Making Homemade Soap

By , November 27, 2012

I recently wrote about trying to leave our latest batches of homemade soap alone. This led to reader requests for more information on our soap-making.

Making our own soap is a lifestyle choice, of sorts; it’s difficult to say whether it’s a frugal practice or not. Cheap, fairly decent soap is easy to come by; it’s less expensive, and certainly less work than making one’s own.

However, homemade soap is arguably better than manufactured soap. The home soap making is a cold-process method that creates more skin moisturizing glycerin than manufactured soap provides. Glycerin must be added to commercially made glycerin soaps,  because factory methods don’t create it! Homemade soaps tend to be gentler and longer-lasting than manufactured soaps.

Best of all, by making soap at home, one can craft the soap to the qualities one desires: color, texture, fragrance, “sudsyness,” and the like. This alone makes the time, effort, and risk of soap making worthwhile for us.

homemade soap

A couple of batches of homemade soap (lighter-colored made from vegetable oils, darker made with mountain goat fat) ready to cure before use (Photo: Mark Zeiger).

The use of sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, makes home soap making risky. This highly caustic, dangerous substance must be handled with extreme care. It can be done—people have been doing so for centuries.

The Internet is full of excellent advice and instructions on making soap. Rather than duplicate the efforts of  the more experienced, I will simply share our experiences.

Making homemade soap is a serious business, but not as difficult or as daunting as it may seem at first blush. Here are a few tips that encourage success:

Learn from someone who knows what they’re doing. We make soap on our own, but whenever our soap-making neighbor proposes whipping up a batch, we pitch in. Not only is it a more sociable that way, it helps to work along side someone who is more experienced.

Plan ahead. Because soap making requires household lye, it pays to know what will happen when at each step of the process. Lay out all tools and materials ahead of time in a sequentially logical order. Decide what will happen before you begin, such as the recipe you’ll use, the essential oils or other additives, etc. At a certain point in the process, things begin to happen fast. If you know what’s coming next, you’ll be better prepared!

Protect yourself! I don’t know what it’s like to splash liquid lye on me, and I don’t intend to find out! We use nitrile or rubber gloves, aprons, and full coverage goggles to ensure we avoid burns. We also make sure our work area is properly ventilated, and avoid breathing any fumes.

Stick to your recipe. I know—that sounds odd coming from me, but when it comes to soap you need to measure exactly, weigh accurately, and monitor temperatures precisely. As your experience increases you’ll learn where shortcuts can be taken, if any, but to begin with, stay close to the directions.

Conversely, be flexible! Be ready for the unexpected. The soap may set faster or slower than you expect. too much of one ingredient might be added accidentally, requiring additional amounts of other ingredients. Planning ahead and sticking to the recipe will help avoid this, but won’t ensure it.

Use the best information available. Soap making requires calculating corresponding amounts of ingredients. This can be done by hand, but there are many Internet sources that provide handy calculators that give you precise amounts in far less time. We use these whenever possible.

Soap making is a chemical process, called saponification, that transforms the fats and chemicals used into a salt.

The math required in soap making isn’t difficult, but it takes a bit of work and focus, particularly when you find that the amounts actually available don’t quite match what you intended to use. For these reasons, we like this site, with its “lye calculator.” It allows us to figure out what we’ve got, plug the values in, and know instantly how much lye to use and other information that makes the process a lot easier. We also like how it creates a “recipe” page that’s easily printed for easy reference.

We also rely heavily on The Natural Soap Book: Making Herbal and Vegetable-Based Soaps by Susan Miller Cavitch (check your local independent bookstore). It is our “Bible” for soap making.

Soap making is not that hard! But, like most processes, it requires clear thinking and full attention. And, if things do go wrong, there are ways to correct them. I’ll talk about that another time.

One Response to “Making Homemade Soap”

  1. BW says:

    My wife and I are looking forward to getting started making our own soap, though it’s a bit busy around here lately, and these resources will come in handy. Thank you for posting this!

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