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4 Steps to Making Homemade Soap

I've been blogging for many years and for a couple of those years I went through a soap phase, writing about soap making. This is one of those posts. I still make my own soap but I don't write about it much these days.

Some of the information may be a little dated, no doubt new books have been written and new discoveries made about different oils, etc. 

This post shares the resources I used to learn to make soap, over 5 years ago, and tips for you to learn soap making also. 

4 steps to making homemade soap

I got an e-mail from my aunt earlier this week. She recently visited my parents and became the recipient of some of my soap (my mom keeps a stash) and now wants to make some for herself.

A quick note about my aunt, she's actually only 5 years older than me and we were roommates during her last and my first year of university. This little side story has nothing to do with making soap.

She asked a few questions about getting started and I am happy to oblige and thought I'd share those tips here for the benefit of everyone interested in soap making.

Step 1: Learn the process

Basically cold process soap making (I don't know why it's called cold process) is a chemical reaction between a lye and water solution with fats/oils. From there it can be as simple or as complicated as you like. There are a lot of great web resources on soap making, here's a few I'm familiar with:

There are many books on the subject. The one I used to get started is Clean, Naturally. It's kind of old but I like how simple the recipes are. You could check out these books also:

Step 2: Choose your recipe

After reading books and perusing websites you'll be either overwhelmed or inspired, maybe a bit of both. I highly recommend you start with a simple recipe that doesn't involve a lot of capital investment. If, after you make your first batch you're hooked, you can think about getting fancy.

Oils

The simplest recipe of all is pure castille soap. I have never tried that for 2 reasons:

  1. Olive oil is a relatively expensive oil to use exclusively for soap.
  2. I like to blend oils to achieve different properties.

If you want to give it a go check out this recipe for Pure Olive Oil Soap from Little House in the Suburbs.

Here's what I know about the properties of different oils - for the life of me I can't remember where I found this or I would give proper credit.

Properties of oils (for soapmaking)

  • Hard, stable, long lasting - palm, lard, tallow
  • Lathering - coconut, castor, palm kernel
  • Moisturizing/Conditioning - olive oil, canola, sunflower, soybean
  • Luxury/extra moisturizing - cocoa butter, shea butter, almond, hemp, jojoba

But I did start off by saying to keep it simple. So I recommend you watch my How to Make Simple Soap Video.

Alternately, you could try this basic recipe found in Clean, Naturally.

  • 24 oz. Coconut oil
  • 24 oz. Olive oil
  • 38 oz. Vegetable shortening
  • 12 oz. lye
  • 32 oz. water
  • 4 oz. essential oils of your choice, added at trace

This recipe will produce 32 bars approximately 3.5 oz.

This is a good recipe to start with because the ingredients are easily obtainable and relatively inexpensive.

Having said that, I don't follow it anymore because I don't like how the plants used for making shortening (soybean and cottonseed usually) are grown - heavily sprayed and such. But searching for ecologically sustainable alternatives isn't easy either. Nor does this recipe produce a really hard bar but I still recommend it for a first time around.

For more recipes you can check the few I've posted in Homemade Soap and Body Care Products.

Lye

If you decide to craft your own recipes you'll need to use a lye calculator to determine how much lye and water you'll need.

For example, if you want to make a batch of soap with 20 oz olive oil, 20 oz emu oil (oh yeah, that does exist) and 20 oz coconut oil you simply enter those values into the chart and it tells you how much lye and water you need. The science behind this part is rather tricky so just use the on-line tools available, they do all them math for you - something I've never even attempted.

A note about lye: I am repeatedly asked if you need lye to make cold process homemade soap. Yes, you do. 

This is not melt and pour soap this is actual soap making. This is chemistry, mixing a strong alkali with oils (which contain fatty acids), to saponify the oilsSoap is saponified oils. It is the saponified oils that provide the cleaning action. 

Don't be scared of using lye. Homemade soap makers have done it for years.

Essential oils & additives

Adding essential oils and good-for-skin natural additives is the really fun part of soap making.

Here you need to read other recipes and use your own creativity to come up with combinations you like. If you want to keep it simple to start, use a basic (& relatively inexpensive) lavender or peppermint essential oil.

And when I talk about essential oils I am not talking about fragrances which are chemically derived, I have no experience using them.

I love adding texture and color to my soaps but I've had some less than desirable results in some batches, ie: colors that don't turn out like I'd hoped. For beginners I'd start simple, maybe some cornmeal or oatmeal for an exfoliant. Or calendula flowers for color and skin healing properties.

Step 3: Find your supplies

This could possibly be step 2 because you don't want to pick a recipe with really exotic ingredients that are difficult to find.

Oils

If you choose a fairly basic recipe, like the one listed above, most of those oils can found in a grocery store. Here's a list of places to look:

  • Grocery store - olive oil, shortening, canola oil, lard, soybean and others can be found easily.
  • Health food store/Natural food stores - these might have a soap making section as does our little local store. This is where I often buy my coconut oil, palm oil and other luxury oils. However, you don't need to use food grade coconut oil, it will be more expensive than soap making grade oil.
  • Local farm - if you decide to use animal fats you might be able to get these cheap from an animal producer.
  • On-line/Mail order - If you can't find what you need locally or decide to start making soap in bulk you can order on-line. See the suppliers lists on Homemade Soap and Body Care.

Lye

I have to admit, finding this can be tricky. Many companies now offer lye via online mail ordering. Find a list of suppliers here or on my post Soap Making Supplies and Where to Buy Them.

Essential oils & additives

You can find these at most any health food store but they can be quite costly. I'm now looking into buying my essential oils in bulk from online companies.

Other plant based additives (for color, texture and skin healing properties) can be found in your garden, kitchen cupboard and the spice or bulk section at the grocery/health food store. I love this natural colorant's list at Muller Lane Farms.

Molds & Tools

You can use almost any container for a soap mold.

Shoeboxes or other cardboard boxes lined with plastic work really well. For years this is what I used.

I now have a wooden mold (that I line with re-used heavy plastic bags) that Damien made me for me. A mold should be fairly shallow and wide instead of deep and tall, lesson learned the hard way.

Almost all the other tools you need can be found in your kitchen. It's an absolute must to have a scale (maybe you could borrow one if you don't own one) and also a thermometer.

Certain tools can be used for both cooking food and making soap - glass & stainless steel bowls and utensils. But all wooden and plastics should be set aside for just soap making.

Step 4: Making the Soap

It could take you some time to get to the actual making the soap stage.

I find that making the soap is the easiest step of all, it's figuring out my recipe and gathering supplies that takes the most time and effort.

Plan to set aside at least 2-3 hours of uninterrupted time for your first batch. Be especially cautious if you have little ones in the house. Soap making is dangerous and you don't want to cause injury in the process.

I should add I've never had an accident but I wear rubber gloves and keep vinegar handy (to neutralize a lye spill) should anything happen. When I first started 2 years ago I did it after the kids were in bed. Now I make it while I'm cleaning up from supper and I just tell everyone to stay out of the kitchen.

Making the soap is a 2 stage process:

  1. Melting, mixing and pouring.
  2. Cutting and curing.

Soap sits in the mold at least 24 hours and then is removed and cut into bars. These bars then cure (the chemical process of turning oil into soap - called saponification is happening during this time) for about one month. At the end of that time they are ready to use.

Questions & Feedback

I hope it helps you get started in your soap making journey. Please ask questions you might have in the comments. (Updated later: I also have a Soap Q & A post with lots of questions and answers in the comments section.)

Also, if you know of any good books, resources or on-line companies please tell us.

Resources: 

5 November 09

Comments

Ditto! This is a definite

Ditto! This is a definite bookmark!
I have been the blessed recipient of some of your soap....
it is my favorite and I try to 'make it last' (so, I mix using your soaps in with rotating others in between ~ but your soap is fabulous!) Your orange one is my new favorite.
Thank you for taking the time to share your little secrets and to share the links as well. I do so appreciate having the link right there to just 'click', as you know, I don't have alot of internet time.....so for me to say, "I'll have to look that site up some day"....Ya, that never, or seldom, comes to pass. Have a great day!

Hi Renee I made my first

Hi Renee
I made my first batch of soap yesterday. Tracing took 8 hours. I followed a recipe in a book I got from the library and I think the temperatures did it. This particular recipe said to mix the oil and lye at 95-98 degrees. Anyways, the question I have, do you use litmus paper to test the soap at the end of the 4 weeks? The books recommends this.
Virginia is coming over today to try out some more recipe's. I also found a soap making supplier really close to my home so I know I can get palm oil and cocoa butter from there.
I'll let you know how it goes.

8 hours?  Now that you have

8 hours?  Now that you have done completely by hand, never ever do it that way again!  I did my first that way, but only took 2 hours.  Now, with a STICK BLENDER, takes about 3 minutes to hit thin trace....5 minutes to complete and pour.  Proper math means no reason to lithmus test...should be find by the next day, 4 weeks is cure to remove moisture not to worry about lye.  

I'm planning my first attempt

I'm planning my first attempt at soap making. I've been inspired by your site!! My question is: Do you use refined or unrefined oils, or does it matter? Obviously there's a huge difference in cost. Hoping to get a batch done in time for Christmas gifts.

If you use refined oils is a

If you use refined oils is a matter of which oil you are talking about and what you want your soap to turn out like.  Refining generally removes impurities, but it also tends to remove vitamins and other ingredients.  Refining makes a colored oil turn white or off white usually, also.  Only the fats in the oil are saponifiable (able to turn into soap), so anything else in the oils won't turn into soap during soap making, but is either damaged from the soap making process, or is kept as an additional property of the soap.

For instance, unrefined shea butter is super high in unsaponifables, and alone doesn't make a very good soap.  As an add on oil in soap, it is fantastic for it's moisturizing properties.  Extra virgin olive oil is very high in unsaponifiables, and most soap makers use pomace olive oil for that reason.  Pomace is the very last pressing of the olives so that almost none of the unsaponifiables remain.

It is trickier to work with unrefined oils since the amount of unsaponifiables is undetermined and can cause problems with your lye to oil ratio.  If you work with a refined oil, you know that nearly 100% or your oil will be saponified.

Unrefined oils are usually more costly as well, and a lot of the ingredients that you think will help your soap are actually destroyed in the soap making process.  Refined oils are usually the cheapest to buy since they have the least amount of vitamins and other properties that are prized for cooking, healing, etc.

You may have to experiment with the same recipe using one batch with unrefined oils and one with refined oils to see which oils you like to use.  At the same time, calculate your cost to see if the difference in the soaps is worth the cost.

Hi Renee. Last month I made a

Hi Renee. Last month I made a batch of soap, much inspired by this post and the links you provide. My girlfriends and I made two small batches, including one that we totally winged with the lye calculator, and goat milk to boot. They came out great and we are getting ready for round two. This time I'm thinking quantity. Wondering what some of your favorite oils are to work with (I noticed you try to avoid shortening, and I also don't feel great about using palm oil--so anything needed as a substitute. Also, any thoughts on cleanup--we were suddenly very nervous when time came to wash the bowls and tools. Thanks for the inspiration and very helpful information.
Kyce

This is very helpful. Thank

This is very helpful. Thank you! I was wondering if you know of a place (online?) to buy quality log soap molds. I know that they are probably easy to make, but at this point I would rather buy one. Any thoughts?

You have inspired

You have inspired me...WOW...thank you thank you for all the work you put into this!
Well organized and easy to understand! I have been wanting to make all my own soaps, shampoo, lotions etc... (I already make my own laundry soap which got me thinking about all the other possibilities!)
I simply *cannot* wait to try this stuff!

Now...if I could just get my house to look like yours (clean and airy that is).... :)

Hello Renee, You inspired me

Hello Renee, You inspired me to make our own lotion,which we've been thoroughly enjoying, and now I'm building up the courage to try soap making. I'm also in Maine.Do you think that Wholefoods would have the lye? Thank you for the time, effort and knowledge you put into this post and all of your replies. As a relatively novice blogger, I really admire your writing. Take Care.

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Hi there! Thanks for

Hi there!

Thanks for providing so much detail. You really haven't missed anything out and I truly appreciate that.

My question to you was how mild does the soap get after the soaponification process is complete? Do you use a ph strip to test the acidity of the finished product? I wanted to make sure that my effort is worth while because if I was worried that it may turn out too high on the ph scale and maybe be just as harsh as the store bought kind.

Any suggestions on how to make it mild (maybe enough for used for a baby)?

Thanks in advance!

I have twpo tips - I do not

I have twpo tips - I do not use a therometer - I just melt the fats at a low temp, add the oils to cool it further, then wait for the lye to cool down - when both things are cool enough to touch the outside of the container, and about the same temp - I go ahead and mix. Second tip - the lids to copy paper boxes work great as molds, as they are shallow and wide. And can usually be used over and over. So, anyone who works in an office can usually score those for you.

Hi Renee, Thanks for this

Hi Renee,

Thanks for this excellent blog post! I'm fed up with store0bought soap, even the supposedly "gentle" soaps, so I'm going to try this now. A question- can the basic recipe you provided her be halved? Thanks!

Hi Renee, i've been following

Hi Renee,

i've been following your blog for a couple years now since I started homeschooling my daughter and I am aways impressed and inspired. I was wondering if you'd mind sharing what health food store you shopped at when you lived in Maine. I'm not far from Lewiston/Auburn and I'd love to be able to walk into a store with a soap makers section like you describe. I am going to try my first batch of soap soon! Thanks!!

Hi Renee, i'm new at soap

Hi Renee, i'm new at soap making,  i make my own, my question is , where you buy emu oil? at reasonable price, i don't whant to pay 50.00 dollar for 2.oz. your page is VERY HELPFUL specially for beginners like myself i will be looking for you answer,

Tanks

lunabella

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