Soap Behaving Badly
I started my soaping adventures when I was young (ah, sweet 16), and have learned that not everything turns out perfectly the first time. Sometimes despite your best efforts during a soaping session, you’ll get batches that just don’t quite turn out right. It’s just an inherent (and disappointing!) part of soaping. I’m a firm believer in ‘practice makes perfect,’ and being persistent in mastering your technique will help you achieve what you want in your soap, consistently. While there are hundreds of soaping variables that can cause problems, one huge factor that can determine the success of your soaping session is the fragrance or essential oil you use.
All Bramble Berry Fragrance and Essential oils go through a thorough testing process to ensure they perform well in cold process soap.
Bramble Berry carries hundreds of fragrance and essential oils, all of which are rigorously tested multiple times in cold process soap by our product development team. We regularly receive hundreds of fragrances from top perfumers throughout the year and some of them don’t behave as well as we’d like. The following collages are great examples of the various ways fragrance oils can misbehave — and how you can still salvage the soap! Every soaping experience is a learning experience =)
Note about testing: We tested all of these (non-Bramble Berry) fragrances in 1 pound batches using our Lots of Lather Quick Mix. Each batch contained .7 oz. of fragrance oil.
Exhibit A: Acceleration
Acceleration occurs when a fragrance oil brings the batter to trace extremely quickly — sometimes too quickly to work with! In the case above, the fragrance oil thickened the batter to the consistency of pudding almost immediately after being mixed in with a spoon (notice the top left photo). Just to see how thick we could get it, we took a stick blender to it to see if it would seize, which is a more advanced form of acceleration. Seized soap is the more like the texture of Play-Doh or clay, and at that point it’s almost impossible to pour into a mold or work with at all. In this case, the fragrance got fairly thick, but we still managed to glop it into the mold. If you have a seizing or accelerating fragrance, just get that batch into the mold as quickly as you can. Be prepared for it to heat up quickly. Often there is a correlation between the acceleration/seizing and excessive, quick heat in your soap batch. On to the next one!
Note: Although we stick blended the batter for the purpose of experimentation, we generally do not recommend stick blending fragrances into your soap batter. It can cause even the most well-behaved fragrance oils to accelerate or seize up.
A closer look at accelerated soap. Notice that thickness!
The work around: Although the fragrance did accelerate trace, the batter itself was not unworkable. While it wouldn’t be suited to a design with intricate swirls, a thick batter like this would be well suited to simple soap design, such as a straightforward layered soap or a solid-colored soap.
Exhibit B: Ricing, intense discoloration
This batch was an excellent example of ricing. Ricing occurs when an ingredient in the fragrance oil binds with some of the harder oil components in the recipe to form little hard rice-shaped lumps.
Up close & personal with ricing. This batch looks like tapioca pudding!
The work around: Often, ricing can be stick blended out. However, in utilizing the stick blender to smooth your soap out, you may end up with a much thicker trace than expected. Notice the photo in the bottom right-hand corner of the collage — the soap was as thick as pudding after we stick blended the rice granules out. We managed to spoon it into the mold and it retained a relatively smooth texture.
This soap is also a great example of the discoloration that can occur as a result of vanilla content in fragrance oil. It may look like a nice creamy white in the mold, but after hardening for a few days this soap turned chocolate-y brown. Scroll down for final photos.
Exhibit C: Separation, ricing and seizing
Out of all the fragrances we tested, this one was definitely the most misbehaved. It’s hard to tell from these small photos, but the batter showed separation almost immediately. Separation occurs when the fragrance oil can’t be mixed into the soap batter, and oil slicks can start to pool on top of the batter. It looks much like cream of wheat with butter on top! Separation can look a lot like ricing, and the two sometimes occur together. The main difference between them is you can see pools of oil on the soap with separation — it almost looks like it’s falling apart.
This is from a different batch of soap, but it shows a more intense example of separation. Notice the pockets of oil where the fragrance oil is pooling around the batter.
After we stick blended this batch, the batter started to seize. This is true seizing because the texture was beyond that of pudding like the other two; at this point it almost looked like gritty Play-Doh. Yuck!
Seizing at its finest!
The work around: This batch had so many issue that it would be hard to salvage. If it’s not lye heavy, making it into rebatch is always an option (for more on rebatch, check out this tutorial or this Soap Queen TV episode). If you determine it’s lye heavy by doing a zap test or using a pH strip, consider making it into laundry detergent, which is easy to make and ensures no soap goes to waste. If the soap is fairly soft and fresh, Hot Process Hero is the way to go to salvage the batch. It’s a variation on the traditional hot process method that creates a rustic bar of soap.
The Final Soaps
So how did these three batches fare after being scooped into the mold and allowed to harden? Check it out below:
Immediately after being glopped into the molds. From left to right: Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C
After being allowed to harden for 2 days. From left to right: Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C
Notice that after it hardened, Exhibit A’s fragrance oil caused intense gelling in the middle of the soap. The fragrance also formed small brown spots throughout the soap. Exhibit B fared the best of the bunch, but notice how brown it turned! Finally, Exhibit C struggled the most. The texture was rough and almost crumbly.
From left to right: Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C
Just for fun, we cut into each soap. Exhibit A went through gel phase in the center (notice that dark, oval circle) as well as discoloration from vanilla content in the fragrance oil. Exhibit B went through textbook vanilla discoloration, showing the dark brown on the outside and creamy white in the center. Exhibit C was so thick when it was poured that there were bubbles throughout — notice the small hole where an air bubble was trapped.
Bonus bad soap behavior
Alien Brain: Not only do we get fragrances to test, we get various oils and butters too. This soap was made using pumpkin seed oil, and it caused a crazy phenomenon called Alien Brain. Alien brain happens when the soap overheats, which is clearly what happened here. Notice that the entire loaf is gelled throughout! The great thing about Alien Brain though is that it is a purely cosmetic issue, and does not affect the rest of the soap. With a little steaming to get rid of the soda ash, this soap would look great!
Soap Volcano: Natural sugars (including fruit purees) and alcohol in cold process soap can super heat the soap and cause what’s known as a soap volcano. This soap had pumpkin puree in it, and the mini soapy eruption was relatively mild. Once unmolded,we simply cut a few inches off the end and the soap was perfect.
In other instances though, the sugars can super-heat the batter so much that it causes the soap to overflow out of a mold into a soapy lava flow. That’s what happened to this coconut milk soap:
With gloves on, you can scoop the soap back in as it starts to deflate. Or, Hot Process Hero the soap out when it’s fully cooled.
General tips for good soapy behavior
Although some fragrances will inevitably cause issues, there are a few things you can do to ensure you get well-behaved batter.
- First, make sure you are soaping at lower temperatures. We like to soap when the lye water and oils are about 120 degrees F. When soaping at hotter temperatures, you run the risk of accelerating trace, creating a heat tunnel or causing a soap volcano.
- Double check to be sure your recipe checks out with the lye calculator and that you are using the recommend amount of water. Water discounting can cause the batter to accelerate.
- Take the fragrance oil for the batch and mix it with an equal amount of liquid oil (you can pull it out of the regular recipe or just add extra superfatting oils) and heat the mixture up for 20 seconds in the microwave to bring the temperature of the fragrance up so it’s not quite as cold when the product is added to the soap batter.
- Whisk in fragrances and colorants after the batter reaches trace. Even the best recipes and fragrances will thicken up if you stick blend them too much.
- Using recipes with lots of soft oils, such as Olive, Sunflower or Rice Bran, tend to maintain a thinner trace longer.
Have you experienced any strange soapy phenomena? How did you handle it? I’d love more tips.