I’ve been making soap for a few years, but have shied away from posting about it because I do not ever make anything more than the most basic recipe. My main reason for soap making is that I am sensitive to most scents in soaps, including essential oils. And a scent-free soap like Ivory dries my skin because they remove the glycerine from it, and it’s made from tallow from factory-farmed cows. No thank you.
I’m making soap today and I thought, “if I can do this, anyone can do it.” And so I’m sharing, not because I’m advanced in the art of soap making, but to encourage you to give it a try.
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Seriously, the most difficult part of soap making is finding the ingredients, especially the lye. Grocery stores used to sell it, but not anymore – at least not in my area. So I purchase everything in bulk, online. Most items that you will need for soap making can be found here: Soap Making Supplies.
It’s recommended that your equipment be used only for soap making. Most of it can be picked up inexpensively at yard sales or thrift shops. You’ll need:
- a scale to measure ingredients
- a stainless steel or enamel pot
- a glass or plastic pitcher for mixing and pouring the lye
- plastic containers for holding oil while it’s being weighed – I use 32 oz plastic yogurt containers
- 2 large plastic or wooden spoons – one for stirring the lye and one for the oils
- a spatula
- 2 thermometers – one for the lye and one for the oil
- soap mold – this can be as simple as a shoe box lined with plastic or parchment paper, a plastic tray with sides, or a plastic shoe box
- rubber gloves – wear these the entire time
- cardboard to fit over the molds
- a blanket to insulate the cooling soap
- distilled water, room temperature
- oils, such as olive, palm, coconut, castor, wheat germ, cocoa butter, tallow, and jojoba
Each of the different oils has a different property – some are added as moisturizers (castor, wheat germ, cocoa butter, jojoba) and some help to create a rich lather (coconut and palm). Here is where I tend to stray and just use what I have, although my soap is always at least half olive oil.
The method is simple, although precautions always need to be taken. Remember, lye is a poison, and can cause serious burns to your skin. The basic method is to add lye to water, and then to add this mixture to the oils. The lye mixture and the oil mixture must each be at the same temperature, generally 100 degrees, although this varies with the recipe.
So let me expand on this. To make a basic recipe of soap, weigh the following ingredients (remember, these measurements are by weight, not by liquid ounces):
- 14 oz room temperature distilled water
- approx. 6 oz lye (For exact amount, see this lye calculator where you enter the other ingredients and the amount of lye needed will be given)
- 40 oz oils (for example – 20 oz olive oil, 10 oz coconut oil, 8 oz palm oil, 2 oz wheat germ oil)
- about 1 oz of essential oils, if you choose to use
Fill your sink with cold water and some ice to use as a water bath to cool the lye mixture.
Wearing your rubber gloves, place the water into your pitcher and slowly stir in the lye. I always do this outdoors since even the fumes are toxic. Stir slowly until dissolved. The temperature will rise very quickly to 220 degrees or so. Now place the pitcher into the cold water bath in your sink and begin to take its temperature. The goal is 100 degrees.
Place the oils into your pot and heat at a low temperature trying to reach 100 degrees. This will happen quickly. You now want to get both the lye and the oil to 100 degrees at the same time. Use the ice water bath to accomplish this.
When both the lye and the oils are at 100 degrees, pour the lye mixture into the oil mixture very slowly. Continue stirring until the mixture reaches a point called “trace”. The soap is traced when your stirring causes lines in the mixture that stay in place or when a drizzle of the soap mixture retains it shape on the surface of the soap.
Trace can take up to 2 hours, but usually occurs within a half hour. If it is taking over 15 minutes, you may take breaks in stirring – stir for 10 minutes or so and rest for 10 minutes or so. If you are adding essential oils, now is the time to do so.
At trace, pour your soap into prepared molds. Cover with cardboard and then wrap in a blanket to hold the heat. You want your soap to cool slowly. You may remove the blanket after the first day, but the soap itself may take several days to harden. When it feels solid, you may cut the soap into bars and un-mold it. The soap is still very alkaline and should not be used until it has cured for 2 – 4 weeks.
This is as far as I have taken soap making, but there is so much more that can be done. As I mentioned, essential oils may be added to the recipe, but because the uncured soap is so alkaline it can destroy some of the aroma you are after. It is better to mill your soap if you are looking to add scent. I’m not experienced in this, but after curing, the soap is grated, remelted and then the essential oils are added. Fine soap makers mill their soap as many as 7 times! Milled soap also lasts longer. Other ingredients, such as oats, may be added as well. Another way to pretty up your soap is to purchase or be creative in making decorative molds.
Natural Soap Making by Jan Berry.