Common Soapmaking Herbs

It is up for debate whether or not the properties of herbs survive the soap-making process. What is clear, however, is that herbs enrich the experience of making soap. Working with herbs is a real way to get “back to nature.” If back to nature is not your bag, herbs are useful to any soapmaker because of their color and texture possibilities.

The following list is in no way intended to be an all-inclusive study of the use of herbs in soapmaking. If there is something you want to try that isn't on the list, go find out about it. The study of herbs often leads to making soap, and just as often making soap leads to herbal studies. If you are entranced by herbs, you have all kinds of resources available to you. You may even want to start your education by organizing your kitchen herb cupboard!

  • Aloe (Aloe vera). Good for healing burns; available as fresh gel from aloe leaves, packaged gel, and in liquid form. Add fresh gel to casting soap and hand-milling projects just before pouring for skin care benefit. Use aloe juice in place of water in lye soap recipes.

  • Borage (Borago officinalis). Anti-inflammatory and emollient; available as fresh or dried leaves and flowers. Take care with fresh leaves as they are very spiny. Infuse leaves and flowers in water or oil for skin care benefit.

  • Calendula (Calendula officinalis). The herb is very susceptible to insect infestation, so store it in a tightly sealed plastic storage container. To make a healing oil, macerate fresh flowers in vegetable oil. Replenish the petals daily to concentrate the oil. Use in small amounts in hand milling and at the end of the hot process to add skin care benefit. The dried petals keep their shape in soapmaking.

  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, Matricaria recutita). Has soothing, calming, and healing properties; available as fresh or dried flowers. Infuse in oil or water for herbal benefit. Use ground flowers to add texture and scrub benefit to finished soap. If used in quantity, the flowers hold some of their scent in some soap-making applications.

  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). This common weed has healing and astringent properties. Don't use if the plants have been poisoned with weed killer. Make an infusion of leaves in water or oil for herbal benefit.

  • Dill (Anethum graveolens). Has a tangy, fresh scent; available dried or as a fresh herb in the produce section. Dried dill holds its color quite well in soapmaking, even in cold process.

  • Lavender (Lavandula officinalis, Lavandin grosso, etc.). Has soothing, calming, healing, and cleansing properties; available as dried flowering tops and leaves. Infuse water and oils for herbal benefit, but neither the color nor the fragrance makes it through the lye process well, if at all.

  • Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Scent is deeply lemony, with varying degrees of mintiness; available as fresh or dried leaves. Oil and water infusions keep some scent through the lye soap process, but not much. Dried crumbled leaves add texture to finished soap.

  • Lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla). A lemony astringent; available as fresh or dried leaves. Use dried leaves in flakes or ground for texture in finished soap. Pick out stiff leaf parts and remember that the leaves are fibrous and hard to clean. Make infusions with water and oils. Lemon scent does not come through well in lye soap. It works better as a liquid in hand milling, but most of the lemon scent does not transfer.

  • Mint (Mentha piperita, Mentha spicata, etc.). Tingly, fragrant, and invigorating; available as fresh or dried leaves, whole, cut for tea, or powdered. Add ground or flaked leaves to finished soap for texture. Make oil and water infusions for release of color. Green infusions will turn orange in the presence of lye, and the color will fade. Add ground mint to mint essential oil or other essential oils for a release of green color that will hold up slightly in lye soap. Use strong tea as liquid in hand milling for a slightly minty, light green effect.

  • Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). An astringent; it is best used fresh from the garden. Use the stems, flowers, leaves, and seeds. Make strong water and oil infusions. Use a water infusion as the liquid in hand milling for the best skin care benefit.

  • Rose (Rosa damascena). Soothing and pleasing; available as dried and fresh petals. Use dried and ground in flakes of powder for texture. Use whole to infuse oils or water. Red rose petals make pink infusion, but the color doesn't last in the soap. Whole petals turn brown and ugly in soap.

  • Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Refreshing and invigorating to the skin; available fresh or dried, powdered or chopped. Add powder or finely chopped dried leaves to soap for texture. Infuse in oils or water. If you are pregnant or nursing, consult your health care practitioner before using rosemary.

  • Saffron (Crocus sativus). Saffron is the dried stamens of a certain kind of crocus. The herb is potently colored, fragrant, and extremely expensive. For very special soaps, use sparingly for color and texture. Releases its color into warm water.

  • Scented geranium (Pelargonium graveolens). Available in a wide variety of fragrances, from rose and lime to chocolate mint! Fresh leaves are best, and the plant is easy to grow. Dried leaves add texture to finished soap. Dry well and grind thoroughly as the leaves are fibrous. Infuse oils and water with fresh scented geranium leaves. The scent will hold best if used as liquid in hand milling. Its astringent skin care benefit may survive other lye soapmaking techniques, but the scent won't.

  • Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). Dried leaves exude the fragrance of fresh-mown hay with vanilla notes. It is available as dried leaves, whole and powdered. To use in soap, infuse dried leaves in water or oil. Work dried leaves into hand-milled soap. The herb retains a subtle fragrance.

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Helps to reduce pain and swelling of burns and abrasions; available as fresh or dried flowers, leaves, and stems. The dried and fresh flowers release a bright yellow dye into boiling water that fades almost completely — the leaves and stems to a lesser extent. It releases a bit of yellow when used as a lye infusion or steeped into oil.

There are many different kinds of places to buy herbs. You can get common cooking herbs fresh or dried in the grocery. Other herbs are readily available as herbal tea, in bags, or bulk. Still other herbs, however, will take some sleuthing to find. A natural food store is a good place to start, and of course the Internet can be put to good use.

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