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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.
Types of Soap You Can Make at Home
In general, there are several ways to make soap at home (with endless variations of each). These are:
- Regular or Cold Process
- Hot Process
- Melt and Pour
In this tutorial, I’ll cover traditional cold process soap making. I’ll start broad with the basics and share my favorite simple recipe at the bottom. Check out the links above for tutorials on other methods.
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:
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.
Kitchen Tools for Soap Making
I also found these kitchen tools helpful and I keep a specific one of each just for soap making and not for kitchen use:
- A digital scale (this is important for making a soap that is not too harsh or too oily)
- Glass jars and bowls
- A stick blender
- plastic cups (optional)
- A metal spoon
- A wooden spoon
- A spatula
- Soap molds (or an old cardboard box lined with parchment paper). I have green flower molds, red silicon rose molds and basic bar soap molds.
- Gloves and sunglasses or eyewear
- A large bottle of white vinegar for neutralizing the lye mixture if it spills on anything.
It is best to have separate kitchen tools for soap making and not to use regular kitchen tools.
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 for silky clay soap, sea salt soap, oatmeal or any other ingredient.
Basic Soap Recipe
Don’t want to create your own recipe and ready to jump in? Try this simple recipe to get started. Before you start, make sure you have the equipment and ingredients on hand, including a digital scale. This is not optional for making homemade soap!
This makes a 1 pound (454 gram) batch with 5% superfat and 33% water reduction.
- 62 grams Sodium Hydroxide (Lye)
- 124 grams Distilled Water
- 150 grams Refined Coconut Oil
- 25 grams Shea Butter
- 225 grams Olive Oil
- 100 grams Sunflower Oil
What to do:
- Get all all of your ingredients and weigh them out to correct amounts. It is important to do this before you begin as soap making is a time sensitive process and there isn’t time to stop and measure in between.
- Combine liquid oils: olive oil and sunflower oil and set aside in a small jar or bowl.
- Melt coconut oil and shea butter in a small pan on the stove until just melted and set aside.
- Now you’ll need to carefully make the lye solution. Make sure pets and small children are not in the room and always wear goggles and waterproof gloves. Measure and weigh each separately first. Never use hot water when mixing and never ever add water to the lye. Mix by adding lye to room temperature or cool water in a sturdy glass container. Again, never add water to the lye! This mixture will get very hot and release steam at first. Stir with a stainless steel spoon until the lye is completely dissolved.
- Now is when your digital thermometer comes in handy. you’ll want to mix the oils and the lye mixture when they both reach 105 degrees. There can be a slight difference but the lye solution should be under 110 degrees and within 10 degrees of the oils temperature.
- Once the lye is mixed, combine the liquid oils into the melted butters and solids and stir to combine. Check the temperature. You’re aiming for 105 and might need to heat them back up slightly if they’ve cooled. You’ll mostly be waiting for the lye to cool to 105 so you can begin mixing (called bringing the soap to trace).
- Slowly and carefully, pour the lye mixture into the oils.
- Use an immersion blender to blend the soap until it reaches trace. This means the oils have saponified. Keep blending until it is creamy and like pudding. If you want to add essential oils or any other ingredients, this is the time you’ll add them. I usually add about a teaspoon of a gentle essential oil like lavender. Work really quickly so the soap doesn’t harden too much in this stage.
- Quickly transfer into molds and tap a few times to release air bubbles. I like to use individual silicone bar molds because they are easier. This mold is the exact right size for this recipe.
- Insulate (or not). Insulating soap will lead to a darker and more transparent finished soap. Not insulating will result in a lighter and more opaque soap. I’ve insulated two ways: by carefully covering and wrapping in a towel, and my placing on a baking sheet and placing in a warm but cooled (110 degree) oven and leaving overnight.
- Wait two days and remove soap from the mold.
- Now for the patience… your soap needs to cure! It isn’t ready yet. Place on a flat and well ventilated area for 30 days. Turn it over a few times during this time period.
Other Soap Recipes
Want to mix it up? Try these recipes:
- How to Make Homemade Clay Soap
- How to Make Sea Salt Soap
- Spiced Essential Oil Soap for Men
- Charcoal and Clay Facial Soap Recipe
Ever made soap? What is your favorite variation?