What are the Best Essential Oils for Soap Making?

How to Make Scented Soap, Naturally, While Avoiding Mistakes


Photo by Shelley DeDauw

If you want naturally scented soap, what are the best essential oils for soap making? With all the oils out there, it’s important to know the pros and cons. And which not to use.

There are many factors when it comes to using fragrances in soap making. Do you know how to make essential oils at home? Are you using melt and pour soap bases or going all-out with the cold process? When it comes to finding the best essential oils for soap making, it matters what process you use.

Melt and pour soaps are the kindest to essential oils. Problems such as ricing and seizing aren’t a concern. But because the oil doesn’t have a chance to transform in the chemical reaction known as saponification, the good and bad properties of those oils can be much stronger.

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If you’re looking for the best essential oils for soap making, consider a few things. If you’re using melt and pour, the easiest of soap making techniques for beginners, disregard the parts about seizing and anchoring but pay even more attention to skin and respiratory reactions. If you’re making soap from scratch using cold or hot process methods, be especially mindful of how your oil will make the soap batter react.

Finding the Best Essential Oils for Soap Making

First, do oils’ benefits remain after saponification? I’m afraid there hasn’t been much research on that. The fragrance benefits, such as relaxation qualities of lavender, do remain. But skin-enhancing properties are most likely reduced because the oil is so diluted by the other soap ingredients. Because it’s unknown if the benefits remain, it’s also debatable whether the precautions are negated. So play it safe.

Pregnancy: Let’s put this one first because it can have the most impact. Some oils are just a bad idea for pregnant women. Tansy, which was commonly used as an abortifacient, in ancient and medieval times, should always be avoided. Strong fragrances may cause stomach upset during the first trimester. And fennel, hyssop, sage, and rosemary should never be used in the third trimester or any time blood pressure isn’t normal.

Oils which Are Not Skin-Safe: Called “hot” oils in natural health circles, some oils should always be diluted. High phenol levels, citrals, or cinnamic aldehyde can cause burning or irritation. Never add these oils directly to bath water, avoid contact with the eyes, and keep carrier oils around to dilute the culprit if it starts to burn.

If you wish to use these oils, dilute them as required, but be aware that those carrier oils may go rancid before the essential oils will. That means you may develop the rusty-orange flaw known as “dreaded orange spots.” DOS means your soap is going bad, though it is technically still safe to use.

Allergic Reactions: I once attended an in-home essential oils demonstration. The salesperson claimed that it’s impossible to be allergic to pure essential oils. Well, when my husband opened the lid and sniffed “pure” lavender oil from that high-quality multi-level-marketing company, his throat started to swell.

Play it safe with essential oils. If you’re deadly allergic to a plant, err on the side of caution instead of listening to someone who has read a short manual in order to sell oils. It is possible to experience allergic reactions from essential oils in soap. Some people even experience cross-sensitivity. This means, if you’re highly allergic to ragweed, you may react to chamomile oil.

Dermal sensitization is a type of allergic reaction. Though your first exposure to the oil may produce few reactions, each time you encounter it, the reaction becomes worse. Certain oils are more likely to cause dermal sensitization.

If you’re unsure how you will react to an oil, do a patch test before dumping a few tablespoons into a soap recipe. Dab a tiny bit on your skin. If the oil should not be used full-strength, mix it with a carrier oil at twice the recommended concentration to ensure you can judge reactions. Do not use that oil if you itch, develop a rash, hives, or blisters, or experience visceral reactions such as illness or breathing problems.

Phototoxicity: This means using the essential oil makes your skin more sensitive to burning in response to light. You don’t have to be allergic for it to happen. Just as some prescription medications make you more sensitive to sunburn, topical application of certain essential oils can do the same. Expressed citrus oils are especially culprit. If you want citrus fragrances, the best essential oils for soap making are distilled, not expressed. Sweet orange, yuzu, and tangerine are not known to cause phototoxicity.

Respiratory Sensitivity: Though some oils, like eucalyptus, make it easier to breathe, others do the opposite. My little sister is so sensitive to certain oils that just a whiff makes her cough and leave the room. Clove, peppermint, and thyme may irritate mucous membranes around the eyes or within the nose and lungs. Many essential oil gurus recommend testing suspect oils on the soles of feet before risking them closer to the face.


Photo by Shelley DeDauw

Seizing: Though this sounds painful and tragic, it’s only painful to soap-makers who had high hopes for their scented bars. Seizing is when the liquid soap batter suddenly hardens before you want it to. It occurs after “trace,” that moment when you can see a trace of the liquid on top of the surface. If you don’t transfer the soap to the mold, and fast, you could be stuck with a pot full of solid soap that you have to grate down and rebatch. Or the oil can cause a partial seize called “ricing,” where small rice-shaped lumps harden within the initial soap batter. Seized and riced soaps are still safe for use, after they’ve been cured, but they’re aesthetically undesirable.

Floral and spice oils, such as cinnamon and clove, seize more than patchouli or cedar. And some soap may seize faster than others. Coconut oil soap recipes, especially those with a higher percentage of coconut compared to other oils, reach trace so fast that adding a floral or spicy essential oil can cause a hard lump of soap still in the pot.

A good recommendation for avoiding seizure, other than choosing the best essential oils for soap making, is to mix soap at a lower temperature. Some products heat up due to natural sugars, such as goat milk soap recipes, so it’s important to keep an eye on your batch. Another recommendation is to avoid elaborate swirls if you’re using an oil which may cause problems.

I’ve seen a crafter save a “seize” by clumping it immediately into molds. This left gaps and swirls, since the soap hardened so fast it was almost solid before she scooped it all out of the pan. Undeterred, she mixed a second batch, with a complimenting color and fragrance, which did not rise or seize. She poured that over the chunky soap, tapping the mold against the counter to fill in all air bubbles. The end result was beautiful.

Anchoring. Some oils, no matter the strength, will still not remain long in soap. Citrus oils and lavender are especially short-lived. This can be avoided by combining these flighty fragrances with anchoring scents. Good anchoring base notes include patchouli, cedarwood, vetiver, anise, and a few others. Professional soapmakers, who want unique products, research how to combine anchoring base notes, middle notes, and the desired top notes to create fragrance blends which smell good and stay in soap. If you’re a beginner and a professional crafter won’t share her trade secrets, purchase pre-blended soapmaking oils.

Where can you find the best information on essential oils for soap making? Here are some good links from Brambleberry and the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

What do you think are the best essential oils for soap making? We want to hear about your experiences!

Best Essential Oils For Soap

This is not a complete list. Individual sensitivity may make some oils more dangerous than others.

Avoid During Pregnancy Possible Skin Irritants Possible Mucous Membrane Irritants Oils Causing Phototoxicity Oils Which May Cause Soap Seizing Oils Which Need Anchoring Oils Which May Discolor Soap
Aniseed, Basil,
Birch, Camphor,
Fennel, Hyssop,
Mugwort, Parsley, Pennyroyal, Rosemary,
Sage, Tansy, Tarragon,
Thula, Wintergreen,
Bay, Backhousia, Cassia, Cinnamon, Clove,
Citronella, Cumin, Lemongrass, Lemon Verbena,
Inula, Oregano, Tagetes, Tea Absolute, Turpentine,
Thyme, Peru Balsam
Bay, Caraway,
Cinnamon, Clove,
Angelica, Bergamot,
Expressed Lemon, Lime, Grapefruit
and Bitter Orange, Rue
Florals, Spices such
as Cinnamon and
Top-note scents such as citrus, fruity
fragrances, lavender,
and mint.
Vanilla can make cold process soap turn dark brown.
Use a stabilized vanilla
fragrance oil. Dark-colored
essential oils, such as patchouli,
can add yellowish or brownish tones.

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