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Many soap makers are looking for the most natural “everything” in their formulations. From where their ingredients are sourced, to the additives used for coloring, and even the aroma. My personal favorite smells are those from the ingredients alone. Think coffee with cocoa butter. Or bananas, or beer! But, not all aromas from the ingredients will survive saponification in the limited quantities you can add to soap (think lavender buds… you simple can’t add enough lavender buds to a soap and retain the lavender aroma). That’s where essential oils come into play.

So, let’s start with exploring a few “unscented” aromas, and then we’ll dine in to a few tips for formulating essential oil blends. These are all based on my personal experience with soap formulations, and I would love to hear yours! So, be sure to drop a comment below.

Kandra’s favorite “unscented” scents for natural soaps

IMG 3034

Creosote:

(aka Chaparral or Greasewood Plant)This is a plant native to the Sonoran desert. And it’s the reason why the rain smells to freaking amazing in Tucson. The herb is infused in oils, and the aroma lasts through saponification.

natural soap daniel

Balm of Gilead:

(Balsam poplar) the resin in these buds smells amazing, and also have some pretty darn amazing benefits. And, just like creosote, the aroma lasts through saponification.

beer nilla 01

Beer (or any alcohol):

I did some scent tests many years ago with vodka, beer, wine, and a few other spirits. They all had a lovely sweet and sometimes tangy aroma to them. My favorite was a local vanilla porter. It was made with real vanilla beans, soaped beautifully, and the high sugar content created a wonderfully sweet aroma… just like vanilla ice cream. Now, while the vanilla obviously didn’t survive saponification, your brain thought it did. The smell was fantastic.

choco butter 01

Cocoa butter, coffee, and chocolate:

Make a soap with just coffee, and you probably won’t smell the coffee. Make it with just chocolate, and you probably won’t smell the chocolate, but make a soap with cocoa butter, chocolate powder, and coffee, and it has a faint luscious aroma of a morning mocha.

alo friends elizabeth banana soap

Cocoa butter and bananas:

(can you tell that I love cocoa butter yet?) Banana soap has a great aroma to it on it’s own. It’s sweet, maybe faintly banana, but nothing like the artificial banana fragrances. Add cocoa butter to it and you’ll have a fantastic cocoa monkey aroma in your soap.

oatmeal unscented soap

Oatmeal:

My oatmeal and calendula is hands down the best seller at markets. And, I’m still shocked at how popular the scent is. Everyone who picks it up and takes a whiff comments on the amazing smell. There’s no aroma added, not even cocoa butter. It’s just a good clean smell. The same bar without the oatmeal has a flightier “soap” smell. But add in the oats and you have a dense clean aroma that makes you feel like taking a bath.

Speaking of the smell of soap. I’ve noticed that soaps make with palm oils have a “soapier” smell to them. I don’t soap with palm oil, so I’m not sure why this happens, or what palm oils smells like. But just by smell I can usually tell if a soap has palm oil in it. Aren’t our noses fascinating?

Kandra’s Down and Dirty EO Blend Testing:

Modified from Kandra’s original post on Soapmaking Natural Ingredients Forum

Note:  This method is for testing the aroma of the blend.  You will still need to research your essential oils for safe usage rates before adding to your final product. A great resource for that is the Essential Oil Calculator.

The basic idea is to formulate your blends in “parts” (essentially thinking in ratios).  Here are a few examples:

  • 1 part lavender to 1 part lemongrass (a 50/50 blend or 1:1 ratio)
  • 2 parts lavender, 1 part patchouli, 1 part cedarwood (50%, 25%, 25% or a 2:1:1 ratio)

While you can have as many “parts” to your blend as you want, remember to have top, base and middle notes.  

Top Notes:  These are typically what you smell first in a blend.

  • They are quickly noticeable but do not tend to last.
  • They tend to be light, fresh and uplifting.
  • Top notes are generally highly volatile.

Body or Middle Notes:  These balance your blend.

  • They make up about 50% (more or less) of the blend and can act as a buffer between the top and base notes.
  • The aroma is not immediately evident and may take a couple of minutes to arrive.
  • They are “normally” warm and soft fragrances.

Base Notes or Fixatives:  These give the blend staying power.

  • These fragrances are normally intense and heady.
  • They support the top note and compliment the middle notes.

Keep in mind, that single essential oils can have top, middle and base notes to them. There are oodles of resources for essential oils online that you can reference for more information about the “notes” in each oil. You can also obtain this information from your suppliers (in many cases).

Let’s test some blends!

First Gather Your Supplies

  • a jar with a lid
  • cotton swabs or cotton balls
  • essential oils

Next, blend and smell!

  • Place one drop of one essential oil on a cotton swab or cotton ball, creating one swab for each part. From our examples above, 1 part lavender to 1 part lemongrass, we would have two swabs – one with a drop of lavender, the other with a drop of lemongrass.
  • Place the cotton swabs in a jar with the lid closed.
  • WAIT AT LEAST 5 MINUTES and let the aromas mingle. You should also walk away and clear your nose (maybe even sniff some coffee beans as they will clear your sniffer!)
  • To smell your blend, don’t stick your nose in the jar.  Gently waft the jar under your nose, maybe about chin distance.  Just get a sense of the aroma.

If you don’t like what you sniffed (in this case, way too much lemongrass and not enough lavender) “dilute” your blend by adding more lavender swabs.  Wait another five minutes and sniff again.  When I’m formulating, I typically have at least three jars going.  In this case, I would have had 2 parts lavender & 1 part lemongrass in one jar, another with 3 parts lavender & 1 part lemongrass, and the third jar with 4 parts lavender with 1 part lemongrass.  Before smelling each jar, I clear my nose with coffee beans so I can discern them from each other.

Once you think you have the blend just right, put the lid back on the jar, then smell it again in a few hours or the next day.

Pro tip: Label your jars! Use a simple sticky note on each jar, or get super fancy and put a labeled piece of masking tape on each swab. This way you always know exactly what you are sniffing.

Soap staying power notes and tips:

If you are using your blend for soap, keep in mind that the chemical reaction (lye, heat, aromas of the base oils, herb, etc.) can affect your blend.  I like to do a small test batch with each new blend to see how it reacts in soap. I have also had some success with using clay to “anchor” the essential aromas in my soaps.  

I soak my essential oils in about 25-50% of their weight in clay. But remember, essential oils will eventually fade.  This is just part of nature, and another reason to use your soaps instead of hoarding them. Now isn’t that a challenge for us all! 😂

And my favorite tip: use your essential oils to compliment the aromas of your ingredients. My absolute favorite is my creosote soap (that’s the smell of the desert rain). Creosote has a magical aroma, but it’s not very strong in the dry soap bars. I add a bit of patchouli and eucalyptus to my formulation to boost the perception of the creosote aroma. Then, when the soap is used, the aroma of the creosote takes over!

4 thoughts on “Scenting Natural Soaps with Natural Aromas”

    1. Hi Tenli – for just a few minutes, sure it would! However, plastic and essential oils aren’t a good match. The essential oils can eat away through the plastic. I’m not sure one drop on a cotton ball would cause that reaction, but it could if enough comes in contact with the plastic. And I’m sure that reaction would effect the scent.

      I’m also a minimalist and try to only keep things around that can be reused. Which means I have so many mason jars sitting around that they are always my go to.

  1. Avatar of Jennifer Rowland
    Jennifer Rowland

    I am trying to get back to my ‘roots’ – that is I’ve been soaping for 16 years but really got sucked into fragrance oils and micas. So I am finding my way back and transitioning my customers with me by learning design techniques that will still give me ‘pretty’ soaps as they call them but using natural ingredients. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

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Thank you Kandra, for considering me your friend on this soapy color journey. It goes without saying that I am in awe of your work and ebullience. 

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