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High Spirits: Cold Process Soap & Alcohol
Author: Kevin Dunn
Saturday, February 3, 2018

Microbreweries and micro wineries are popping up everywhere. And as familiar as they have become, I now use them to explain handcrafted soap to those unfamiliar with our little segment of the market. What craft brewers and vintners have done for beer and wine, handcrafted soapmakers have done for soap. Both distinguish themselves from their commodity counterparts with products of endless variety.

This analogy is not the only connection between alcohol and soap. Microbreweries and wineries are potential customers for private label soap made with their respective beverages. Such soaps can be made by simply substituting beer or wine for all or part of the water portion when mixing lye. While this may produce a fine soap suitable for the intended markets, most of the alcohol boils away as the lye gets hot, as described in my column in Handmade Volume 51. This month, I would like to explore the possibility of using alcohol, not just for label appeal, but as a design element.

Regular readers of this column may remember that alcohol is not a single compound, but a family of compounds. Like fats and oils, each member of this family contains one or more carbon atoms bonded to hydrogen atoms. This non-polar, hydrophobic chain causes alcohols to mix well with non-polar substances like fats and oils. But each member of the family also contains one or more polar, hydrophilic OH groups, which cause them to mix well with water.

The most familiar alcohol is ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol or grain alcohol, with formula C2H5OH. Alcoholic beverages are mostly water and ethanol. Beer is typically 1-6% ethanol, wine 9-15%, and hard liquor 30-40%. Even at its highest concentration, beverage-grade grain alcohol (Everclear) contains 95% ethanol (190 proof) and 5% water. Denatured alcohol is just 190 proof ethanol with a few other chemicals to render it unfit for drinking.

Another familiar alcohol is isopropyl alcohol, C3H7OH, also known as rubbing alcohol. It is commonly sold in pharmacies as either 70% or 90% solutions with water.

The techniques to be explored this month can be done with any alcoholic beverage, but the effects will be more noticeable with hard liquor, and they will be most noticeable with grain alcohol or denatured alcohol. They may also work with rubbing alcohol, but we did not test that. All of our tests were done with 190 proof grain alcohol.

High-proof alcohol could be substituted for part of the water portion when making lye, as we did in Handmade Volume 51 with beer and wine. Much of the alcohol boils off in this case, however, which defeats our current purpose. We could also master batch our lye at 50% sodium hydroxide, allow it to cool, and add alcohol to the cold lye. For example, if a soap formula called for 12 ounces of sodium hydroxide and 30 ounces of water, you could use 24 ounces of 50% lye solution and 18 ounces of alcohol. The result, in either case, would be 42 ounces of solution containing 12 ounces of sodium hydroxide.

The problem with this approach is that because alcohol has both hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties, it accelerates the formation of a stable emulsion when lye and oil mix. In other words, it accelerates trace. At low alcohol concentrations (beer), this may be barely noticeable. At medium concentrations (wine or liquor), it may be annoying, and at high concentrations (grain alcohol), the soap may seize. And if you try adding the alcohol at trace, you put yourself in a “trace race.” Personally, I like to avoid anything that puts me in a rush to get the soap into the mold.

The method I will advocate came out of a larger study of glycerin rivers and related phenomena. We wanted to pour soap with different formulas into the same mold, but we also wanted to be able to see the boundary between these soaps. For example, we wanted to pour alternating layers of high-water soap and low-water soap. To see the boundary, we sprayed the top of each layer with glycerin. In the finished soap, the layers were separated by thin, translucent lines. Intentional glycerin rivers, as it were.

As part of this study, the effects of alcohol on glycerin rivers were explored by my student, John Sheffield, who started with a soap formula that had been optimized for glycerin rivers and then added increasing percentages of alcohol. The soap was poured in four layers, and the top of each layer was sprayed with alcohol before the next layer was poured. The alcohol in the bottom layer was 0.4% of the oil weight; the alcohol in the top layer was 8% of the oil weight. A bar of the resulting soap is shown in the picture to the right. John processed this soap in the oven for four hours at 70°C (160°F), but the same effect should appear with the cold process as long as the oil temperature is high enough to achieve gel phase.

The first lesson we learned from this soap was that it was a pain in the pot. The soap with high alcohol content reached trace inconveniently quickly. But the second, more important lesson was that alcohol sprayed between layers of soap leaves a nice, translucent line between the layers. And this, I think, is a very convenient way to get alcohol into a soap without making yourself crazy.

One way to use this technique is to simply use alcohol between layers of soap. Fill a spray bottle with alcohol. Pour a layer, and give it a spritz of alcohol. Then pour another layer, and another, until the mold is full. You can use this with a single soap color, or you can separate layers of different colors. Of course, high-proof alcohol should not be used near an open flame.

You can also use this with your favorite swirling techniques. Anytime you are about to pour one soap into or onto another, you can spray the first soap with alcohol. And you can use the same technique with alcohol itself. Just pour alcohol into or onto a soap and swirl it in using your favorite method.

You can also pour a layer of soap, let it mature to a thick trace, manipulate it so that the surface is textured, spray it with alcohol, and then pour a fresh layer of soap on top. This will produce a jagged line through the soap, rather than a straight line or a swirl. Hmmm, “White Lightning?”

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