How To Make Soap

In 1999 I began to marry my knowledge of herbs and medicinal plants with my know-how of “natural” cosmetics and toiletries. I’d been fascinated with the idea of homemade and handmade soaps almost as long as I can remember. I say, “almost,” because I do remember being 3 years old and sitting in my doctor’s office, listening to a physician rattle off a list of “dos” and “don’ts” to my grandmother.

  • No more dairy.
  • No more detergents in the laundry.
  • Absolutely no scented soaps.

The line of soaps, shampoos and lotions that once bore my name are long gone. But none of it would have happened had I not been incredibly frustrated by bad information and stomped off to develop my own recipe for handmade lard soap:

A Simple Handmade Soap Recipe You CAN Do

To someone who has never made soap before, the first question that comes to mind may be, “Why in the world would anyone make their own soap?” Well, maybe you have allergies. Maybe you have a skin condition that mandates you avoid harsh ingredients like dyes or perfumes. Or maybe you simply want more control over the products you and your family use every day.

It doesn’t matter why you want to learn to make soap. You can make your own natural herbal soaps and it’s easier than you think.

Safety First

No, I don’t think you’re 5 years old. But you’re going to be working with some pretty serious chemicals and it’s absolutely vital that you understand how potentially dangerous those chemicals can be. I’ll leave the lye-burn horror stories for some other web site to share but I do want to share with you that a few tips that might make your soap making just a tad safer. Here’s what what most soap makers recommend:

  • Long-sleeved shirt and long pants
  • Closed-toe shoes
  • Wrap-around eye goggles
  • Respirator or similar breathing filter
  • Waterproof gloves

That’s pretty much the basic stuff most soap makers start with but I would actually recommend you also go a step or two further. A lot of soap makers will tell you that you don’t really need these items but they gave me peace of mind. During my soap making days I also wore:

  • A rubber apron
  • A full-face shield
  • Rubber sleeves

Setting Up Your Soaping Workplace

I know that a lot of soap makers make soap in their kitchens but I never did this and can’t possibly recommend that you do, either. The lye solution is as clear as water and capable of causing severe internal burns if accidentally ingested. Especially if you share your home with pets or other people, you may want to consider moving your soap making to a garage or outbuilding.

And Now That I’ve Scared You Half To Death

As important as it is to know how dangerous lye can be, it’s also important to keep in mind that you’re about to do something that others have been doing for centuries. In all the thousands and thousands of bars of soap I made, I never had a serious lye burn or even a close call. Let your common sense guide you.

The Science of Soap Making

When you first read through these instructions it may seem far too complicated to even consider but soap is actually a very simple chemical reaction that occurs, albeit in very crude ways, in nature. Soap is really nothing more than a chemical reaction between some kind of fatty acid and some kind of alkaline. Home based soap makers use vegetable oils or animal fats as fatty acids and a solution of sodium hydroxide and plain water for their alkaline. Mix appropriate volumes of those two materials together thoroughly and you’ll start a slow chain reaction that will give you smooth, perfect bars of soap in just a couple of days.

Soap Making Tools

As you know, both the alkaline material and the raw soap are highly alkaline so any tool that comes into contact with either one must be heat resistant and non-reactive. That means stainless steel, Pyrex or dishwasher-safe plastic-type materials. Here’s what you’ll need to make your first batch:

  • A large stainless steel stock pot for heating oils and fats
  • A small glass or plastic pitcher for measuring out your sodium hydroxide
  • A large glass or plastic pitcher for your alkaline solution
  • 2 heat-resistant spatulas or similar to stir your oils and your alkaline solution
  • 2 heat resistant cooking thermometers (candy thermometers are ideal)
  • Plastic shoebox, drawer liner or other non-reactive mold
  • Plastic cutting board
  • Knife
  • The most accurate scale or balance you can find

I prefer a small digital scale that can measure to the nearest gram but to the nearest tenth of an ounce is perfectly appropriate. You’ll want to make sure that it has a capacity of at least 80 oz. Go for a 10 lb scale if you can find one but if you have to make a choice between capacity and accuracy I recommend you go with a smaller, more accurate scale.

You’ll also need:

  • A stovetop, crock pot or other way to heat your fats and oils
  • A sink with running water for clean-up and safety
  • Refrigerator freezer

Now, let’s talk recipes. For our first batch, we’re going to use a recipe that I (almost) guarantee not to fail—plain old lard soap. Lard is easy to work with, easy to find, inexpensive and makes a hard soap with lots of bubbles.

Here’s what you’ll need:

    5.5 oz of sodium hydroxide (lye)

  • 2.5 lbs of lard
  • 16 oz water (tap is fine; distilled is better)
  • 0.25 oz peppermint oil (optional)

With the exception of the lye, which you may have to hunt to find, everything else should be available at a good health food store or supermarket.

Our first batch of soap is going to be made with 2.5 lbs of lard and you may be wondering why you need such a large batch your first time out. I find that smaller batches are difficult to achieve with the measuring tools you’re probably using. (As you become more experienced you may want to purchase a digital scale but most people start with a spring-loaded food scale which doesn’t give the precise measurements needed for smaller batches.)

And before you begin, please note these special bits of information:

  • Soap ingredients (at least the basic ingredients like the fats and the sodium hydroxide) are always measured by weight-not volume. Measuring cups are notoriously inaccurate; weighing your ingredients will give you much more consistent results.
  • Fats aren’t interchangeable; never substitute a basic ingredient. For instance, never substitute olive oil with lard unless you also adjust the other ingredients in your recipe.
  • Protect your work surfaces from both your materials and the raw soap. Several layers of newspaper should give you plenty of protection.
  • Remember, everything that comes into contact with either your chemical solution or your raw soap must be non-reactive. Plastic, glass and stainless steel all make good tools. Aluminum, iron or copper does not.
  • I prefer to wear my gloves throughout the entire process. To make them more comfortable I line my latex gloves with white cotton gloves that pharmacists refer to as “dermal gloves”. You should be able to find them wherever chemicals are sold.
  • Don’t believe those old soap making books that tell you to neutralize raw soap with vinegar. If you splash either the chemical solution or raw soap onto your skin, immediately rinse the area under cool running water.

I know this all seems intimidating at first but it really doesn’t have to be. Let’s (finally) make our first batch.

(Finally!) Making Soap

Getting Your Chemical Solution Ready

  • Put your water pitcher (that’s the larger pitcher) onto your scale, reset the scale back to “0” and add 16 oz of water. Remove your water pitcher and set aside.
  • Put your lye pitcher (that’s the smaller pitcher) onto your scale, reset the scale back to “0” and measure out 5.5 oz of lye. Recap the lye container tightly and shake any stray lye crystals into the sink. Remove your lye pitcher and set aside.
  • Take your lye and your water to a well-ventilated area and slowly add the lye to the water while carefully stirring. (For safety’s sake add the lye to the water-not the other way around.) Be careful, the water’s going to heat up very quickly and release hot, caustic vapors.
  • Continue stirring until all your lye is completely dissolved and the solution begins to clear. This takes about 2 minutes and it’s very important that you not have any un-dissolved crystals in the bottom of your water pitcher.
  • Add your thermometer to your lye solution and then set your pitcher aside in a safe place to cool a bit. (Remember, this solution is extremely caustic and capable of causing severe burns to eyes, skin and mucus membranes.)
  • Take the pitcher that held your dry lye crystals and place it in the sink. Fill it with water and let it sit. (This will dissolve any lye clinging to the pitcher.)

Getting Your Fats & Oils Ready

  • Put your stock pot onto your scale, reset the scale back to “0” and add 40 oz of lard.
  • Add your thermometer, put the stock pot onto your stove and turn the burner to a low setting to begin melting your lard. You want a temperature of about 120-140 degrees or so.
  • After your lard is melted remove it from the heat and let it cool, if necessary to somewhere between 120-140 degrees. (Regardless of what others tell you the temperature isn’t all that critical.)

Making The Soap

  • Check your chemical solution’s temperature. I prefer a chemical solution at room temperature but anything under 140 degrees is just fine. (The idea that the chemical and the fat need to be exactly the same temperature is a big myth.)
  • Add your chemical solution to your fat, stirring all the time and being careful not to splash. Your melted lard will immediately begin to become cloudy as soap crystals form.
  • Stir your raw soap until it thickens to the consistency of home-made pudding or pie filling. The time this takes varies but lard soap usually traces in 30-60 minutes. You’ll know your soap is ready to pour into your mold when you can see a “trail” as you stir.
  • If you’ve decided to scent your soap add your peppermint oil now and stir it in well. (This is also the point at which you’d add other additives, like oatmeal, but I recommend you get a few batches under your belt first.)
  • Pour the raw soap into your mold and cover the surface of the soap with plastic wrap. (The plastic wrap is optional but it will prevent the formation of ash.)
  • Put your stock pot, thermometers and other implements of destruction in the sink. Rinse everything well and either pop it all into your dishwasher immediately or wash by hand. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe to wash your utensils in the dishwasher-after all, sodium hydroxide is the main ingredient in dishwasher detergent. Don’t let your stock pot sit out very long before you put it into the dishwasher, however, or you’ll have a real mess on your hands and a whole lot of soap bubbles on your kitchen floor. (Ask me how I know.)
  • Leave your soap undisturbed for 48 hours to finish the chemical reaction.
  • After your soap has rested for about 48 hours it’s time to un-mold. Pop your mold into the freezer and let it sit for a couple of hours.
  • Invert your mold onto a plastic cutting board. If the soap doesn’t come right out try pushing gently on the inverted mold or briefly dipping the bottom of the mold into hot water. Usually, though, the soap will be cold enough that itll slide right out.
  • Cut your soap slab into bars and put it in a ventilated place to cure.

Here comes another myth-busting tip: By now, your soap is 2 days old and perfectly safe to use. Contrary to what other authors contend saponification (the chemical reaction that causes soap) is finished. Curing your soap only makes it harder-it wont drop the pH.

Congratulations! You’ve just made soap!

“HELP!”—When Things Go Wrong

FAQ: My soap got really hot and turned into a gelatin-looking mess with some transparent spots. Is it ruined?

Answer: What you’ve noticed is called “gel phase” or “gelling” and is perfectly normal. Many batches won’t experience gel phase but some will. Things that can liken your chances of gel phase include:

  • Using a stick blender instead of slower stirring methods
  • Using palm oil
  • Using certain fragrance oils.

The main advantage of a gel phase is that your soaps get harder faster but gel phase can also encourage cracking of large soap slabs and can ruin certain additives, especially some essential oils. Whether you choose to embrace gel or avoid it is up to you and how you like to work with your soap. There’s no right or wrong answer to that one.

FAQ: There’s this white powder on the top side of my soap.

Answer: White powder that appears on the side of the soap that was exposed to air while the soap was in the mold is called ash and is perfectly normal. It’s simply caused by soap crystals that formed differently, probably as a result of being exposed to air. Putting a piece of plastic wrap onto the surface of your raw soap will prevent ash from forming.

FAQ: My soap has these weird dark spots on it.

Answer: Those spots are oxidation and are caused by an excess of free oil. Try lowering your superfat level a bit.

FAQ: My soap turned into “mashed potatoes” when I put in the fragrance.

Answer: That is called “seizing”. To minimize seizing, buy fragrances and colorants from a reputable dealer and make sure your additives are labeled “CP safe”.

Myth-Steps in Soap Making

When I started making soap it was still kind of a weird thing to do. There were no up-to-date books and no web sites to consult. So you can imagine my surprise when, years later, I found out (via a well-known soap book) that I was doing just about everything wrong. You see, many of the most popular soap books are written by people who just don’t have a good understanding of soap chemistry and that means they just end up repeating the same myths and old wives’ tales.

Let’s burst some of those myths and save you from needless worry:

Myth 1: You have to stir just a certain way.

Truth: I’ve stirred by hand, with a stick blender, a hand-held mixer and a commercial stand mixer. All these stirring methods will make soap. You don’t have to stir a certain way, or at a certain speed, or in a certain direction.

Myth 2: Your lye and oil temperatures have to be exactly the same.

Truth: Temperature is not a critical factor. My chemical solution was typically at room temperature while my oils were anywhere between 120 and 140 degrees.

Myth 3: Your soap has to cure for weeks before it’s safe to use.

Truth: The chemical reaction that causes soap is finished within the first several hours. Curing is just to harden and dry your bars.

Myth 4: Gel phase is vital to good soap.

Truth: Gel phase is not vital and, in fact, many soap makers deliberately avoid it. Gel phase will make your soaps harder faster but it also weakens many essential oils and increases the chances of cracks and fissures.

Myth 5: You have to insulate your soap.

Truth: Insulating your soap is completely unnecessary and can cause failure due to overheating. If you find that your insulating your soap helps, then by all means, follow your instincts. But I never found insulation necessary.

Myth 6: Essential oils are safer than fragrance oils.

Truth: “Natural” doesn’t mean “safe”. Today’s fragrance oils are designed specifically for soap making and will often give more consistent results than their more “natural” counterparts.

And may I share a personal story? My first batch of soap was PERFECT. It was pure castille—just olive oil—with rosewood essential oil and finely ground oats. I’m sure I looked like an idiot getting so excited about a batch of soap. Then I failed my next 6 batches.

So if things don’t go exactly as you planned, take heart. There are a lot of steps in the soap making process and it’s easy to misstep with your first batch or two. But with practice, soap making will soon be old hat.