DIY Artisanal Soaps (Adams Media, 2016), by Alicia Grosso, teaches how to create natural soap personalized just for you. Sharing helpful tips and instructions, Grosso shows how easy and enjoyable soap making can be. This excerpt from chapter six suggests how to include various types of herbs to include in your soap and the benefits of each ingredient.
You can purchase this book from the Capper’s Farmer store: DIY Artisanal Soaps.
One of the most creative and fun aspects of soap making is deciding what to put in your soap. After all, this is where you craft your bars to meet your own tastes — or those of the people to whom you’re planning to gift the soaps. The online soap making community can give you a lot of tips, but in this chapter we’ll cover some of the most common ingredients in artisanal soaps.
One of the most common ingredients of artisanal soaps is herbs. That’s because herbs are natural — you can grow them in your back garden or on a pot on your kitchen windowsill — and versatile. You can use fresh or dried herbs in soap making, keeping in mind that the flavor and aroma of dried herbs is more concentrated and intense than in the fresh version. In general, as explained in the following sections, dried herbs are preferable.
Using Herbs in Soap Making
In soap, herbs add color and texture. Many soap makers also believe that the medicinal value of herbs can come through in soaps made with them. As with other natural substances, not all herbs are beneficial to humans. There are poisonous herbs that you should avoid. Some herbs, while not toxic, are dermal irritants and should not be used on the skin. Take special care when using herbs with children, the elderly, and people with special healthcare needs. Make sure to do your research, and be responsible and informed when deciding what to use in your soaps.
Adding Herbs to Soap
The most obvious way to add herbs to soap is to sprinkle them in the soap before you pour it into the mold. An addition of a small amount of a dried herb creates a delicate visual texture. Adding a larger amount of a roughly chopped fresh herb can lend a “scrubby” texture to the soap. In general, it is best to use dried herbs, as the water in fresh herbs can, among other problems, cause mold to grow.
Adding Herbs to Water
Replacing the water in your soap recipe with an herbal infusion is another simple way to add herbs to soap. Make the infusion and strain out the solid matter, if you wish, before making the lye solution. The infusion may take on a strange color and odor when the lye is added, but that will usually fade away completely in the finished soap.
Another way to use herbs in soap is to make a lye infusion. To do this, add ground herbs to the water as you add the lye. The extremely rapid reaction of lye and water can release more of the properties of the herb than the relatively gentle method of making an herbal infusion. It is most likely that a great deal of the benefit of the herb will be destroyed in the reaction, but some herbs release more lasting color when added in this manner.
Herbs in Oil
Infusing liquid oils with herbs is yet another way of extracting their properties for use in soap. Making infused oils for soap making is easy. First warm the oil (the most common liquid soap making oil is olive oil) and place the plant matter in the heated oil. Then let the herbs steep in the heated oil for a number of hours or even days, depending on the herb and the strength of the infusion you desire. You can increase the potency by straining out the herbs, rewarming the oil, and adding more herbs. Some oils can be tinted deeply in this manner so that the natural colorant survives the soap making process.
Herbs in Soap Processes
In soap casting, you can add herbs in such a way that they sink to the bottom, float on the top, or are suspended throughout the bar. Through control of temperature, you can achieve whichever effect you desire. You can also add small amounts of herbal infused water or oils to the soap base.
The soap making method that may retain most of the herbal properties is hand milling. You can take shreds of premade cold-process or casting soap, toss them with herbs, sprinkle the mixture with herbal infusion, and create balls or other shapes by hand.
In hot process, you can add the herbs right before you pack the soap into the molds, when the soap is coolest and has the least impact on the herbs. You can stir them in or you can knead the herbs in by hand, wearing thick rubber gloves to protect your hands from the hot soap.
Growing Your Own Herbs
Many herbs are very easy to grow, and drying and using them will contribute to the artisanal nature of your soaps. Soap making favorites such as lavender, calendula, and peppermint can easily be grown in small containers in a window. If you have a garden, the addition of even a small number of herbs for soap greatly enriches your soap making. Some soapers have herb gardens dedicated just to soap herbs.
If you are an avid gardener, there is virtually no limit to the kinds of herbs you can grow. If you are limited by time, inexperience, or other factors, select just a few. The herbs that follow are very useful in soap making and generally very easy to grow.
Know Your Ingredients
Be sure that all herbs you use are nontoxic. If you are in doubt, put aside the questionable herb and use something you’re sure about. Also, if you are pregnant, nursing, have diabetes or other health issues, be sure to consult your healthcare provider about the use of herbs. Herbs are active substances that may react with medical conditions or medications.
Calendula grows best in full sun in well-drained soil. It is vigorous and a beautiful addition to your garden. It is, however, susceptible to a plant disease called powdery mildew, so keep an eye on it. You can make a good anti–powdery mildew spray out of grated soap dissolved in water with borax powder added to it.
Comfrey is a vigorous grower that will take over your garden if given a chance. Keep it confined to a pot or give it a corner of its own where it can run wild. Harvest and dry the leaves as you trim the vigorously growing plant.
Lavender brings fragrance and beauty to all gardens and can readily transmit that to your artisanal soap. There are so many kinds of lavenders, you can find one that goes with any gardening style. Munstead lavender is a small plant, and it is extremely fragrant. The little flowers grow outside on the heads and are easily used for sachets, after drying. Lavender needs rich, well-drained soil. Don’t let its roots stay wet! An addition of sand and calcium-rich nutrients to the soil makes lavender plants very happy.
Peppermint and spearmint are easy to grow, and like comfrey, will take over your garden. They send out runners, so keep them corralled in pots or give them room. Trim plants back frequently to encourage bushy growth, and dry the leaves.
Rosemary thrives in cooler climates. Prostrate rosemary has soft stems and grows in a beautiful trailing form. The leaves are needle-like and can be very “poky” in soap, so be sure to finely chop the dried leaves.
Drying and Storing Herbs
Whether you harvest herbs from your garden or use fresh herbs from the store, you need to dry them prior to use. The water in fresh herbs can spoil your soap. You can dry herbs in the microwave, by hanging them in bundles in an airy room, or by spreading them out in a single layer on a flat surface. Hanging them or drying them on a flat surface is the most natural way to do this and will also fill your house with their lovely smell.
If you have a shady window, you can dry herbs there. Bundle the herbs in small bunches and tie them with raffia, string, yarn, or embroidery thread in colorful combinations for a pretty touch. Don’t bundle them too tightly because that prevents air circulation and can promote mold growth. Suspend the herb bundles from the curtain rod or from pins hammered into the wall or woodwork.
Laying Them Flat
You can speed up the drying process and keep most of the herbal properties intact by drying herbs on a cookie sheet on top of the stove. If you have a gas oven, the heat from the pilot light is enough to dry the herbs in a few days. If your range is electric, heat the oven to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, turn it off, and put the cookie sheet of herbs on the top of the stove. Heat up the stove once a day.
It is best to dry herbs in a shady window because exposure to direct sunlight is thought to destroy the properties you’re trying to preserve through air-drying. The reason you hang the herbs in a window is because of the air circulation. You want a balance of indirect light and air.
Check the herbs every day for a week or so. If they weren’t bundled too tightly or too damp to start with and they get air circulation, they should be dry in 1 to 2 weeks. When the herbs are dry, store them in tightly sealed containers out of direct sunlight.
Common Soap Making Herbs
Although it can be a challenge to make sure the qualities of your herbs survive the soap making process, I strongly recommend you try to use them. Working with herbs is a real way to get “back to nature.” As well, herbs are useful because of their color and texture possibilities, emphasizing the rustic nature of your homemade soap.
• Aloe (Aloe vera) Good for healing burns; available as fresh gel from aloe leaves, packaged gel, and in liquid form. Add fresh gel to casting soap and hand milling projects just before pouring, or use aloe juice in place of water in lye soap recipes for skin care benefit.
• Borage (Borago officinalis) Anti-inflammatory and emollient; available as fresh or dried leaves and flowers. Take care with fresh leaves as they are very spiny. Infuse leaves and flowers in water or oil for skin care benefit.
• Calendula (Calendula officinalis) The herb is very susceptible to insect infestation, so store it in a tightly sealed plastic storage container. To make a healing oil, macerate fresh flowers in vegetable oil. Replenish the petals daily to concentrate the oil. Use in small amounts in hand milling and at the end of the hot process to add skin care benefit. The dried petals keep their shape in soap making.
• Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, Matricaria recutita) Has soothing, calming, and healing properties; available as fresh or dried flowers. Infuse in oil or water for herbal benefit. Use ground flowers to add texture and scrub benefit to finished soap. If used in quantity, the flowers hold some of their scent in some soap making applications.
• Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) This common weed has healing and astringent properties. Don’t use if the plants have been poisoned with weed killer. Make an infusion of leaves in water or oil for herbal benefit.
• Dill (Anethum graveolens) Has a tangy, fresh scent; available dried or as a fresh herb in the produce section. Dried dill holds its color quite well in soap making, even in cold process.
• Lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) Has soothing, calming, healing, and cleansing properties; available as dried flowering tops and leaves. Infuse water and oils for herbal benefit, but neither the color nor the fragrance makes it through the lye process well, if at all.
• Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) Scent is deeply lemony, with varying degrees of mintiness; available as fresh or dried leaves. Oil and water infusions keep some scent through the lye soap process, but not much. Dried crumbled leaves add texture to finished soap.
• Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) A lemony astringent; available as fresh or dried leaves. Use dried leaves in flakes or ground for texture in finished soap. Pick out stiff leaf parts and remember that the leaves are fibrous and hard to clean. Make infusions with water and oils. Lemon scent does not come through well in lye soap. It works better as a liquid in hand milling, but most of the lemon scent does not transfer.
• Mint (Mentha piperita, Mentha spicata, etc.) Tingly, fragrant, and invigorating; available as fresh or dried leaves, whole, cut for tea, or powdered. Add ground or flaked leaves to finished soap for texture.
• Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Used as an astringent; it is best used fresh from the garden. Use the stems, flowers, leaves, and seeds. Make strong water and oil infusions. Use a water infusion as the liquid in hand milling for the best skin care benefit.
• Rose (Rosa damascena) Soothing and pleasing; available as dried and fresh petals. Use dried and ground in flakes or powder for texture. Use whole to infuse oils or water. Red rose petals make pink infusion, but the color doesn’t last in the soap. Whole petals turn brown and ugly in soap.
• Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) Refreshing and invigorating to the skin; available fresh or dried, powdered or chopped. Add powder or finely chopped dried leaves to soap for texture. Infuse in oils or water. If you are pregnant or nursing, consult your healthcare practitioner before using rosemary.
• Saffron (Crocus sativus) Saffron is the dried stamens of a certain kind of crocus. The herb is potently colored, fragrant, and extremely expensive. For very special soaps, use sparingly for color and texture. Releases its color into warm water.
• Scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) Available in a wide variety of fragrances, from rose and lime to chocolate mint! Fresh leaves are best, and the plant is easy to grow. Dried leaves add texture to finished soap. Dry well and grind thoroughly as the leaves are fibrous. Infuse oils and water with fresh scented geranium leaves. The scent will hold best if used as liquid in hand milling. Its astringent skin care benefit may survive other lye soap making techniques, but the scent won’t.
• Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) Dried leaves exude the fragrance of fresh-mown hay with vanilla notes. It is available as dried leaves, whole, and powdered. To use in soap, infuse dried leaves in water or oil. Work dried leaves into hand-milled soap. The herb retains a subtle fragrance.
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) Helps to reduce pain and swelling of burns and abrasions; available as fresh or dried flowers, leaves, and stems. The dried and fresh flowers release a bright yellow dye into boiling water that fades almost completely — the leaves and stems to a lesser extent. It releases a bit of yellow when used as a lye infusion or steeped in oil.
Reprinted with permission from DIY Artisanal Soaps: Make Your Own Custom, Handcrafted Soaps! by Alicia Grosso and published by Adams Media, 2016. Buy this book from our store: DIY Artisanal Soaps.