Essential Oils in Soapmaking
Now that I'm a year into my soap making adventure, I think I have even more questions than I did at the start. This is a good sign because it means that I'm learning, and asking questions is always good when learning something new!
Over the next year I'm going to share my research with you. They say that if you can teach a subject, then you will know that subject, so partly I'll be sharing so that I can learn better :-) I have questions on topics such as natural colorants, essential oils, creating that "perfect" soap recipe, making liquid soap and shampoo, and making hair conditioner and lotions. I've even made a tattoo balm that worked great on my new ink that I'd like to test out. Seems that I have more ideas than I have time to put into!
So to start, in several of the last batches of soap that I've made, I have been exploring the use of botanical colorants and naturally, essential oils to scent them, such as this soap below which is colored with indigo and cocoa swirls, and scented with a blend of clary sage, black pepper and patchouli.
When I began making soap, I shied away from using either one of these ingredient categories for a two main reasons. One is that I was attracted to all the bright colors and fun fragrances that micas, pigments, oxides and synthetic scents can offer! The other, more practical reason, was that natural colorants are inherently tricky to use with consistency, and essential oils are expensive. (to see just one expensive oil, check out this clary sage)
As time went on, I came to appreciate the more subtle beauty that natural colorants can offer. However, the expense was truly an issue. I knew that I'd get bored with just two or three of the more affordable essential oils. I was going to want a BUNCH in order to play with blending! So, in order to justify the expense, I needed to do my research to find out if essential oils (EOs) are all they claim to be. Were they in any way superior to fragrance oils? Was there a better (read: less expensive!) place that I could get quality essential oils?
Also, a skeptic by nature, I'm driven to question any claim that seems to good to be true. This can be both a burden and a blessing! Of course, with EOs, there are many, many claims being made that immediately make me question if any of it is true. Have you ever heard that life isn't just black and white? That there are shades of grey? Well, this is the case with EOs as well. There are good things about them, a few bad things, and a lot of stuff that's in between that you can chalk up to just plain preference.
To start with, let's discuss what I will and what I won't cover. Research on EOs has been conducted in fields as diverse as the food industry to medicine.(2) It's definitely not in my purview to discuss medicine, and so I won't even try. As for the food industry, I'll leave that for another time, as I'm not interested in putting the oils in my body, only on! In that regard, there is a little evidence that some EOs are beneficial for certain topical ailments(4) (looking at you, Tea Tree oil! (5)) but even those applications hover precariously close to medicine, and as a soap maker, NOT a doctor, that's not something I'm prepared to do. So, that leaves me with one angle: the benefits of EOs from an aromatherapy standpoint.
The good news is, when the benefits of essential oils are considered through the lens of aromatherapy, the verdict is a little more positive. Numerous studies have shown that, even if doctors can't exactly say why, scents can improve a patient's mood and overall well-being.(1)
I found that several scents have been tested: lavender, bergamot, frankincense, and lemon to name a few.(6,7) They are thought to improve mood and can relieve anxiety, stress, and even lift depression.(1, 3) Not such a bad deal! And when you compare the potential negative effects from some synthetic fragrances, it makes essential oils seem to be the better choice.(3) Also, doctors have found that the side effects of essential oils is less toxic (or non-exsistent) compared to synthetic drugs.(3)
Of course, the evidence is a little thin, but that's only because more testing is needed and unfortunately, not likely to happen any time soon. Major drug companies have little interest in backing research into alternative medicines that may put a dent in their bottom line. And it's not that the research isn't happening, it's just that much of it is protected as proprietary information.(2)
Perhaps the best thing to take away from what is known from reputable sources is this: essential oils, when used as aromatherapy, at worst won't hurt you. It may even help you! If you are pregnant, or attempting to use essential oils as a replacement for conventional medicine, seek the advice of a medical professional. As with anything it seems, moderation and caution should be heeded. Essential oils need to be mixed into a carrier oil or something similar, such as soap, before being used on skin. Direct contact of some essential oils can irritate your skin, causing a rash and discomfort.
Another issue with the industry is that there is no regulation at this time. This means that you must really do your research before buying that $5 Rose oil from the drugstore! Most likely if it even has any rose oil in it, it's been diluted in a carrier oil. Some oils are rightfully very, very expensive, so if a price on that Sandalwood seems to good to be true, it probably is! Do your research if you're looking into using EOs in your home.
I do hope that I've added to your knowledge of essential oils. Below are links to the articles that I read and used for information here. There are many, many more sources out there, and the best place to start for a more thorough understanding is your local library. Books will give you a much more in-depth understanding than a page on the internet!
For my part in soap making, I'm going to continue to use essential oils, but I'm also going to use fragrance oils. Sometimes one just wants a maraschino cherry scented soap! Everything in moderation......
Wishing you all a Prosperous 2018!