I was trying to explain soap to a friend a few weeks ago.
Real soap is made by mixing fats and a strong alkaline substance like lye to make a fatty salt. The soap molecule has 2 ends, one is a fatty end that works like a magnet wand to pick up dirt, and the other end grabs water. So it's sort of like (I like the magnet wand analogy) the water has the magnet wand to pick up the dirt off skin, clothes, whatever.
Handmade soaps are made in the traditional way with fats and alkalis, and commercial soaps are generally made with fatty acids that get stripped of the parts of the fat that make glycerin. So handmade soaps are richer in glycerin which is a good thing in the shower. Glycerin soap on the other hand.. I'll get to that in a bit.
Glycerin loves water. It grabs water out of the air, and makes a soap that rinses really clean. Commercial soap has added chemicals to do what naturally occurring glycerin does really well. It's cheaper for the big soap companies and yields a more consistent product. Commercial soap also frequently has a lot of detergents, which are mostly chemically manufactured to remove dirt and oils and sometimes to foam. If you read the ingredients on a lot of commercial soaps and shampoos they are heavy on the long chemical names, and some of them contain petroleum byproducts. In any big manufacturing process that uses a lot of chemicals, there is going to be some damage to the environment.
Look at a good cottage craft industry handmade soap. The ingredients are things you can understand. Sodium hydroxide (lye) and oils. The combining of the two creates soap. The process for making it is low impact on the environment and made with renewable resources. There are two processes soap makers use, cold or hot. Cold process soap needs aging time while the lye completely saponifies and turns from lye and fat into soap. Hot process, this takes place a lot quicker, and needs aging only to harden. Most handmade soap has more fat in it then will be saponified which creates a superfatted soap, so you've got extra oils that moisturize your skin. A soap made with mostly olive oil and no animal fat is castile soap.It's a very mild soap, and when I had my children, it's what the hospital they were born at recommended. (Ahh.. I did mention I love my hospital right? They explained why pure castile soap was better then stuff like Baby Wash). A lot of soapmakers add in extras to their crafted bars. Flower petals, oatmeal, coffee grounds, all sorts of things meant for different purposes. When you buy soap this way, the person making it should be able to tell you exactly what went in it.
If you're a vegan, you can find people who use just vegetable fats and lye, if you're not, there are a lot of goat farmers who make soap as a sideline. Goat's milk soap is one of my favorites! Generally speaking, a bar with tallow (animal fat) in it makes a very white, very hard bar, but a lot of soapmakers prefer not using animal fats and get hardness instead from vegetable oils and waxes that work much the same way.
About glycerin soap. A lot of people selling "handmade soap" are actually selling melt and pour glycerin soap, which is pretty, but not the same thing at all. I like doing melt and pours with my daughter, but I don't let her use glycerin soap in the winter. Why not? Because remember when I said glycerin loves water? If you are in a desert area, or if it's cold enough to be very dry, it takes it out of your skin. So this soap that felt so good using it causes dry skin to be drier. There are people who hand make glycerin clear soap, and I've not tried that kind yet.
Buying handmade soaps ISN'T expensive, it's one of the least expensive switches you can make that supports cottage industries and helps the environment. If you like pretty smelling soaps anyway, you're probably paying more now then you will pay for a gorgeous handmade bar. You can look on Ebay or Etsy, and a lot of times, soap sellers will have deals on soap ends. Locally, we have a company called Gladheart Acres, it's a family owned and operated farm that makes lovely soaps and lotions, and they bag up a lb of ends, mis-cuts and scents that didn't work and sell them for less then a lb of their soap usually costs. They call them Moosetakes which is a bit too cute, but I buy a couple bags every year and it's the soap we keep by the kitchen and bathroom sinks for everyone to use. I'm a sensualist and a scent whore though, so we use big pretty scented bars in the shower and bath.
Me? I don't make my own soap. I have lots of books about HOW to make it, and I know people who do, but I've never tried it. I've always had cats or kids around when I've thought about it, and now that the kids are old enough to help and not be a danger, I just don't feel like I've got the time. But I understand enough of the process that I do appreciate handmade soaps. Quality control is high with small companies or even one person companies. They want to sell more soap, and the only way that will happen is if people try it and love it enough to recommend it to friends. The ingredients are lush, and small batches ensures soap that feel and smell amazing.
In Alaska, long winters mean we have a lot of strong cottage industry. So usually I buy Alaska, there are a lot of soap makers up here, including one who makes moose tallow bars with handpicked berries and stuff that are just astounding. She doesn't have a site, but when I spot her at an event, I buy a few months worth at a time even if it means I have to give up something else I wanted. Especially if she has her strawberry and oatmeal bars. She makes them in small quantity because they don't keep well, but they work amazingly well on my son's acne. If you have special needs, like you're allergic to certain fragrances, or your skin is incredibly dry, a soapmaker can tell you which of his/her products will be best for you.
When Mike and I got together, he was an Irish Spring user. Since he switched to real soap, he hasn't looked back. He uses Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap. To him, clean is a tingly feeling all over.
Well.. now that I've told you more then you *ever* wanted to know about soap..
Currently working on:
Update for Beadwork at BellaOnline
More boxes. Nearly done with boxes. Thank goodness. Had to redraw a lot of art in the last couple of days.
Thinking of: Melting crayons and maybe making some caramel popcorn later. I don't actually want to EAT caramel popcorn, but it's so pretty to make.