Sunday, 22 November 2009

Demystifying Soap Making for Beginners

by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hi everyone!

I'm feeling quite pleased with myself today because this weekend I made soap from scratch for the first time!

Soap making from scratch has always felt very daunting to me. Simply because it just sounds complicated.

Firstly, one doesn't measure but weighs. So rather than the usual 1 cup of (say) olive oil, one has to weigh the ingredients.

Secondly, almost every instruction out there seems to be full of caution about the use of caustic soda. I had half convinced myself that if handled incorrectly, it would explode.

And finally, there seems to be a huge emphasis on being precise. (And once again, I somehow got the impression that by being imprecise, then the whole thing could explode.)

All of the above combined can be very daunting for a newbie like me and prevented me from trying it out. Instead, during my no buying brand-new year, I made my existing soap supplies last longer by adding oats. (Instructions for this can be found here.) Much later on, I bartered for homemade soap in exchange for some sewing repairs.

All this is very well and good - indeed, by adding oats or by bartering, I managed to last 3 years of not buying soap and only using homemade soaps. However, after a little bit of encouragement, a friend of mine finally convinced me that I *can* make soap from scratch.

So here's a little thing about demystifying soap making.

Firstly - the weighing thing. My friend brought over her kitchen scales and we weighed our ingredients that way. It is a little different from baking or cooking but not that hard.

You need two medium to large saucepans - one to make lye water and another one to mix oils.

To make lye water

Lye water is just water and caustic soda. I poured 330 grams of cold water into the saucepan and took the saucepan outside. I then slowly poured 130 grams of caustic soda.

Now to demistify, the caustic soda.... I had forgotten that I actually have handled this in the past - to clean drains! We bought caustic soda from the local grocery shop (Woolworths) in the cleaning section. Caustic soda can be dangerous - but no more dangerous than handling any very harsh cleaning product. The soda is not a fine powder - it actually has the consistency of rock salt.

When you first pour the caustic soda in the water, nothing seems to happen. As I stirred the mixture (using a plastic spatula), I noticed that as the caustic soda slowly dissolved, the saucepan and spatula got hotter. Not burningly hot (mind you, I didn't put my hand in it) but the saucepan was noticeably hot to touch (think of toast when it first pops out of the oven - that hot).

As it dissolved, it also gave off a chemical burning smell. It was a good thing I was outside! The smell only lasted a minute though. Once the caustic soda has dissolved, then the smell pretty much disappeared.

And once its dissolved, then that's it! You have lye water. Set the saucepan aside.

To blend the oils

In the other saucepan, we mixed together 300g of macadamia oil, 400g olive oil and 200g of avocado oil. (Reminder - like the lye water, weigh the oils - do not use the measurements). We heated this mixture up on low heat for about 5 mins.

Turn the heat off and make yourselves a cup of coffee (or beverage of your choice).

The purpose of this step is to make sure that the lye water and the oils are the same temperature. Our instructions said both mixtures should be between 30-40 degrees celsius (86-104 degrees Farenheit).

Now we started off using the thermometer but in the end, we just used our hands (not directly into the lye mixture of course! just touched the outside of the saucepan).

Once we felt that the mixtures were about the same temperature, we poured the oil into the lye water. Note that the recipe said to pour the lye water into the oil mixure BUT we thought using the larger saucepan (the one that the lye water was in) was the better way to go.

Mix lye water and oil mixture

Next we used a bamix (stick blender) to blend the lye water and oil mixture.

As we mixed, the lye water and oil mixture started to bond. When the consistency turned into that of whipping cream, we added our essential oils.

Here we didn't measure as precisely. We added about 15 mls of sandlewood oil and 10 drops of tea tree oil.

When the mixture's consistency was that of a light custard, we stopped mixing and poured the soap into molds.

We covered the mold in a plastic wrap and stored it in a cool dry place. We now need to let the mixture sit for 24 to 36 hours.

This is a photo of mine after 7 hours (it was already hard to touch on the outside):

The full recipe with additional notes are here:

So there you go - no explosions and best of all, I realised how easy it actually was. Really, soap making is just 4 steps....and one of those steps involved sitting down and having a chat over coffee!

Anyway, I'm sure my first batch of soap won't be perfect (after all, we started off being precise but kinda went downhill after that) but I'm hoping that it will do the job!

I hope you have all had a lovely weekend.


Blogger Grrl said...

Congratulations! Wait until you start to use it. You'll never go back to commercial soaps.

If you are being really super frugal, you can save your bacon drippings, and use that in your soap. You would have to clean it, of course. Lard makes a hard bar that cleans well. Your macadamia oil is a luxury! I'm excited to hear how it turned out.

Amy Kalinchuk

Robyn M. said...

Wow, cool! BTW, once you get used to weighing things, it's actually a far more consistent and efficient way to bake, too. I have a saying, "Friends don't let friends bake using volumetrics." ;-)

As for the equipment, can you continue to use your stick blender, bowls, spatula, etc. for cooking, once you've used it in lye soap? If so, did it require any special cleaning?

Anonymous said...

I'm really glad you posted on this - like you, I've always been wary of the reference to the dangers of caustic soda in soap recipes and have avoided making any (till now) because I was concerned about safety.

Just out of interest, how much do the raw ingredients cost to make soap? Is it a lot cheaper than buying it?

localnourishment said...

Using a little animal fat will make your soap last longer in the shower. I recommend tallow most highly.

Different oils and fats have different soaping points (called saponification points) and need a slight adjustment to the amount of caustic soda (or lye) used. I love the lye calculator at MMS for this.

Janet McKinney said...

You inspire me Eilleen. I have been thinking about soap making for a while and just plain putting it off. Silly really, because I am sure I have made some many years ago... or at least I have known how to make it. That is my goal before Christmas - and I will give away home made soap with my knitted washcloths...

Thank you

Mountain Thyme said...

Well, you are where I was about two years ago. Can I offer a few safety points? Be very careful to only get sodium hydroxide, and NOT drain cleaner. And if you touch the soap before the 24-48 hour, please wear those rubber gloves. It is still "cooking', so to speak.

I love my soaps, my children love it. I have expanded into making moisturizer, lip balm, shampoo, cleaning supplies, etc., etc. I love making it all. It is fun and creative. But I was like you the first nervous!

I never ever use any of the spoons or bowls or stick blender or anything that has touched the lye on food or in the kitchen ever again.

Always have safety in mind. One time I got a little careless and suffered a burn on my arm. So, I am always careful and make sure that the pets are nowhere around during the process.

It is great to use lard in the soap. (What is it they say....the best pie crust and the best soap are made with lard!) But, I have a daughter and friends who are vegans, so I just don't use it much.

Bec said...

You make it sound much more safe than most things I have read! I bought some melt and pour soap a little while ago as a basic introduction because I was a little scared of the caustic soda. I've wanted to try this method, and your post has inspired me and I think I might give it a go now. Thanks Eilleen :)

Wretha said...

Thank you so much for posting this, I have all the ingredients I need to make soap, I have wanted to do this, but like a lot of people, I thought it was ***complicated*** and more ***dangerous*** than it really is. I kept putting it off, thinking I would do it eventually... you have inspired me and I will be doing this asap! :)


Diana said...

Thanks a million!!!
You are a gem. I have read some descriptions of the process that said that it was life-threatening and absolutely prohibited by law! I got scared and decided never to try. You have written it all out in such a detailed way, that I can't wait to get my hands on the ingredients and start making soup! Thank you so very much!

Emma Davidson said...

Cool! If you made a lot of soap and got lots of soda ash on it, you could scrape it off and save it for dyeing experiments... oh dear, I think I might be turning into a dye nerd!

Melinda said...

Good on you Eilleen! I made a heap of soap over a year ago and we're still using it!

I made some shaving soap for my husband to take overseas with him, some Vanilla Sugar, Chocolate, Plain, and one with Eucalyptus oil in it. Lovely!

It's amazingly easy to do. There's a really great site for working out your percentages for superfatting (making sure your recipe has the right ratio of oils to lye) at

I use some pvc piping as soap molds. DH cut them down to around 10" long, I use glad wrap over one end and pour the mix in the other. Leave them to set for 24-48 hours and then push them out. When they've sat for another few days I cut them into thick slices and put them aside to fully cure.

E said...


Ani said...

Thank you a hundred times over for this post! I make my own lotion, lip balm, shampoo, etc... but soap has always evaded me. I've been bartering my homemade tea blends for soap made by a co-worker, but I want my own soap! Maybe made with tea blends?

danipoppins said...

I love making soap and haven't made any in years. I was recently wanting to again and thinking of the process it felt daunting, but you reminded me that it really is pretty simple. I would only like to say that I would not drink or eat anything while soapmaking and keep vinegar around for lye spills. One careless mistake of taking a sip of your lye-water could kill you. No one should be scared of lye, just very very careful.

Eilleen said...

Thank you everyone for your encouragement! Cost for materials was about $15 AUD which made about 18 bars of soap.

There's still heaps of caustic soda - we only used about 5% of the container - and heaps of olive oil.

We would need to buy more macadamia oil and avocado oil and 1 little bottle of sandlewood oil if we were to make another batch of 18 bars.

Thanks again!!

GoldCoastGail said...

Hi Eilleen,

Your thoughts on the explosions made me laugh & laugh & laugh. it actually happened to me. I made my batch of soap, poured it into my mold & set it aside while I cleaned up. In my peripheral vision I saw something move & when I looked there was a huge ugly black mass flowing over the top of my mold almost about to hit my lovely kitchen bench. I was so scared to touch it but was even more scared of having to explain to my darling husband why we had to fork out thousands for a new kitchen bench. I grabbed it & ran outside & threw it onto my front lawn, screaming like a banshee the whole way. As I turned to go back inside I saw 2 stunned faces with mouths hanging open. My neighbours had been having a chat out in the street when I came flying out the front door. Now...picture this...when I make soap I wear one of my husband's old white long-sleeve shirts, thick rubber gloves & a face mask ( I look like the nutty professor) & I was still wearing all this when I flew out the door. I simply smiled & waved & walked inside only to sit on the floor & laugh so hard I almost peed my pants. I since figured out that I used a fragrant oil in that batch of soap instead of pure essential oil & the amount of alcohol did not mix well with the other ingredients. I have since stuck to using only pure essential oils & have never had that problem again. I retrieved the mold okay but that patch of lawn has never recovered fully. Have fun & enjoy your soapmaking. You will love it & it becomes very addictive.

Out Back said...

Thank you for this simple tutorial on soap making. I too had been wary about trying this when I read about the caustic soda.

I will definitely give soap making a try now.

Soap Stamping Machine said...

Hey Eilleen,

Thanks for the wonderful guideline and links. I was thinking of making some good soaps at home for this Christmas.

Thanks again...

Windy Acres said...

I hope you dont mind. . . I have some pointers. I have been handcrafting and selling soap for a few years.
There are so many myths out there about making soap, so I thought I this might help.
If you use stainless steel tools in the kitchen they CAN be used interchangably with soap making. The lye and the soap residue washes off. But never anything you use for a mold, or anything plastic.
DONOT use leftover bacon grease in your soap unless you want to smell like a blt. Even if you clean it.
I use lard that has been rendered from a locker and it will still smell like pork if a good recipe isnt used.
Tallow and Lard make great soap especially for laundry, however tallow WILL clog your pores and is neither is good if you have sensitive skin.
Lastly, it does not matter if you used essential oils or fragrance oils. Both can be volatile in cold process soaps. Its all about chemistry. Most will be labeled. If your soap turned black, it could also have been the fixed oils or that your temp was to high or any number of things.
The best way to ensure that you get the most out of your additives is to handmill. This means you make a base soap recipe without any additives. You let it cure for a couple weeks, then you shred it, melt it with some water and add your extras. It keeps you from having to deal with the temperments of additives.
I am glad you posted this. Once you learn to make soap, it becomes and art:) Even if it is a bit more expensive than soap as say. . . Walmart, it is much better quality.

Super Mom said...

Wow!! I've been wanting to make my own soap but am still slightly concerned about the 'dangers'. Your very simple description has made me much less concerned. Now I just have to go out and find out where to get caustic soda in my area. Planning to make my first batch next week. Thanks a bunch.

Frogdancer said...

Just about to make my first batch. (Doing some last minute research.)

I think I'll mix the lye outside...

Ilene said...

I just made my first batch yesterday, using chicken fat, olive oil and coconut oil, with lavender essential oil. It's out of the molds and on the top shelf of a closet drying. Not too bad for a newby. I didn't want to get into fancy soap making. I wanted to make soap in which I could use up fats that one would normally contaminate the earth by throwing away.

No, my soap does not smell a bit like chicken fat. It smells like lavender. It is a nice creamy white color.

I used Soapcalc to decide the percentages of my fats and to come up with the proper amount of lye and water.

I think the experts tend to make things sound so complicated that it makes newbies afraid to try it. Thankfully, my coach was a good friend in Missouri who makes soap from farm by-products, like her mother did, and her mother before her. Even then, I did have to summon up courage after having read other accounts of soapmaking that sounded so complicated.

But it was a snap, and lye is no more caustic or dangerous than paint and varnish remover that I used to use a lot when refinishing furniture.

I have been saving beef, chicken and pork fat for many months in my freezer and I will not feel a moment's hesitation in using it for soap-making. If they were OK for our grandmothers to use, they are still OK for us.