Like choosing the ingredients in any recipe, choosing the oils in your soap recipes is a very important step in your soap making. Each oil imparts different qualities to the final soap - creating your soap recipe is the art of balancing them to create the perfect bar of soap. Here is a list of the most common soap-making oils and the qualities they will give to your soap recipes.
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Apricot Kernel Oil
Apricot kernel oil is a light oil that is similar to almond oil in its fatty acid makeup. It absorbs nicely into the skin and is a good luxury conditioning oil in soap - at about 5% - 10%. It's good in soap, massage and bath oils, massage bars and bath bombs.
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Almond Oil, Sweet
A lovely moisturizing oil that is very light and absorbs well. In soap, it produces a low, stable lather, but we wouldn't use it more than about 5% - 10% in soap - as it's not a very hard oil in soap. It's really nice in lotions, massage bars, bath bombs, bath oils, and especially in salt and sugar scrubs.
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Avocado oil is a heavy, green, rich, moisturizing oil that has a high percentage of unsaponifiables (the portions of the oil that don't react with the lye to form soap,) so it's a good oil to superfat with. It's often used in soap recipes for people with sensitive skin. On the skin, it first feels a little heavy...but after a moment, it absorbs nicely. It's high in vitamins A, D & E, which is good for your skin and gives it a longer shelf life. You can use it in your recipes from 5% - 30%. It's a bit too thick, in my opinion, for massage oils...but it's wonderful in massage bars.
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Babassu oil comes from the kernels of the babassu palm. Its fatty acid makeup is very similar to palm kernel and to coconut oil. It's high in lauric and myristic acid, which contribute to a nice, fluffy lather. It also melts at close to body temperature, so it's a good heavy oil for butters, balms and such, where you are putting the oil directly onto the skin.Continue to 5 of 32 below.
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Canola, a kind of rapeseed, is a good economical oil for soap making - you can substitute a portion of your olive for canola, or use it as part of your batch at 10-15%. It gives a nice, low, creamy lather and is moisturizing. It will slow down the rate at which your soap will get to trace, so it's a good oil to add if you're doing complicated swirls or colors.
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Castor oil is a thick, clear oil that helps increase the lather in soap - a rich, creamy lather. It's also a humectant (attracts moisture to your skin) oil. Just a little will do...5% - 8% in your recipe will work wonders. Shampoo bars often use 10%-15%...but more than that and you get a soft bar of soap. Castor oil has a fatty acid makeup that's completely unique—which makes what it contributes to your soap (the rich, creamy lather) unique.
Castor oil will speed up the rate at which your soap will get to trace - so we usually leave it out of recipes that require complex swirls or designs.
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Coconut oil is one of the primary oils soapmakers use in their soap. Susan Miller Cavitch, in her book The Soapmaker's Companion, calls it "a gift." Most of the coconut oil sold and used has a melting point of 76°, but there is a hydrogenated type that melts at 92°. Either version works the same to give tremendous, bubbly lather to your soap. It also makes for a very hard, white bar of soap. The collective opinion is that using more than 30% coconut oil in your recipe will be drying to the skin. Yes, the super-cleansing nature of coconut oil can strip oils from your skin, but we have often used it at 30%-40% with great results, especially with a slightly higher (6-8%) superfat. Or, you can make 100% coconut oil soap with a 20% superfat. It's an amazing bar of soap.
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Not many soap makers use corn oil. There's nothing wrong with it; there are just better oils to use. It acts like most of the other vegetable liquid oils like soybean or canola. Some soapmakers choose not to use it for fear of affecting people with corn allergies. That aside, it can be used as part of your recipe (10-15%) and will help give a moisturizing, stable lather. Nothing remarkable—but if you've got some on hand that you're not going to use for cooking, go ahead and use it in soap.Continue to 9 of 32 below.
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Cottonseed oil may seem very unfamiliar to most soap makers; it's not on many soap makers' lists of primary oils. But if you've ever used "Crisco" or vegetable shortening in your soap, chances are you've used cottonseed oil. (Crisco and most shortenings are hydrogenated blends of cottonseed and soybean oil.) It contributes a nice, creamy lather that is moisturizing. Cottonseed oil has gotten a bit of a bad reputation the past few years due to reports of heavy pesticide use on cotton crops, and the unsustainable farming practices of the cotton industry. There is a fair amount of debate about this. But if you choose to use cottonseed oil in your soap, either as the oil or as shortening, it does make very nice soap.
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Emu oil is a luxury oil that is mostly used in cosmetics, lotions, and balms. It is reported to be remarkably healing to your skin and also to help other healing ingredients to absorb better into the skin. You can use it in soap as a luxury oil, but one of the butters is probably a better choice for soap making. Save the emu oil for skin care products.
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Grapeseed oil is a lightweight, moisturizing oil that is a good additive to soap in small quantities. It doesn't have a long shelf life, so unless you treat it with rosemary oleoresin extract, or have a very low superfat percentage, don't use it more than about 5% in your recipe. Grapeseed oil is lovely in lotions, shaving oils, bath oils, and especially massage oils as it absorbs well without a really greasy afterfeeling.
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Hazelnut oil is an excellent moisturizer in lotions and creams but has a short shelf life (3-4 months). If you want to add it to soap, we wouldn't recommend using more than about 5-10% in your recipe because of the short shelf life...and I'd add some rosemary oleoresin extract to either the oil or the batch to help the soap from developing DOS or going rancid. Don't get me wrong...it's a lovely oil...just a fairly fragile one. It's also wonderful in lip balms and bath bombs.Continue to 13 of 32 below.
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Hemp Seed Oil
Hemp seed oil is a deep, green color with a light, nutty smell. No, it doesn't smell like marijuana, nor does it have any of the effects that marijuana has, but it does indeed come from the seed of the cannabis plant. It's really lovely in lotions and creams and great in soap too. It gives a light, creamy/silky lather. Because of its fatty acid makeup, it has a very short shelf life...less than six months...so it should be refrigerated or even kept in the freezer. Treating it with rosemary oleoresin extract is a good idea to help keep it from oxidizing. It can be used as a luxury healing/moisturizing oil in soap up to 10%-15%.
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Jojoba is actually a liquid wax that is very similar to sebum in its chemical composition. It contributes a nice stable lather, has remarkable absorption and moisturizing qualities and unlike some of the other luxury moisturizing oils, has a very long shelf life - 1-2 years! Use it at 5-10% maximum. Or just save it for "leave-on" applications like balms, massage bars, bath bombs and lotions. It can make the soap batch trace more quickly, so it's not a good oil to add if you're going to do complex coloring or swirls, or are working with a temperamental fragrance or essential oil.
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Kukui Nut Oil
A rich, liquid nut oil that's native to Hawaii, kukui nut oil contributes to a nice, creamy stable lather in the soap, and is nicely moisturizing. Like the other luxury liquid oils, we recommend using it at 5-10% of your recipe for a richer, creamier soap. In lotions, creams, massage bars and balms, it absorbs quickly, conditions skin nicely, and is reputed to help ease acne, eczema, and psoriasis.
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Lard makes a super-hard, very white bar of soap with a low, creamy, stable lather that is, believe it or not, nicely moisturizing. Before vegetable oils were commonly available, it was one of the main fats (along with beef tallow) that folks used to make soap. If you use animal oils in your soap, then combining lard with some of the other liquid oils like coconut and olive makes a wonderful, well-balanced bar of soap - and is really economical. Make sure your lard is fresh and of high quality. Poor or spoiled lard can give a lardy/bacony/greasy scent to your soap. Use it at any percentage in your recipe, but we recommend not much more than 30-40% or so. Cold process laundry soap can be made with 100% lard with a 0% superfat percentage.Continue to 17 of 32 below.
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Macadamia Nut Oil
Macadamia nut oil is a light oil with a mild nutty odor. It is unique in its fatty acid makeup in that it contains palmitoleic acid - which makes it really easily absorbed into the skin - and is reported to be really great for older skin. It is mostly used in lotions, creams, massage oils, and other skin healing preparations.
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Neem oil is extracted from the bark of the neem tree. It is growing in popularity as a soap making oil due to its antiseptic, anti-fungal and insect repellent qualities. We know of one soap maker who uses neem oil at about 25% of the recipe and sends it to soldiers in the Middle East to repel sand flies. It evidently works very well. It's also great, all by itself (as both an oil and in a soap recipe) for treating skin conditions like athlete's foot. The scent of neem is very strong...a sort of green, earthy, nutty smell...and takes some getting used to. But it doesn't come through too strongly in the soap and blends well with other earthy scents.
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Olive Oil, Grade A or Extra Virgin
Extra virgin and virgin olive oils come from the very first gentle pressing of the olives. The refined, or Grade A oil (generally the best grade for soap), comes from the second pressing and is lightly refined/filtered. 100% olive oil makes the famous "Castille soap" and "Marseille soap" must contain at least 72% olive oil. Olive oil is generally the #1 oil in most soap makers' recipes - and for good reason. Olive oil soaps are very moisturizing, make hard, white bars of soap (though high % olive oil soaps take a longer time to cure) and are exceptionally mild. But the lather from Castille soap is low and a bit slimy. Most soap makers combine olive oil with other oils to improve the lather.
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Olive Oil, Pomace
Pomace grade olive oil is a thick, rich, green grade of olive oil that is obtained by solvent extraction of the fruit and pits of the olives - what's left over after the first several pressings that give the virgin and Grade A oils. It has a very high level of unsaponifiables (the portions of the oil that don't react with the lye to form soap.) This will make your trace time quicker. Like all olive oil, it makes a nice, moisturizing, mild bar of soap, especially when combined with other oils.Continue to 21 of 32 below.
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Palm oil, along with olive and coconut, is one of the top oils used by soap makers today. Because of the qualities, it gives soap, it is often called "veggie tallow" in that it gives many of the same qualities that beef tallow does - a hard bar with a rich creamy lather. Alone, it's pretty unremarkable, but combined with other oils like olive, coconut, and castor, it makes great, hard, long-lasting soap. There are some serious concerns about palm oil farming in Malaysia - and the impact it is having on both the land and the people. We know several soap makers who have eliminated palm oil from their recipes because of this.
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Palm Kernel Oil
Though it comes from the same plant/nut as palm oil does, palm kernel oil is almost identical in its soap making properties to coconut oil - giving a nice hard white bar of soap...with lots of luscious lather. Palm kernel oil is often available partially hydrogenated, in easy to handle/measure flakes...or just like a standard liquid oil. As with coconut, you can use it up to about 30% or 35% in your recipes. However, like palm oil, palm kernel oil is surrounded by the same environmental and human concerns.
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Pumpkin Seed Oil
Pumpkin seed oil is a rich and vitamin-filled oil with abundant antioxidant properties. It contains Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, as well as vitamins A, C, E, and Zinc. Its fatty acid balance is most similar to soybean and sunflower oil and will contribute about the same qualities to soap that they do in terms of hardness, lather, and conditioning. Most soap makers we know save the super-premium nourishing oils like pumpkin seed for special skin care products and focus on the more basic oils for soap making. That said, in terms of pure marketing appeal, it's a wonderful luxury oil to add (a bit) to a batch of pumpkin soap.
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Rice Bran Oil
A few years ago, there was a spike in the price of olive oil. Soap makers across the country scrambled to find more affordable alternatives for their soap. Rice bran oil came to the rescue. Expressed from the husks of rice, most soap makers found that rice bran oil imparted nearly the same creamy, moisturizing qualities that olive oil did to their soaps, but at a lower price. It does have a lot of the same antioxidants and vitamins that olive has, and a similar fatty acid make-up. We like it in both bar and liquid soaps. The only disadvantage of rice bran oil is its short shelf life - (6 months or so.)Continue to 25 of 32 below.
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Its fairly short shelf life and fairly unremarkable fatty acid makeup have made safflower oil pretty neglected in soap making recipes. If you have it on hand, you can certainly use it in your recipes like you would soybean, canola or sunflower - at 5-15% or so. In soap, it is mild and moisturizing.
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Sesame Seed Oil
Like neem oil, sesame oil has a characteristic scent that must be dealt with if used in a high percentage in your soap. In your soap recipes, sesame oil will be moisturizing and conditioning. It is high in antioxidants and vitamins, so it's also nice in lotions, balms, massage bars, and massage oils.
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Shea oil, or liquid shea, is fractionated shea butter, one of the most popular luxury oils used in soap making recipes. This variation of shea butter is liquid at room temperature and wonderful for adding to melt and pour soap, massage bars, or to creams and lotions. We've also used it in bath bombs. It's very moisturizing in the tub but may be a bit too oily for some folks. But the fact that its liquid doesn't give any benefits in soap. So if you're going to use shea butter in soap, go ahead and use the actual shea butter instead of liquid shea oil.
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Soybean Oil, Liquid
Soybean oil, like canola, safflower, and sunflower, is often used as a portion of a soap making recipe in combination with other "core" oils like coconut, olive, and palm. It's pretty unremarkable, but if you have it on hand, use it 5-15% of your soap recipe. It is mild, moisturizing and gives a low, creamy lather. Because soybean oil is so readily available and economical, many cost-conscious soap makers will use soybean as a part of their soap recipes to reduce the overall cost of their soap batches.Continue to 29 of 32 below.
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Soybean Oil Shortening
Soybean oil, in its hydrogenated form, is generally called vegetable shortening & sold under generic names, or the brand Crisco. Shortening is usually a blend of soybean & cottonseed oil and makes nice soap. Like all soap making oils, except olive, it's not a great oil to use alone, but combining it with olive and coconut makes a good, stable, bubbly, moisturizing bar of soap.
All of the soap recipes in Sandy Maine's book, "The Soap Book" are made with 44% vegetable shortening (Crisco), 28% coconut and 28% olive oil. If it's good enough for Sandy Maine (of SunFeather Natural Soap Company), it must be pretty good. (Note: Her book was published before the controversy over cottonseed oil arose, though. (See above.) She may have reconsidered.)
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We love sunflower oil in soap. You used to be able to get it regularly at the grocery store but not so much anymore. It works synergistically with palm and olive oils to give a nice, rich, creamy lather that's very moisturizing. Depending on the type you get, it may have a short shelf life due to its fatty acid makeup. If you have the type that does, be sure to add some rosemary oleoresin extract to the oil or to the batch. In soap, we've used up to about 25% in the recipe with good results. We think it feels a bit oily in lotions but is great in creams, body butters, and balms.
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Like lard, beef tallow gives you a super-hard, white bar of soap with low, creamy, stable lather that is very moisturizing. Before vegetable oils were commonly available, it was one of the main fats that folks used to make soap - and remains one of the most common oils in soap. (Check your label for "sodium tallowate" - that's beef tallow.) If you are OK using animal oils in your soap, then combining beef tallow with some of the other liquid oils like coconut and olive makes a wonderful, well-balanced bar of soap. There is just something about the heavy, rich creaminess of the lather that we haven't been able to replicate in non-tallow soaps. While you can use it at any percentage in your recipe, we wouldn't recommend much more than 40% or so.
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Wheatgerm oil is a rich, thick, amber-colored oil which is very high in vitamin E and hence, very stable on the shelf. It's a little sticky and heavy to use in lotions, unless in small amounts, but is nice in heavier creams or massage bars. It's great in heavy balms and scrubs. In soap, you can use it up to about 15% of the recipe. The extra vitamin E in the oil helps add antioxidant properties to the rest of the oils in the soap, lotion, or balm as well.