it on for about 20 seconds for individual bars of soap or about 40-60 seconds for a big loaf mould (assuming your microwave is a standard 750 watt one). This should provide just enough heat to get the layers to melt together. You might get a little colour bleed between layers with this method.

Let the soap cool down and harden for about 1 hour before unmoulding it, that way if you’ve heated it too much, it will set fully.

I’ve gone into more detail on layering with the Double Melt Method in this separate article, including what to do if it all goes wrong (and my soapy disaster when I messed this up).

My lavender essential oil doesn’t smell strong in soap

This article aims to help you get the perfect lavender fragrance in your soap – every time! Be sure to also check out my 10 ways to make your essential oil show up in your soap for more tips!

Lavender is such a strong fragrance in the plant, you would expect it to be the ideal candidate for a good, intense soap scent, especially in melt and pour, where essential oils are usually stronger than in cold process. Instead, I’ve found homemade soap often seems to absorb lavender essential oil, so the homemade soap doesn’t smell strong enough.


There are several types of lavender; the most common are French lavender and Bulgarian lavender, both of which use the Latin name Lavandula Angustifolia. French lavender essential oil is more expensive but Bulgaria now produces most of the world’s lavender oil, so you are more likely to find this in shops.

There are over 400 different species of lavender worldwide, which can have different potency and fragrance, but the commonest is still Lavandula Angustifolia.

If your lavender soap doesn’t smell strong enough, there are several ways around this, depending on what you’re more comfortable doing.

1. Add more lavender. Be bold! This is the most obvious solution, and probably the one you would try first. However, it doesn’t always work, and you need to be careful not to put more scent in your soap than the EU guidelines tell you to.

2. A better way to get your lavender to smell stronger is to let your melt and pour soap cool before adding the fragrance. Stir it to stop a skin forming on the top and wait until it’s reached about 37 or 38 degrees celsius, then add your lavender oil and pour straight into your soap mould. This takes practice because the soap will solidify very quickly, but adding the lavender at the lowest possible temperature will give you the best scent results.

3. The third way (if you want to cheat) is to use artificial lavender fragrance oil as well as your lavender essential oil. This will give your soap the fragrance you would expect from lavender soap while the essential oil sits in the background with its skin-loving properties. Obviously whether you would do this or not depends on how comfortable you are with artificial fragrance oils. I’m not the biggest fan of them, but if you find the right one they can be good.

10 ways to get essential oils to be more intense in your soap (melt and pour and cold process)

So you’re probably looking for how to get your essential oils to be more intense in your soap. You might be making cold process soap or melt and pour soap. Maybe you’ve made some homemade soap with pure essential oils and it didn’t come out with a strong scent, or perhaps you’re planning your first homemade soap making project and are hoping to execute a perfect first-time soapmaking recipe.

Here, I’m going to go through ten ways to get essential oils to be more intense in your soap. These methods for increasing the scent of your soaps are all based on principles of chemistry. Essential oils are volatile compounds which means they evaporate easily. That’s actually why we love them! They wouldn’t smell so good if they weren’t made exactly the way they are by nature.

Getting a stronger essential oil fragrance in soapmaking is one area where melt and pour soap really outshines cold process, and is one of the reasons I prefer melt and pour soap. Secretly, I think a lot of soapmakers prefer melt and pour, but it’s more profitable for them to write about cold process because it takes more skill to make it (so there’s more to write about).

Essential oils do really well in melt and pour soap. Cold process soap tends to eat the fragrance. But these are not hard and fast rules. It took me several attempts to get lavender essential oil to show up in my melt and pour soap.

If you look at my infographic on essential oils in soap, you’ll see the results I got when I tried a range of essential oils in melt and pour soap. Lavender oil was particularly problematic in melt and pour, and I’ve written a separate article on this.

1. Have you used the correct amount of your pure essential oil in your soap?

This is the easiest fix! All handmade essential oil soaps require different quantities of essential oils to get the perfect fragrance. Bramble Berry’s Soap Queen blog has a fragrance calculator that can help you out. You can find it here.

2. Add a clay as this can hold the fragrance in the soap.

Typically, this works to intensify the scent of essential oils in cold process soap, but I found it made a noticeable difference to increasing the scent of melt and pour soap too. French clay, kaolin and bentonite are all great choices, but some of them will colour your soap so be sure if you plan to sell your soap that the colour matches what you would expect for the scent (e.g. yellow-coloured lavender scented soap would probably be a bit confusing, but yellow-coloured lemon soap or grey lavender soap would make more sense). I prefer French clay and it produces interesting muted colour effects in transparent melt and pour soap base (you end up with a beautiful translucent glow).

3. Is your soap getting too hot?

For melt and pour, it’s easy to overheat the soap while you’re trying to get it to melt, particularly if you use a microwave (which is another good reason to make melt and pour soap without a microwave). For better results, don’t add the fragrance until the soap has cooled to about 37 or 38 degrees celsius. For cold process, pack your soap with ice packs to keep it cool. If you absolutely need your soap to go through gel phase (where it gets very hot), you might have to just accept that your soap won’t smell very strongly if you use essential oils.

4. Consider using a blend of essential oils instead of one individual oil in a soap recipe.

If you have a base note, a middle note and a top note, the fragrance is more likely to permeate the soap in a more nose-catching manner. An example would be lavender as the base note, chamomile as the middle note and lemon as the top note. There are other ways to blend essential oils (you can blend them by effect, e.g. for sleep you might use lavender, chamomile and valerian, or you can blend them by group, e.g. you might want an overall citrus scent incorporating lemon, ten-fold orange and citronella. Different scents have different volatility (evaporation point, which is when fragrance is unleashed from your soap), so a blend of oils will mean your soap has a nice scent regardless of the air temperature, pressure or humidity.

5. Consider using melt and pour instead of cold process, and avoid hot process entirely if you want your essential oils to smell more strongly in your homemade soap.

There is more going on during soapmaking than the soap getting hot. The process of oils turning into surfactants (cleansers) is called saponification, and this is a chemical reaction. The heat is just a byproduct.

6. Wrap your soaps in something as soon as they are able to be unmoulded.

The wrapping needs to be something that doesn’t let oxygen in. I’ve gone through twenty alternatives to plastic for wrapping soaps in this article.

7. Burn incense when you make soap.

Sounds crazy, right? But from a chemistry point of view it makes sense. Scent escapes because it goes from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration. If the air in your soapmaking place is already saturated with a smoky scent, such as an incense stick (not the scent of an oil diffuser) you can prevent scent loss in the same way smoked salmon’s flavour is sealed into the fish (only, you don’t want your soap to smell of smoke which is why you don’t want to go too far with this method). This is a balancing act because you must always follow ventilation safety when working with chemicals.

8. Let your soap harden (and cure) near a dehumidifier or a big bowl of rock salt.

An electric dehumidifier or a big bowl of rock salt will pull the moisture out of the air, which means the scent will have nothing to evaporate into, so it will remain in the soap for longer.

9. Add a sea salt such as Himalayan pink sea salt to your soap.

Himalayan pink sea salt looks beautiful in cosmetics, and especially when it’s embedded in bars of homemade soap. The pink crystals sparkle in bright lights giving your soap an ethereal quality.

Himalayan sea salt will work as a nice exfoliant as well as helping stop the scent escaping. Just don’t put big chunky pieces of salt into a facial soap or you will get redness.

10. Mix in some charcoal, or do a charcoal swirl.

The benefits of charcoal in soap include being fantastic for acne and great at purifying in warmer climates, as well as being a good additive to prevent your fragrance disappearing before you ever get to use your soap! However, charcoal is a black powder and it will change the colour of your soap. Doing a swirl with charcoal is another option, so part of the soap is more fragrant, which will improve the overall effect while still letting you use nice colours in the rest of the soap.

That’s my 10 ways to fix your soap if your essential oil fragrance is too faint or if your essential oil fragrance doesn’t last. Do you have any other ways? Share them in the comments!

History of using essential oils in soapmaking

Essential oils have been used for thousands of years. We have evidence dating back to Ancient China, India and Egypt of the use of fragranced oils (they’re mentioned in the Book of the Dead).

Frankincense was mentioned in the New Testament of the Bible and lipid residue analysis from archaeological sites shows plant oils were being used throughout history in a range of places such as Ancient Rome and Greece. The Romans used olive oil to get clean by covering their bodies with it then scraping it off with a special scraper. This was commonly done at bath houses.

There is a story that soap was first discovered by Roman women washing their clothes in the River Tiber below where the animals were sacrificed and the animal fat had somehow reacted with the clay in the river.

On the surface, this makes no sense because clay is not a source of sodium hydroxide (lye) and common wisdom says you cannot saponify without it. However, in reality, you could technically saponify with any aqueous alkaline (e.g. one with some water in it), and some types of soil are alkaline (these are almost always clay soils). I would want to do some experiments before being able to say one way or the other about whether this could really work or whether it’s just a nice fairytale about where soap came from.

The practice of putting oils into soap came later. In fact, while solid bars of soap seem old-fashioned to some people, they were only invented in Victorian times. Before this, people had a special jar of liquid gloop that was used for cleaning themselves, and they didn’t use it very often. So if you’re ever reading a Regency romance, when the author has a bath scene and the characters are using a bar of soap, you’ll know they haven’t done their research!

The Victorians were the originators of many of the unpleasant and outright dangerous chemicals that permeate our modern lives, and Victorian soap was no exception. The most popular type of soap was Carbolic Soap, aka Coal Tar Soap, which is about as unpleasant as it sounds.

It was made using the disinfectant carbolic acid, which is a carcinogenic and poisonous substance made from tar. It also has a distinctive ‘disinfectant’ scent that anyone who went to school in the 20th century would instantly recognize. Soap doesn’t need to contain any disinfectant to kill bacteria, however (we didn’t understand this back then — germ theory hadn’t been confirmed until Louis Pasteur’s work in 1863 and we didn’t have microscopes yet so couldn’t see them, either), something I will write more on in a separate article.

Soapmaking in Victorian Britain was an industry of mass-production using the cheap and disgusting byproducts of other industries (the standard ingredients were beef tallow, which is the fat that’s been removed from dead cows, carbolic acid, a byproduct of the tar industry, itself a byproduct of the coal mining industry, and sodium hydroxide, still used in soap today).

We tend to see the sodium hydroxide lye as the most dangerous and unpleasant aspect of soapmaking nowadays, but it’s the least awful of the three traditional soapmaking ingredients (fancy killing a cow and stringing it up to drain the fat, anyone? No?).

As a sidenote, tallow was also used for candle making. There’s a pub in York called the Guy Fawkes which I went in a few years ago and I couldn’t breathe while I was in there because it was lit by hundreds of candles. It was really beautiful and atmospheric but the smell of evaporated beef tallow was really sickening because I was vegan at the time.

It’s not clear when the first essential oils were used in soap, although it was only in the twentieth century that essential oil soaps became mass-produced as the New Age revolution of the sixties rejected the artificial byproducts of capitalism that were making people sick and destroying the landscape, and they started to question the way things were. Thanks, hippies!  I love that there’s another connection between vanlife and soapmaking in the history of the use of essential oils in soap.