I haven’t bought a bar of soap from the store since 1999. I was dissatisfied with the phony laboratory concoctions and wanted a pure, safe, soap. So, I decided to make my own. I’ve been hooked on soap-making since I poured my first batch. Here are some tips on how to make soap.
I’ve never taken a soap-making class. Today there are a lot of great classes taught by knowledgeable teachers, but no classes were offered in my area when I began. When asked, “How did you learn to make soap? Can you teach me?”, I say that books, the Internet, and trial and error have been my teachers. Soap-making isn’t difficult, but it can be tricky. I’ll share a bit of information I wish I had known before I made my first batch.
The Cold-Process Method
I make soap using the cold-process method. Fats and oils (acids), sodium-hydroxide, also known as lye (base), and water (the solvent which dissolves the base) are the main ingredients. The acid and the base react with each other and neutralize into a salt. Soap is a salt. This process is called saponification. In the cold-process method, there’s no boiling in a big cauldron. This isn’t old-fashioned lye soap like our great-grandmothers made from ashes and rendered animal fats.
I don’t use animal products in my soap. This is all natural soap. So really, this is about how to make vegan soap. Instead, I use olive oil, coconut oil, and palm oil. There are so many oils and ingredients to choose from when creating your own special soap. Oats, cornmeal, almond meal, and spices can also be added. The combinations are endless. Unlike commercial soap which usually has had the glycerin removed, cold-process soap contains all of the glycerin and its humectant and emollient properties.
Add Essential Oils for Scent
Soap can either be left unscented, or pure Essential Oils (not to be confused with fragrance oils) can be added to it. The calming scent of Lavender essential oil makes one of the mildest soaps. My family loves the herbal scent of Rosemary essential oil. I suggest reading as much as you can about aromatherapy and playing around with the oils until you find a combination that suits you.
Soap Making Equipment and Ingredients
Before you start making soap, have all of your soap making equipment and ingredients ready. You won’t have time to gather what you need after you start mixing. I suggest the following tools:
- rubber gloves
- long sleeves
- lots of newspaper for covering and protecting work surfaces
- an accurate scale (measure ingredients by weight, not volume)
- plastic bowl for measuring lye
- sodium hydroxide
- vinegar (neutralizes lye and is good for cleaning up lye)
- sturdy plastic, glass or stainless steel pitcher for mixing lye and water (the pitcher will get very hot)
- stainless steel pot
- stainless steel or plastic long-handled spoons
- grapefruit seed extract
- evening primrose oil
- Essential Oils
- freezer paper for lining the soap mold
- soap molds (can be made of wood or a cardboard box; after you get the hang of soap-making, you can be creative and use things like PVC pipe, and round potato chip containers…)
Lye is VERY DANGEROUS. Always wear safety glasses, rubber gloves, an apron, and long sleeves. Lye can cause severe burns, blindness, even death if swallowed. Always keep lye away from children and pets. Add the lye to the water. NEVER ADD WATER TO THE LYE. This creates a lye volcano, and believe me, you don’t want one of those erupting on you. Mix in a well-ventilated room and don’t breathe the fumes. I mix my lye and water outside. Be sure not to do this on a windy day. Keep your safety glasses on throughout the process. The lye solution must cool before it is mixed with the oils.
Can soap be made without sodium-hydroxide?
Unfortunately, no, it can’t. No lye, no soap. Melt-and-Pour soap is an option for those who don’t want to handle lye. But even the Melt-and-Pour soaps were made with lye.
Sources for Soap Making Supplies
The Internet is a great source for ingredients, tools, and recipes. Search for “soap-making supplies” and “soap-making recipes”. Start with a small batch. I’m not including a recipe because the one I use makes a large, 10 pound, 40 bar batch, and I haven’t asked for permission to include it here. You can also heck your library for soap-making books. That’s where I found my favorite recipe.
You might have to melt oils, like coconut oil and palm oil, before they can be mixed with oils like olive oil which stay liquid at room temperature. You just want to heat them until they melt – don’t let them boil. I mix the cooled lye solution and the oils together when they are at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Stir until the mixture traces. Trace is when the soap has the consistency of cooked pudding and holds a trace or stir marks. I add Essential Oils, Evening Primrose Oil, and Grapefruit Seed Extract (a natural preservative) to the soap just as soon as the soap traces. Mix well and immediately pour into the lined mold. Don’t pour raw soap down the sink drain, as it could harden.
Let the soap sit for a few days, then cut into bars. Plastic containers with a meshed bottom make a great curing rack. A cardboard box lined with brown paper works good too. Cold-process soap should cure for about 6 weeks in a cool, clean, dry area. Saponification continues during the curing time. As the soap cures, any remaining sodium hydroxide is incorporated and the soap becomes milder.
Using Homemade Soap is a Pleasure
Lathering-up with a new bar of homemade soap is a pleasure. If you decide you want homemade soap, but you don’t want to do the work, or handle lye, you can always buy bath and body soap from a professional. Soap-maker guilds and organizations are great resources for finding reputable soap-makers as well as private label soaps. Enjoy!
Paula Hayden is a writer for natural health and food websites as well as the fitness industry. In her spare time, she likes to ride her horse and play golf.