One of the reasons I love both baking and soapmaking is one thing they have in common: Both of the processes seem more like magic to me than chemistry. In baking you start with some flour, butter, sugar and eggs and an hour later you have a cake. In soapmaking you start, literally, with oil and water (which the saying specifically points out do not mix) but throw in some lye and 24 hours later you have soap. Magic!
One of the reasons I started making my own soap was to find a healthier way to clean the chlorine off of my skin after swimming. I mean, chlorine is simply dreadful for your skin, but then you go to clean it off with what – more chemicals? The first ingredient in the most popular commercial soap on the market is sodium laurel isethionate, followed by a list of about 20 other chemicals I've never heard of – and I'm supposed to be using this on my skin? No thanks.
I also wanted to make sure that no animal products were used in my soap (except possibly some goat's milk or honey, which don't involve slaughtering the poor animals). And I didn't want to use any palm oil, since the harvesting of palm oil has horrible effects on the environment, destroying thousands of acres of rainforest every year.
Even sustainably sourced palm oil can be a problem – if everyone continues using it, farmers will continue to clear rainforest to plant more of it, and sustainably sourced palm oil will only make up a small percentage of its production. Not only that, but since there is no regulatory body in the U.S. to enforce false claims, anyone selling palm oil, or anything containing it, can simply write “sustainable” on their product, regardless of its actual source. Until there are some significant improvements in the certification and enforcement of sustainable sources, I would rather not use it at all.
So how do you make vegan soap? It's pretty easy, actually, once you learn about the different properties of soapmaking oils and butters. Olive oil and coconut oil form a good percentage of most of my recipes. Olive oil is very nourishing but it also makes for a pretty soft soap without any firmer oils or butters, while coconut oil makes a much more solid and cleansing soap. I also like to add a small amount of beeswax to soaps that would otherwise be too soft. Not only does beeswax make the bars harder and last longer, but it is also great for your skin.
Given the amount of chemicals we encounter on a daily basis, and taking into consideration the fact that our skin is our largest organ of elimination, using all natural soaps made from just oil, water and lye seems like the best option for maintaining not just healthy skin, but your health in general.