The first and most important thing to know about making soap is that the process of making it requires that the user come in contact with lye. It is an alkali described as ‘caustic’, defined in the dictionary as ‘capable of burning, corroding, or destroying living tissue’. Never fear, however, with all of the people that have and do make soap, the warnings given everywhere you read about making soap are clearly easier to overcome than they seem. As a further warning: never make soap with children or feeble-minded people in the area.
Firstly, let’s go over precautionary measures. Bases and acids are the extremes on the pH scale, both are harmful but when mixed together they become inert. Keeping vinegar on hand at your work station will make a handy helper should you somehow manage to get the lye on your skin, my personal recommendation would be to pour it liberally over the burning area should you have contact. Of course, prevention is better than having to fix a problem and you should therefore protect everything in sight. Lye will not only harm your flesh, but weak plastics (including your counter), clothing, teflon, and react badly with most metals (including aluminum and it’s foil counterpart). Lye should only ever come in contact with glass (Pyrex is best), rubber, iron, ceramic, or stainless steel. If you don’t know what your pot is made of–don’t use it.
All of that said, I hope you’re ready to make some soap! We will be using the cold-process, since the hot-process takes longer and results in an ugly soap that you cannot add scents to and does not come out smooth.
Tools you need:
stainless steel or glass pot (3/4 or 1 gallon)
glass or ceramic bowl (large)
(the above seems contradictory to my warnings but was used in other instructions)
thick rubber cleaning gloves
protective eye wear
glass measuring cup
mold for finished soap
coffee mug or small dish for lye
newspaper to protect work surface
paper towels (in case of emergency)
handheld drink mixer (optional, however do not use eggbeaters)
candy thermometer (optional)
3/4 c. pure lye
2 1/4 c. rain water or distilled water
3 c. of an oil (explained below)
essential oil, herbs, and other additives for scent, superfatting, or exfolliation (optional)
The oil you choose can be vegetable based, or you can use strained animal fat. Vegetable oils most commonly used are: Coconut oil, olive oil, almond oil, and soy oil. Coconut oil makes, hands down, the best-smelling soap followed closely by almond oil, but both are expensive. Olive oil is the gentlest and most moisturizing, used in baby soap and shampoo, and using pure olive oil is referred to as ‘castille’ soap. Pure olive oil is, surprisingly, cheaper than the sort you find in the grocery, the closest you can get to pure at the grocery is extra-virgin. Soy oil is the cheapest of the oils and is usually labeled as ordinary vegetable oil. If using soy, be sure to check the label for ‘100% soy oil’ just to be safe. Whichever oil you use the finished product usually comes out smelling like it. Most oil can be made into soap including corn and sunflower, they are merely not as commonly used. There have also been mentions of making soap with vegetable lard or beeswax.
To use clarified animal fats, one can melt and strain your saved bacon grease or cooking lard and repackage it as soap, though I imagine it wouldn’t smell quite as delightful as a vegetable oil. It also does not lather quite as luxuriously.
Lye used to be easily found at the grocery store as ‘Red Devil Lye’, but research shows that the company went out of business and that 100% lye can be found at Lowe’s in the drain cleaning aisle under the Roebic brand (it contains dry lye crystals). However, do not use Drano, or anything less than 100% for that matter, as it will add in other chemicals that will be disastrous for your soap or skin. I will be writing an article on how to make your own lye in the future, so keep an eye out, but in the meantime look for the ‘100% lye’ on the label and don’t use anything less.
Now that you’ve chosen your oil, spread out the newspaper thickly over your work surface and protect every last inch of your skin.
Measure the water into a glass or ceramic bowl and very carefully measure the lye into a coffee mug or small pyrex bowl. Do this over the sink, and if a single drop/crystal falls wipe it up immediately with a paper towel and throw it in the trash as water and lye react badly with one another if not controlled.
Warning: Always add lye, or a lye solution, to another ingredient and never the other way around or an explosion could occur.
Carefully take your bowl of water and mug of lye outside, well away from confined spaces and open windows. Set the bowl on the ground and stir the water with your spoon as you slowly pour in the lye. Hold your breath during this process and lean your face back and away from the toxic gas fumes. If you need to breathe, set the lye down and walk at least five feet away and breathe as much as you need to, any nearer and you might inhale the fumes which has been described as painful.
Once the lye is in the water it will begin to get very hot so avoid touching the bowl. Should the lye harden on the bottom of the bowl just continue stirring and it will eventually dissolve.
Leave the lye and water outside and return to the stove to heat your oil to 110˚F. The best way to gauge this without a thermometer is to bring it just before boil, when you see little bubbles forming on the bottom of the pot. Remove it from heat and place it in the sink. By this time your lye should no longer be emitting fumes and be at a temperature of 110˚F, you should able to carry the bowl at this temperature.
Pour the lye very slowly into the oil, making sure that both liquids are at the same temperature. Don’t let it cool too much since you need the heat for the soap to be formed. Use the hand blender to thoroughly mix the liquid until you reach ‘trace’. I am told that the moment of first trace is obvious, the change in the liquid as it thickens. It is the point when you can scoop out some with a spoon and pour in back in with a little remaining on top as with pudding. Trace will take 30 minutes to an hour to achieve with liquid oil. Use the mixer for 5 minutes at a time every 15 minutes until trace occurs.
Once trace is achieve, scents or herbs can be added. Two tablespoons of essential oil for the amount of this recipe should be about right. When adding herbs, do not expect them to make much of an impact with smell in the finished product. Do not use more than 3/4 c. of herbs or the soap will be unable to hold itself together.
With trace and any extras added, it’s time to pour the new soap into a mold. It’s not necessary to use an expensive store-bought mold, a well-lined piece of tupperware, box, or empty carton will do nicely. When using a box or tupperware, line it well with waxed butcher paper. If the new soap leaks it will still damage things it touches as the lye has not fully set yet. Wrap your mold in a junk towel or two and place it somewhere where it will not be disturbed for one week. After a week, uncover the box and slice the soap into bars. It should be the consistency of chilled fudge at this point, if it’s too soft, recover your soap and place it in a cooler place for another week. When you cut the soap, wear gloves, as it’s still caustic until fully cured. Use a butter knife, hand-held vegetable slicer, or wire to cut the soap–a wire will make the smoothest cuts. Once sliced, place the bar on a paper plate or piece of cardboard to dry for one more week. After a minimum of four weeks the bars will be ready to use, however the older the soap is the better it gets. Reportedly, a bar of soap is at it’s best after curing for one year.
Other tidbits about making soap:
- Sometimes a chalky substance will form on the surface of the soap, caused by lye reacting with oxygen. Apparently, it won’t hurt you, but it isn’t very lovely to look at. It can be shaved, washed, or rubbed off with a towel soaked in rubbing alcohol. A way to prevent it is to smooth a piece of plastic wrap over the surface so that no air reaches the soap (note: it’s unclear if this should be done after the first week of curing or right after it has been poured.)
- if you have dry skin, you might try ‘superfatting’ your soap. This can be achieved by adding in an extra 1/4 or 1/2 cup of oil to the recipe, or adding vegetable glycerin to the traced soap.
- Artificial oils such as petroleum jelly and petroleum wax will not saponify into soap. However pretroleum jelly does help as a protective barrier against lye.
- Don’t try to put toys or unnatural items in your soap, the lye will destroy them.
- Gift wrap soaps rustically with parchment paper or ribbon.
- Animal fat soaps usually don’t make as rich a lather as vegetable-based soaps.
- Adding color to soap is sort of experimental. Food colorings usually deteriorate in lye, vegetable dyes like beet or blueberry juice usually don’t look the way you expect, earth pigments or wax colors are the most reliable.
- Exfoliating soap are easily made by adding in a natural grit after trace such as oatmeal, wheat germ, sand, poppy seeds, and clay. If using clay or sand, use very little as they can clog up your pipes.
- Check out the recipe page linked at the top of the site for soap variations.
More information will be added when I have first-hand experience.
Image courtesy of CountryHome.com