Formulating Recipes; A Look at Fatty Acids


Hello my magnificent masters of suds! This week’s blog topic was inspired by a truly wonderful fellow soap maker who recently reached out to me in an email. The highest honor I’ve received since being given this awesome opportunity to write guest blogs for Nurture Soap is in the messages I’ve received! I’ve received emails of gratitude, messages from fellow crafters with excellent questions, and such sweet compliments which have left me feeling truly flattered and so thankful to be a part of this amazing crafting community! To every single crafter who has reached out to me, I want you to know that in every way, you brighten my days and are a true gift to me! Even when life get so busy that I’m not always able to reply as quickly as I wish I could, I value and appreciate you all so incredibly much...  You keep me going and inspire me in so many ways!

In the email this very sweet crafter sent me, I was politely asked if I might offer help in formulating a soap recipe, or if I wouldn’t mind taking a look at a recipe this crafter had formulated herself. She was new to soap making and was hoping to formulate her own palm-free, vegan soap recipe. My very first question back was a kind inquiry as to the reason why this recipe needed to be both vegan and palm-free. Not that there is anything wrong with a recipe such as this by any stretch of the imagination (And in fact, the very soaps I sell myself are without animal by-products.), I just wanted to make sure that her desire to create a vegan, palm-free soap recipe wasn’t based upon guilt or shame. I firmly believe that no soap maker on the face of this planet should ever be made to feel shamed for the ingredients they choose to incorporate into their handmade soaps. Just as handmade soaps are as personal to the crafter as the craft is itself, so too are the ingredients in which we all freely choose to use and share with our friends, family and customers, by way of our incredible talent! What you use in your soap recipes is entirely your choice, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that... Your freedom of choice is a beautiful thing! 

After corresponding with this fellow soap maker more, I came to know that she herself was vegan, and that by personal preference alone, she preferred to use recipes which were palm-free as well. Her biggest dilemma in formulating such a recipe though was that of cost and the properties of the soap itself. She went on to explain that every time she made an improvement to the formulation in one area, it meant a sacrifice in another. For example, every time she tried to improve the recipe’s conditioning properties, it always led to a sacrifice in hardness. When she tried to improve the recipe’s lather, its conditioning properties took a nosedive. She was stuck in what I like to call “SoapCalc hell”!

Indeed, I feel that a lot of new soap makers can become easily discouraged by SoapCalc, especially when it’s been drilled into the mind that the “perfect” soap recipe has an INS number of 160. To make it even more frustrating, there’s all these other numbers which pop up when you hit that “Calculate Recipe” button, and that can really make things feel a bit overwhelming! So, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s back up here for a moment and talk about that infamous INS number. “INS” stands for... Well, no one really knows with 100% certainty actually! If I had my way, “INS” would stand for “It’s Nothing to Sweat”, or “It’s Not a dealbreaker, Seriously!” I’ve made soap batches that have stayed within every recommended usage rate for the fats I incorporated into my recipe, and had perfect INS scores of 160 that I didn’t enjoy nearly as much as batches which pushed the boundaries, and had less-than-perfect INS numbers... Really! It all goes back to the fact that while SoapCalc is an absolutely wonderful tool and guide for soap makers, it most certainly isn’t the “soap making Bible”.

When I formulate recipes, I do so with a few factors in mind, which have far more importance to me than hitting that soapy “bullseye” of 160. Certainly, one of the biggest factors is cost (You can make a positively fantastic, outstandingly skin-loving bar of soap without breaking the bank on expensive butters and luxury oils!), and the other is my fatty acids. Far more important to me than that INS number down in the lower left of my computer screen are those numbers in the upper right. I’m talking about my saturated to unsaturated fats ratio. To be completely honest, I don’t pay much mind to my recipe’s INS number, I’m looking at my fatty acid profile. A recipe with a balanced saturated to unsaturated fats ratio makes for a wonderfully balanced bar of soap! If ever there were a proverbial “bullseye” to hit (Which there’s really not... The sky’s the limit when it comes to formulating recipes!), it would be in formulating a recipe which remains at, or very close to, a saturated to unsaturated fats ratio of 40:60. 

But what did all this mean for my friend and fellow crafter looking for help in formulating a nice, balanced, skin-loving, palm-free, vegan soap recipe? Of course, I was incredibly honored that she’d reach out to me for help, and I was more than delighted to do just that, but there’s also this old proverb that I firmly believe in too! It goes something along the lines of, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. I didn’t just want to give this dear crafter a recipe she could use for a day, I wanted to explain to her exactly why I formulated the recipe the way I did so she could expand upon it, change it, improve it, and make it her own for a lifetime! To understand your fatty acids in soap making (And as such, understand the properties of your oils/fats/butters.) is to hold the key to always being able to easily formulate your best, most loved soap recipes!

So, what did this particular recipe look like? Let’s take a look! The palm-free, vegan soap recipe that I suggested to this kind crafter, based on the properties she desired most in her soaps (Hardness, conditioning and lather.) consisted of 40% olive oil, 30% coconut oil, 20% shea butter and 10% castor oil. I suggested a superfat of 5%, and a lye concentration of 33%. Let’s take a look at the “whys” of this recipe, and a quick glance at what, in general, makes fatty acids so special when formulating your own soap recipes!


In formulating a recipe that was both palm-free and vegan, I turned to shea butter! But why is this exactly? Well, butters are what are commonly referred to as “hard oils”. They’re the fats within your recipe which are typically solid at room temperature (Unless you live in Florida and your coconut oil is only solid for 2 months out of the whole year!). Just as this reference implies, hard oils, among other things, help to contribute to the hardness of your soap. This is especially helpful to know when it comes to making substitutions in your recipes. As a general guideline, hard oils are substituted with hard oils, and soft oils (Fats which are liquid at room temperature.) are substituted with soft oils. As the reference “soft oils” implies, these are fats which, among other things, generally contribute to the moisturizing/conditioning properties of a soap recipe. In a recipe such as the palm-free, vegan one we’ll be discussing here, without the addition of hard oils, such as lard, tallow, palm oil, etc., the result can be a rather softer bar of soap. Shea butter steps in to help increase some of the hardness lost due to not incorporating these certain fats. But why shea exactly? Well, butters can be a bit pricey, and some are just downright expensive! In the world of butters, shea butter is a much more affordable option, and it just so happens to be super skin-loving too!

Shea butter is cold-pressed from the seeds of the Karite tree and is wonderfully moisturizing! Like cocoa butter, shea butter doesn’t fully saponify... It can contain anywhere from 4% to 11% unsaponifiables (Components within the butter that cannot bond with a lye molecule to become soap.). Hence the reason for the recipe’s 5% superfat and 30% coconut oil. Many soap makers feel that recipes containing more than 25% coconut oil can be drying to the skin unless counteracted by an increase in superfat (Extra oils added to one’s recipe for the purpose of remaining “free floating” within the soap.). With the unsaponifiable components within the shea butter in this recipe, you can be rest assured it’ll help to keep the soap nice and conditioning! Shea butter really can and does go a long way in soap making... It doesn’t require much to enjoy the skin-loving benefits shea provides! A more commonly recommended usage rate for shea butter within a soap recipe falls typically within the 5% to 15% range. Regardless of more commonly used rates though, there’s really no maximum amount you can use in your recipes. One would simply need to remain aware of the properties shea butter imparts in soap, and the outcome it would produce at higher percentages. For example, shea butter won’t contribute much to abundant lather, but what it lacks in copious lather, it makes up for in its conditioning, moisturizing, emollient and humectant properties. For this particular recipe, this is where that 30% coconut oil and 10% castor oil come into play! The higher percentage of shea butter will produce a delightfully conditioning bar of soap, while the coconut and castor oils will help to increase and sustain lather which the shea butter may hinder. Soaps high in shea butter make awesome bars to use during the winter! 100% shea butter soaps are extremely conditioning, with more compact, low-lying lather similar to that of castile (100% olive oil) soap.


So far, we’ve got a palm-free, vegan soap recipe that is wonderfully conditioning, due to lots of shea butter, but how does one formulate a soap recipe that won’t break the bank, contains simple and accessible ingredients, and produces a balanced bar of soap? After all, conditioning is great, but most soap makers want to produce soaps which are nice and hard, cleansing to the skin, have beautiful, bubbly lather, and a lovely creaminess too. This is where understanding the properties of each oil within a recipe (And most importantly, fatty acids.), make their entrance! Within a recipe, you’ll find that your saturated fats, or “hard oils”, will be higher in lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acids. A recipe’s unsaturated fats, or “soft oils”, will be higher in ricinoleic, oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids. Let’s take a look at each one of these, and the roles they play within soap recipes!

Lauric Acid is a saturated fatty acid. What does it do for soap? Well, it contributes to hardness, cleansing and lather. The coconut oil in our recipe is high in lauric acid. Too much lauric acid can be drying, but this can be counteracted by reducing the percentage of coconut oil, increasing the recipe’s superfat, or balancing it with other fatty acids known for their moisturizing capabilities.

Myristic Acid is a saturated fatty acid. It also contributes to bar hardness, cleansing and lather. Again, the coconut oil in our recipe contributes to the myristic acid content, but a good replacement for it can be found in Babassu oil, which also contains a good amount of myristic acid.

Palmitic Acid is a saturated fatty acid which contributes to hardness, creaminess and a stable lather. Palm oil, lard, tallow and cocoa butter are all high in palmitic acid. A palm-free, vegan recipe, such as this, will be considerably lower in palmitic acid, especially since we haven’t included any cocoa butter. That’s absolutely okay though... Palmitic acid can range anywhere from 4%, all the way up to 20% and yield a great bar of soap!

Stearic Acid is yet another saturated fatty acid which contributes to hardness and a nice, stable lather. Butters are high in stearic acid, and we’ll find a high amount of it in this recipe from the shea butter. Again, you’ll find many palm-free, vegan recipes to be higher in stearic acid and lower in palmitic acid. A recipe with as little as 3% stearic acid, all the way up to 15% stearic acid, will still yield a great bar of soap! In fact, a high stearic acid content will help make up for the lower palmitic acid content found within many palm-free, vegan recipes.

Ricinoleic Acid is an unsaturated fatty acid which offers conditioning, moisturizing, and lather-stability properties to a soap recipe. The only oil that’s readily available to most soap makers which you’ll find to be high in ricinoleic acid is castor oil. Ricinoleic acid seems to be one of great personal preference, as how much castor oil one incorporates into a recipe directly affects the ricinoleic acid content. Many soap makers prefer to keep their usage rate of castor oil at, or below, 5%. On a personal level, I absolutely love recipes with lots of castor oil, and it shows in this particular recipe’s high ricinoleic acid content of 9%.

Oleic Acid is an unsaturated fatty acid which conditions and moisturizes. It’s no surprise that that’s where the olive oil in this recipe comes into play! Of course, you’ll also find high amounts of oleic acid in high oleic sunflower and canola oils. This is why these popular soap making oils make great substitutes for some, or all, of the olive oil within a recipe.

Linoleic Acid is an unsaturated fatty acid which conditions and moisturizes, as well as adds a silky-soft lather. Oils considerably high in linoleic acid tend to have short shelf lives, and are usually referred to as “luxury oils”. Evening primrose oil, hemp seed oil, carrot seed oil and rosehip seed oil, etc., are all high in linoleic acid. The short shelf life of oils high in linolenic acid is precisely why many seasoned soap makers prefer to keep the sum of their linoleic and linolenic acids within their recipes below 15%. Many soap makers believe that a sum higher than 15% significantly increases the likelihood of one’s soaps developing “DOS”, or “Dreaded Orange Spots”. DOS most commonly occurs when “free floating oils within a bar of soap go rancid and develop small, visible, orange spots. In this particular recipe, the sum of the linoleic and linolenic acids is 7%.

Linolenic Acid is an unsaturated fatty acid. It contributes to moisturizing and conditioning properties. Again, you’ll find many luxury oils to be high in linolenic acid, but it’s also present in small amounts in more well-known, commonly-used oils too, such as rice bran oil, sunflower oil and olive oil.

The properties of these fatty acids are exactly why I formulated this palm-free, vegan recipe the way I did. Based on affordable, skin-loving oils/fats, and the fatty acid profile of each one in consideration of the properties desired in the finished soap, I was honored to help a fellow soap maker begin her own formulating journey! Here’s what this recipe looks like when plugged into SoapCalc:

Remember, when plugging your own formulations into SoapCalc, don’t worry if your recipes fall short of that “magical” INS number of 160. Take you fatty acid ratios and profiles to heart more, and you’ll always end up with recipes that you love... That’s what matters most! This is a great recipe which makes for a fantastic soap frosting recipe too, but it’s also very customizable! Please feel free to enjoy it in your own soap making adventures, or tailor it to make it uniquely yours! Beyond lye safety, there are no “rules” in soap making, only guidelines and recommendations. 


I apologize for this week’s blog being all talk and no creativity... I really do live for the opportunity of being able to show you, my fellow, amazing crafters, all the wonderful things that can be created using Nurture Soap’s phenomenal products! It’s just that when a kindred soap maker came to me for advice and help, not only was I happy to do so, I was also incredibly honored! Getting to know this fellow crafter was an absolute pleasure (And I hope she’s reading this now so she knows just how grateful I am for her inspiration!). This experience reminded me of a lesson I wanted to share as well: The answers to your questions are always out there- somewhere. Be it through the help of social media groups dedicated to helping new soap makers to grow, an informative online article or blog (Hopefully this one included!), or even newfound friends with shared interests; the answers are usually just around the corner, waiting for the questions to be asked! My biggest hope for all crafters though, whether your talents are completely new to you, or you’ve been improving them for years, is that when you do ask questions, the answers are always easy to find and even easier to put into practice... Not because someone handed you a fish though, but because someone amazing took you under their wing and taught you how to fish! So many of my fellow soap-aholics did that very same thing for me, and I will always be so eternally grateful to them! To them, and all of you, you know who you are... THANK YOU!!