If you’ve already made soap from scratch, you know how to make shea butter soap. Just add shea butter, then alter the other oils for proper saponification, and you have a moisturizing and luxurious bar.
An Ancient Nut, a Timeless Application
The ivory-colored fat from the African shea tree, shea butter is a triglyceride fat with stearic and oleic acids. This means it’s perfect for soap. Stearic acid hardens the bar while oleic acid contributes to a stable lather while conditioning, moisturizing and making skin silkier and softer.
Historical accounts claimed caravans carried clay jars full of shea butter during Cleopatra’s reign in Egypt. It was, and still is, used to protect hair and skin from the unrelenting African sun.
Shea butter is extracted from the shea nut by crushing and cracking the outer shell. This shell removal is often a social activity within African villages: young girls and elder women sit on the ground and use rocks to do the work. The internal nut meat is then crushed manually with a mortar and pestle then roasted over open wood fires which give traditional shea butter a smoky fragrance. Then nuts are ground and kneaded by hand to separate oils. Excess water is squeezed out, then evaporated off the oil curds, before the remaining butter is collected and shaped before it’s allowed to harden.
But if shea butter comes from nuts, is it safe for people with nut allergies? If you’re learning how to make shea butter soap for someone with a nut allergy, you probably don’t need to worry. Dr. Scott Sicher, an allergist from Mount Sinai in New York, working with the website Allergic Living, says that though shea is distantly related to Brazil nuts, the extraction and refinement results in a fat with only trace protein. And it’s the protein which causes the allergy. Though it’s questioned whether topical application could result in sensitization to the protein, no reports have been made regarding allergic reactions to shea. No reactions to either topical application or ingestion of shea oils and butters. But because it does come from a nut, the FDA requires nut labeling for any shea product sold within the US. If you’re worried, use caution and add cocoa butter instead.
Using Shea Butter in Soap Making Recipes
Shea butter is obtainable from many sources but I’ve found the best are outlets and websites which also teach how to make shea butter soap. Soap Queen, the blogger for Bramble Berry products, has articles and posts on numerous soap making recipes. She lauds shea butter because it’s so versatile in soap and lotion, with 4-9% unsaponifiables (ingredients which cannot transform into soap), which makes it so skin-friendly. Those unsaponifiables are the fats which soften skin instead of stripping away your natural skin oils while cleansing.
Shea butter can be added to any from-scratch soap recipe, though adjustments need to be made based on the other ingredients. Goat milk soap recipes need little shea butter, if at all, because the goat milk already makes the recipe creamy and rich. Makers of goat milk soap may add shea simply for the aesthetic value. Castile soap, made mostly with olive oil, is also softening and may not need shea butter. But a harder bar, such as one which relies heavily on palm and coconut oils, can use a little help. Oils which make soap harder can be the same oils which increase the “cleanliness” value, meaning it strips away dirt and your body’s own natural oils. This can leave skin dry.
Because shea butter doesn’t contribute very much to lather or hardness, as opposed to other oils, it should be used at 15% or less. A coconut oil soap recipe, which is both very hard and lathers extremely well, could use the addition of shea butter to counteract a bar that is so cleansing, it’s often harsh on the skin.
It’s okay to experiment and make your own soap recipes, as long as you enter all the values into a lye calculator. This priceless tool calculates all the saponification values for you: the amount of lye needed to turn one gram of fat into soap. And every oil has a different SAP. Adjusting the oil contents in any recipe, even by a tablespoon, means you need to recheck the values in a calculator. And if you copied the recipe from someone else, even if it’s tried-and-true for them, always run it through a lye calculator before trying it. The original crafter could be trustworthy, but typos happen.
How to Make Shea Butter Soap
Can you add shea butter to easy soap recipes? That depends on the recipe. Melt and pour soap, the pre-made base that your children can liquefy and pour into molds, is already complete. All you add is color, fragrance, and other aesthetic ingredients such as glitter or oatmeal. Adding extra oils to melt and pour soap will make the finished product soft and greasy, often with pockets of solidified oil. It’s not dangerous but it makes a horrible product. If you want an easy soap project containing shea butter, purchase a “shea butter melt and pour soap base” from a soap making supply company. It already has the fat within the original recipe and the step involving lye has been done for you. Shea butter can be added to rebatched soap. This technique involves grating down a pre-made bar, adding liquid so it melts down, and pressing the sticky product into molds. Rebatching is often done as a “fix” for ugly from-scratch soap or so crafters can add their own fragrances and colors to a truly natural bar without handling lye. First, obtain a bar of premade soap. Be sure it’s “cold process,” “hot process,” or says “rebatch base.” Avoid any melt and pour bases, which will list unnatural petroleum products within its ingredients list. Grate it down into a slow cooker and add liquid such as coconut or goat milk, water, or tea. Turn the slow cooker onto low and stir frequently as the soap melts. It will never become completely smooth but it will turn a consistency which you can handle. At this point, you can add shea butter, melting it into the mixture. But remember that, because saponification has already occurred, none of this shea butter will turn to actual soap. It will all be added fat, and too much will make a greasy product. Add desired colors and fragrances then press the hot mixture into molds.
Both hot and cold process soaps involve melting down oils, adding a mixture of water and lye, then agitating the soap by hand or with a stick blender until it reaches “trace.” Both techniques require adding shea butter with the initial fats and melting them down before adding lye. Experiment with adding shea butter to soap recipes or obtain input from expert crafters if you don’t want to expend ingredients on trial and error. I recommend you try both techniques when learning how to make shea butter soap. Though one is not necessarily safer than the other, hot process produces a bar which can be used that day, though it doesn’t allow the beautiful techniques which are attainable with cold process soap. The preferred method of professional soapers, cold process lets you layer or swirl different colors into a smooth and often flawless bar, though the soap isn’t usable for at least a week or longer if you want a mild, long-lasting bar.
Whether you learn how to make shea butter soap using rebatch, hot or cold process, it’s a fun and satisfying way to create a bar with huge benefits for your skin.
Curious how shea butter is made? Check out this amazing video!
Do you know how to make shea butter soap? Do you have any advice for our readers?
The following claims are taken from Soap Queen, an expert in soap making.
|Oil/Butter||Shelf Life||Recommended Quantity||Effects in Soap Making|
|Avocado||3 years||up to 12.5%||Excellent for soaps, balms, lotions, and hair products.
Butter is tinted green and has a mild odor.
|Beeswax||Indefinite||up to 8%||Beeswax is a hardening agent. It will not soften skin.|
|Cocoa||1-2 years||up to 15%||Softens skin, but exceeding 15% can cause cracking
in the bar. Purchase deodorized or natural, which will
lend a cocoa fragrance and may hide delicate scents.
|Coffee||1 year||up to 6%||Adds creaminess and richness to lotions, body butters,
and soap. Adds a natural coffee fragrance to soap
|Mango||1 year||up to 15%||Skin softener. Does not strengthen lather or hardness
so using over 15% can weaken a soap bar.
|Shea||1 year||up to 15%||Softening, moisturizing. Unrefined shea butter can smell nutty. Using more than 15% can weaken a soap bar.|
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.