Let’s talk about soap. Or rather, non-soap soap . Not making much sense, am I?

AKA syndet bars, non soap soap bars or shower bars have been around for ages. They are often marketed as “cleansing bars” or “dermatological bars”  with the term “soap free” or “soaps without soap.”  These are different from soap as you know it, as they are not made via saponification of a fat, oil or fatty acids with sodium hydroxide. They have a neutral pH of about 5- 5.5, compared to regular soap which is naturally alkaline with a pH of around 9-10.

Syndet  bars are made up mostly of surfactant blends with low water content. Often synthetic blends of harsh detergents are blended with colorings and fragrances to get your regular commercial shower or soap bars. SLS and SLES for example, are harsh detergent based surfactants that can irritate skin which can lead to itchy scalp and dandruff.  It also has potentially toxic effects on aquatic organisms. So make sure your bars do not include these ones. The word Syndet is made up from both synthetic & detergent. It sounds bad, but by using gentle, natural, eco friendly surfactant or tension-active agents, we have a safe product that is not like the original syndet bars used to be.

The surfactants used here are mostly in powder form, with a smaller amount of liquid ones to get a nice foaming effect, which is what everyone expects from products we wash with.

Natural, plant based powdered surfactant SCI , or Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, is a sodium salt ester of coconut fatty acid and will be a large part of the bar as this helps makes a product solid, with some wax or stearic acid used to help further harden the bar.

Firstly let me say that I do love all those absolutely gorgeous saponified soaps made by fellow formulators and artisans, they are so creative and their skill and artistic talent are much appreciated and respected. I do crack and buy lovely goat milk or honey soap when I do come across them, they are so gorgeous and lovely. I just have a personal preference to making these as I find them easier to fabricate. I have made beautiful cold processed soaps before and I probably will again at some point as I like to change and improve on various techniques. But for long term, daily use, I personally do prefer an organic syndet bar to protect my skin.

Syndet versus Soap

I will point out a few advantages to these shower bars over soap:

  1. We do not need to work with lye, which is harsh and can be dangerous to work with if not careful.
  2. There is no need to go through the saponification process. We can use our syndet bars right away, just wait 24 hours for them to harden. There is no need to cure one for weeks until the lye transforms the fat into soap and it is safe to use.
  3. While making our syndet bars, at the end we are able to adjust the Ph as needed. We can get a lower ph of 5 or 5.5 then we have with a normal soap, which we cannot adjust at all. So that means we can adapt our bars to our physiological skin ph of 5, so our epidermis with all its complex microbial systems and friendly bacteria is not whacked out of order by a higher ph which can kill them all, aggress the skin and destroy the protective barrier.
  4. Syndets are recommended for cleansing sensitive skin and even baby skin, as they are far more gentle and skin-friendly than traditional soaps. People who wash hands constantly use these.
  5. Since we have a non alkaline ph in our bars, we have the options of using various herbal and botanical extracts, colorings and aromas that would not survive saponification or alkaline ph levels of a regular soap.
  6. We can make very small or large batches and use beautiful molds to make one bar or more.

Fabrication process

These adorable bars take a little practice to perfect. Finding the right balance of wax/surfactant to get a hard enough bar, may take several trials. SCI is a solid surfactant, the only one I use, and the first step is getting this ingredient to the right consistency. It must be heated on quite high temperature, and the dry powder or tiny granules (I’ve never used the noodles) will swell, they do not melt, with the water content and become smooth and gel like. This step takes time and high temperature, mixing and pouring the right way at the right moment. Keep trying till you understand the process and see how the ingredients work together. It’s all a learning experience and practice will make perfect!!

Always take a pH measure at the end, and then you can adjust it accordingly in your next batches by adding more or less lactic acid as needed. Please let me know if you have any questions about this as I won’t go into too much detail about pH adjustment here.

These bars harden quite fast and must be poured very quickly into their molds. I find smaller batches much easier to manufacture. I can’t even imagine making these in large quantities in an artisanal lab. Stirring and pouring techniques would need to be done differently and with special equipment.

To preserve or not to preserve?

I do not add preservatives to my solid shower or shampoo bars all the time. Many have been made without and used over several weeks time with no signs of contamination, even when left on  humid shower racks. I do recommend letting them air dry between uses by keeping them in a bowl that has some holes so they are not sitting in water puddles between uses. If you add herbs, clays, aloe vera, or other ‘live’ botanical extracts, test your product for microbial stability and you might want to add a preservative system.  I used an herbal infusion here instead of plain water so this is the main reason I chose to add a preservative in this formula.

I am happy to share a lovely sample formula, so please give it a try and let me know how it turns out!!

Sample Formulation

stage Ingredients 100 gm
A Hibiscus, Rose & Mallow Infusion 30
A Hibiscus Glycerite 7.5
A SCI 25
B Beeswax 20
B Coconut Oil 6
B Vitamin E .5
C Coco Glucoside 5
C Betaine 3
C Hibiscus powder .3
C Lactic acid powder 1
D Sorbate & Benzoate .7
D Monoi  aroma 1

Fabrication Method

  1. Boil water and infuse your herbs in it for 15-20 minutes, then strain.
  2. Prepare A phase in a medium sized heat proof bowl                         .
  3. Prepare B phase in a small metal bowl or glass beaker. Prepare other phases in separate beakers.
  4. Place A bowl in water bath and start heating . Use heat proof gloves, the containers will get hot. This step can take time, be patient and stir ingredients well until a smooth blend is obtained and you cannot see individual pieces of the SCI. It will get translucent and thick.                                                             
  5. Heat oil phase B (not vitamin E) till melted, and then add this slowly to the SCI phase A while mixing by hand with mini whisk or spatula until well combined. Keep this mix on the warm water bath but with the heat turned off. Otherwise your blend will solidify too fast. Vitamin E can be added once the blend is cooled slightly.
  6.  Add phase C and stir gently, still keeping everything on the water bath.
  7. Add rest of ingredients, stirring well after each addition. Make sure everything is measured out in small beakers and ready to add quickly                                 
  8. If you work fast you can take a small amount of product and mix it in some distilled water, and take your PH measure. You might not have time to adjust it if it is too high, but note down the PH, and in your next batch you can add more or less lactic acid  to your formula as needed  to get the desired pH of 5 or  5.5. Remember, a tiny % will change the pH quiet drastically so go ea     
  9. Pour quickly into molds. Tap the molds on counter to release any eventual air bubbles, there are usually a few that come to surface. Sometimes the mix is more pourable than others, if it’s too thick, you can work with a spatula or spoon to get the paste into your molds.
  10. Let cool in fridge or in room temperature, if it is not too hot in your work area. After 24 hours the bar is solid and ready to use .                                                                                             

Feel free to swap vegetal oils or use herbal powders to those you prefer. Betaine can be replaced with sodium lactate, if you don’t have either, just try the formula without and recalculate the % to add up to a total of 100 . This should make 2 small bars. Hibiscus gives a light pink color to your bar but it can fade over time. Other colorants of your choice can be added as you wish !!

I used my home made hibiscus glycerite, but if you don’t have this plain vegetale glycerine is fine. Use herbs you have on hand to infuse into your water phase if you like, or plain distilled or deionized water will do.

Have fun experimenting to get the effect you want and please share your trials with us!!

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