How to Substitute Oil in Cold Process Recipes

Choosing the oils and butters you want in your recipe is a fun and personal process. Each one creates a slightly different bar. If you want to add something new to your batch, this article can help. Learn how to substitute oils below, and find soap making supplies here.

how to substitute oil in cold process soap | bramble berry

Oil properties

There are a few factors to consider before swapping an oil. The first is what it brings to the recipe. In general, oils are sorted into two groups - hard and soft.

Hard oils are solid at room temperature. This includes coconut oil, palm oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter. They add firming properties to soap, and certain ones create nice fluffy lather. 

Soft oils are liquid at room temperature. Olive oil, avocado oil, and sweet almond oil are a few examples. They add moisture and a silky feeling to soap.

The best recipes are usually a combination of both. Too many hard oils can make soap brittle and too cleansing, too many soft oils can make soap soft and inhibit lather. Check out the Beginner's Guide to Common Soap Making Oils for in-depth information on the ones we carry.

Another factor to consider is the saponification (SAP) value. That's the amount of lye it takes to turn 1 gram of oil into 1 gram of soap. You can find that information on our product pages, and it can be helpful when choosing substitutes.

Lastly, make sure to check the usage rates of each oil. If a recipe calls for 40% of an oil but the one you want to use is recommended at 15%, you'll need to use another oil to make up the difference.

measuring oil into a container for soap | bramble berry

How to choose substitutes

If you want a recipe to feel like the original, find a swap that's as close as possible. Take avocado oil for example. It's a soft oil with a lightweight consistency that absorbs quickly, and it has a SAP value of 0.14. Let's say you have canola oil and sweet almond oil on hand. While they both have similar SAP values, canola oil has a heavier consistency. We prefer swapping avocado with sweet almond because they feel similar on the skin. Canola is a great swap for olive oil though - they feel very similar.

You can apply the same techniques if you want to change the feeling of a recipe. If you want your bars firmer, you can decrease the amount of soft oils and add in a hard oil or butter.

Remember to run your recipe through the Lye Calculator after any swaps. That's the case even if they have similar SAP values - it's always good to double check that your amounts are correct. Learn more in the Using the Bramble Berry Lye Calculator article.

soap making butters | bramble berry

Coconut and palm oil

Some oils are trickier to swap than others. That applies to two of the most common, coconut and palm.

  • Coconut oil: This is a truly unique ingredient. Along with making soap firm, it adds amazing lather and cleansing properties. The closest substitute we've found is babassu oil. It can be used up to 33%, just like coconut oil. If you don't have that on hand, you may need a few oils to get the same results. Palm kernel flakes or a hard butter like cocoa up to 15% can add firmness. Castor oil at 2-5% is a great option for lather.
  • Palm oil: It's most known for creating firm bars that release from the mold easily. It also helps create amazing lather when paired with coconut oil. The closest substitute is babassu oil, but you can also use tallow. Another option is palm kernel flakes or a hard butter up to 15%. A teaspoon of sodium lactate per pound of oils and a 10% water discount also help firm up your recipe.

Example recipe

Let's take a look at a cold process project from our site.

lemon bar soap | bramble berry

Lemon Bar Soap
2.1 oz. Mango Butter (5%)
16.8 oz. Olive Oil (40%)
10.5 oz. Palm Oil (25%)
10.5 oz. Coconut Oil (25%)
2.1 oz. Jojoba Oil (5%)
5.8 oz. Sodium Hydroxide Lye
11.7 oz. Distilled Water (10% water discount)

This recipe has a mix of hard and soft oils that create a balanced bar, as well as luxurious jojoba oil to add something special. If that jojoba oil is a bit out of your budget, you can swap it with meadowfoam oil or leave it out completely. In that case, you'd want to increase one of the soft oils like olive to make up the difference. 

Want the recipe a bit firmer? No problem. Increase the palm oil to 30% and decrease the olive oil to 35%. You can also increase the mango butter up to 15%, or add another similar butter like cocoa or shea. 

A softer recipe is easy too. Just decrease the palm to 20% and add more olive or jojoba oil. You can also take out the mango butter.

Whenever you make substitutions, it's important to try your bars and take notes on how they feel. It may take a few tries to get the recipe exactly how you like it. Keep experimenting until you're happy!

Common oil substitutes

  • Apricot kernel oil: sweet almond oil, hazelnut oil
  • Avocado oil: chia seed oil, sweet almond oil
  • Avocado butter: shea butter, mango butter
  • Canola oil: olive oil, rice bran oil
  • Castor oil: no substitute
  • Cocoa butter: beeswax, shea butter, mango butter, palm kernel flakes
  • Coconut oil: babassu, palm kernel flakes, tallow
  • Coffee butter: avocado butter, shea butter
  • Chia seed oil: sweet almond oil, avocado oil
  • Grapeseed oil: olive oil, hazelnut oil
  • Hazelnut oil: grapeseed oil, apricot kernel oil, hemp seed oil
  • Natural hemp seed oil: avocado oil, hazelnut oil
  • Jojoba oil: meadowfoam oil
  • Mango butter: avocado butter, shea butter
  • Meadowfoam oil: jojoba oil
  • Olive oil: rice bran oil, canola oil, grapeseed oil
  • Palm oil: babassutallow, palm kernel flakes
  • Palm kernel flakes: palm oil, coconut oil
  • Peanut oil: olive oil, canola oil
  • Rice bran oil: olive oil, canola oil
  • Safflower oil: canola oil, sunflower oil
  • Shea butter: avocado butter, mango butter
  • Sunflower oil: olive oil, safflower oil
  • Sweet almond oil: apricot kernel oil, avocado oil, chia seed oil
  • Tamanu oil: neem oil, pumpkin seed oil