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Decorative and therapeutic flowers and herbs for making soaps

Updated on June 22, 2010

An introduction

There is nothing quite so inviting as the look of handmade soap: I have long been fan of homemade soaps, admiring them for their integrity and purity. When you make your own soap, you know exactly what is going into it and, therefore, can avoid harsh irritants and include only the finest of ingredients. Many commercial beauty products contain artificial chemicals and these chemical substances do penetrate the skin. Every time we apply commercial products to our body, we are absorbing substances through our skin that we would never dream of putting in our mouth! Soap can be harsh to your skin, taking away necessary natural oils and doing harm to the whole body, so try bathing without commercial soaps. I know it doesn't sound like very good advice, but try it for one week and see the difference for yourself! Remember, there is beauty and majesty in natural simplicity! Your soaps will feel "earthly" and will be much kinder to your skin than commercial soaps because the glycerin which remains in them is a natural emollient (glycerin is retained in handmade soap but in commercial soap it is extracted, leaving behind the hard, drying bars of soap we purchase in supermarkets). By making your own soap, you'll be guaranteeing your family a natural and safe product, and you will have a great time doing it, too! Add herbs, spices and flower petals to your recipes to create texture, color and enhance scent. Herbs can be used as a decorative topping, finely ground to add texture to your soaps, or infused in a tea to create a smooth, even color. At least, what a nicer gift than a large chunk of soap, not only handmade, but handmade with your own herbs and flowers?!
The use of soap as a cleaning agent probably reaches back to the beginning of civilization. Written references to soap were found on Sumerian clay tablets in Mesopotamia dated around 2500 BC; inscriptions on the clay cylinders say that fats were boiled with ashes. It has been suggested that the soap, made by boiling fat with ashes, was being made in Babylon as early as 2800 BC and surely they used it for washing garments. Pliny the Elder mentions that soap was being produced from tallow and beech ashes by the Phoenicians in 600 BC. It was used widely throughout the Roman Empire: the excavation of Pompeii, covered by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, indicated the presence of a full- fledged soapmaking establishment. A physician, Priscianus (385 AD) reported the use of soap as a shampoo, and mentions, as Galen did, its use for washing the body and made also the first mention of the trade of "saponarius", or soap- boiler. Galen moreover recommended soap for both medicinal and cleansing purposes.
The word itself came from Roman myth: many burnt offerings of animals were made to the Goddess Athena and the other Gods on the mountain Sapo (or Sappo). Women cleaning clothes downstream, in the river Tiber, found that there was a special quality to the water there that made their cleaning chores easier. The fats from the sacrificed animals were washed through the ashes of the fires, making a crude soap: they said that it was a gift from the Goddess of arts and crafts. An alternative suggestion for the derivation of the name is that the Romans learned the art of soapmaking from the Celts, who called it "saipo". In fact the latin word "sapo" is cognate with the word "sebum", tallow.

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 in fact poisonous herbs that should always be avoided, there are some other herbs that, while not toxic, are dermal irritants and should not be used on the skin: make sure to do your research and be responsible and informed when deciding what to use in your soaps!
Use only herbs and flowers that are clean and free of insecticides and chemicals. Spray residues on plant material can irritate your skin. I prefer to use plants that I have grown myself; when this is not possible, purchase herbs (organically grown) from a natural food store or buy them fresh from the market and dry them yourself.
The most obvious way to add herbs to soap is to sprinkle them in the soap before you pour the soap 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 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.
You can also replace the water in your soap recipe with an herbal infusion: this is another simple way to add herbs to soap. Make the infusion and strain out solid matter if you wish before making the lye solution. Infusing liquid oils with herbs is yet another way of extracting their properties for use in soap. The most common liquid soap-making oil is olive oil. Making infused oils for soap-making is easy: first warm the 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 may increase the potency by straining out the herbs, rewarming the oil, and adding more herbs. Some oils can be tinted in this manner deeply enough so that the natural colorant survives the soap-making process.
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.

Herbs, spices and medicinal plants

If you are an avid gardener, there is virtually no limit to the kinds of herbs you can grow for this purpose. It is up for debate whether or not the properties of herbs survive the soap-making process. What is clear, however, is that herbs enrich the experience of making soap, working with herbs is a real way to get "back to Nature". Moreover, herbs are useful to any soap-maker because of their color and texture possibilities. Powdered spices, herbs and flavorings in fact give your hand-milled soap soft, natural hues (Lye is not kind to natural dyes from plants, but there are a few that will survive the chemical reaction and provide a bright color. Experimentation is the only way to know what will happen, as far as the colors are concerned: blue and green may come out purple or's all part of the fun!)

The herbs that follow are very useful in soapmaking:
Alkanet can color your recipes anything from red to pink, and from purple to blue. Soaps, by definition, are slightly alkaline so the alkanet will turn a bluet mauve color. It works well if used as a tea infusion in soaps.
Aloe is good for healing burns, it has to be used for skin care benefit. Almonds, finely ground, a natural exfoliant, can be added to melt and pour soap bases for their slight bleaching action and gentle abrasive qualities that help cleanse the skin and improve circulation. Ground almonds also add a pleasant nutty fragrance. Basil, a tender and scented herb; the dried and crumbled leaves of basil can be used to create a speckled greeny brown color in your recipes.
Borage is anti-inflammatory and emollient: infuse leaves and flowers in water or oil for skin care benefit. To make a healing oil, macerate fresh flowers of calendula in vegetable oil; replenish the petals daily to concentrate the oil. The dried petals keep their shape in soap-making; finely grind these dried flowers and you will obtain a natural ocher to yellow hue. The cayenne pepper adds a delicate salmon pink color to your recipes that doesn't fade too quickly. Just one teaspoonful of cayenne will turn your soaps a baby pink color, more will add a deeper and richer hue.
Chamomile has soothing, calming and healing properties, it is very good for dry and sensitive skins and recommended by aromatherapists to relieve acne and dermatitis. 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. Cardamom has an exotic, fresh and spicy scent and it is said that it relieves headaches and nausea. When added to soaps, finely ground cardamom improves circulation and is warming, uplifting and energizing. Carrot has a revitalizing scent and it is particularly good for sensitive skins and is also recommended for the treatment of eczema and psoriasis. Carrots are rich in vitamins A and C and they are particularly good for chapped and dry skins. Clove buds are strongly scented with a sweet- spicy odor and a perfect topping to festive recipes (take care: clove can be a skin irritant for sensitive skins). Coffee is an effective natural deodorizer so is a good addition to kitchen soaps. Finely ground, coffee adds also attractive flecks of color but it may also be used as an infusion for a more even color.
Dandelion has healing and astringent properties: make an infusion of leaves in water or oil for herbal benefit. Dill has a tangy, fresh scent and the dried dill holds its color quite well in soap-making, even in cold process. Indigo is a shrubby plant, native to India, that for centuries has been fermented to produce a strong blue dye. You need only a few grains to color your soap or you may end up with not only a blue lather but blue hands too! Juniper berries, dried, add an interesting textural effect to soaps as well as imparting their rich, deep color.
Lavender is known since Greek times for its deodorant and cleansing properties. It has soothing, calming, healing and cleansing properties: infuse water or oils for herbal benefit. Its fragrance has antiseptic and antibiotic qualities; it is highly recommended for greasy and sensitive skin types, and it is also very useful as an insect repellent. Lemons and oranges can be used: the dried and finely grated peel of citrus fruits contain a high level of vitamin C and is a valuable additive to soaps. Lemons, in particular, have strong anti- bacterial qualities, although the essential oils of the same fruits are notoriously difficult to use in soap. Lemon juice can also be used as a part substitute for water. Lemon balm has a scent deeply lemony, with varying degrees of mintiness. Oil and water infusions keep the scent through the soap process and dried crumbled leaves add texture to finished soap. Lemon verbena is a lemony astringent; use also the dried leaves in flakes or ground for texture in finished soap. Mint is tingly, fragrant and invigorating; add ground or flaked leaves to finished soap for texture; make oil and water infusions for release of color (green infusions will turn orange in the presence of lye, and the color will fade: add ground mint to mint essential oil or other essential oils for a release of green color that will hold up slightly in lye soap), soap made with the stimulating mint is a good choice for the morning after the night before. Marjoram has a warm, leafy scent that blends well with lavender and the citrus oil; it is good for greasy skins due to its antiseptic qualities (make water and oil infusion of flowers and leaves to create a very good soap for foot-bath).
Nasturtium is an astringent and it is best used fresh from the garden; use the stems, flowers, leaves and seeds. Make strong water and oil infusions for the best skin care benefit. Parsley creates a light, apple green when added to soaps (the color will fade but store your soaps away from direct sunlight to preserve the color for as long as possible); use it as a tea or simply mix in the powdered leaves. The poppy seeds are a good exfoliator in soaps and are also very beautiful. The rose is soothing and pleasing; use dried and ground in flakes or powder for texture and use the whole to infuse oils and water (red rose petals make pink infusion). Rosemary is refreshing and invigorating to the skin; add powder or finely chopped dried leaves to soap for texture (if you are pregnant or nursing, consult your health care practitioner before using rosemary!). Safflower, also known as fake saffron, can be used: the petals of the flowers are a deep orangery red and hold their color well in soap.
Saffron is potently colored, fragrant and extremely expensive: for very special soaps, use for color and texture (it releases its color into warm water). The powdered spices such as cinnamon, paprika and turmeric can be used in soap also as natural colouring agents: turmeric will give a golden orange hue, paprika will add peachy tone with red specks, cinnamom contributes warm brown speckles and, if added at the beginning of the melting, the soap will be a warm dark brown color.
Scented geranium is available in a wide variety of fragrances, from rose and lime to chocolate mint! Fresh leaves are best, and the plant is very easy to grow. Dried leaves add texture to finished soaps; infuse oils and water with fresh scented geranium leaves. The powedered walnut leaves create a rich, dark greeny brown when added to soaps; use crushed for a mottled, speckled effect.
The dried leaves of the sweet woodruff exude the fragrance of fresh- mown hay with vanilla notes. To use in soap, infuse the dried leaves in water or oil, the herb retain a subtle and sweet fragrance. Yarrow helps to reduce pain and swelling of burns and abrasions; the dried and fresh flowers, stems and leaves release a bright yellow dye into boiling water.
You can also add various forms of grain to your soap for texture. Cornmeal makes a rough scrub; tapioca on the surface of a bar of casting soap makes a smooth, bumpy massager, and the most famous grain used in soap, oatmeal, is as popular as ever. Finely grind the oatmeal to release the skin- soothing properties for which oatmeal is so famous, this will add pleasing texture to your soap and act as a gentle exfoliant (you can make the "oat milk" by making an infusion of oatmeal and hot water, strain the resulting cloudy liquid and use it in place of the water in lye soap formulas.). The bran is the outer husk of any grain and will add bulk and texture to your soap; it acts as a natural exfoliant as it is slighty abrasive (two tablespoons per pound of soap). The wheat germ is a gentle exfoliator that softens and soothes sensitive skin; the tiny flakes make a very attractive addition to your recipes too...

I have excited your imagination? I hope so ... as I said before, there is virtually no limit to the types of herbs, spices and medicinal plants that can be used to create the kind of soap that is best suited to your skin ... try to have fun!


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  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Ah, I understand you perfectly: I too am an avid soapmaker! The chamomile is always a good addition to any soap for its scent, color and medicinal properties; I too often add it to my soaps, along with lavender that is my favourite one. Of course, I'm very glad that you have linked this hub, I've done the same thing with yours! :)

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

    As ab avid soapmaker, I really enjoyed this hub. I personally love to add chamomile to my soap and use it as a shampoo as it brings out highlights in blonde hair. Going to link this to my soap hub, if you don't mind, an easy way for me to check back next time I make soap!

  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Les Trois Chenes, many thanks for your nice comments!

    It is very amusing create your own soaps, it is an old art that has never lost its attractiveness and moreover, for persons like me who have a delicate skin, it is a wondrous way to get a completely natural product!

  • Les Trois Chenes profile image

    Les Trois Chenes 7 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

    This is a lovely aricle. It makes me want to start making my own soap straight away! Lovely pictures as well. Many thanks.

  • Varenya profile image

    Varenya 7 years ago

    Many, many thanks, Darlene!!! Your words are too kind, I'm very moved!

    If you will decide to try to make your own soap...have fun!!!

  • Darlene Sabella profile image

    Darlene Sabella 7 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

    This is the most fantastic hub I have read, I love this and I now what to try to do this....I am trying to figure out how to add this to my favorites, simply awesome rate up I love this .....