Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Student Question: “I am looking into making a recipe with shea butter and every website that I look at says not to use more than 10% or my soap will be soft, but I have noticed that a lot of your palm-free recipes have lots of shea butter, some with 30-40%. How does that work and do your soaps turn out too soft?”
Every question is an opportunity to learn something new. Although we cover shea butter in our books and provide information about its fatty acid composition and the soap properties produced, we focus more on the importance of the fatty acid profiles, rather than using (or not using) oils due to “other” reasons.
A lot of soap makers, both beginners and seasoned professionals, have this notion that certain oils should only be used in "X" amounts. This is often something that was read somewhere once or maybe it was shared by a specific blogger and has since remained a soap recipe "standard".
Shea butter is one of those oils and a lot of websites will state that it should only be used in very small amounts. I know that a lot of websites don’t update old posts, especially because it takes a LOT of work to manage a website, but just from a quick glance, we can see several of these suggestions on popular soap making blogs. SoapQueen states "In soap, Shea Butter does not contribute to lather or hardness (so it’s basically a super-luxe additive), and the recommended usage rate is typically 10% or less." SoapLovin suggests only using 5-15%. Yet, if you take a look at the vegan and palm-free recipes on these sites, you will notice that the shea butter usage rates jump up and most of the recipes that have shea butter in them, are actually used between 20-35%. But wait, I thought we were only supposed to use 5%? Also, I thought that adding shea butter to our recipes doesn’t add anything to the soap?
Contrary to this belief, shea butter actually has a pretty diverse fatty acid profile. It is comprised of approximately 6% Linoleic, 48% Oleic, 5% Palmitic, and 40% Stearic fatty acids. That’s almost FIFTY PERCENT saturated fats! Palmitic and stearic fatty acids most certainly add something to the soap- tons of saturated fatty acids! These fatty acids will increase the hardness of the soap, increase the lather stability, and will increase the lifespan. Shea butter also has a high concentration of linoleic and oleic acids, which provide conditioning properties and produce gentle and mild soaps. It really is a “luxe ingredient,” but it also serves a purpose as well…. well, actually lots of purposes- conditioning, hardening, increased lifespan, and lather stability. Not to mention, if you add some lauric acid to the mix, it will most certainly increase the lather stability and volume.
If you are using other high saturated fat ingredients in your soaps, like palm, tallow, lard, and shortening, it’s really not necessary to use even more saturated fats. BUT, if you aren’t going to be using any of those, say you are a vegan and/or don’t believe in the use of palm oil, then your soap needs stability and you need to find it from somewhere else. Without saturated fats, your soap will not last very long, it will have a less stable lather, and it will most likely be softer in nature and dissipate faster. A lot of softer soaps do harden with time as moisture is lost, but not everyone can wait for six months for their soaps to be ready for use. Another factor that may affect your decision to use higher concentrations of shea butter is the price, which is often more expensive than other high-saturated fatty acid options like lard, tallow, and palm. S
If you are worried about trace acceleration, a high saturated fatty acid content and unsaponifiables might be of concern to you as well, especially if you were making cold process soaps. When we make fluid hot process, we WANT a rapid formation of an emulsion and saponification rate. We specifically formulate our recipes around this principle and even go as far as to add ingredients just for this purpose- trace accelerants!
As you can see, there are lots of factors that play into determining the usage rates of an oil. It should be part of an equation. The usage rates should be efficient and productive, not just because someone else said or didn’t say so, or because some oil is supposed to be really good for you, or whatever reason, other than the facts.
It is also important to note that what works for someone else, might not work for you. You may find that you only like 5% shea butter in your soap recipes or you might like 50%! That is the beauty of creating your own soap, you can make YOUR own choices when creating an informed recipe. The possibilities are endless and it's up to you to decide which recipes work best for you.
Do you like shea butter or is it something you steer clear of? Feel free to share below!
**It is important to note that sometimes older blog posts don’t get updated and information is always changing, so I am in NO way trying to call anyone out in this post. My education has changed over time as I have learned new things and so has my soaping process and method of recipe formulating. It is also important to note that I make hot process soap, which is different than cold process soap so I have different needs.