I like making soap. I do. Right now I make two different kinds: one for laundry and one for skin. I use the cold-process method which is pretty easy to master. Soap making is a skill I plan to teach my kids when they get older so when I made a fresh batch last week, I took a bunch of pictures to record the process.
This IS NOT a comprehensive how-to-guide on making soap. There is a wealth of information available online and at the library for people who want to learn more. This IS a record of how I make soap. That is all.
When I want to try a new recipe for soap, the first thing I do is use a soap calculator (there are many available online, just search for one) to figure out what combination of oils I want to use and how much lye I’ll need. Making soap is a scientific process. Different oils will produce different effects and will necessitate a different amount of lye. The soap calculators will give you handy measurements in hardness, cleansing property, conditioning, bubbles and creaminess. For body soap I want a good cleanser with high conditioning and a fair amount of bubbles/creaminess. When I’m making laundry soap I shoot for a firm bar with low conditioning and high cleansing properties.
My current recipes are:
20 oz coconut oil
30 oz olive oil
10 oz grapeseed oil
23 oz water
8.6 oz lye
16 oz coconut oil
16 oz olive oil
5 oz lye
12 oz water
All purpose Soap:
16 oz coconut oil
16 oz olive oil
21 oz rice bran oil
7.4 oz lye
20 oz water
I buy my oils wherever I can get them cheapest. The best deal on olive oil (I’ve found) is Costco, the coconut oil I bought at Walmart (only place I’ve seen it), the grapeseed I bought at the grocery store and the rice bran oil was at my local Asian grocer. Unfortunately, the grocer no longer carries rice bran oil and I haven’t been able to find a new supplier. The oils are just normal cooking quality oils.
The lye is sodium hydroxide which is commonly used as a drain opener. I buy mine from Lowes and sometimes Ace Hardware. It’s in the toilet aisle along with Mr. Draino and other goodies. The brand you use doesn’t matter, but make sure it is 100% sodium hydroxide and that it doesn’t have any other additives.
You have to use lye. It is the reaction of the lye and oil and water that cause the whole chemical reaction resulting in soap. Yes, lye is dangerous if not used properly, but so is Mr. Draino and I haven’t seen too many people afraid of unclogging their sink. As long as you are safe you’ll be fine.
As for the water, always used bottled or distilled water. Just do.
I have separate bowls, spoons, measuring cups, etc. for making soap. I keep them all in a cabinet downstairs so that they don’t accidentally get used for food. With the exception of the pot used to heat the oils, make sure you are using glass or plastic items that will not produce a reaction with the lye. I use:
medium plastic bowl
large plastic bowl
large plastic cooking spoon
wooden cooking spoon
*When making soap, you are always dealing with weights and not volume. That is why a kitchen scale is necessary. The only item you can measure is the water.
Measure water and pour into a medium sized plastic (or glass) bowl. Using the kitchen scale, carefully measure out the appropriate amount of lye for the recipe you are using. Do not touch the lye with your skin because it will burn. (Wear rubber gloves if you want to.) Carefully pour the lye into the water (never, never pour the water into the lye) and use a plastic or wooden spoon to mix. When the lye hits the water it will cause a reaction and some fumes will be produced. The fumes subside quickly, but don’t lean your face over the bowl as you are mixing and be sure to open a window to get some ventilation. Sometimes I’ll even step outside to mix the lye.
The lye will cause the water to instantly heat up super hot. Once you’ve stirred the lye until it’s dissolved, just let it sit and monitor it with a candy thermometer. You’ll need the temperature to drop to 100 degrees before you can mix it with the oil. This can take some time so don’t feel rushed as you get the oil ready. (I wish somebody would have told me this the first time I made soap!)
The next thing I do is get my soap mold ready. I use a silicone baking pan that I found at the thrift store. It is awesome because it makes removing the soap so easy. Whatever pan you use, coat it with a thin layer of Vaseline. I’ve seen some recipes use cooking spray, but it always leaves a weird white coating on my soap so I prefer the Vaseline. If you are using a silicone pan, you’ll want to have a cookie sheet underneath it for stability. Trust me.
Now it is time for the oils. Carefully wash out your kitchen scale and then use it to measure the oils. Try to be as accurate as possible and transfer the oils to a medium sized pot on the stove. It’s okay to use a metal pot but make sure it is non-reactive. You will want to heat your oils to 100 degrees. The purpose of heating the oils is to melt any solid oils (in this case coconut oil) and to bring the oil to the same temperature as the lye. Make sure to heat your oils over low heat because it really doesn’t take that much heat to reach 100. (If you don’t, you’ll end up sticking your pot into a tub of ice to try and cool the oils down. Trust me, I know.)
When your lye mixture and your oils are both 100 degrees, it is time to mix. Pour your oils into a large plastic (or glass) bowl. Carefully pour the lye mixture into the oil, being careful not to splash. Begin to mix the oils using your stick blender. (I picked up mine from the thrift store for $2.)
As you mix it will start to look more like soap.
You need to mix until you see what looks like thick mayo. It is called trace. You’ll know it is trace because you’ll see ripples when you are mixing and when you lift your blender the soap with retain some of it’s shape. It took me about 5 to 6 minutes to reach trace.
At this point you can add some essential oils for scent if you want. I often leave my body soap unscented, but I’ll add some lemongrass essential oil to my laundry soap so that I can easily tell it apart from the body soap. Once you add the essential oils, give it a quick blend to make sure the oils are evenly dispersed.
Pour your soap into your greased soap mold (pan). If you want you can give it a cool texture using a rubber spatula.
Now you need your soap to cool slowly, so cover it with a towel (I place a piece of cardboard on top to keep the towel out of the soap) and set it somewhere to cool. It needs to cool for 12 to 15 hours.
The next morning when you lift the towel you’ll see soap! It may not all be one color, but it should be firm to the touch with just a little give. Kind of like a ripe cantaloupe. (I had some discoloration in this batch which I think was due to the essential oils not being mixed quite enough. It will be fine.)
Unmold the soap and cut it into bars using a large knife. It will cut easily. You can also mark the soap using plain old rubber stamps which is really fun. I like to do this with my body soap. With my laundry soap (this batch) I don’t do anything fancy.
The bars need to cure so set them on a wire rack and turn them over once a day (or when you remember). I put mine in my downstairs pantry and turn them when I go to get ingredients for dinner. The soap will continue to harden and will be ready for use in about 4 to 6 weeks. If you try to use it too early the lye will be too harsh on your skin. I’ve heard you can test for readiness by licking the soap and if you taste a “bite” then it isn’t ready. I don’t care to lick my soap, so I just wait the 4 to 6 weeks.
And that is how I make soap.