Photo by Melody

From garden to gift basket: Using essential oils for beautiful handmade soaps

By Jill M. Nicolaus (critterologistNovember 13, 2008

Whether you embark on the adventure of distilling your own essential oils from your garden or purchase essential oils to use for this project, handmade scented soaps make beautiful, thoughtful gifts.

Gardening pictureTo make your own essential oils, you need a really large quantity of botanical material such as herbs, rose petals, lavender blooms, or scented geranium leaves. The usual method is steam distillation, using a still to capture the steam and cool it down to separate out the essential oil.

For some applications, you may be able to make an infused oil or a tincture, by putting your botanical material in an oil or alcohol base which draws out the volatile compounds. Infusions and tinctures may vary from very fragrant to nearly scentless and tend to be much less concentrated than essential oils.

You can purchase commercial distillation kits, which may cost several hundred dollars. I might try distillation, infusion, or tincturing at some point, just for the fun of it.  For most projects, however, it's simpler to purchase essential botanical oils from a source such as LorAnn or from a commercial grower such as Lavender Wind Farm (see my previous article, "Lessons from a lavender farm").

If you like to use liquid hand soap, you can add stir a few drops of lavender oil into a lightly scented or unscented base. Trader Joe's carries an unscented antibacterial hand soap that works wonderfully for this. I generally pour the soap out into measuring cup to make it easier to thoroughly mix in the essential oil and then to pour the soap back into its container.

melted and lightly tinted glycerin soap in glass measuring cup
shows section of heart shapes candy mold filled with lavender tinted opaque soap
unmolded heart and seashell soap shapes
liquid glycerin soap being poured over decorative soap shape in plastic cup mold
round bar of soap unmolded and set on a white dish

Solid soap can be purchased in blocks of unscented, melt-and-pour material. You'll find several options available, from clear glycerin soap to white goats-milk soap to pale green olive oil soap. You can add other ingredients to your melted soap, depending on how you intend to use it. A little coconut butter (a teaspoon or two per cup of soap) adds moisture. Add-ins like oatmeal or dried lavender buds can provide texture for better cleaning or exfoliation. Oatmeal and dried herbs can be ground into smaller bits using a food processor or propeller coffee grinder.

If you want colored soap, use a few drops oil-based coloring (sold for soap making or for coloring candy and icing) rather than water-based food coloring for the best results. With the clear glycerin soaps, I find "less is more" when adding color. The soaps seem prettier to me if the color is light and translucent. Don't try to color your entire block of soap at once. If you keep a little uncolored soap in reserve, you can add it if you accidentally put too much color or fragrance in the batch you're working with.

Follow package directions and use common sense when melting and molding soaps. A few minutes in the microwave is enough to melt most soaps, but you may need to let it cool slightly before it's safe to work with, especially if children are working with you. Many essential oils are so strong that direct skin contact can be damaging, so please use a dropper.  Five to ten drops of essential oil per cup of melted soap is generally all you need for a nice scent when you lather up. If you like, you can mix other essential oils with the lavender oil. I like orange and lavender together in my bath. A drop or two of rosemary oil makes a nice addition to lavender scented soap for kitchen use. 

You can use a wide variety of containers as molds for soap, if you don't want to purchase soap molds from the craft store. For small decorative soaps, I use the same plastic molds I use for molding chocolate candy. The soap pops out as readily as chocolate does, meaning sometimes it can be stubborn. A glass dish filled with a selection of pretty little scented soaps is a lovely touch on your vanity. If you use a loaf pan or a smooth cylindrical container, you can create a larger chunk of soap to be sliced into individual bars.

For a recent project, I decided to use a combination of molding techniques. First, I added a few drops of lavender essential oil to half a cup of melted goats-milk soap. I dribbled in icing colorant until the opaque white soap was a nice deep shade of purple. Then I poured the soap into heart and seashell shaped candy molds. After the little soaps cooled and hardened, I popped them out.

Then I prepared the soap that would form the main part of the bars. I added more essential oil and just a tiny bit of coloring to melted, clear glycerin soap. For bar molds, I chose plastic containers that seemed to be a good size and had enough room for me to fit the smaller opaque molded soaps inside. If you're using disposable containers, check the shape of the bottom, which will become the top of your bar of soap. I rejected a couple of containers that had recycling symbols stamped onto the bottom because I didn't want the symbol molded into the top of my soap.

I poured a small layer of glycerin soap into the bottom of the mold. After a few moments of cooling, it formed enough of a "skin" on top that I could gently place the molded pieces on top, flat side down. If you want to be sure the top and bottom layer of soap meld seamlessly, you can spritz a mist of rubbing alcohol between the layers. More of the melted glycerin soap was poured on top until the little decorative piece was covered and the bar of soap was as thick as I wanted. After the soap cooled and hardened, it was easy to pop out of the plastic container.

I wrapped the finished soaps in plastic baggies for storage. Before giving them as gifts, I'll wrap them in cellophane and add some decorative ties of lavender sprigs from my garden. I put some out in the guest bathroom, and my mother-in-law gladly took them home, so I know I'll be making more soaps in various shapes and scents for holiday gifts.

If you've ever looked at those little bottles of essential oils and wished you knew how to use those wonderful scents, making fancy soaps is a quick and easy project. Give it a try!

Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus

  About Jill M. Nicolaus  
Jill M. NicolausBetter known as "Critter" on DG, Jill lives in Frederick, MD, where she tries to fit as many plants as possible into a suburban back yard. The birds are mobbing our feeders lately, so Sunshine Girl and I have a job keeping the Flyby Cafe' open for business! This year, we put out a special feeder just for the squirrels, filled with a seed & corn blend. We still see them acrobatically snatching food from the other feeders, but at least now they let the birds get a beak in edgewise! (Images in my articles are from my photos, unless otherwise credited.)

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