What is ‘gel phase’ in cold process soap making?

Happy New Year, happy new hobby! Here’s my maiden batch of cold process soap, my gentle Chamomile bars, sitting proudly as it cures for the next 6 weeks.

I’m really happy to finally be able to make my own soap from base oils using the cold process method. This has been something that used to intimidate me despite being able to watch my sister conduct our Caticorn soap making classes over and over for more than 2 years.

I had to wait 36 hours before I was able to unmold this batch. I was told by my sister to wait for 2 days before unmolding, based on the oils I have decided to use. I was too excited to wait so upon waking up today, I went to check if I can already unmold my soap.

TIP: If you’re able to effortlessly peel away the silicone mold from your soap like in below photo, then your soap is ready to meet the world. ? If somehow you feel that your mold is having a hard time separating from your soap, then you need to wait 1 more day.

Do note that this batch went into gel phase within 2 hours of making it. I accidentally placed it on top of the cabinet and forgot that the sunset would expose the soap in direct sunlight. The heat accelerated the chemical reaction prompting my maiden batch into gel phase. But what is ‘gel phase‘ exactly and why or why don’t we need it?

If you can see the slightly darker oblong-shaped middle part of my soap in the photo below, that is what you call gel phase. In this scenario, my soap is already entering partial gel where the exothermic reaction of my oil and lye during saponification (plus the accidental exposure to direct sunset light!) is generating too much heat prompting the soap to enter into gel phase, where the soap becomes darker in color yet more translucent in opacity and shiny–just like gels.

If you’re a beginner soaper, this might cause you panic. But gel phase isn’t exactly a bad thing. In fact, if you’re using a high ratio of soft oils like olive oil, avocado oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, rice bran oil, hemp seed oil, apricot kernel oil, grapeseed oil, and etc., it’s actually recommended to make your soap batch enter into gel phase as it makes your soap become harder, less sticky, and therefore easier to unmold. Also, according to some soap makers, soaps that went into gel phase would last longer in the shower. The downside is, of course, the heat involved will surely burn off much of your fragrance oils, especially if you use pure essential oils to scent your soap.

Some soap makers actually like bringing their soap batches into gel phase as it gives a better user experience for their customers because of its longevity in the shower. If you’re using natural colorants like madder root powder or other powdered herbs, the gel phase helps make the colors look brighter and it makes the colors pop. Without gel phase, these natural colorants or herb powders may look dull on your soap.

But for those who are into pastel colors and the creamy aesthetic, they wouldn’t want to let their soap batches enter the gel phase. Ungelled soaps would look creamy, matte, and would typically have pastel colors. Also, if you’re formulating with essential oils, milk, or even tea in your soaps, you wouldn’t want it to enter gel phase as the process would definitely scorch your delicate ingredients. So, there’s always a place and time when you’d want to use this phase to your advantage.

Good thing, for this batch, I didn’t include any heat-sensitive ingredients to worry about. In fact, the gel phase can actually work towards my advantage as I have formulated this with a high ratio of soft oils. Now, I had to force it to gel to make sure the entire soap goes into gel phase and not just the middle. Partial gel will let your soap look like it has a bruise in the middle as the heat would usually start from the middle outwards so the gelling would follow the same pattern.

So how do you force your soap to gel fully? EASY! Actually, there are many ways you can force your soap into gel. But in this case, all I have to do is to insulate it–or put a clean towel over my soap batch and leave it to finish saponification for the next 24-48hours. Since in cold process soapmaking, some of the heat released in saponification is absorbed when the soap gels (endothermic reaction). However, if you’re making your soap in a cooler environment, let’s say during the winter, you might need to use a little help from your oven or what you call the CPOP (Cold Process/Oven Process) where you pop your soap loaf in an oven for 30minutes–but make sure to use the lowest setting–and leave it there for the next 24hrs to initiate heat as it finishes saponification.

My maiden soap batch turned out well even with just the towel method. I made sure to cut the loaf in 1-in width and set them to cure in this plastic drying rack that I just bought from the Japanese dollar store yesterday. I love how it looks like candy cane but I’m more excited to try the soap once it finishes its curing time after 6 weeks. In the meantime, I guess I’ll make a few more batches so I have more soaps to use in the next 1-2months!

Have you ever tried your hand at cold process soap making? What’s your favorite oils to use? Any recommended scents that wouldn’t cause acceleration and still be there after curing? Share your tips below in the comments!


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