Make Your Own Soap and Save
“Soap” is the result of the chemical reaction called saponification that occurs when combining fat with lye. The method detailed here is known as “cold process,” the most common technique for making soap by hand. (Cold process simply refers to the fact that with this method you don’t add heat once the ingredients are combined.)
Fats used for soap making can be animal (lard, tallow) or vegetable based (olive, palm, coconut); mineral oils cannot be used to make soap.
Lye is an alkali, the opposite of an acid, and a strong base. Today, the type of lye sold in hardware stores is the dry form of sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, which is what we use for soap making. If your family has a tradition of making their own lye from leaching wood ashes, that’s a great history, but it’s not recommended any more. Use the industrially produced kind with reliable and safe strength.
Before embarking on soap making, gather or purchase (better yet, borrow to see if you enjoy it first) the following items:
- Digital scale with a “tare” or “zero” button, that measures to tenths of an ounce or grams (or both)
- Digital, waterproof, instant-read thermometer - Stick blender (immersion blender)
- Soup pot with a minimum 8-inch diameter (stainless steel or enameled steel)
- Stainless steel saucepan
- Steel, stainless steel, or Pyrex glass roasting pan or deep dish that your saucepan fits into with room around all sides
- Large glass measuring pitcher - Glass bowls or measuring cups - Two long-handled steel or plastic spoons, one slotted
- Mold (quart- or liter-sized waxed cardboard milk carton, or rectangular glass Pyrex baking dish) - Plastic dishpan - Snug-fitting goggles - Rubber gloves
Tip: Here’s an easy way to prepare the soap mold if you’re using a glass pan. Cut a plastic bag open and secure it in place using tape around the outside of the pan. Make sure to get as many wrinkles out as possible and get it nice and flat against the bottom and sides. Do not use any aluminum equipment – it reacts chemically with lye.
Olive Palm Soap
From Anne L. Watson’s book Smart Soapmaking (Shepard Publications, 2007). This is a slightly harder soap with good lather and moisturizing properties.
18 ounces (510 grams) olive oil 12 ounces (340 grams) palm kernel oil 9 ounces (255 grams) distilled water 4.1 ounces (116 grams) lye 0.6 ounces (17 grams) fragrance oil, optional
Prepping the ingredients
- Place your saucepan on the scale and press the tare/zero button.
- Pour the distilled water into the saucepan until the correct weight is reached (measuring in grams is most accurate); if you pour too much, remove excess with a measuring spoon. Remove pan from scale
- Place the soup pot on the scale, tare, and measure the liquid fat (oil). If your recipe calls for two or more oils, use separate bowls to weigh them, then combine in the soup pot.
- Place the large glass measuring pitcher on the scale, tare, weigh the solid fat.
- Heat the solid fat in the microwave until just melted, about 2 to 3 minutes – do not overheat. 6. If you’re using fragrance oil, measure it into a small bowl and set aside.
Prepping the lye solution
- Put on your gloves and goggles.
- Make sure the glass bowl or cup that you’ll be measuring the lye into is completely dry, as well as everything else you’re using for the lye.
- In your prepared lye-mixing area (preferably near the sink and window), place the bowl on the scale, tare, pour or spoon the lye into the bowl until the desired weight is reached.
- Set the saucepan of distilled water into the empty roasting pan. Open the window or turn on your stove’s exhaust fan.
- Gradually pour the lye into the distilled water (never pour water into lye), stirring constantly with the slotted spoon. The solution will heat up and release fumes (hence the open window or fan) so try to stand back from it while still stirring, being careful not to splash. (Some people are very sensitive to lye fumes, so be careful and don’t let them collect.) The solution will be cloudy at first, giving way to clear as the lye dissolves. Make sure all the lye crystals are dissolved.
- Pour the cold water from the pitcher into the empty roasting pan (not into the lye solution) – as deeply as possible without allowing the saucepan of lye to float. Add the ice cubes to the cold water in the roasting pan. (This will cool down the lye solution.) Keep stirring the lye solution and lift up the saucepan a little to allow water to flow underneath it.
- Check the temperature of the lye, making sure the thermometer doesn’t touch the bottom of the pan. When the temperature cools to the range of 90°F to 110°F, take the saucepan out of the cold water and take it to the main work area.
Continue on to the next page for the rest of the recipe.