Sunday, November 3, 2013

Make Your Own Soap

I swear, my favorite blogs are the ones where I can share with others "MYO" ideas (that's "Make Your Own" for the uninitiated).

My favorite subject recently has been soap making. There's a lot of trepidation about soap making, especially to those who have heard horror stories regarding lye, or accidents with overheating the fats, or whatever. I know, because I was one of those people. I wasn't exactly scared of the whole process, but I was certainly leery of what seemed like complicated instructions and concerned about making mistakes.

I put it off for weeks. For real! I was taking my procrastination skills to a whole new level in regards to making my own soap. Believe it or not though, I have to thank my husband for giving me that little push I needed to get started. What did this wonder man do?

He bought me some plastic containers and utensils to use for mixing and molding the soap. He also bought me an emulsion blender.

I was stoked. Shiploads (love that place) had all the plastic things (molds, bowl, whisk, etc) for a little less than $10. Coles supermarket had the stick blender (brilliant ones too, with the removable shaft for ease of washing) for $10 as well. It was an unforgettable score, because for twenty bucks, I was suddenly in business.

Well... maybe not quite yet. I still needed to get my fats. One step at a time though!

A fairly tidy workspace: Everything in reach.

The Basics

Don't be scared. The equipment is pretty straight forward. To prepare for making your own soap, you need a few things:

-Some old clothes (in case you get some on you) And that includes shoes, in case of major spills
-An old towel, in case you either A) need to wipe up spills, or B) In case you choose to wrap the mold once you've poured the soap
-Gloves (a pair of latex or vinyl gloves are fine; you can use the rubber dish-washing gloves too. My advice: use the latex. They are thinner, fit more closely, and give you a surer grip on objects- hence, you're less likely to have accidents)
-Eye protection (I just wear my glasses, and make sure I'm extra careful with my mixing; otherwise, get some goggles)
-Mixing bowl (glass or plastic, large enough to contain your batch without being too full)
-A mold (be it a plastic container, or a hand-made mold, or whatever)
-A stirrer (I have a silicone dipped metal whisk, but stirring by hand is hard and takes a long time; the stick blender does the job much better)
-A silicone scraper or spatula (to scrape all the soapy goodness out of the bowl into the mold)
-Old newspapers (to protect your work area)
-A work area, be it an old table, the top of your washing machine, or somewhere outside. Make sure you can provide good ventilation
-A digital scale. You need an accurate way to measure the ingredients
-Measuring jugs for fats and water
-Measuring spoons or instruments dedicated to soap making only

Once you've got that lot sorted out, you're prepared to check out what you need for ingredients.

A simple lunchbox with a lid makes a great mold for soap.

The Chemistry

There's nothing magic about soap making, really. It's basically chemistry.

Soap is created by the reaction of a strong alkaline solution (usually sodium hydroxide) breaking down fat molecules. Soap is a kind of salt compound; when the chemical reaction occurs, the bonds of the two solutions are broken, and the sodium attaches to the fatty acids, whilst the hydrogen and oxygen attach to the glycerol.

Even if you don't really understand the molecular chemistry of it all though, just know this: water + lye + fat = soap. In fact, the only thing you really need to know about making soap is the proportions of water and lye to the fats you are using, as that will determine how your soap turns out. That in itself is a very involved subject.

The rest of soap making is mechanical. You must have a means to mix the soap to the right consistency. For small batches of soap, elbow grease would work fine, but for bigger batches, or those with arm or shoulder problems, it's advised you purchase the handy dandy stick blender for this project. Most can be found very cheaply nowadays, and I highly recommend the ones that have the detachable shaft; clean up is much easier.

Why do I need to stir so much? you ask. Well, for one, to incorporate the ingredients thoroughly so that you can avoid pockets of lye water in your soap, but also to get the soap to turn out properly, you have to "bring it to trace". When you hit trace, your soap goes from being a liquid mess to a thicker batter, similar to cake batter or pudding. To tell if you have reached trace, lift your stirring instrument out of the batter and if you can see the raised impressions of the mixer, you've got trace. It's just like beating egg whites or cream, but be careful: over mixing can cause you soap to seize in your bowl, and then you have a mess on your hands.

Once you have reached trace, you can pour into your mold.


Lye in soap is typically sodium hydroxide, although liquid soaps use potassium hydroxide because it results in a softer end product. Most lye is available under the name "caustic soda", and usually comes in granules.

Fun Fact: When our ancestors made their own lye from wood ashes, it was actually potassium hydroxide!

It is extremely alkaline, and very dangerous if you get it on you. It reacts very quickly to the moisture and oils on your skin, causing severe burns, so if there's one thing you take away from this blog, it's that you really need to be careful when working with lye. You must ensure your work area is well ventilated, as the fumes can cause lung and eye irritation, and it's best if you mark all utensils, measuring jugs, bowls and containers as "for soap making only", to ensure that no cross contamination can occur with your regular kitchen utensils. Wear gloves and long sleeves to avoid splashes, and always, always, ALWAYS add the lye to the water, never the other way around, to avoid any possible "volcanic" reactions.

As a safety precaution, I will even take the jug of water and the lye outside to mix it there, to avoid any accidents inside.

For those of you still thinking the goggles and gloves and clothes are a little bit overkill, remember: Better safe than sorry.


There is a bit of a debate over what kind of water to use. Many will say distilled water is best, as it's very pure, with nothing that can react and cause discoloration in the soap. That may be true, but I find it much simpler to use tap water. Occasionally I might filter it through the Brita filter, but whether that makes a difference, I don't know. However, if you have water that is high in minerals or other dissolved agents (due to type of city water or well water), it might be best if you used the distilled anyway, especially if you are trying to make "selling soaps" that you want to keep pretty. If you are feeling clever enough, you might even make your own distilled water.

Water is the usual solution the lye is dissolved in. Because the reaction between the lye and water is very volatile, the water will get very hot (hence my doing it outside). Water must also be weighed via solid measure methods (with your digital scale), just like your fats and lye.

Other liquids can be used in soap making, such as milk, coconut milk, or teas, but I've kept it simple so far by just using water.


There is an almost endless variety of fats you can use for your soap. In my supermarket alone I can find olive oil, coconut oil, rice bran oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, sesame oil, lard, butter/ghee and tallow, as well as all the usual sunflower, canola, corn and blended "crap" oils (as I call them). Never mind all the oil varieties available at the health food store or from online merchants. There are also "butters" you can use, such as shea, aloe and cocoa.

Not all fats are created equal. Each fat has a different property it offers to your soap. They also vary greatly in price and quality. Generally, cheap oils produce cheap soaps. But I don't think spending hundreds of dollars on oils to create soaps is a very sustainable or wise plan either. You can make your own lard and tallow in your kitchen if you feel like being industrious and frugal, but it's not a requirement. if you are interested in rendering lard or tallow for this purpose, check out this other blog I wrote on the subject: Living High On The Hog: Rendering And Using Lard

Lard in it's finest form.
For the sake of simplicity, and to keep this a "beginners" lesson, I'll stick to the easy to find ingredients. No use confusing matters just yet!

When I started making soap, I thought "How can I make this affordable and easy?" I decided that I would stick to plain fats that I could get locally, in the supermarket. I chose lard (I live in Australia, so it's found in the refrigerated section) and a coconut oil product called Copha, which is a hydrogenated oil blended with soya lecithin to improve its hardness (also an Australian product). I was too nervous to try my hand at olive oil soaps at the time.

Seeing as Copha can't be found everywhere, (and because for my very first batch of soap I wasn't sure how the altered coconut oil product would affect the soap) I opted for a single batch of lard soap, and so my chosen recipe for you to try is lard only. My goal was to create a batch of unscented soap for washing powder, and I read that the lard soap would be excellent for that.

Other Ingredients

You can choose to add other ingredients to your soap. No one is stopping you from experimenting with oatmeal, honey, dried herbs, essential oils or fragrances, fine sand, salt, coffee grounds, beer or colorants. There are countless companies online selling these products that you are free to look up. I suggest you do plenty of research to figure out which ones you might like to try. There are many groups on Facebook, online forums and websites with recipes and advice. If you are looking for inspiration, this website has a great list:


Most soaps benefit from curing, which means you leave them to sit in a cool dry place for a few weeks to help evaporate the extra water. It results in a harder, longer lasting bar of soap. Cold processed soap (as the method below is) isn't heated other than the initial melting of the fats to make them liquid, so the extra water is not cooked out of them as it would be in hot process soap. It is suggested you leave them two to four weeks to cure into a nice hard bar, but if you are excited (like I was) to give it a try, you can use them after a couple of days (they don't last very long that way, but it's long enough to give the others time to cure while you're happily using the one in the dish).

Simple Lard Soap

Simple Lard Soap

This soap is a good cleaning soap. Use it for scrubbing stains, for cleaning household messes, grate it into laundry powder, or just keep it by the tap to wash your hands with.


450g of lard
171g water 
60g lye

1. Melt the lard in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

2. While the fat melts, weigh the water in a pitcher (make sure you zero the scale with the empty pitcher first!) Sprinkle in the lye, and gently swirl to dissolve. (Don't breathe the fumes.)

3. Allow the melted fat and lye water to cool for a while, until you can touch the sides of the containers without burning yourself.

4. Pour the lye water into the saucepan. Place an immersion blender in the pan until it touches the bottom. (This first batch of mine was actually mixed by hand, with a silicone dipped whisk. The stick blender is much better.) Turn on the blender on the lowest speed, and beware of splashing (do this in the sink or put down several layers of newspaper). Blend until you see a "trace," which means until it's thick enough that you can kind of see where you've been and drips stay visible on the surface for a second or two. Think of the consistency of cake batter, or perhaps pudding.

5. Pour into a mold of your choice (in my case, the plastic lunchbox with a lid).

6. Let it sit for at least 8 hours, or over night. Then you may carefully loosen the block of soap with a thin knife, and pop it out onto a cutting surface. Cut into bars, and store in a cool, dry place to cure for a couple weeks before use.

Enjoy your soap and your new found skill!

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