When my husband and I started to think more seriously about living intentionally, making soap was the first big “do it yourself” project I tackled. Looking back, I'm not sure why soapmaking was at the top of my list, but I must admit that it was immensely satisfying to create such a practical, everyday product for my family.
At first it seemed merely wise and frugal – it was something I myself could make. When thinking about traditional homemaking skills, I'm not a great seamstress by any stretch of the imagination (despite my mother's efforts), but I can concoct anything in the kitchen given a few pointers to get started. Thus soapmaking fit. It's basic chemistry using mostly common kitchen ingredients – totally my definition of fun!
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But soapmaking is not only frugal. As with most things in a sustainable lifestyle, the product is of a much higher quality and more nourishing for your body than most of the soaps you can purchase inexpensively. At the time I started making soap, my husband had suffered for two decades with severe eczema on his hands, but within a few months of using our chemical-free, all-natural homemade soap, his eczema was gone. (This could be due to reducing other stress factors in life as well, but the soap definitely made a difference!) He also started using it as his shaving cream and as a shampoo bar, which he loved until I started making shampoo too.
The great thing when you're making your own soap is that you've got total control over what goes into it. If you want fragrance-free, it's easy. If you want a certain holiday scent, then you can create your own blend of essential oils to give you whatever scent you want. You can use just plain olive oil or use a mix of oils to create certain amounts of lather or take advantage of some oils' skin-softening properties. You can make them fancy for gifts or do my style and make what I call Ugly Soap – totally rough, unsmoothed soap bars that work wonderfully but wouldn't gain much popularity at the local farmer's market. It's totally up to you and your own preferences.
A few notes before we get started….
The techniques and recipe listed here make an all-vegetable soap, but if you have access to pastured animal fat, you can certainly do this same process once you have rendered the fat into tallow. If you're raising and slaughtering your own animals for meat, you definitely want to use the whole animal, and this is a great way to use up all the fat!
Also, I highly highly recommend using a lye calculator to develop your recipes every time you make soap. A lye calculator is an online tool that tells you exactly – to the gram – how much lye you will need according to what kind of oils you are using. I find this helpful because if I look in my soapmaking supply box and see that I'm running low on one type of oil, I can easily substitute in other oils without stressing about how much I need to change my recipe. Different oils require different amounts of lye in order to harden, so your saponification values change according to your ingredients and it's handy to have a calculator that does the calculations for you. (If you'd like to know more about your oils, including how much of each you can use in any given recipe, check out this article. You can also google for information on “soapmaking oils” and “soapmaking oil saponification values.”)
Lastly, PLEASE HEED THIS SAFETY WARNING: In order to get the liquid oils to harden and saponify, you must use caustic lye. Never make soap when pets or young children are in the immediate vicinity and always take great care to not splash the mixture on yourself or to breathe any fumes that occur. With care, this is an easy process, but one that requires a bit of focused time in order to keep everyone safe and healthy.
If you do spill or splash lye crystals, lye water, or raw soap on your skin, rinse the area with as much vinegar as you can, then hold it under running water for several minutes. If a large portion of your body is affected or it's a severe chemical burn, call 9-1-1 and do the vinegar and water rinse until help arrives.
What You'll Need
As much as possible, find your supplies at a thrift store or in your attic – there's no need to buy new equipment for this project!
- A lye calculator (the one at Majestic Mountain Sage is the most comprehensive and my favorite, but this one at Brambleberry includes more uncommon ingredients and animal fats)
- Neoprene gloves (NOT latex) – these can be found inexpensively at woodworking shops, hardware stores, or at Lee Valley
- Kitchen scale -preferably digital, but any scale able to measure within +/- 1 gram is acceptable. These can be found inexpensively on craigslist, some mass merchandisers, or Lee Valley. Soap ingredients MUST be measured by weight, not by volume.
- A large stainless steel stockpot – at least 8 quart size
- 1/2 gallon or gallon-sized glass or heat-resistant plastic pitcher in which to mix lye water – be sure to use a pitcher that is easy to pour out without dribbling
- Several large wooden spoons (no metal, as it can react with the lye)
- A rubber spatula
- (2) clip-on candy thermometers – you'll need two thermometers going at once: one in the lye water and one in the oils.
- An immersion blender or hand beater (I highly recommend the blender! The first time I made soap I used a hand beater and it took about two hours to saponify all the oils – from then on I have used an immersion blender and it generally takes 5-10 minutes to get to trace.)
- Molds – you can pour all your soap into a large wooden trough, square cake pans, muffin tins, individual plastic soap molds – whatever you would like
- Wax paper or freezer paper
- Newspaper or cardboard (optional) – I like to place my lye water on several layers of newspaper or cardboard to protect my work surface and to have a place to set my spoon after stirring.
- A long sleeve shirt – this isn't a required piece of equipment, per se, but it's definitely a helpful safety tool. I have an old work blouse that is no longer worthy of being seen in public, but it's perfect for soapmaking, painting, scrubbing, and other “dirty work.” For soapmaking, you want long sleeves in case your lye pellets are statically charged and jump a bit as they are poured from the container or if your raw soap splashes just a bit – this way, you'll be itch-and-irritant free.
- Bench scraper or large knife – if you use a large trough mold, you'll need to cut the soap into bars once it has finished its initial cure
- Oils of your choice – you may follow the recipe here or use a lye calculator to develop your own recipe. If you create your own recipe, please read this article before you choose your oils. For example, some oils, like olive oil, can be used as 100% of your recipe, whereas others, such as canola, should only be used up to 50% of your entire recipe.
- Lye (sodium hydroxide, NOT potassium hydroxide) – if you don't have a source locally, you can find it in the continental US at Brambleberry Soapmaking Supplies, Amazon.com, The Lye Guy, Camden-Grey Essential Oils, or AAA Chemicals. In Canada, you can order it through CanWax or possibly at your local Home Hardware store (make sure it's at least 97% pure lye). In any other area, google your region's name and “sodium hydroxide” and you should be able to find a few resources.
- Liquid of your choice – distilled water, chamomile tea, green tea, etc. Water is recommended if you have not made soap before.
- Additives (optional) – lavender buds or herbs, mineral clay, fragrances and essential oils, colorants, exfoliants, etc. The recommended amount for fragrances are to use 0.7 ounces of fragrance per pound of soap.
A Recipe for Soap – makes 6.5 pounds
I generally use a 5-pound soap mold plus various little molds with this recipe.
1500 grams olive oil
450 grams canola oil
300 grams coconut oil
100 grams palm oil
90 grams sweet almond oil
325-330 grams sodium hydroxide
610-915 mL water
4.5 – 5 ounces essential or fragrance oils
4-5 tablespoons mineral bentonite clay (optional, but recommended for shaving soap)
5-10 tablespoons oatmeal, lavender buds, chopped herbs, etc. (start with the smaller amount and add more as desired)
Prepare all your equipment, prep your work area, and measure out any additives.
Once the soapmaking process is underway, you may not have time to get other things ready, so make sure to prep everything ahead of time. If you're using a wooden soap mold or other inflexible mold (such as a cake or bread pan), you'll need to line it with freezer paper. If you're using plastic or silicone molds, you can use them as they are.
Make sure you've got lots of counter space in which to work and that your sink is free so you can quickly toss in used utensils or wash up anything with raw soap on it.
You'll also want your additives ready to go when your soap hits “trace,” so it's definitely helpful to have them measured out ahead of time.
Make your lye water.
Put on your neoprene gloves and long sleeve shirt, then measure out your lye on a piece of wax paper according to the lye calculator and set it aside.
In a well-ventilated area covered with newspaper or cardboard, measure your water into your heat-resistant pitcher, then add your lye. NEVER put the lye in the pitcher and then add the water – it will create a caustic volcano that could erupt out of the container. It will heat up very quickly, creating steam and bubbles. Be careful not to breathe any fumes. Stir with a wooden spoon until the solution is clear.
Place one of the candy thermometers in the pitcher and observe the temperature. Due the chemical reaction, it will likely spike to about 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Let it cool to 120-125 degrees. This may take 1-2 hours.
Measure and heat your oils.
Meanwhile, measure all your oils into your stainless steel pot. Heat gently over medium-low heat until all oils have melted. Turn off the heat and let the oils cool to 120-125 degrees.
Mix the ingredients.
Once both the lye water and the oils have cooled to within 5 degrees of each other, pour the lye water into the oils, stirring as you pour. At this point, you may continue stirring with a spoon or you may switch to an immersible blender. Stir constantly until the mixture becomes completely opaque and is the consistency of a cooked custard – this is referred to as “trace.” This will take 5-30 minutes with a blender and 2-3 hours by hand. You can test the consistency by lifting your stirring implement and letting a few drops fall back into the mixture. At proper trace, the drop will be suspended by the mixture.
At this point, you may add any additives you wish. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, stir in your fragrance or essential oils, clay, herbs, etc.
Pour and cure the soap.
Pour the raw soap into your prepared molds, tapping them gently to remove air bubbles and to get the mixture evenly into all the corners.
Set the molds aside to cure for 2-5 days. Once the soap is no longer soft when touched, unmold the soap and cut it into bars using a bench scraper or large knife. Lay the bars on wax paper to cure for an additional 3-6 weeks. The longer they cure, they harder they'll get, as well as if you use them within the first 2-3 weeks, they may still be mildly caustic, which would cause your skin to itch slightly.
Brambleberry Soap Making Supplies – lots of supplies and information about soapmaking and making your own cosmetics
Soap Making Forum – a great place to search for information and ask questions
TeachSoap.com – includes tons of tutorials about soapmaking and spa items, as well as another very helpful forum
Dianna's Sugar Plum Sundries – an online store with “all things needed for soapmaking”