A lot of people shy away from making soap because they think it is really complicated and dangerous as they have had many horror stories about soaps gone wrong. Reading a soap making recipe can certainly give you that impression. But mostly they are just very detailed to keep you out of trouble.
My first soap recipe with all the detailed instructions was two pages long and I was very intimidated. A friend took me under her wing and we made my first batch of soap together. At the end I thought: “This is it?” and I have never looked back.
In this blog post, let’s address a few facts and common myths about soap making and get you familiar with some of the terminology that you need to know about one method of making soap, the Cold Process method. Other methods exist, but frankly, I’m not very familiar with those and I’ll leave blogs about those to people who can actually talk about themJ. I also want to mention that any experience described in this and following blogs are from personal experience. Any of those perfect batches, imperfect batches and bombed batches have been made by yours truly.
In order to make soap, lye has to be used. That is the definition of soap. An alkali (lye) combines with a fat (animal or vegetable) and makes soap. Now, there are kits on the market being sold as soap making kits, which consist of a soap base that is melted and poured into molds. Even here that original soap base was made with lye. All you are doing is reshaping that soap base and possibly coloring it. By the way, these soap kits are the safer way to make soap with younger children or anyone who you do not want to be around lye. Adult supervision is always a must even here.
Soap Making is really not hard. You just have to be able to read and follow a recipe and follow some safety rules. Just like baking a cake. Measure out the ingredients carefully and exactly and put them into the bowl in the correct order. Baking and making soap alike are not forgiving like cooking. In cooking, we have more liberty to toss in this and that, a bit more of this and a bit more of that, and substitute. In baking and soap making not so.
Just imagine you use baking powder instead of baking soda. Or you use 1 cup of baking powder because it sounds good instead of 1 table spoon. The same is true in soap making. Ingredients have to be used and combined in a certain order, they have to be measured exactly, and substitution of ingredients is not such a good idea until you have quite an experience under your belt or unless you work in a chemistry lab where you can blow things up and someone else might clean up after you.
A good recipe is the basis for successful soap making and once you have a bit more experience under your belt, there are fabulous tools to help you with checking recipes and calculating ingredients: those are called lye/soap calculators and I never use a new recipe or modify and existing recipe without them. Most of the major soap making suppliers have their own calculators, and everyone has one they like to use more, my favorite one is the one on soapcalc.net.
Lye is an alkali, which means it will burn your skin. As lye loves to hook up with fat, it will try to react with the oils and fat in your skin to make soap! So when you make soap, wear long sleeves, protective eye gear (!!!) and long dish or cleaning gloves. The chemical reaction between the lye and the fat will generate a high temperature over 200 degrees for a brief time during the initial reaction and then again during saponification (the next 24 hours).
Again, if you handle the ingredients carefully and with protective gear, it is no more dangerous than taking a hot casserole out of the oven. You wouldn’t do that without mitts. I ban my pets and any children from the soap loft during soap making , and I don’t take phone calls that would distract me from my work.
You will find everything you need for soap making in your kitchen. If you become addicted to making soap, you will probably get the soap making its own set of pots and utensils but for the occasional soap maker you should have everything you need. Just make sure it’s made out of glass or stainless steel. Plastic or aluminum don’t fare so well with the higher temperatures that occur during soap making and the aluminum may also react with the lye.
There are only a few ingredients you need to make a successful batch of soap and they are certainly not hard to find.
1. A liquid. Distilled water is great and can be found in every grocery store by the gallon.
2. Lye. This is the base or alkali. This one is the only ingredient where I recommend to purchase it through a soap making supply store or online and to buy only food grade lye for soap making. Food grade lye is way more pure than technical grade lye and will give you consistent batches for that reason. I have used technical grade lye as it is a bit cheaper and promptly bombed most of those batches. I would also not recommend buying lye from a hardware store, as it’s not always 100% lye and most certainly won’t be food grade lye. There are several sources on-line including Bramble Berry, Camden-Grey, Essential Depot and others.
3. Oils and Fats. These are also called the carrier oils. Oils and fats are used in soap making to combine with the lye to make soap and the combinations are endless. We do not use animal fats such as lard, but many do. Lard can be found in grocery stores, so can most any other oil used in soap making: Olive Oil, Sunflower Oil, Coconut Oil, Canola Oil and none of it is expensive.
4. Essential Oils or Fragrance Oils. You can find any of the essential oils in Health Food Stores in small quantities and they work fabulously for soap making. I’d start with an inexpensive one like lavender or orange or peppermint. Forgo the ylang ylang and patchouli with your first batches. Do not buy essential oils or fragrance oils used in candle making or for air fresheners, they do not work well in soap making (they do not react well with the lye) and don’t waste your money on therapeutic essential oils as found in Young Living. It’s well intentioned, but they won’t smell any different than regular essential oils and it will have just cost you much more.
I started out by making goat milk soap, because goat milk was what I had. We followed a great recipe and I never realized it was supposed to be tricky until I read about that 1 year later. Goat milk in large batches of soap (about a 40 pound block) will be a bit trickier, but you don’t have to worry about that for a while. Now though, colorants and additives will most likely come out different in milk soaps than in water based soaps because milk soap is not transparent, small batch testing is your best friend here
Not so. If you see white goat milk soap, it has been colored, most likely with Titanium Dioxide. Goat milk soap is cream colored at least. The heat in the saponification process will warm the milk and turn the color from white to cream or beige and even to orange (at which point its burnt and you probably shouldn’t use it). Again there is a trick to using goat milk fabulously easy and I will share it with you when we make goat milk soap.
So this is the beginning of your soap making. Next blog will go into definitions and details of equipment and then we’ll be ready to follow a very simple recipe and make soap with a two page instruction.
Looking forward to going on this journey with you. If you are curious to find out more about our farm, here is a great little video shot by film students from West Palm Beach in Florida.
Julia Shewchuk owns and operates Serenity Acres Farm on 80 acres in Florida. Serenity Acres runs on solar, is Animal Welfare Approved-certified, houses anywhere from four and eight WWOOFers and interns, and is the home to a small herd of dairy goats, 11 Black Angus cattle, 100 laying hens, 3 horses, 2 cats, 5 house dogs, 8 livestock guardian dogs, and 2 ducks. Read all of Julia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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