Basic Rules for Making Soap

The possibility of large scale social collapses aside, there are other more pressing reasons to learn how to make soap.  For example, did you know that allergies, cancer, and even an increased risk of getting colds and other infections can be caused by toxins commonly found in commercial soap? Next time you open a new bar of soap, take a look at the ingredients and do some research on them. You will truly be amazed at how dangerous these chemicals are, and the fact that your skin isn’t always a barrier to them.  While it may take some trial and error to make good quality soap, it will be well worth the effort.  

Choosing the Right Equipment

 

Overall, there is very little equipment that you need for making soap.  Your most expensive purchases will be a scale that measures within 0.1 ounce, elbow length chemical safe gloves, and a pair of splash proof goggles.  You may also want to purchase a stick blender for larger batches of soap.  The rest of your equipment can be scavenged from around the kitchen, however it can never be used for food once you make soap with it.  Here are the things you will need to get started:

 

  • stainless steel pot – it is very important to use a stainless steel pot with no aluminum or other metals in it as they may cause a reaction to lye.
  • Plastic tubs and buckets – for mixing and holding ingredients. Choose plastic that has a code #5 in the recycling triangle, as this means they can safely hold items with a higher temperature. Remember, the lye solution will reach up to 200 degrees and you will not want to use a bowl or container that will melt or leak.
  • Wooden spatulas and spoons
  • glass measuring cups for holding essential oils and other ingredients
  • molds – you can purchase soap molds or make them out of just about anything that won’t leak.  
  • Towels – if you making cold pressed soap, towels will help to keep the heat from the lye from dissipating too fast
  • protective gear – make sure you have an apron that will resist chemical spills and splashes. If possible, it will also help to use a scarf or something else to protect your neck.  Remember, lye can be a very dangerous substance, and accidents can happen.

 

Making Cold Process Soap

 

Even though hot process soap will yield a finished soap product faster, cold process is easier to work with. Here are the basic steps for making cold process soap:

 

  • You can start off by using a recipe or do the calculations yourself.  If you choose a recipe that will make the exact amount of soap you are interested in, then you can begin assembling and measuring out all the ingredients.
  • Before you begin gathering ingredients, make sure that you put your safety gear on, and that you your processing stations set up. For example, while I have no problems with measuring essential oils and other ingredients in the kitchen; I always have a station set up outdoors for measuring and processing the lye.
  • Once you have all the ingredients measured out, it will be time to heat up the oils (olive oil or other oils that form the main bulk of the recipe; not essential oils or scenting agents) and fats that will be converted by the lye into soap (this conversion is called saponification).
  • After the oils and fats are hot enough, go ahead and mix together the lye and water. Remember, you must always add the lye slowly to the water. Do not reverse this process or it can be very dangerous.  The lye will react with the water and produce a very hot solution. Never touch the lye or the water and lye solution, and do not inhale the fumes.
  • Let the lye and water sit still until the water goes from cloudy to clear. At that point, the solution is ready to pour into the fat and oil mixture.  This time, make sure that you pour the lye into the oils and fats, not the other way around.
  • You will need to stir the mixture together until you see a “trace” left behind by the spoon or stick blender.  This can take several minutes depending on how fast you stir and how fast the solution cools.
  • Next, add dye, scenting agents, essential oils, or other minor ingredients that will give the soap its main character.  
  • Once the soap reaches trace, quickly pour it into the  molds and cover them up with warm towels. Try to keep the soap in a warm area such as a sunny window for 24 – 36 hours.  Do not stick your fingers into the soap during this time because it will take some time for the lye to be neutralized as it saponifies the fats and oils. You can expect this process to take anywhere from 4 – 6 weeks.

 

The Lye Free Illusion

 

More than a few people think that recycling soap is the same thing as making soap from scratch. In most cases, these people may take the remainder of old soap bars, grind them down, and then re-melt them into a new bar of soap.  It is very important to realize this only works because the soap bits were already processed using lye.  While there are some recipes available that enable you to make soap from scratch without lye, they may not work properly, or you will have a harder time making them.  

 

The Basis for Measurements and Calculations

 

As with any other recipe, ones used for making soap are based on ratios of each ingredient in relation to others. For example, if you are making pie dough, the ratio of water, salt, shortening, and flour must be within certain limits in order to make a pie crust that has the proper taste and texture.   Let’s say your recipe calls for one teaspoon of salt for every two cups of flour.  If you add three tablespoons to two cups of flour, the pie crust will not taste right. On the other hand, if you add the same three tablespoons of salt to six cups of flour, it will taste perfect.  

 

Making soap is similar to cooking in the sense that the ratios of all the ingredients must be within appropriate limits. Unlike cooking, however, it is the weight of each ingredient that must be in ratio as opposed to the amount of space (volume) that the ingredient takes up in the final product.  Even though some recipes attempt to convert weight measures to volume, they may not be successful because of the variance in oils and fats.  You will always be best served by using weight measures so that the amount of lye used is always in proper proportion to the fats and oils that must be saponified.  If you use too much lye, the soap will burn your skin, and may not be safe to use.  If you use too little lye, the soap will be rancid and will not work properly as a cleaning agent.  

 

Deciding on Batch Size

 

When you begin making soap, it is very tempting to start off with nothing more than a bar or two so that you don’t wind up wasting a lot of ingredients.  Unfortunately, smaller batches of soap, which use less lye, will also produce less heat. This means your measurements must be much more precise than for larger batches.  You can still start of with small batches, however it is best to work with a recipe that will produce 4 – 8 bars until you are confident of your skills.

 

Once you begin making soap, you are sure to want to explore working with different scents, or produce soaps that address different health or cleaning related needs.  After you have a recipe and set of ratios that produce a decent bar of soap,  you can always modify the essential oils, dyes, or “character” ingredients within these limits. If you are concerned about wasting materials, make sure that you can produce at least one good bar of plain lye soap so that you know all of the basic ratios are correct. From there, move on to adding a few drops of essential oil or some other character ingredient.   If at all possible, try to keep all your source ingredients from the same jars, cans, or other containers so that you do not wind up with ingredients that vary enough to require adjustment.  

 

As I mentioned earlier, soap making is a trial and error process.  Even if you work out perfect ratios for a batch of soap, it will take time and experience before you gain a sense of just how much or little of each ingredient to add.  While you might like to work only with ratios, measures and numbers, the fact remains adjustments may need to be made as you go along.  Since oils and fats are never 100% consistent from one product to the next, you can expect slight changes that may have a bigger impact than you expected on the final soap product.  That being said, once you get the knack of making soap, you will be able to better manage a crisis, and safeguard your health in these complicated times.  

 

*A Scott Hughes original for FP!

 

**Feature picture by Small Notebook.