Soap Making 101
Soap making is a great hobby to get into and produces not only beautiful results, but useful ones, as well. When you make soap, the basic idea is to add a fatty acid (oil) with lye, and you get soap. That's: oils/fats + sodium hydroxide (lye)= saponification (or soap)
Now let's get into the process of making soaps from scratch.
Things you might need:
Candy thermometer (if you have two, that's twice as nice)
Water (distilled water should be used to avoid skin irritation)
Essential oils/fragrance oils (not the same, but can be substituted, examples of oils: castor, olive, coconut, palm)
Lye: SAFETY NOTE- Lye is a caustic material and will burn skin and remove paint and polishes from surfaces. Do not touch lye directly nor let it come in contact with any parts of your body internal or external. Lye is highly flammable and should only be used in a well-ventilated area with protective clothing and goggles. Keep away from children, and keep vinegar around to neutralize in case of splatters or spills.
How to make homemade soap:
There are a few ways to make soap. We will discuss the most common first, cold process soap making
- Boil your oils to about 110 degrees F.
- In the meantime, add the lye to the water. As soon as you combine the water and lye, the mixture will get very hot. Set aside until it cools to about 110 degrees F.
- Add the lye mixture to the oils (never the other way round) when they are both approximately 110 degrees F. Keep stirring in light figure eight motions. You can also use an immersion blender to speed up the process.
- Add fragrances/additives at light, medium or heavy trace depending on the additive. (Trace can be recognized as slightly solid but still very liquidy, kind of like thick pudding)
- Pour into mold and wrap with a towel or other insulation.
- Allow the mixture to sit for 24-28 hours, gelling.
- Remove from mold, cut and set aside for 2-6 weeks for curing.
This should result in a hard and long lasting end product.
Melt and pour method
This is another type of soap making that is also quite popular. Large blocks of clear glycerin soap are melted down and "flavored" according to your taste. This mixture is then poured into fun molds or block molds to be sliced into bars later.
Hot process soap making
After mixing the lye with the water and melting the oils, all the ingredients are combined in a pot and stirred (constantly) over the fire until the water evaporates. While this is slightly more complicated to control, and it requires that you stand and mix for a while, the soap can be used immediately upon cooling.
Terms you should know:
Saponifacation- the chemical reaction that occurs when an oil/fat is combined with an alkali. This produces soap and glycerin.
Trace- This is the point at which the two elements have combined and will no longer separate (if done properly). You can test for trace by drizzling some of the mixture across the top. If a small amount stays on the surface momentarily, you've achieved trace.
Hand-milled- A process of making soaps by grating pre-made soap and reforming
Important troubleshooting tips and tricks:
- Weigh out all ingredients properly. Using too much or too little of an ingredient can produce burning, itching or greasy/crumbly results.
- Use the right recipe- Different recipes will produce different types of soap. Use the right one for your desired results.
- Follow instructions. Am I sounding a bit redundant? That's because these three are the most obvious and most overlooked ideas when making soaps. What is more, if instructions are followed and ingredients measured out properly everything will turn out great. Otherwise, they will flop.
- Add ingredients slowly, you can always add more later.
- Stand with your face back from the pitcher as you mix the lye. The fumes are dangerous to inhale. Deal with leftover lye or lye residue in your pitcher carefully. Even a small amount of lye can leave someone with a painful burn.
- Use coconut oil for a fluffy bubbly lather bar.
- Add sand, crushed walnut shells/peach pits or pumice to make an exfoliating scouring soap.
- Don't handle freshly made soap directly. The lye can still be caustic even at the stage in the process.
Basic recipe to make homemade soap
This recipe will make approximately 4.5 lbs of soap:
16oz Canola Oil
16oz Coconut Oil
16oz Palm Oil
6.9oz Lye (5% superfatted)
And this will make about 6.5 lbs of soap
5oz Canola Oil
5oz Castor Oil
32oz Coconut Oil
32oz Palm Oil
11 oz Lye (5% superfatted)
24.4 oz Water
For some unique twists on the typical soap making process, see our other soap making articles.