I’ve been wanting to write a post for a long time on how soap is made since it is the first question someone asks me when they hear I make my own soap. But it just seemed so daunting and long winded to explain it all. Not only is it a very precise, potentially dangerous process, but I often make soap after work while my cat sleeps in the closet, and Josh isn’t there to take photos. Plus, once you see the photos you will know why I haven’t been jumping in front of the camera when I make soap. To the average person it may look like I am making meth, but I swear it is soap! Check the pharmacy records, I haven’t bought Sudafed for a long time.
The first thing to know about soap making is safety comes first. Never make soap if you don’t have ample time, if there are kids or pets running around, or if you’ve just come from the bar. If you remember that scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt burns the top of Edward Norton’s hand, you will be scared enough to always treat lye with caution and respect! It can really do some damage and you should know how to react if there is an accident.
That being said (it probably is enough to waive me from any liability, right?) let’s get to soap making! I use the cold process method which uses no heat to speed up saponification. That doesn’t mean heat isn’t involved though, as you will see when you mix lye with water. Science is fun!
Step 1 - Set Up Shop:
You will need the following-
-large pot or glass/plastic container to mix your soap. I like using a spouted plastic bowl because it is light weight and east to pour into the mold
-medium pot to mix the lye
-ingredients, measured out accurately
-spoons for mixing, also a spatula
-soap mold, you can use a cardboard milk container if you want
-paper towels and vinegar for cleanup (keep these on hand in case of a spill)
-immersion blender (this isn’t required but it’s a lot easier than stirring forever!)
Step 2 – Protect Yourself:
Safety goggles, gloves, a mask to cover your nose and mouth, and clothing that will cover your entire body (including close toed shoes) are all essential to ensure you do not accidentally get a lye burn. I have never burned myself, and don’t plan to any time soon.
Step 3 – Measure Everything:
It is very important to be accurate in your measuring. This is science after all! I use a food scale that measures in ounces, although some people use grams. Always select the “tare” option by placing the measuring bowl on the sale, pressing the tare button, then adding the ingredients. I use separate containers for everything just in case I mess up, I don’t want all the oils mixed together. I have messed up measuring before and just dumped my olive oil back and started over. You may want this option. Note: I measure all my oils out first, then before I start making soap I put on my safety gear and measure the lye. Rubber gloves are not ideal for measuring the oils, as they are a bit bulky.
Step 4 – Make Soap!
Here’s a simple recipe using only 3 oils that you can find pretty easily. This recipe fits a 4 lb soap mold and makes about 12 bars.
20 oz Olive Oil (don’t spend the money on extra virgin, you aren’t putting this on salad)
13 oz Coconut oil (76 degree melting point)
13 oz Palm Oil
6.5 oz Lye (sodium hydroxide)
15 oz distilled water
You can find coconut oil and olive oil at any grocery store. Palm oil might be harder to find, but you can always order it online. I get all my oils from Wholesale Supplies Plus. I actually use Trader Joe’s Olive Oil though, because in all my research, it is the cheapest! You will probably need to order lye online as well. I get mine from a great site called Essential Depot where I also get my essential oils. Make sure to get sodium hydroxide, potassium hydroxide is for liquid soap.
Now that you have all your ingredients, it’s time to measure! When it comes to soap making you not only have to measure accurately, but you also have to calculate how much lye and water to use in each recipe. In order to figure out how much of everything you need, first measure your soap mold, then multiple the cubic inches by .4 to get the amount of oils in the recipe.
milk carton (or almond milk in my case!) let’s say it is 4x4x10. I have no idea so don’t use this measurement! That would be 160 cubic inches.
4x4x10=160 160 x .4=64 ounces of oil
Now using the handy dandy calculator on Bramble Berry’s website, you can not only calculate the lye and water needed for your recipe, but you can also re-size a batch. So just take the amounts of oil specified in this recipe, then under Resize Batch, type in the weight of the oil you need for your mold (in this example, 64 ounces) and click Resize Batch. Voila! You will now have a new amount of each oil fit specifically for your needs. It will also give you the lye and liquid amounts. I only use distilled water for liquid in my soaps and I always use a 5% superfat.
Now that you have the ingredients measured, your work place set up and you are dressed like Walter White, let’s finally get started. Keep in mind, the first time I made soap I was overwhelmed by the amount of prep, measuring, clean up, etc. It seems daunting but it gets much easier after you memorize the process and feel more confident working with lye.
The first thing you need to do is put the large pot for mixing the oils into your sink. If you are short like me, it will make it much easier to mix than if it were up on the counter. It also ensure it won’t tip over, and any splashing will go into the sink. Next, place the medium saucepan or container you are mixing the lye in on the stove top. Do this so that you can use a vent fan to remove any toxic fumes (I have never smelled any, as I work in small batches). Pour the measured distilled water into the container. Slowly add the lye, stirring as you do it. The lye may stick to the bottom and get hard, but just keep stirring, using a metal spoon to scrape up any bits. Be careful not to splash! Keep stirring until the lye is dissolved and the liquid is clear again. It will be steaming hot and well over 100 degrees so be careful. You need to let it cool down for a while. I often put my lye pot into a larger pot and fill it with ice cubes and cold water to speed up the process.
While it is cooling, melt the coconut and palm oils in the microwave. All your fats should be liquid when you mix them. Melt them slowly and add them to the large pot with the olive oil. The oils should be warm but not smoking hot.
After about 5-10 minutes, take the temperature of the lye mixture. Once it gets down between 90-110 degrees, add it slowly to the oils in the large soup pot. Stir to combine and take the temperature of the oil mixture. You are doing this because you will know it is done when it has raised a few degrees. Write it down if you don’t have a good memory. Now it is time to start mixing!
Using the immersion blender, mix the liquid in the pot, moving the blender around to combine everything. The oils will look swirly, and what once was a clear liquid quickly becomes thick and opaque, sort of like liquid soap. After about 3-5 minutes, depending on your blender, measure the temperature of the soap. It will reach trace when it has increased 2-3 degrees. If it is thick and when you lift the blender out, and the soap plops in making a small lump, it has reached trace.
Carefully pour the soap into the mold, using the spatula to get all the soap out of the pot. Use plastic wrap to cover the top so no one touches it, and keep it in a warm place for a at least 24 hours. It will continue to heat up as the saponification occurs, so just let it hang out for a while.
After you have poured the soap into the mold, set it aside in a safe place where it won’t get knocked over. The container it is in will get warmer over time, as it continues to cure and chemical reactions occur. This is normal and should not cause any concern. Before you ditch a sink full of dishes, make sure to clean up really well. Keep on your gloves, mask and goggles until you are done. Wash everything twice, and if you are using a dishwasher, wash everything once first or the soap residue will make too many bubbles in the dishwasher. When you are done cleaning the dishes, wash your hands with the gloves on, then spray every surface with white vinegar and wipe everything really well. This part totally sucks, but it is worth it to be safe. You don’t want someone to touch some soap you spilled and get a lye burn!
Once you are cleaned up, let the soap sit in the mold over night. I usually wait at least 24 hours before I test my soap for readiness. I do this by testing the ph to make sure it is not caustic. Put your safety gloves on and rub a small amount of distilled water into the surface of your soap. Using a ph strip test the soap for readiness. It should read between 8-10. Anything extreme should not be used and you have probably done something wrong. You can get ph strips online on Amazon or possibly at a drugstore.
Once your soap is good to go, you can cut it up and let it cure. This is the only stinky part of making soap, as I know you want to jump in the shower and lather up. If you did, nothing bad would happen, your soap would just be really soft and possibly turn mushy in water. The longer you wait, the more water evaporates and the bar gets harder. I wait at least 2 weeks. Some say wait 4-6 weeks but I really don’t think this is necessary. Some soaps are softer than others, and the palm oil in this one makes it a hard, long-lasting bar.
This olive oil soap is great for your body and face as it is gentle and has no fragrance or additives. The oils used in this soap moisturize while also creating a slightly bubbly lather that cleans well. I hope you enjoyed this post, and whether or not you ever make soap yourself, at least now you know how it is done!