Trace in Soap Making:
Don’t Be Afraid of Trace! That’s the first thing we’ll say. Trace, in cold process soap making, doesn’t have to be overcomplicated. In fact, once your learn how to work with trace and what elements in soap making can help control trace, it becomes much more conformable to deal with. There will be times trace starts to occur a little quicker then we anticipate. Experience here is key. So, let’s talk trace in soap making.
You have to work with trace, to understand trace. Don’t let trace stop you from attempting to make “your perfect” soap.
Yes, certain designs and the look of your finished soap, can hinder on tracing issues. However, every serious soaper will tell you that they didn’t let that stand in there way of perfecting there recipe and design.
Related Article: Gel Phase in Cold Process Soap Making: Let’s Chat About It!
What is Trace In Soap Making?
In truth, the very beginning of the saponification process, is when your lye solution mixes in with your blended oils/fats. Consequently, it then begins to emulsify, or thicken, as the oils and lye begin there chemical reactions. The most important aspect is that everything is evenly mixed and dispersed in the batter.
When a mixture has reached a trace, this simply means that it has fully emulsified. It’s texture will begin to appear creamy. The batter has thickened to a point where it is able to hold a structure or outline. Oftentimes, if you can still see streaks of oil, this means the mixture has not yet reached trace.
It’s important to understand and mix things like colorants appropriately. We spoke in another post about premixing colorants in a lightweight oil. The reason for this is that if you add certain micas’ or pigments into a recipe batter and begin to hand blend, they may not disperse evenly. However, if you use a stick blender you may accelerate the trace way faster then you wanted to. Once trace starts, there is no turning back!
There are 3 “levels” of trace if you will, referred to as light, medium and thick trace. Some soapers also throw in “very thin trace” or “medium to thick trace”. There is also something called false trace (below).
Let’s discuss each level of trace and what that looks like in cold process soap making.
So you’ve mixed your lye solution and oils, and begun to stir or whisk. At this point the process of saponification has begun.
There are probably infinite “levels” of trace, but the easiest way to think about trace (as a beginner) is to understand it at 3 levels, light (thin), medium and thick (heavy).
Light trace: The best way in which we have heard thin or light trace described is thin cake batter. The batter has emulsified and there are no streaks of oils left. This is the time to add those colorants and stir. This is also the point if your want to make swirling designs, you should think about pouring your soap into it’s mold and getting that process started.
You can also tell light trace if you take your spatula and dip it in your soap, then swirl the soap from your spatula over-top of the mixture. The mixture off your spatula should gently sit on top of your soap, and gradually sink back in over a few seconds.
From here, the soap will only continue to thicken. You can control that pace by stirring, and especially by stick blending.
*Remember! Temperature, fragrances, lye solution, water amount, can all dictate how fast soap will trace*
Here, the consistency starts to change. Medium trace, is a bit more like pudding consistency, but slightly thinner. If you did that same swirl technique with the spatula it would certainly sit on top of the soap and not sink back in.
It is also referred to as looking like, “thick” cake batter, instead of the thin cake batter we discussed prior. As you can imagine this is not necessarily the time for those intricate swirl pattern or designs.
However, would be a time for placing other additives. One of our recipes here at RN to Zen, is using balls of soap we have shaped, and then placing them in a soap recipe. The heavier objects will not sink to the bottom, they will remain suspended in the soap.
We have another recipe where we place shreds of different colored soap in a loaf soap batch. Similarly, we would mix the shreds in at this time.
You should still be able to pour at medium trace fairly well. You can also place poppy seeds or petals on the top of the soap and they should sit nicely without sinking down.
Thick trace is hard to pour, it’s going to be a consistency that holds it’s shape very well. It’s like a pudding consistency, maybe thicker. You just may have to scoop it into your mold with a spatula.
Thick trace is supportive. Many soapers use this time to developed layers in there design. The layers will not be completely smooth and even. This is a time to have some fun manipulating the soap.
For example, you can texture each layer by dragging a spoon down the length of the mold, then put another layer on top and so on.
This is great consistency to texture the tops of soaps, and soap for frosting.
What is False Trace?
False trace can be tricky, even sometimes for experienced soapers, and especially if you’re someone just starting out. We’re going to touch on false trace briefly here, but will make an entire post about what causes false trace, and how to avoid it.
False trace is simply what the name implies. It usually occurs very quickly, as it looks like your soap has already reached a medium to thick trace quickly. In fact, this is not the case, the soap (oils & lye solution) have not fully emulsified, when false trace occurs.
False trace occurs most often when using oils or butters that are solid at room temperature. Those oils or butters are actually trying to re-solidify prior to your mixture being fully emulsified.
Why Does False Trace Happen?
Well, in this instance, it’s a fairly easy explanation. Think about what oils and/or butters you’ve used in your recipes.
- What is there consistency at room temperature?
- What are there melt points?
If you use oils and/or butters that are solid at room temperature (especially cooler temperatures) then adding a room temperature or cold solution to them can certainly have the effect of bringing down the temperature even more. Thus, causing premature solidification of the oils.
Let’s say you’re using a butter like coffee butter (melt point is about 104F) and cocoa butter in your recipe (melt point about 101F). In this example, your lye solution has cooled and is room temperature, 68F.
Your melt points of the 2 butters above, 101F and 104F respectively.
When pouring lye solution into your cooled butter mixture you may bring the temperature of the mixture down to fast. Thus oils/butters with high melt points may try and re-solidify, giving you false trace!
It can also depend on other factors, and your recipe. However, the most common issue with false trace has to do with your temperature(s).
Trace is another one of those terms that makes more sense the more you soap and the more you understand what effects it.
Many soapers, us included, have “back-up plans” for when a batter traces to fast. We always have a back-up plan for each one of our batches just incase we run into a batter that thickens up much faster then we may have anticipated.
This get’s easier and more second-nature as you soap and practice longer with the craft!
We hope this has been a helpful post. Thanks for stopping by and feel free to share your thoughts and experiences with trace.