An Introduction to Soap Making


cold process soap
Photo by Anna Twitto

Soap-making is one of those traditional skills that are undergoing a huge renaissance. With many people craving healthier, more natural and more personally crafted skin products, artisan soaps have turned into some very profitable businesses.

Soap making requires two basic ingredients: oil or fat, and lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, for solid and liquid soap respectively), typically dissolved in water. There are elaborate soap-making tutorials that insist on a very precise, scientific approach and exact measurements of the oil to lye ratio. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in the good ol' days, every household used to make its own soap from leftover cooking fat and lye produced by seeping water through wood ash. I can't imagine it was a very precise system, but it worked. 

Having said that, a reliable recipe and a digital scale go a long way towards minimizing frustration and giving you consistent, predictable, uniform results. 

Many people approach soap-making as a creative venture or micro business of its own, and stock up on supplies specifically for this purpose. For me, it was more about using up old oils that were not much good for anything else, whether it's non-food-grade olive oil we had tried to use for lighting but couldn't because it smoked, coconut oil that had gotten an off taste from sitting on the shelf too long, or almond massage oil left over from my first pregnancy a decade ago. I love the satisfaction of putting something to good use rather than throwing it away! 

Whatever oil or fat you use, look up a recipe specifically geared towards it, because the amount of lye will vary slightly for each one. Not enough lye will result in incomplete saponification, separation of oil, and messy soap; too much lye will give you a harsh, unpleasant soap that dries the skin (if this happens, though, no worries - you can grate the soap and use the flakes for laundry). 

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