I have a slight obsession with wanting to make and/or do everything on my own. I strive to know as much as I can to be as self-sustaining as possible while simultaneously ensuring I'm using quality, simple products.
One of my favorite homesteady skills has been making soap for the past ten years or so. My mom and I attended a class way back when & have been hooked ever since! Once you get past the initial scare of using lye, it's truly so easy & extremely cost effective. Plus, it is so much fun as it encourages you to tap into your creative side and doctor up your bars with endless combinations of scents, colorants, and other additives like flower petals, dried herbs, coffee grounds, oatmeal, honey, etc. The sky is the truly the limit with this.
the basics of soap making
There are two methods of soap making: hot & cold process. They both require combining a lye solution with oils, however with the hot method you continue to heat the soap to speed up the saponification process. Cold-process is the method I have always used because it seems to be an easier way to pour the product into your moulds & tailor them to your needs.
Chemically, soap is a salt, created through a process called saponification, occurring when you mix a base and acid. In this case, I am using lye (sodium hydroxide) as the base & a mix of vegetable oils as the acid. When combined, they create a neutral and safe product, the soap bar we are all so familiar with. There are multiple bases you can choose from but lye is certainly the most commonly used & the one I prefer to stick with. Lye can be found at your local hardware store or anywhere where they sell drain cleaner, because that is in fact what it is.
There are also endless vegetable oil options and and fat from animals (tallow or lard). Tallow and lard produce a harder soap as they are a denser fat. When done correctly, the resulting bar has no lingering smell of animal fat. I stress done correctly because I have yet to figure this one out but I know it's possible! Sudsing up with a lingering smell of animal fat isn't exactly what I'm going for. And I'm sure you're not either! Vegetable oils produce a bit of a softer soap yet still maintain a long shelf life, again, when done correctly.
Below is the basic soap recipe I have been using since day one, a tried & true, that results in a mild soap with nice lather.
Note: all measurements are by weight
6 ounces lye (in flake form): Again, lye is the base & is chemically referred to as sodium hydroxide. Exercise extreme caution when using lye.
1 pound distilled water: Distilled water is used for consistency with your soap. It prevents any unwanted materials or compounds that may be in your tap water from altering your product. If you don't have hard water, you can try to get by with water from your tap. However, there is no guarantee with a properly setting soap.
12 ounces coconut oil: Coconut oil is prized in soap making for it's lathering & moisturizing properties. Plus, it smells great while being quite mild at the same time.
19 ounces vegetable shortening: Often derived from palm oil or a fusion of a few oils but it is the palm oil that contributes to a harder soap and lather. If you have ethical concerns about using palm oil, you can use another oil that is high in palmitic or stearic acid. More on that here.
12 ounces regular olive oil (not extra virgin): Olive oil acts as a humectant, meaning it draws moisture to the skin and lock the moisture in. Extra virgin tends to be too heavily scented and lingers in the final product.
Distilled white vinegar – have nearby as it neutralizes the caustic properties of lye in case of an emergency.
Here are most of the materials you will need. It is suggested you acquire a soap only set of these items, just to ensure you aren't cross-contaminating. This is particularly important as to avoid consuming caustic lye.
Large, deep pot
2 large stirring spoons (I use plastic)
Glass jar with lip (for easy pour)
Gloves (Reusable kitchen gloves - not thin, disposable latex)
Handheld Immersion Blender
Towel to wrap soap when curing for first 24-48 hours
Wire cooling rack or sushi mats for curing (3-4 weeks)
Molds – make sure they are deep enough to provide proper height for soap. Molds can be made easily from small boxes, old yogurt containers, tetra packs, cardboard milk containers, loaf pans, silicone baking dishes/muffin tins. There are so many possible molds – just be sure they are washed well & lined.
WORDS OF CAUTION:
• ALWAYS pour lye into water, not vice versa. It can otherwise cause a “volcano effect” & explode caustic solution.
• Pour slowly! The flakes sometimes clump together & you don't want a huge clump to plop into the water and cause lye water to spray up onto you. Even one small flake of lye can burn through your skin. It's so important to exercise extreme caution during this part of the process.
• Lye solution results in an exothermic reaction immediately - generating heat up to 200 degrees & creating off gases. Do not breathe in the fumes. It is best to create your lye solution in a well-ventilated room, outside or with the windows open.
• For your safety, wear goggles & rubber gloves the entire time.
1. Begin by creating your lye solution. In a tall, glass measuring container add your water. Tare. Slowly pour in lye crystals. Stir to combine as you go. Once crystals are dissolved, I bring the mixture outside or in the garage with the door opened to cool & avoid fumes accumulating in the house. If neither of those are an option, you can also put the lye solution near a window (opened) and have a fan blow the fumes out the window.
2. While the lye solution is cooling, combine coconut oil, vegetable shortening and olive oil in your large pot on the scale. Be sure to tare between each item.
3. Heat your oils on low to slowly melt them all together. Stir to combine. Remove from heat.
4. Keep checking on both the lye & oil temperatures. The goal is to get them between 5-10 degrees of each other, in the temperature range anywhere between 95 – 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The lower the temperature, the better! But don't drop below 95.
5. Once oils are within the correct temperature range, carefully add the lye solution to the oils and stir to combine. At this point you can use an emulsion blender to blend quickly. If you do not have or desire to use an emulsion blender, prepare to stir to upwards of a full hour.
6. Blend until you reach the tracing stage. Tracing is when you have reached emulsification of the soap & you can “trace” a line or mound of soap on top of your soap mixture and it holds. There are three stages of tracing: light, medium & thick.
Light Trace: No oil streaks & consistency of thin batter. Best to add essential oils in at this stage. Great for creating streaks & wispy designs
Medium Trace: Thicker consistency similar to pudding. The “trace” will hold longer. Great stage to add items that you would like to be consistent & suspend throughout soap such as small flower petals, oatmeal, coffee grounds, poppy seeds, colorants etc.
Thick Trace: The thickest! Great for a base layer if creating layered soaps or for a top layer with lots of texture like waves.
7. Once desired trace stage is reached, pour into mold of choice. Spread the top to even out the soap or if you brought it to a medium or thick trace, you can create swirls or waves for added texture.
8. Cover soap mold container & insulate by wrapping in a towel. Set aside in a cabinet or somewhere that will not be disturbed for 24 hours.
9. After 24 hours of sitting undisturbed, you are safe to remove the soap from the mold and cut to your desired soap bar size. Use rubber gloves to remove from mold (as soap is still caustic), cut & lie on a wire rack or sushi rolling mats to ensure proper air circulation on all sides of soap. Leave here for 3-4 weeks. The longer you let the soap cure, the harder it becomes & longer it will last.
Some general notes
• After the soap has traced is when you can add essential oils, colorant, and additional items. DO NOT OVER MIX!!! Mix with your large spoon just enough to evenly disperse scents/colors/etc.
• Lining molds (except silicone or flexible plastic) is recommended to make removal easier. Saran wrap and freezer paper work best.
And that's it! Honestly, it's not difficult, it just takes some time. Which is always well worth it, in my opinion.
If it makes you nervous for your first go, join me at my next soap making course! Granted, you will need to live in southwest/central Wisconsin :) Never fear, private lessons available upon request!