Does Handmade Soap Last As Long As Commercial Soap?

July 19th 2010

People sometimes ask me whether our handmade soap will last as long as a supermarket style commercial soap bar. This is a good question, given that the handmade bar is often more expensive. (There are many commercial bars that ARE more expensive than handmade soap - I'll return to that point later in the post). As you might expect, the answer to 'how long will a soap last?' is a little complicated. You need to understand something about the ingredients that go into soap to get a complete answer.

Oils such as Palm, Coconut, Tallow, Shea Butter and Cocoa butter produce very hard bars of soap. Oils such as Olive, Rice Bran, Macadamia, Sweet Almond, Grapeseed, Apricot Kernel, Jojoba and Castor oil tend to make softer style soap. Commercial soap bars are predominantly made with Palm Oil, Coconut Oil and Tallow, so they are hard.

So why don't we just use these oils and make a hard bar?

The fatty acids that make up each type of oil display particular characteristics when made into soap. Palm, Coconut and Tallow make great cleansers, removing dirt and oils with ease. The problem is that they also tend to leave the skin feeling a bit too 'squeaky clean', and can make the user's skin feel dry, itchy and sometimes irritated.

Softer oils, tend to be more emollient. They soothe, condition, soften and leave the skin feeling more moisturised. Good bars of soap are formulated for particular needs. Laundry soap will contain Palm, Coconut or Tallow for superior cleansing. Bars for dry, mature or sensitive skin will include high proportions of soft oils, and possibly other soothing ingredients such as goat's milk. The truth is, a rock hard bar of soap with ingedients dominated by hard oils is not going to be the best choice for your skin. Now,I don't want to give you the impression that handmade soap is soft to the touch or will waste away quickly in the shower. Artisan soapmakers balance their formulas to achieve the right mix of hardness and gentleness. They will also cure their soaps well. The minimum cure time is 4-6 weeks but can be up to 6 months for specialty bars such as 100% olive oil.

I did say I'd come back to the issue of expensive commercial soap bars. Palm oil, Coconut oil and Tallow are amongst the cheapest oils, yet you will find commercial soap bars ranging in price from $1-00 right up to $20-00 per bar. How can this be? Commercial soap companies use some pretty fancy terms to describe their soap. You may have seen terms such as 'French Milled' or 'Triple Milled' on some of the more expensive soaps. The photo above is a sample of 'soap noodles', which form the base for 'milled' soaps. Noodles are made from hard oils such as palm oil,coconut oil and tallow. Soap manufacturers buy soap noodles in bulk and 'mill' them into a fine powder. Pigments and perfume are added to the powder before forming it into moulded bar shapes. With their dyes, perfumes, artificial additives, preservatives and harsh oils, commercial soap bars bear very little resemblance to handmade soap bars.

You now have the knowledge to examine the ingredients on both handmade and commercial soap bars and make an informed decision about what's best for your skin. In the next post I'll share some tips about getting the longest life out of handmade soap bars. 

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Ive been making handmade tallow and coconut soaps. My soaps are predominantly tallow based but are not turning out particularly hard, even after ageing for up to three months. They are also extremely moisturising, retaining all the glycerine from the saponification process. The most common comments on these soaps is how long they last, and how moisturising they are. I have also made vegetable oil soaps in the past, but they were pretty mediocre compared with the tallow soaps. The time consuming nature of rendering and washing beef fat to make into tallow, means that the overall cost of tallow is not so cheap.
Terri Newton
October 18th 2010
Hi Terri Thanks for you thoughtful comments. I agree that hand rendering tallow is time consuming and I also agree that high quality tallow can make a gentle soap. When I refer to tallow as a cheap ingredient I refer to the commercially produced tallow. I have a great recipe for handmade soap called Three Aces. I think if you can keep the coconut and palm/tallow to 30 % each with the remainder being olive oil (40%) youll have an excellent bar of soap.
October 18th 2010

Natural soaps are popular and famous for their superior lather and moisturising properties.

April 12th 2012

Actually, the answer to the question \'what\'s the difference between commercial and handmade soaps?\' is that commercial soaps have had their glycerine content removed and chemicals added, which is why people find commercial soaps very drying, no matter how many \"cups\" of moisturizer claim to be in them. Handmade soaps, however, retain all of the natural glycerine content and have not had any chemicals added - in other words, they\'re far more \'natural\' than commercial soaps. Try reading the ingredients list on a bar of commercial soap - it\'s not pretty reading!

February 17th 2015

Yes Suzanne, commercial soaps have their natural glycerine removed and there are many additives in them that aren\'t present in most handmade soap. The difference between commercial bars and handmade soap bars could easily be the topic of a whole new blog post. When it comes to how long a bar of soap lasts (whether it be handmade or commercial) there are many factors to consider - formulation, water quality, time used, how well the soap is dried or even how many people in a house are using the bar.

February 17th 2015

Hi Could you commend on adding sodium lactate in handmade soap? Would it make soap last longer, if I use 50% ratio for fats and oils? Jenny

May 4th 2015

Hello Jenny I think a 50/50 ratio of hard to soft oils is ok. I do not use sodium lactate as I believe in keeping my ingredients simple and traditional. Sodium lactate might be a useful ingredient for added hardness, however I\'ve read that it doesn\'t necessarily make the soap last longer - it just hardens in faster for easier release from moulds. If you want to use it, go ahead and make test batches and compare how long the bar lasts.

May 4th 2015