Glycerin soap is something that can cause a lot of confusion among new homemade soap hobbyists, because people can mean very different things when they use this definition. Here we will have brief look at what glycerin is and what role it plays in soap making.
First off, glycerin will occur naturally in all soaps since it is a natural byproduct of the saponification process. It can also be added in extra quantities to the soap and is naturally present in olive oil.
Chemically speaking the correct term is actually glycerol, since the substance in question is an alcohol. However, for some reason that term has never become popular in layman’s terms. The substance was given its name in 1813 by a Frenchman named Cheuvreul, drawing on the Greek word glykeros, which means sweet. Nowadays it is also used by the food industry as a humectant, solvent and sweetener.
Positive traits of glycerin soap
The humectant aspect is why glycerin is often mentioned as a benefit when it comes to soap making. What it means is that it actually attracts moisture, which assists in keeping your skin hydrated and supple. It is also commonly found useful in relieving various skin disorders and related symptoms, such as eczema and psoriasis. Just as with any other soap, a glycerin soap can be made from scratch using the cold method. The best commercial manufacturers that make this kind of soap will use vegetable based rather than animal fats. So if you are a user of that kind of glycerin soap, you will be doing something positive for your skin, and for the environment as well.
Watch out for misleading marketing
The mere fact that a soap contains glycerin, doesn’t automatically mean that it is particularly healthy or good for the environment though. The commercial varieties derived from petrochemicals and containing all sorts of suspicious ingredients may be “rich in glycerin” as well. In fact, fluid or semi-fluid soap will also contain glycerin, which mean someone could refer to that as “glycerin soap” as well.
In some instances the word glycerin soap will refer specifically to the melt and pour method of soap making, where you buy a ready made soap base and then simply add colorants, fragrances and exfoliants and any additives of your choice. These soap bases are readily available at most well stocked drugstores or supermarket. There is a large variety of soap bases to choose from, with an equally varying content. There are colorless or colored ones, and those made of glycerine, shea butter, goats milk etc. The big benefit with these soap bases is that they make the whole soap making process easier to handle.
In fact, many of those handmade soaps you find online and in small boutiques – often colorful, rich in fragrance and very easy on the eyes as well – have been made from ready made soap base. So “handmade” in this regard does not mean that soap has actually been made entirely by hand from the very beginning of the process. Finding out the exact ingredients of such a particular bar of soap can be tricky, since it may be impossible to accurately trace what kind of oils have been used for the base, not to mention where the advertised glycerin has been derived from.
If you are unsure of how a soap has been manufactured (usually a very clear, bright and smooth appearance is a dead giveaway for a melt and pour soap) you can make a simple microwave test. A melt and pour soap will typically begin to melt after about ten seconds in the microwave, while a cold process soap will take considerably longer before it starts to melt.
So in conclusion, glycerin soap is not necessarily as good as advertised. Particularly with commercial soap you should pay careful attention to the list of ingredients, if available (which they should be). Because although the soap in question may contain glycerin, it can be far from a natural product.