I have always wanted to make my own soap because you can remove many of the chemicals found in commercial soaps and you can customize to you or your family’s needs. However, like many people, I was intimidated by the process especially in using lye. Here I will go over the basics you need to make your own cold process soap and the precautions you should take to do this safely.
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Materials & Process in Making Soap
All soap is made through a process of saponification. This is the chemical reaction of triglycerides and potassium hydroxide (lye). While there are recipes out there that claim you do not need lye, they are using a soap base which has already been through the saponification process. You cannot make soap without lye, though it is possible to make lye, its tricky and most people just buy commercial lye which will be consistent for your soap making.
Lye comes from a chemical process involving salt. This substance is an extremely corrosive base and alkali that has a pH of 13. While it is a potentially dangerous, as long as you take safety precautions, making soap should be no problem. Lye is commonly found in stores as a drain cleaner. Definitely do not use around children or pets.
Oils and fats
The many kinds of oils. The difference between oils and fats is pretty simple. Oil is simply fat that is liquid at room temperature. Oils contain more mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Simple Life Mom has a great run down of many of the common fats and oils used in soap making. You need the chemical reaction of lye and these fats or oils to make soap, both in cold and hot process.
To make your soap smell good and be good for your skin, you will need to carefully consider additions of fragrance, colorants and exfoliants.
For fragrances you can either have essential oils or fragrance oils. Many people striving for a more natural bar of soap and opt for essential oils because they are concentrated versions of naturally occurring substances and plants such as mint.
There are many colorants, both naturally and chemically produced, that you can get online. I have not colored my soap because it is for home use and I have not had a need to make it look particularly pretty. However, if I start to make other bars of soap, such as shampoo or for dishes or laundry, I will likely color it so as to not confuse myself. Or if I sell it/gift it.
Interestingly, many household spices, such as turmeric and paprika, can be used as colorants. Be sure to check the recipe well for options.
In soap making, many people add herbs or other substances as exfoliates to help with dead and dry skin. Some common ones include coffee grounds, salt and oatmeal. The Spruce has a good article on these additions. My first few rounds of soap did not include exfoliates as I wasn’t sure how they would do on my complicated, keratosis pilaris.
When making soap, similar to baking, it behooves you to measure well. Although there may be some wiggle room, at least at first, you should not experiment as you learn how the ingredients will come together. Always weight EVERYTHING.
Another important step is using a soap calculator. There are lots of good recipes but you want to be sure that what you are making has been run in the calculator so that the lye and fats are in the correct proportions.
You will need a certain set of things to make the soap. Like with any DIY project, you will need a set of items to make the soap in addition to the materials that the soap is made out of.
If you are trying to make soap on the cheap because you are not sure you want to make this craft forever, you only need a few items.
- immersion blender
- mixing bowls
- high heat plastic mixing bowl (for lye mixture)
- measuring spoons
- measuring cups
While you can make molds and mix in containers you have around the house, you can also invest in a mold. I did even just to start so that unfolding and cutting the soap wouldn’t be as difficult.
For safety, there are several things you should get specifically for you and your safety.
Steps for caution
First, you will need to read instructions, at least twice, before beginning. Double check your recipe with the soaping calculator. As much as you can, pre-measure all of your ingredients. Like a cooking show, I use many small plastic and glass dishes to hold oils, fats, lye, water, additives, etc. all pre-measured based on weight before any mixing begins.
Prepare in advance
In addition, have any mixing areas such as bowls, double boilers, crockpot (for hot process soap), microwave, ready to go. Do your absolute best to find a space free of small children/curious pets. I pretty much always aim for after my children are asleep or during nap time and lock the pets outside. If I can’t do the whole process without them, I will definitely do the lye mixing without their presence.
Another word of caution, you need a space with good ventilation in order to mix the lye. It gives off fumes that can be harmful, so the more open the area you are working, the better. I always mix the lye and water (or goat’s milk or whatever liquid) outside. I live in mild northwest Louisiana, so even on a cold day, its usually ok. It usually doesn’t take long as I wait for the temperature to come down.
Be sure to always store lye in a safe place as well. It is found in many drain cleaners so wherever you keep those kinds of harmful chemicals would also be a good place to store the lye. If you get lye on your skin or in your eyes or mucous membrane (lips, mouth, etc.) remove all contaminated clothing and flush with water for a minimum of 15 minutes.
Raw soap (soap prior to curing) and any raw lye (mixed with a liquid or not) is potentially harmful. All of the mixing bowls, spatula, immersion blender, etc. need to be rinsed thoroughly with water. However, if you have any container with mixed raw soap, you can leave it, if placed in a safe spot, for 24 to 48 hours while it finishes becoming soap. This is easier on your drain as you are not mixing as much down in the drain, where fats and oils can stick. It’ll be pretty soapy but the next day it is safer to work with.
I usually take the mixing bowl where the lye and oils/fats were mixed, the spatula, the fat mixing bowl and the immersion blender head and put them up for 24 hours. The lye mixing bowl gets washed in plenty of fresh, cold water immediately.
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