How to Make Soap (With or Without Lye)

How to make soap- with or without lye

Growing up, it never occurred to me that it was possible to make soap at home. I was born in a big city, grew up in another and soap was always a white-colored bar from Ivory that came in a package.

Why Make Soap at Home?

I’d always been crafty, and when I found recipes for soap making in an old-time homemaking book, I was intrigued. At the same time, all those years ago, I was unsure about some of the ingredients that the recipes called for, especially tallow and lye.

In fact, despite my intrigue with homemade soap, it took me a few years to work up the courage to make it, so I just bought handmade soap from a local vendor in the meantime. When I finally attempted to make homemade soap for our family, I was amazed at how simple it was, and how much money it saved!

While the process seems overwhelming at first glance, it is very simple, especially after you’ve done it once. Also, in less than an hour, it is possible to make enough soap for our family for months and months, and I was able to make soap for less than half the cost of buying it, even with organic ingredients.

Can You Make Soap Without Lye?

Often, the biggest concern with soap-making is the lye, and this was one of my biggest concerns as well before I researched it.

Lye comes with its fair share of warnings and with good reason, but that doesn’t mean that the finished soap product is in any way dangerous. The most often asked question on my soap recipes (like my basic slowcooker soap or my charcoal bars) is “can I make soap without lye?” The short answer is no, but the long answer requires a little science…

What is Lye?

Chemically, lye is Sodium Hydroxide, a caustic alkali. It can eat holes in fabric and skin and cause severe reactions with other chemicals. For soap, the crystal form of pure Sodium Hydroxide is used (this is important!) and the lye must be added to water, not the other way around.

Sounds dangerous… right?

Not so fast.

After all, table salt is made up of sodium and chloride, both dangerous on their own but edible once combined.

You Can’t Make Soap Without Lye

Soap by definition is an alkali mixed with fats. When combined, a process called saponification happens, creating soap. This not only allows the liquid and oils to mix (they don’t do this naturally, as you might remember from grade school science class), but also creates the action by which soap has its cleansing properties.

In other words, without Lye, you just have a bucket of chunky, fatty oils floating in water.

The important part is to make sure that the correct amount of Lye is used for the particular soap you make (more on that below) as different oils and fats require different ratios of lye.

Don’t Want to Handle Lye?

If you don’t want to physically touch the lye but still want the experience of making soap, all is not lost. There are ways that you can make and customize your own soap without handling the lye by using a pre-made melt-and-pour soap that has been pre-saponified (in other words, the lye has already been handled).

It is not lye-free, but you won’t have to handle the lye yourself.

This is the brand of melt-and-pour soap that I’ve used before, and it worked really well. You can add scents with essential oils, or add other ingredients like clays, salts, or other add-ins if you want to create a personalized soap. Again, it isn’t lye-free and you haven’t technically “made” the soap but it is a way to have the experience without having to handle the lye (but it is also much less cost effective).

How To Create Your Own Soap (With Lye)

As I explained, though Lye can be dangerous on its own, there is no lye remaining in soap that has been properly made and no reason for concern when using lye appropriately and in the correct ratio for soap making.

If you are ready to tackle the simple process of soap making using lye, here are some good resources to get started:

Soap Making Supplies Needed

Before you begin, it is important to have both a recipe and the necessary ingredients. You can make a custom soap with almost any variety of oils and fats, and a good soap calculator (like this one) will help you know how much of each ingredient you’ll need. The bulk oils I keep on hand for soap making (and general cooking and use) are:

This post explains the difference between making a hot process soap and a cold process soap and gives some specific recipe suggestions.

Once you have a recipe and the necessary oils/fats, you’ll also need to get some pure Lye to use in the saponification process. I had trouble finding it locally, but I was able to order pure lye specifically for soap making here.

I also found these kitchen tools helpful and I keep a specific one of each just for soap making and not for kitchen use:

How to Customize Your Soap

At this point, you can also decide on any add-ins for your soap to customize the color, scent or texture. In the past, I’ve used:

  • Essential oils
  • Dried herbs (for texture or color)- my favorites are dried lavender flowers, chamomile flowers or calendula, though any dried her could be added.
  • Colors– natural color options I’ve tried are spices and plant materials like spirulina, turmeric, cocoa, ground coffee (my favorite), hibiscus, beet root and others.
  • Texture add ins– like dry freshly ground coffee, healing clays, salts, oatmeal or any other ingredient.

Ever made soap? What is your favorite variation?

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Reader Comments

  1. I’ve always wanted to try to make soap to save money, but have been afraid of the lye.
    The melt-and-pour soap still seems to save lots of money. In my understanding its basically a big block of soap that you melt and reform in smaller sizes with the possible addition of essential oils. So if you just want cheap bulk soap you can buy melt-and-pour soap and just cut it with a knife, right?

    • Yes Justin you could certainly do that if you really wanted something easy with no scent at all. You could also just buy the bulk M &P and maybe one or two molds of your choice, depending on how big of a bar you wanted. That way if you wanted to add some essential oil or fragrance oil, you would have that option. A lot of the plastic Milky Way Molds will have 3 to 4 cavities and the ounce size of each bar can vary. (You would still need a scale to weigh though. One that does grams and ounces) A lot of people like to add other things to their soap when they melt it, such as white Kaolin Clay (makes a harder bar that lasts longer in the shower), or fine pumice or oats for exfoliation, and also color. You don’t have to do any of those things but I do find that when you get a block of M & P and open it, there is almost a softer consistency that feels somewhat sticky or gooey to the touch before it’s melted. When it’s melted and molded and cooled it seems like it makes the bar a bit harder even without adding anything else to it. I don’t know why that is but it’s just something I noticed when cutting it into cubes to melt it. Still if you just wanted to cut a chunk off to last for about a week or so in the shower I think that would work well. I would just keep the bar away from the direct shower spray when not in use, so it doesn’t turn into a slimy, gooey blob. LOL!
      I do really like cold process soap too but I don’t make it. It’s quite a process and I am sort of impatient and don’t want to wait 4-6 weeks for cure time after it’s sliced into bars. I buy it and use it sometimes but mostly I just stick to M & P because it’s usable right after you make it.
      Hope that helps you out!!

      • Thanks Kelli. White Kaolin Clay seems quite useful. Will look at the links you posted below. Thank for the excellent starting point!

      • Kaolin clay ( or any clay for that matter) do not harden or make soap last longer. It’s usually added for glide for a shaving soap, for a natural color, a scent fixative, or depending on the clay, facial soaps. If you want your melt and pour to last longer a small amount of stearic acid can be used. Some people also use e-wax. Too many additives kill the lather. Mp soap does seem to harden slightly if left in open air. Which I like. I’m assuming it is the water evaporating. They say to wrap glycerin soaps so they don’t sweat but I buy a low sweat type and have no problems.I am a long time cold process soap maker but sometimes I need something quick and easy…. And Kaolin clay does harden bath bombs though.

        Katie, the mp soap you linked too is very expensive. That brand costs $4.40 (give or take) at many online soap venders. I get 2 pounds of it plus shipping for what you pay for 1 pound. I see many people on Amazon selling it for double and even triple the price. I usually get around 8-4 oz bars for less than $10. if you buy in bulk it’s even cheaper. Depending on if you buy your soap making oils in bulk or not the price might be similar. If I buy my soap making oils in 16 oz sizes a 2 pound loaf of cold process soap costs me more than the melt and pour. IF I add fragrance it gets very pricey. It is well worth it though, nothing beats handmade soap…. milk cartons and shoe boxes lined with parchment work well for molds!

        • So where do you buy your supplies at such a good price? Thx!

    • Katie,
      Love your website and all its useful information. I have made soap on 2 occasions and both times have had trouble hitting the trace stage within an hour of stirring. I’m interested in how your slowcooker method works, since most information I have read says the lye and oils both need to be at 100 degrees before combining the two. This is tough to do. My lye takes a long time to cool down. Both times had to put it outside in cooler weather to cool down. My finished bars have a white crusty layer on them which I assume is the unincorporated lye. I was told to just scrape that off and rest of the bar is fine to use. I tried an immersion blender which to my dismay was too strong and I ended up with oil/lye mixture all over my stovetop and wall. I have an older hand mixer which works at a slower speed which I will keep for soap in future. I made your black drawing salve and some other salves. Have not used yet. Need to add beeswax. Love the hand soap recipe with castile soap.

      • Hi Nancy, I have made a lot of soap over the last few years, and I have a little advice for you.
        Firstly it doesn’t sound like the pot you are using is big enough, it needs to be a large enough pot to use a stick blender without getting it over the sides.
        Secondly, and trust me on this, a stick blender is the best way to go.
        While not having physical access to your soap or your recipe I wouldn’t want to guess what the crusty stuff is on the outside of it. I would probably start again if I didn’t think all of the lye had been transformed. Otherwise you could still get burned from it.
        As to temperature, I take my oils and Lye solution down to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) and if the recipe is correctly measured it will trace within 5 – 10 mins usually.
        My best piece of advice for you is to check your recipe in a lye calculator such as this one: https://www.thesage.com/calcs/LyeCalc.html if it is not tracing the measurements may be wrong.
        All the best 🙂

        • Lara
          Thank you so much for your helpful info. Oils should be at 110 degrees not 100 that my recipe said. I bought a digital scale which should help. Will use lye calculator to check my recipe which is from a soap book not my own. As for the stick blender it was from a yard sale not a new one. My pot needs to be taller not bigger? Even in a 5 gallon bucket the blender seemed to work pretty vigorously on homemade laundry soap. Maybe if I pulse it. Its an older metal one. Might be defective. Thank you again!
          Nancy

        • Does anyone know if the liquid oils are measured by weight or by volume? I know solid and semi solid butters are by weight.

    • Katie
      Would I be able to remelt my soap that has the white crusty layer of lye on top using your slow cooker method to incorporate the lye better or must it be thrown away and I should start over?

      • First, I would say the white you are referring to is called soda ash. This is harmless, just a cosmetic issue. You can take a wet rag and wash it off. To prevent this spray rubbing alcohol ( I use 99% alcohol) after you pour in to the mold and cover with plastic wrap. Us soapers do a thing called a tongue zap test lol. I know it sounds gross but it works. You hold it to your tongue and if you feel any kind of zap your soap is either lye heavy or hasn’t fully cured. You can also buy ph testing kits if you do not want to do that. I do not think what you are seeing is undissolved lye. When you mixed your lye with the water did it dissolve? It will be cloudy at first but that clears pretty fast. Some brands of lye I have used seem to have some white floating particles that do not dissolve but I have never seen this in a finished bar.
        You want to use an immersion blend not a regular kitchen mixer. Those whip too much air into your soap and also cause a lot of splatters. If you were getting splatters with an Immersion blender it was probably because you werent working with enough liquid. If I don’t have enough liquid to cover the base of the blender it will splatter. If you hit air bubbles it will splatter. Tap your container and blender to release air bubbles before turning it on. It’s best to pulse for a few seconds at a time. Please note that you do not want to use aluminum with lye. Make sure your utensils are stainless, silicon or heavy plastic.
        If your soap recipe was heavy in olive oil it will take longer to trace. Some oils are quick tracing while others take a long time. Your soap may have traced but you didn’t know it did. A thin trace will look somewhat thin. Take you immersion blender and let the soap dribble off. If it sits on top then you are at trace. If it sinks then you are not. I would suggest going to a website like soap queen or Teach soap to learn all things you need to know.
        Any recipe you get online run through a soap calculator( soapcalc.com) you definitely need a digital scale that measures in grams to get an accurate measurement. Even being off by a little can result in a lye heavy harsh soap. Recipes should be measured in weight not volume to be accurate.
        If you want to rebatch the soap that’s fine. Just make sure it’s not lye heavy like I stated above. You can grate it and put it in the crockpot with a little liquid until it melts. You will get a lumpy texture like hot process though.
        As for the temp. that is up to you. Some people soap at room temp ( may take longer to trace) while others soap hotter (traces faster). I use to worry about the temp but now I just feel the bottom of the containers and make sure they feel similar. I have never had a problem with not having the temps exactly the same. I like to make my lye before I do everything else. By the time I melt my oils the lye is cooled down. Some soapers don’t melt the oils at all. They simply mix the lye with the water and add the hot lye to the unmelted oils. The heat melts the oils. I have tried this once with no issues. I’d recommend doing some research though. Hope this answers your questions. Sorry if I have repeated what anyone else might have said. Good luck

    • I wanted to make Shea and Cocoa butter soaps but I can’t find the whole raw ingredients at regular stores and grocery stores. They have brands that have all kinds of additives etc – i thought they were only supposed to have one whole ingredient. Am I wrong?

      Also, no one could find the Castile soap bars. I found another brand but it was loaded with other chemical ingredients etc. What ingredients are acceptable in these so called pure soaps?

  2. I dry my own calendula flowers and add the petals into the soap batter before pouring. They don’t go dark (like lavender petals in soap do) but rather, remain a beautiful bright yellow!
    For my shampoo bars, I add neem oil to help prevent & treat itchy scalp conditions and it makes your hair so soft. Neem oil doesn’t smell great but adding tea tree EO to the bars helps. This soap is also excellent for psoriasis and eczema and good even as a dog shampoo as the neem repels fleas (and head lice for humans!).

  3. I LOVE cold processed soap!!!
    A fantastic website for soap making supplies (literally everything you need) is a place that I buy from all the time. The website is http://www.wholesalesuppliesplus.com and they are worth checking out if you are interested in learning about soap making. They have lots of recipes you can follow and even videos on lots of different products you can learn to make. Their staff is very knowledgeable and will answer any questions as best they can.
    I don’t make soap but I do know how to make it and I do buy it from different places online. It may be something I will add to my product line in the future but right now I’m pretty busy with the hair and skincare products I currently make.
    Another great website for soap making help is http://www.naturesgardenandcandle.com For every fragrance they sell they will tell you how it performed in cold process soaping because all scents will not react the same.
    If you’ve been wanting to try making your own soap check out one or both of these websites for help to get started.
    Katie already gave you a great list of the important starting tools and ingredients and it’s so much fun making your own stuff. I gotta warn you though, once you do it the first time you will be hooked!!!

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to explain this process in detail! I have always wanted to make soap but have had concerns about lye. I have posted to others about this and have been blasted about being ignorant. I love your blog! Peace 🙂

  5. When combining lye and water, I always remember snow falling on a lake!

  6. Dear,
    Please anyone tell me the difference in between hot and cold soap,and also from the two soap,which one is profitable?

    • Hot process soap uses heat to cook the soap so it can actually be used right away. Though it is better to wait a few weeks to let the extra water evaporate ( bars last longer). Cold process needs to cure for 4-6 weeks.
      Either can be profitable, though Selling soap before you even know anything about it isn’t wise. The market is saturated as it is. Many small business owners make a living by selling soaps. They work hard to learn how to make it, they get insurance, spend money on trademarks, etc. many people that think it is an easy way to make money but it isn’t fair to these hard working small business owners.
      There are certain laws to abide by also. Every state is different. You may need a tax I’d, liability insurance, a business license, etc. Soap can be harmful if not made properly. You could get sued if someone has a bad reaction. So while it is great to make it for yourself and friends I think you might need to learn how to make it and follow all the laws in your state before you jump ahead.

  7. Why does your title say “With or Without Lye” if you never provide an alternative soap without lye. I found this post useful, though very misleading.

    • It’s not possible to actually make soap without lye, which I explain in the post. Unfortunately, many people search for ways to make it, so titling it as I did makes it easier for people searching to find it.

      • I just wanted to say thank you for this. To make a long story short myself and my 10 year old son are choosing a healthier life style after watching Hungry for Change on Netflix. We played a fun game with lable reading in the kitchen and bathroom ditching stuff loaded with crap! I woke up this morning going holy crap my soap that I have made for years has awesome oils in it,but the lye! Thanks for letting me chill with that! I would be devastated! Soap making is my heart. I started to make soap 18 years ago when I was killing myself slowly with drugs, alcohol and food. I got the idea to make soap. I remember wanting to drug and drink so bad I would stir soap and cry. Needless to say 18 years later I am sober and make beautiful soap which I give away. My montra is cleaning up the world one bar at a time. ?

        • That’s a really great story! Congrats!

  8. I am so thankful that I found this post because I so afraid of making my own soap because of lye but to know that I don’t even have to deal with it in the soap making process is awesome

  9. Hi Katie,

    I made Mommypottamus’ coconut oil laundry soap bars today via the link you have provided. I think they worked well, was my first attempt ever at making soap! I can’t find where to ask her this question but I’m wondering if these particular soap bars are ok to use as body bars as well as in laundry powder! I’m still learning about soap making & what superfatting means! They’re 1% super fat as opposed to 20% super fat in the body bars!

    I’ll still definitely make soap for the body. I like the idea of using a few different fats & oils including beeswax. I have a few questions before I try though!! Do you provide a recipe for these?!

    • laundry bars are usually too drying for using on skin. her other recipe you mentioned would be good for skin though with the 20% superfat.

      • Thanks so much for your reply Linda!

  10. Hi. I have come across sodium hydroxide in liquid form. Assuming it is mixed with water. Can I use this liquid form to make soap. Thanks

    • I don’t have any experience with it in liquid form, so I’m really not sure.

    • Liquid lye is just a solution of H20 and NaOH.

  11. Hi, Thanks very much for this article; I was wondering when to add exfoliants like oatmeal or strawberry seeds to the mixture? I assume not while the mixture is boiling hot, to avoid destroying the molecular compounds in the exfoliants; but should they go into the crock or would it be better to apply them once the mixture has been poured into the molds? Also; how to I go about making multi-layer soap (such as top half glycerin-based and bottom half fat/lye-based; or say top half has exfoliants and is scented and colored differently than bottom half? Will I just be filling molds half-way, then filling them up with a second batch after they cure? Thanks so much, love your site!

  12. This is amazing! i have made it several times! i got some new molds from bulkapothecary and i must say wow! these are the most adorable gifts! i just love them

  13. Thanks for posting this article. I’ve made soap in the past, just got out of the habit of making it and this post inspired me to get back into making it.

  14. Is it better to have Lye? Is there a different result when you have and don’t have lye?

    • All soap has Lye so the results are the same. The only option is making your own soap using lye or buying a premade melt and pour where lye has already been used so you don’t have to handle it.

  15. just starting out and using soap base pour & melt. I tried to make oatmeal honey soap, but oatmeal that I ground up from quaker Oats went to the bottom of soap, it didn’t mix with the soap. Im thinking the honey based soap base was the problem…? can you help me

  16. I am very new at soap making,I have alot of Russian sage and would like to use it in my soap making.Do you have any information or recipes?

  17. I’m not finding the actual recipe and measurements. It’s a bit frustrating. Can you direct me to a recipe?

  18. Hello!

    I’ve a few questions for the melt and pour process that I’s like to clarify, so here goes 🙂

    1, I’ve come across blogs saying that it’s not really advisable to put essential oils on melt and pour because it can affect the texture of the soap or the final product, is this true or not?

    2. What is the usual shelf life of a melt and pour soap with dried herbs on it?

    3. What are some natural or organic preservatives that you can recommend and how long can they keep the product “fresh” before it starts to spoil?

    4. Can you add powdered milk or matcha powder to a melt and pour soap? Will it spoil the product?

    5. Can you add shea butter to melt and pour soap? Will it affect the texture of the soap?

    I look forward to hearing from you!

    Thank you so much! =)

  19. This is a great post, thanks. I have used this method since I saw your post. The only thing I am doing wrong is leaving it in the crock pot too long so I have chunky bits going in the mold… still works fine. I just saw a recipe for bar shampoo and was hard pressed to see the difference between that recipe and this one (different oils were used mainly) Can these bars be used as shampoo? It would save the tons of money I spend on organic shampoo.

    • They absolutely can be used as shampoo if they work on your hair.

  20. Hello!

    I really enjoy reading your posts and am inspired to make my own soap because of it. I’d like to know the shelf life of a melt and pour soap if I add dried herbs, dried tea leaves and powdered tea leaves on it as well as fruit extracts like freshly squeezed lemon juice or freshly squeezed papaya juice.

    I don’t plan to dabble on CP or HP yet so I want to start with melt n pour soaps.

    Thank you!