Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I receive a small commission at no cost to you when you make a purchase using my link.
If you’re here out of curiosity and wondering why on earth you would make homemade soap when there are millions waiting for you on the store shelves, think twice. I’m about to change your mind, and you’ll see that it’s not only healthier, but there’s something exquisite about taking a bar of your own homemade soap into the shower with you.
You see, making your own beauty products is rewarding, mainly because you get to choose what’s inside. And by carefully selecting a combination of quality oils, adding your favorite fragrance or essential oils, and swirling in a lively colorant, your soap suddenly takes on that charming “character” that commercially manufactured soap can’t even begin to compete with.
Plus, the idea of me being in control of what goes in my body is excellent, especially with the latest controversies of the harmful chemicals being used. And let’s not even mention how budget friendly it all is.
Now, I’ll dive into the soap making process, tell you all about the procedure and ingredients, and give you a simple recipe. Best of all, I’ll let you know about my favorite spot to buy the supplies from – knowing a trusted supplier will ease things a lot, mainly because not all have high-quality products at reasonable prices like this one. Anyways, let’s get to it then, shall we?
The Process of Making Soap and Handling Lye
The process of making soap can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. It takes a bit of practice (and a lot of measuring) to get it right, but once you do, you can play with it infinitely. You can swap ingredients, add or subtract what you fancy, and even shape it as it pleases you.
The process of making soap is by combining fats or oils and lye. You can add other stuff to it, but these are the basics you cannot go without.
If you are concerned about handling lye and wondering whether you can make soap without lye or not, let’s talk a bit of chemistry. Namely, lye a.k.a sodium hydroxide is a chemical made from salt. Yep, ordinary salt. A system similar to electroplating is used to change the salt to lye, and this is the one thing in homemade soap you can’t substitute. You should always use 100% sodium hydroxide, or lye in crystal form.
Note: Don’t substitute liquid lye or drain cleaners because these may cause inaccurate measurements or have bits of metal in them, which you don’t want either.
Lye is caustic. It can make holes in the fabric and cause burns on your skin. Always be extra careful when using lye. Use gloves and eye protection and a mask if desired. When you mix the lye with water, it will heat up and fume for about 30 seconds to a minute. It may cause a choking sensation in your throat. Don’t worry, it’s not permanent and will go away after a few minutes. Always add lye to water (not water to lye), and start stirring right away. If allowed to clump on the bottom, it could heat up all at once and cause an explosion.
Even though lye is caustic and dangerous to work with, after it reacts with the oils in your soap (through a process called saponification), no lye will remain in your finished soap. Note that without Lye, you just have a bucket of chunky, fatty oils floating in water.
Now that you know the vital part of handling lye, here is some additional information regarding the equipment you will be using when making soap.
First and foremost, you should not be using anything made of copper or aluminum, as they will react with the lye. Also, some plastics may melt, so don’t use plastic bowls either.
Your mixing bowls should be made of stainless steel, tempered glass or enamel, and as for spoons, use styrene plastic or silicone. For molds, you can get soap molds at your local craft store, or you can use silicone baking pans (these are great because you can peel the mold right off).
Other things you want to have are a pint and a quart canning jar, newspaper, a stainless steel thermometer that reads between 90° and 200°, an old towel, and any additions you want to add to the soap.
*For more on where to get the right soap making equipment, click here.
There are the advanced ones, and there are the beginner ones, and those in-between that make it look all too complicated, but here I’ve taken two methods that complement each other, meaning you can start with the first one and work your way to the second method.
Jumpstarting the process: Melt and Pour
This is the first of the methods which I recommend to start with. Namely, if lye or the entire process scares you a bit but you still want the experience of making soap, it’s not all lost.
With the Melt and Pour method, you still get to customize your own soap without handling the lye by using a pre-made melt-and-pour soap that has been pre-saponified (in other words, the lye has already been handled).
When you melt the store-bought soap you get the base to which you add scents with essential oils, clays, salts, and add-ins to create your personalized soap. Let’s say it’s something like making a cake with a cake mix. You have the base, but you add everything else on top.
First, you need to have your pre-made blocks of uncolored, unscented soap cut into pieces or grated for faster melting. Melt the soap base in the microwave or a double boiler.
Then, when the soap is fully melted, you add your fragrance, color and/or additives. When done with mixing, put the liquid in a mold, and voila, you’re done. The soap is ready to use as soon as it hardens.
- A clean workspace with a microwave or double boiler
- A heat-resistant bowl for the microwave
- A couple of spoons or whisks
- Some melt and pour soap base
- A set of measuring spoons
- Fragrance, color, or additives, as desired
- Something to mold the soap into
Starting From Scratch: Cold Process Soap
If making melt and pour soap is akin to using a cake mix, “cold process” is making your cake from scratch. You control everything that goes into the pot, and you can make it as “natural” as you want. However, your setup is a little more complicated, and you’ll need to learn a few techniques of the craft first.
To make cold process soap, you heat the oils in your soap pot until they’re approximately 100 degrees. Slowly add the lye-water mixture and blend the soap until it thickens to “trace”. After the mixture reaches trace, you add your fragrance, color, and additives and pour it into the mold. The raw soap will take about 24 hours to harden, and about four weeks to cure before it’s ready to use.
- A flat, uncluttered workspace with a heat source and access to water
- Some animal fats or vegetable oils
- A pitcher of lye-water
- A soap pot and some other easily found tools and equipment
- Fragrance or essential oil, as desired
- Natural or synthetic colorant, as desired
- A mold to pour the raw soap into
- A cool, dry place to let the soap cure
Easy Soap Making Recipe
Bear in mind that you don’t have to follow this easy soap making recipe exactly. However, the type and number of ingredients should be about the same. This is only to give you an idea of how it works, and then I leave you to your creativity.
- ⅔ cup coconut oil – to produce a good lather
- ⅔ cup olive oil – which makes a hard and mild bar
- ⅔ cups other liquid oil – like almond oil, grapeseed, sunflower or safflower oil
- ¼ cup lye – also called 100% sodium hydroxide
- ¾ cup cool water – use distilled or purified
- Cover your work area with newspaper. Put your gloves and other protective wear on. Measure your water into the quart canning jar. Have a spoon ready. Measure your lye, making sure you have an exactly ¼ cup. Slowly pour the lye into the water, stirring as you go. Stand back while you stir to avoid the fumes. When the water starts to clear, you can allow it to sit while you move to the next step.
- In the pint jar, add your three oils together. They should just make a pint. Heat in a microwave for about a minute, or place the jar of oils in a pan of water to heat. Check the temperature of your oils – it should be about 120° or so. Your lye should have come down by then to about 120°. Wait for both to cool somewhere between 95° and 105°. This is critical for soap making. Too low and it’ll come together quickly, but be coarse and crumbly.
- When both the lye and oils are at the right temperature, pour the oils into a mixing bowl. Slowly add the lye, stirring until it’s all mixed. Stir by hand for a full 5 minutes. It’s very important to get as much of the lye in contact with as much of the soap as possible. After about 5 minutes, you can keep stirring or you can use an immersion blender. The soap mixture will lighten in color and become thick. When it looks like vanilla pudding it’s at “trace” and you’re good to go.
- Add your herbs, essential oils or other additions at this point. Stir thoroughly to combine. Pour the mixture into mold(s) and cover with plastic wrap. Set in an old towel and wrap it up. This will keep the residual heat in and start the saponification process. Saponification is the process of the base ingredients becoming soap.
- After 24 hours, check your soap. If it’s still warm or soft, allow it to sit another 12-24 hours. When it’s cold and firm, turn it out onto a piece of parchment paper or baking rack. If using a loaf pan as your mold, cut into bars at this point. Allow soap to cure for 2 weeks or so.
- When your soap is fully cured, wrap it in wax paper or keep it in an airtight container. Handmade soap creates its own glycerin, which is a humectant, pulling moisture from the air. It should be wrapped to keep it from attracting dust and debris with the moisture.
This obviously is a soap making recipe following the second method, starting from scratch, but it’s only because with the first one you skip the base-making, lye-handling fuss.
Check out these soap making videos for more helpful content
Now that you have your lab coat on and ready to begin, one last word of advice: Use equipment that will not be used for cooking. While you could clean everything well, it’s best not to take a chance.
This is why I recommend buying reliable soap-making equipment that you will solely use for one purpose.
When you’re done making soap, always clean your equipment that has been exposed to lye. You can neutralize the lye with white vinegar, then wash the equipment well as you normally would.
For the rest of it, let it sit for several days. Why? Because when you first make soap, it’s all fat and lye. You’ll be washing forever and you could burn your hands on the residual lye. If you wait, it becomes soap and all it takes to clean it is a soak in hot water.
To Your Soapy Adventures,