Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Dreaded Soda Ash

Gingersnap bars with heavy ash
If you make soap, you've probably had a few batches develop a whitish powdery layer on the tops. If you buy handmade soap, you may have seen this sort of thing. What is that stuff?

It's ... dah, dah, daaaah! ... soda ash.

What is soda ash? Conventional wisdom states that soda ash is sodium carbonate, which results from sodium hydroxide (lye) reacting with carbon dioxide in the air.

There may be other explanations for this phenomenon, though. In her book "The Soapmaker's Companion," Susan Miller Cavitch suggests that the powdery substance may just be dried soap. Glycerin, a natural by-product of the soapmaking process, attracts moisture from the air. Cavitch theorizes that the soap molecules closest to the surrounding air draw in moisture and then dry, forming tiny crystals. Her theory has been tested by a chemist, who could find no trace of sodium carbonate in the ash on her bars.

Beer soap with soda ash
Another idea is that soda ash could be minerals from the water in the soap collecting on the surface. This is one more reason to use distilled water for soapmaking, although I always use distilled water and still sometimes experience heavy ash. I have also experienced ash using beer in place of water.

Many factors can influence whether or not ash will form: temperature, batch size, fragrance or essential oils, humidity, soap density, or the soap recipe itself.

The origins of soda ash may be somewhat of a mystery, but one thing we can agree on is that it is harmless. (A thick, crumbly crust is another story - such a thing as that probably indicates lye-heavy soap.)

I think another thing that most of us soapmakers can agree on is that it is a total pain in the ash.

So, now that you kinda-sorta-not-really know where soda ash comes from, how can you prevent it from happening? I sometimes gently place a sheet of plastic cling wrap over the top of my soap after pouring it into the mold to prevent the surface from coming in contact with the air. This is fine if your tops are flat, but it doesn't work so well if you have textured tops. Another thing you can try is liberally spritzing the top of the soap with 91% rubbing alcohol after pouring.

Some folks don't mind ash. Soapmakers sometimes embrace it as part of the process and feel that it lends a rustic handmade charm to the soap. And soda ash tends to just wash off the first time anyone uses the soap, so it needn't be a huge concern to the soapmaker or the customer.

But it's just not pretty. And to the untrained eye, it can even look like mold or fungus (which it's totally not).

So let's say that you don't want soda ash. Let's also say that you get some despite your best efforts to avoid it. How can you get rid of soda ash once you get it?

This video by Soaping101 explains what soda ash is and offers up four methods for getting rid of it - alcohol, water, glycerin, and steam:



In the video, Soaping101 tries all four methods: spritzing the finished soap with 91% rubbing alcohol, dunking the soap in water, painting the soap with a bit of glycerin and colorant, and steaming the ash away. The conclusion was that while all methods removed some of the ash, steaming seemed to be the best bet.

Remember the photo of my Gingersnap soaps at the beginning of this post? I made that batch in September and it developed heavy soda ash. I had a couple of bars leftover and had never taken the time to try to remove the ash. The soap I make is just for me and my family, so I wasn't too worried about getting rid of it. A while back, someone on one of the soapmaking forums I belong to mentioned using steam to get rid of soda ash. Intrigued, I poked around the interwebs a bit more and found Soaping101's video. I liked the idea of using steam. Sure, you can slice the ash off, but then you mar the top (and waste a bit of soap). Rinsing with water can also mess up the tops. But a quick steaming would get into the nooks and crannies and it wouldn't interfere with the soap, which is great for textured tops, fancy peaks, or tops sprinkled with oats or seeds.

Since these Gingersnap bars had such heavy ash, I thought they would be good candidates for a blog feature and I decided to give the steaming method a try.

Holding bar over steam (l); After steaming (r)
All I did was simmer some water in a pot on my stove and then hold the soap over the steam. (The soap can get a little slippery, so I held it with a paper towel.) You could also use a tea kettle or a clothes steamer, whatever steam-errific thing you want. After a few seconds, the tops of the soaps looked a bit wet and the ash seemed to disappear. I let the bars dry on my curing rack for a few hours. Several days later, the soda ash was still gone.


(You may be wondering what the deal is with the yellowish parts in the photos above. I tried to swirl some gold-colored soap into the tops, but it didn't really work. I think I fiddled with it too much. I also wanted textured peaks, which didn't really work either. I still have the hardest time with that.)

So, I think in the future I will use the steam method to get rid of soda ash. It's quick, easy, and effective and it won't screw up the soaps.

Got any soda ash woes, my soapy friends? Does ash bother you as either a soapmaker or a customer? How do you like to get rid of it? Or do you prefer to just roll with the ash and keep it?

34 comments:

  1. Since you ashed, no, ash does not bother me. I'm in the category who think it adds a rustic hand-made charm. Still, I totally appreciate that you are a perfectionist -- I always know that your soap will be absolutely wonderful and that it will be the best you can possibly make it!

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    1. Thanks for the compliments! You're right, I am a perfectionist. Glad to know that ash doesn't bother you, since I "ashed." (I see what you did there!) Ash doesn't bother me on a practical level, but it does on an aesthetic level. I want my soaps to be as pretty as possible. Sometimes I don't bother trying to get rid of the ash, especially if the soap is just for me, but it's nice to have an easy way to get rid of it now.

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  2. Interesting tip!! I have a Musk batch that I swirled the top so awesomely... only to have it completely covered in Ash >< I might have to try the steam method and see if that saves them!

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    1. Hi, Sims Fan, and thanks for your comment! I know what a bummer it is to have ash covering your beautiful swirls or perfectly-sculpted tops. I hope the steam method works well for you and saves your swirls!

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  3. I've been waiting for you to post this! :) I'm sticking with the steam method too, and yes, ash bothers me...it's a pain in the ash! What a huge difference in the before and after photos. With the ash removed, you can see the rich beautiful color now!

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    1. Thanks, SDsoaper! I enjoyed your posts about removing soda ash with steam, too. I was very pleased with how well the steam method worked!

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  4. fantastic post ! I learned a ton. i sell my soaps in my little farm store and none of my customers have ever mentioned the bars that have ash but it did always bother me. now, I'll give the steam thing a go THANKS!

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    1. Hi, Donna, and thanks for your comment! I'm glad the post was helpful. The steam method seems to be a great way to quickly and easily get rid of soda ash!

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  5. Great post!! Thanks for the info. I would be curious if the ash comes back a week later or a few days later. I don't get much ash but when I do it always seems to creep into my favorite ones.. ha ha

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    1. Hi, Kim, and thanks for your comment! About three days after I had steamed the ash away, it had not returned and showed no signs of doing so. My folks were in town the weekend I was doing all of this, and I gave my mom the last two bars of Gingersnap soap, since it's one of her favorites. After watching the soap for a few days, though, it looked like the ash was staying away. I'll ask my mom about it the next time I talk to her to make sure! :)

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    2. Just wanted to give you a quick update, Kim! It's been about a month since I steamed the ash off of my Gingersnap bars. I talked to my mom yesterday and she said that they are still ash-free. Yay!

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  6. Yes, I do have a problem with soda ash and yes I do hate it! LOL Just recently I wanted a beautiful chocolate color and it turned out lovely,and then it ashed quite bad. But, I recently tried the steam method and it was FANTASTIC! I wish so bad I taken before and after pictures. Thanks for the great post! :)

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    1. Hi, Katie, and thank you for your comments! I'm so glad to hear that the post was helpful and that the steaming method solved your soda ash problem. Steaming is such and easy and effective way to get rid of ash - I wish I had known about it sooner, too! :)

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  7. Hi Jenny, Susan Miller Cavitch also deals with this problem in The Soapmakers Companion page 180. She suggests that a cover over it while insulating works for her. I do it now and have eliminated my soda ash problem completely. I hope this helps others.

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    1. Hi, Adrienne, and thanks for your comments! And thank you for the tip - you're right, covering the soap definitely helps. I usually put a layer of plastic cling wrap over my soap if the tops are flat and that does eliminate a lot of soda ash problems.

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  8. Hi Jenny... I am relatively new to the whole soap making experience... lovin it except for the occasional attack of the 'Soda Ash'.. Sometimes this has appeared a week down the track... not sure what has happened to cause this... Anyway, I have just had the kettle on and steamed the ash away!!! Its AWESOME!!! THANKYOU!!!!! I am soooo excited to have discovered an easy way to eliminate the problem as I am a self confessed perfectionist. Gotta have pretty tops... Thanks Heaps!!!

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    1. Hi, Deb! Thanks so much for your comments. You're very welcome - I am so happy to hear that steaming worked so well for you, too! It really is a great way to easily get rid of soda ash without messing up the tops. I have some bars that I steamed months ago and the ash is still gone. Thanks again for your kind words, and thanks for reading! Happy soaping! :)

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  9. Help!! You seem like an expert soapster and so I have a question we are doing a soap microfinance business in ghana and were using palm oil shea butter and sodium hydroxide but our supplies of sodium hydroxide ran out and so we tried replacing it with sodium carbonate and it FAILED we need help on how to make soap using our fats( palm oil and shea butter) and our base soda ash( sodium carbonate) . Do you have any advice or ideas? Thankyou

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    1. Hi, Jayme, and thanks for stopping by! Unfortunately, I don't have any experience making soap with sodium carbonate. From the little bit of online research I've done, it sounds like sodium carbonate isn't suitable for making handmade soap or toiletry items. I have seen it used in laundry soap recipes (such as this one: http://www.thefamilyhomestead.com/laundrysoap.htm), and it sounds like it produces a liquid gel soap instead of a solid bar. I am only a hobbyist soapmaker sharing my experiences, so you may want to check out a soapmaking forum to get more advice from other soapmakers - Teach Soap (http://www.teachsoap.com/forum) and Talk Soap (http://www.talksoapforum.com) are a couple of active forums with members of various experience levels. Perhaps some folks there would have some ideas, too. I hope that helps some. Best wishes to you!

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  10. I definitely need to try the steaming technique! I have stayed away from textured tops due to soda ash. I always wondered "How would I clean the soap without destroying it?" Thanks for sharing. This is very very helpful!

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    1. Thanks so much for your comments! I'm glad to hear that this was helpful! Steaming is a quick and easy way to get rid of soda ash without marring the soap. It has worked out great for me so far!

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  11. Nice Article, Jenny: If we cover soap gel with saran wrap, how does the water evaporate?

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    1. Hi, Luke! Thanks for your comments! When I cover the top with plastic wrap, I remove the plastic after the soap has gelled and cooled down, usually the next morning. Then the water in the soap can evaporate normally. Sometimes the plastic can create pockets from condensation or creases on the top if it isn't placed carefully. I used to use plastic wrap more often, but I tend to skip it now to ensure prettier tops. And if I do get ash, it's easy to steam away!

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    2. I tried the saran wrap, really helps :)
      Thank you

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    3. Excellent! I'm glad to hear that the plastic wrap worked well for you, Luke! Thanks again for stopping by. :)

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  12. Jenny, just happened across your page. To texture your soap tops you need thicker trace. It also helps to mix the lye and oils at a lower temperature. I like to texture the oatmeal, milk, and honey soap that I sell. My daughter and I also like to make "cupcake soap" and decorate the tops. I actually allow the soap for decorating to cool down and thicken up to the consistency of icing. Then I use cake decorating bags and tips to put "icing" on the "cupcakes" the same way I do regular cakes. It took quite a bit for the three-year-old to understand it was fancy soap. :)

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    1. Hi, Mosaic, and thanks for your comments! I've gotten better at texturing the tops over the past year. I've learned to be more patient when it comes to waiting for the tops to set up a bit before texturing. Sometimes I pop the soap into the fridge to help it set up faster. I haven't tried piping soap or making soap cupcakes yet. I admire your patience and skill to make soap cupcakes! I'll bet your little one had fun working on that soap with you! Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog, and best wishes to you with your soap business!

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  13. Thank you for posting this with such detailed process of steaming. Though I have not tried if it would work for me but I believe it will. Hubby made the soap mold with a lid and I spritz too, but once in a while I still get ash soda. I'm totally with you, it could be all factors lead to it. So happy and thankful :)

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    1. Hi, Jessie! I'm so glad that the post was helpful! Steaming seems to be an easy and effective way to get rid of ash. I've done it several times now with excellent results. Thanks for reading!

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  14. Hi Jenny! I spent alot of time last night rinsing soda ash from a batch I made about 3 weeks ago. I used a little water and alcohol and a toothbrush. It came out pretty good, but I'm totally trying the steam next time. I love the polished look. Thanks so much!!

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    1. You're welcome, Angie! And thank you for your comments. I'm glad that the post was helpful!

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  15. Hi Jenny,
    Thanks for the tips and for the video from Soaping 101. My question for you when you do use plastic wrap is has it ever caused overheating? I don't use sugar or milk yet. I don't use palm (which I am assuming would make a denser soap). I use combinations of olive, sweet almond oil, shea, coconut, and/or avocado oils. On one of my bars I got a very tacky soda ash (silicone mold), which even after 4 weeks of curing, still was tacky (but with that same recipe, but in a wood mold, I did not). Now, what I did get with the wood mold - using plastic wrap, was a complete gel - a bit of overheating after 12 hours, so I unwrapped it, and had oily residue for about 3 days after I unmolded it. I used sweet orange and cedarwood).

    Do you have any advice or reasoning about why the wooden log overheated a bit or why the same recipe in an uninsulated silicone mold got tacky soda ash?

    So, I guess I am wond

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  16. OOPS! Not sure why that last incomplete thought is at the end : ( Sorry! Any advice you could offer would be wonderful. Thanks for your time!!
    Corina

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    1. Hi, Corina! Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comments! I rarely use plastic wrap anymore, as it tends to create wrinkles in the tops of my soaps. (It does seem to help deter soda ash, though!) When I have used plastic wrap, I haven't noticed any overheating. Wooden molds do retain heat better than silicone molds. It sounds like you got a full gel on the batch made with the wooden mold, and the plastic wrap probably helped avoid ashing. I wonder if maybe the soap in the uninsulated silicone mold didn't gel, leading to a tacky texture? Ungelled soap can stay softer for longer than gelled soaps do. I haven't experienced soft, tacky ash myself, but I'm thinking it might have something to do with not gelling. I usually soap around 100-110 degrees, but I'll soap around 80-90 degrees if I'm using ingredients that may overheat or if I want to avoid accelerated trace. If you are worried about overheating - especially with milks and other sugars - you can pop the soap into the fridge or freezer overnight. (Make sure that you let the soap thaw before cutting so it doesn't crumble. The soap will probably be softer, too, since it likely won't gel in the freezer. You may want to give it a few extra days before cutting.) I hope that helps! Thanks again for reading!

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