Up until the early 1900’s, most soaps were a homemade concoction that neither looked pretty, nor smelled pleasant. It was generally a mix of lye leached from wood ashes and fats leftover from animal slaughter or cooking.
Since neither ingredient was consistent from batch to batch, and the fat may or may not have been fresh, the outcome was a bar of ugly, often foul smelling, soap that was functional, but not much else. Making your own soap should go smoother than back in the day and the result should be much more satisfying.
🧼 What Goes Into Soap
If you go to the farmer’s market nearby or any natural foods store, these days, you will find a multitude of beautifully made, pleasant smelling soaps of just about every color and scent you can think of. So why are today’s soaps so much better than what our forefathers used to make? Better ingredients and more refined methods take the credit.
People enjoy shopping for soaps from various custom soap makers, however I consider that making your own soap at home is a relatively simple task and it helps you stay frugal. The best part when making your own soap is that you get to include your favorite locally fresh, all natural ingredients.
Soap is made when lye is mixed with oils or fats. Even though lye is caustic (more on that and safety concerns later), it is neutralized through a process known as saponification when blended with the oils.
What is left, after the two components completely emulsify and saponify, is a blend of soap and a product known as glycerin. It is the glycerin in handmade soap that gives it its luxurious feel and leaves your skin feeling soft and smooth.
Turns out, there is a thriving and highly profitable market for glycerin to be used in lotions and moisturizers. Because of this, many commercial soap manufacturers strip the glycerin from their soap and sell it separately. This is why your skin seems to dry out when using commercial soaps.
🛒 Choosing Your Ingredients
So how do you start when making your own soap?
First of all, you will need to gather the ingredients. As said before, the vast majority of soaps start with lye, also known as sodium hydroxide. Lye used to be available in most grocery stores, but safety concerns have caused most large grocery chains to drop lye from their inventory since people didn’t know how to handle it properly.
A few hardware stores still carry lye, though it is often labeled as drain cleaner. For making your own soap, you must be certain that the lye you buy is 100 percent sodium hydroxide with no other ingredients. If you see anything listed on the label other than 100 percent sodium hydroxide, do not use the product for making soap.
A better choice is lye specifically designed for soap making. Such product is available from many online retailers and you shouldn’t have any troule finding some. If you are purchasing from soap making suppliers, you are assured that the product you are using is pure and is the correct concentration for your recipe.
🔨 Determining the Hardness
The next ingredient for making your own soap is a fat or oil of some sort. Popular choices include plantbased oils like coconut oil, grape seed oil, vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, palm oil, olive oil or others.
Butters like shea, cocoa and mango are also used on a regular basis. Animal fats like lard, tallow, duck or goose fat and even butter are still blended into soaps. As a rule, harder fats will form hard soaps and softer fats, softer soap.
One thing to take into acount when deciding what type and how much fat to add to a particular recipe comes in the form of how much oil you want in the finished product.
Professional soap makers explain that, for each recipe, there is a given amount of fat that will saponify with a given amount of lye. The result of a fully saponified mixture is a rather dry and crumbly soap that doesn’t have a particularly nice hand feel. In order to remedy that, extra oil or fat is added.
Adding this extra oil or fat to the soap blend is known as superfatting the soap. The explanation is pretty simple and the extra fat can be added during the cooking process or at the very end, depending on the desired outcome.
Keep in mind that if you add the extra oil or fat at the beginning of the process, you have no control over what the superfat content of the finished product will be. This method is fine for a soap with only one type of fat. If you want to control the content of the superfat oil, let the saponification finish, then add the superfat oil at the end and stir to incorporate it.
🤏 Adding Your Own Touch
Once the two basic ingredients, lye and fat, are decided on, the other additives you choose are what makes the bar of soap your own. When making your own soap, there are many choices for adding your own ingredients. Here are just a few tips:
- Fresh herbs and leaves are added for their fragrance and often for their calming influence.
- Chamomile, lavender, lemongrass and many of the mint family are a few of the more popular plants used in homemade soap.
- Citrus peels like orange, grapefruit and lemon are used to add a pleasing and clean scent to the finished product.
- Herbals like juniper berries or lavender buds, and additives like oatmeal are used for appearance and texture.
Besides fresh and dried plant material, essential oils are also common additives to soap. The oils from many plant products, like citrus, cedarwood, chamomile, and even unusual ingredients like black pepper, are added to soap recipes because of their ability to add a lot of fragrance from just a few drops of oil.
When I’m adding aromatics like herbs to my own soap, I grind them into a fine paste before adding. I’ve noticed that those buying soap from us seem to prefer their soap to be more consistent and not have large pieces of plant material throughout.
I also recommends adding plant-based ingredients at the end of the cooking process after the saponification has occurred. If you add the ingredients too early, the reaction between the lye and the fats or oils produces heat. This heat can actually cook the ingredients in the soap, turning them brown.
After choosing your base and added ingredients, the next decision in making soap is the method you use. Some use heat, often from the oven or a slow cooker. I advise you to pick one up at a yard sale and use it strictly for soap making. Don’t use the slow cooker in which you would later cook dinner for your family.
Other methods rely on the chemical reaction between the lye and the fat to produce all the heat necessary to blend the ingredients.
Regardless of the method used, I’ve learned over time that a good digital scale is crucial to turning out a quality-finished product. I never rely on measured volume and I always weigh all of my ingredients before starting the mixing process.
Once all ingredients have been weighed and placed on the work surface, you are ready to begin the process. Measure, weigh and mix your ingredients in glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers.
🥽 Proper Precautions
Since all of the methods described here use lye, a few safety rules should be followed regardless of how you make your soap. Lye is caustic and contact with skin will result in a nasty burn. Heavy rubber gloves (dish-washing gloves work well) are a crucial when handling it. Long sleeves and pants instead of shorts, eye protection and closed toed shoes complete the safety uniform.
Related reading: How To Treat Acid And Base Burns
I recommend mixing the lye and water outdoors since it’s much safer. Also, good ventilation in your soap making area is a must, as the early chemical reaction between the lye and water releases fumes that could cause irritation to the eyes, lungs and throat.
Once the saponification has occurred,the lye is completely neutralized and is no longer dangerous. One safety note mentioned by many soap makers (that I follow to the letter) is to always make sure your soap has mixed completely so there are no leftover pockets of un-neutralized lye contained in the bars.
Tip: This online soap calculator (soapcalc.net) will help match the correct amount of lye, water and fat for making your own soap.
One last important safety precaution is this: when mixing the lye and water, always add the lye into the water, never the other way around. Pouring water onto lye can cause a reaction that splashes the lye out of the container, possibly causing burns.
🧼 The recommended methods for making your own soap
🔥 The Hot process
The hot process of soap making uses a heat source to warm the fats and oils and speed the saponification process once the lye and water are added. Begin by placing your fats and oils into the slow cooker and turning it on low.
While the fats and oils heat, add the measured lye to the water. Many soap makers prefer to use distilled or rainwater to avoid additional chemicals. The chemical reaction between the two produces heat, so use cool water to hold the temperature down a bit. Carefully pour the mixture into the warmed fats and begin to stir.
I recommend an electric stick blender to more easily incorporate the ingredients. Blend the ingredients until the soap reaches the “trace” stage. Simply put, trace is reached when the lye water has emulsified. Saponification will continue until all of the lye has been used in the reaction.
So how do you tell when the soap has reached trace stage?
The appearance will be smooth, without pockets of separate material. The best way to test is to lift a spoon of the soap mixture from the pot and let it drip back down onto the surface of the soap in the pot.
When the drips hold and set on the surface of the soap for a few seconds, trace has been reached.
At this point, set the timer for 15 minutes and sit back to watch the process work. Don’t walk away, as the soap sometimes “volcanoes” up and out of the pot. If you notice the soap beginning to bubble and rise, simply stir it back down.
At the 15 minute mark, the soap will have a pudding like consistency. Give the soap another good stir and continue to cook. Total cooking times can range from 45 to 60 minutes. At the end of the process, the soap will take on an applesauce like consistency.
Now is the time to stir in any additives or superfats you would like in your soap. Be sure the soap temperature is below 160 before adding essential oils, as hotter temperatures can damage the oils and limit their effectiveness.
The most reliable way to check if your soap is donen is to test the pH. Soap should have a pH in the 7-10 range. The easiest way to test for this is to use liquid phenolphthalein. Simply add a drop of the liquid to your soap and if the color changes to a dark pink or purple, the soap isn’t finished. When a drop of phenolphthalein dripped onto the soap remains clear, the soap is finished.
❄️ The Cold process
The other common method of making your own soap is the cold process method. Despite its name, the cold method still uses a heat source to warm the fats and oils to the 95-100 degree range. In the cold process, once the oils and fats are warmed, the heat source is no longer used.
As with the hot process, carefully weigh the ingredients, mix the lye into the water, and then add the lye/water to the fats. Without the added heat of the slow cooker, the process relies on the heat produced by the chemical reaction to “cook” the soap mixture.
Just like the hot process method, continue to stir the mixture until trace stage has been reached. Pour the soap into molds and wrap in blankets to hold the heat in. Cold process soap needs to age a minimum of six weeks for complete saponification of all lye to be achieved.
Regardless of the method you are using for making your own soap, once your soap has saponified, it needs to be poured into a mold to harden.
Molds can be silicone soap molds in specific shapes or sizes, wooden molds custom made in preferred sizes. Except for silicone, molds should be lined with freezer or wax paper, plastic wrap, or parchment paper to allow the soap to release from the mold. If you are a beginner to all of this, I recommend using silicone molds since it will save yo some time.
Once the soap has been unmolded, it needs to be sliced into bars. Slicing can be accomplished with wire saws designed for the purpose, or simply with a sharp butcher knife. The size of the bars doesn’t matter and it’s mostly a choice of personal preference.
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After the soap has been sliced, the bars need to be aged. Some animal fat, hot process soaps can be used right away, but most benefit from at least two weeks of aging. To age the soap, simply place the bars, unwrapped, on a wire shelf. I used to place a small fan under the soap to aid in drying, but to save power I stopped doing so. I usually let my bars of soap age for at least four weeks.
Tip: Some olive oil or other vegetable based soaps can age for years. Such soap are recommended for preppers and survivalists.
Check your recipe for necessary aging times since there may be adjustments needed to the different batches you are making.
📝 My basic soap recipe
This is the first soap recipe I tried and I can’t remember how many years ago this was. Here are the ingredients you need for making your own soap:
- 480 grams lard
- 120 grams coconut oil
- Lye solution:
- 85 grams lye (sodium hydroxide)
- 228 grams water
Scent (if you desire to add some). You can be add it at trace 20 to 36 grams of your favorite essential oils or fragrance oils.
Prepare using the hot process method and age for two weeks.
Once you have made your soap, you want to make it last as long as possible. Because glycerin draws water to itself, homemade soap left in a pool of water at the edge of the tub will quickly turn to mush. Store your soap on a rack above the water, or hanging in a crocheted soap bag made to hold the soap and double as a washcloth.
Making your own soap is not a complicated task and it can offer some satisfying results. All you need is to carefully measure the ingredients and cook them properly, while at the same time be cautious throughout the entire process. Use safety equipment to prevent any accidents from happening. Making your own soap is a rewarding experience and every homesteader or serious prepper should give I a try.
Useful resources to check out: