An Introduction to Soap Making

Reader Contribution by Anna Twitto
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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). 

The basic process of making soap is really quite simple: dissolve lye in water, add to oil and stir, preferably with a stick blender. The more effectively you mix, the sooner you will perceive the characteristic mayonnaise-like thickening known as ‘trace’. 

Warning: lye is a highly corrosive substance, so please handle with caution. Wear rubber gloves and protective goggles, and dissolve the lye near an open window or, better yet, outside, to keep from breathing in the fumes. Never work with lye near small children. Use a glass or plastic bowl and a wooden spoon for mixing the lye solution and soap. Lye will eat through metal bowls. 

Once you gain a little more experience with making soap, there are many fun twists you can try. You can add essential oils for scents, textured materials such as poppy seeds or coffee grounds for a gentle exfoliating bar and, of course, natural colorants. With thick enough batter, you can make layers of different colors or gentle swirling/marbled effects. 

Once your soap has reached trace, pour it into molds. Silicone is best for this purpose. I like using little silicone molds in all sorts of cute shapes, but a plain old English cake mold will do as well. Unmold your soap when it’s stable enough to keep its shape, but still soft enough to cut into bars (if you use one big mold). It can take several days until the soap is ready to be removed from the mold. 

After you’ve got your soap bars unmolded, it’s time to cure them. This takes several weeks, and the wait may seem endless when you are looking forward to trying out your new natural soap, but it’s very important to let the curing process take its time. While your soap cures, any excess liquids evaporate, along with remaining traces of lye. The result is a firmer, milder soap bar that cleans without leaving your skin irritated and dry. Cure your soap on a rack with good airflow from all sides.

If you have a bottle of old oil you can’t bear to throw out, or if you are just ready for a few adventures, give soap-making a try. You will learn a useful skill, and who knows? You might just gain a new satisfying hobby. 

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna, her husband and their four children live on the outskirts of a small town in northern Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Anna’s books are on her Author PageConnect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blogRead all Anna’s Mother Earth News posts here.

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