Making soap was one of the first self-sufficient skills I ever learned. Once I began questioning what we were putting into our bodies, what we were putting on them was not far behind. I worried about the chemicals and additives in store-bought soap and I wanted to learn a skill that I feel is important. So, I taught myself how to make cold process soap.
A lot of people fear making soap, especially any type that isn’t melt and pour. But, it’s really not so bad. Sure, you have to work with lye, yes lye is incredibly caustic. But, it’s not near as scary as it may seem. You simply have to use a few precautions and some common sense and you’ll be well on your way to working with it.
I know several people who have asked me how they can make soap without lye. And the truth is, you cannot. Saponification of oils requires lye. Melt and pour types simply already have the lye mixed in. They can be a great place to start for a beginner, but they’re not really teaching you the process of saponification or the skills to become more self-sufficient.
How Is Soap Made
Simply put, soap is made by combining fat and oils with a liquid and lye to really simplify the process. The lye and liquid mixed in cause saponification of the fats and create the bubbly mixture we generally associate with soap.
In the past, lye was made using wood ash and soap was made by adding water and wood ash to a singular fat, typically. Sometimes the result was a little harsh, but now we utilize scales to insure we measure everything out so that we have the correct ratios of fats, water, and lye.
You can use a lot of different fats and oils to make soap, but for this particular recipe, we are using a mixture of pastured lard, coconut oil, olive oil, and sweet almond oil. Whenever you make soap, regardless of the recipe, you’ll want to run it through a lye calculator. You can find a pretty user-friendly one right here.
That being said, if you don’t happen to have one of the oils and you want to make soap, don’t fret. You still can. You’ll simply add the oils you do have to the lye calculator and it will give you different amounts and a different lye and water ratio. It is extremely important that you follow the amounts. Nothing will blow up, but it can make the soap too harsh if you don’t watch what you’re doing.
I definitely don’t tell you this to scare you, either. The wonderful thing about soap making in today’s world is it is highly customizable. I typically use grass-fed beef tallow to make soap, but we were running low so I decided to use lard this time. Next time I may try some deer tallow. The sky is the limit, you just need fat, liquid, and lye. You can also make soap with milk, but I will save that tutorial for later as the instructions are a bit different.
Benefits of Cold Process Soap
Why not just use the soap from the store? Well, because it’s basically detergent, not soap and you never know what’s in it exactly. It typically has chemicals you can’t pronounce and unnatural fragrances. I like to keep things natural whether we are consuming them or just using them to wash up with or clean with.
As I said, when you make your own soap, you can keep things natural. Saponification is a natural process. You can use fats that you have right on your own land (you can make soap using a singular fat). You can color it if you’d like using natural ingredients and you can scent it (or not) using essential oils.
I really like having the freedom to know what we are putting on our bodies as much as possible. So, I will continue making soap.
Customize it to your liking
I mentioned this earlier, but soap is incredibly customizable. You never have to make the same recipe twice. The steps are the same (assuming you’re using water and not milk). You can change the oils or the ratios. You can add things like shea butter or beeswax. You just have to run everything into a lye calculator and you’re good to go.
Self Sufficient Skill
As I said, this is one of the first self-sufficient skills I learned. It’s becoming a lost art, but can be an essential skill. I like not having to depend on large corporations to take care of me and mine. The less dependent I have to be on a failing system, the better. And I think you probably feel the same way.
Besides, it’s cheaper and safer than the alternative.
How to Stay Safe With Lye
Lye… the big bad scary chemical. It’s really not so bad. Should you go dancing in it and throw it around? No… but common sense goes a long way. You just need to cover up and use a little bit of caution when you’re using it. I wear rubber gloves, long sleeves, long pants, closed-toed shoes, and goggles when working with it.
I make sure I label anything and everything I have used to hold lye, keep it out of reach of everyone, and make sure my kids are entertained or contained doing something else when working with it. A lot of times I can simply shoo them outside and get the soap made without any consequence. The older two already know that it’s nothing to play with, it’s just the younger one I really have to worry about.
I always wear long sleeves, long pants, and closed-toed shoes along with goggles and rubber gloves when working with lye from the time I start until I am finished cleaning up. I put on my soap-making clothes before I start and I put my goggles and gloves on as soon as I’m ready to measure out the lye. Once you’ve mixed the soap and poured it, it is still caustic until it has to sit in the mold for a while. So, keep gloved up until you’re finished.
At any rate, it’s not so bad to work with, it just takes a few precautions.
Making cold process soap is a simple enough process. Here's how to do it safely step by step.
- Begin by gathering all of your supplies and making sure you have space to work. You'll want to make sure the bowls, measuring cups, spoons, spatulas, pans, immersion blender, and any other supplies you make the soap in are exclusively for soapmaking. I keep mine in a crate and pull it out when I'm ready.
- Prepare your mold by lining it with freezer paper. There is a great tutorial on how to do that here. You will put your freezer paper's shiny side up in the mold. Note: if you happen to purchase a silicon-lined mold you will not need to line it. I use a homemade mold, so I line mine.
- Using your scale, weigh out your water in a glass container. Soap recipes are always measured by weight to produce a more accurate measurement. I always use a glass pyrex measuring cup, plastic can melt and has a tendency to hold on to odors, you can use stainless steel, but you do not use aluminum. It can react with the lye you will be adding in a moment.
- Put on your goggles and gloves if you haven't already. I usually grab everything and measure out my water then grab my weird science stuff. You'll leave this equipment on for the remainder of the process as you'll be working with caustic liquids.
- Carefully measure out your lye into a clean container. I use a tiny plastic cup for this that I have LYE written all over so that I know that's what it's for. Lye is little beads that sometimes have a mind of their own when you pour, so do it carefully trying not to spread too many beads around outside of the container.
- Wipe up any stray lye beads with a damp paper towel. There will inevitably be some stray beads. Just dampen a paper towel and wipe them up and dispose of them. No biggie.
- Carefully add your measured lye to your water mixture and stir until combined. Always add lye to the water, never water to the lye as this will create a volcano. I just about always take my water outside to do this part. If you can't, just make sure you do it near an open window in a well-ventilated space. The fumes are harsh so don't be breathing it in. You can also wear a dust mask.
- Allow the lye and water mixture to sit, undisturbed. While you're weighing out and heating the oils you will leave the lye mixture sit, undisturbed. Lye gets up to about 200 degrees pretty quickly. Make sure no one and nothing can get to it, but let it sit nonetheless.
- Weigh your fats and put them in the pan. I grab a stainless bowl, zero out my scale and weigh each oil individually and add it to the pan once I'm done weighing each time. Do not add essential oils yet.
- Melt your lard and coconut oil while warming the other oils. You don't want this to get super hot, but you can heat it until it's around 100-110 degrees F. I just turn the heat on low, start warming it until it's about melted, and check the temp with my thermometer.
- Measure out your essential oils. You can simply use a small bowl to weigh them and set them aside. We will be using them later.
- Check your lye temperature. By now your lye should be around 100-110 Degrees. You will want your lye and fats to be around the same temperature when mixing. So, check the temperature of both and ensure they're around the same temperature. If they aren't, you can add an ice cube to the lye mixture to cool it down (this won't hurt the water measurement), you can also submerge the pan into an ice water mixture if it's a little too hot. If the fats are too cold, just warm them up again.
- Slowly pour your lye mixture into the fat mixture and begin mixing with your immersion blender. In short bursts, you'll use your immersion blender to start mixing up the lye and oil mixture. In between those short bursts, you can simply stir it around with the blender. You don't want to use the blender consistently as it will 1) burn out your blender and 2) can cause a false trace.
- Blend the oils until they reach trace. This will take roughly 5 minutes of mixing with the blender and stirring. Trace is simply when you leave a trace as you stir. It's kind of the consistency of runny pudding. You'll know it when you see it. It just leaves a small imprint behind when you stir it around before disappearing.
- Stir in the essential oils. Once you reach trace, you can stir in the essential oils. You do not have to add oils at all. It will simply result in unscented soap. I really like the scent of the orange and cinnamon and we like scented soap. But, once again, it's optional. Just stir them in with your blender (don't turn it on, just use it as if it were a spoon).
- Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared mold. Now you'll want to pour the liquid into the prepared mold. Do not touch it as it is still caustic at this point.
- Cover with a towel and leave undisturbed for about 24-36 hours. Covering it with a towel will help it come to a gel phase by trapping the heat and allowing it to heat up. You'll want to leave it undisturbed for about a day before you un-mold it.
- Un-mold and cut into bars. After a day or so, you can unmold it and slice it into bars. It is no longer caustic at this point, so you can touch it. I use a soap cutter and cut it into 1" bars. The soap will be solid but still a little on the soft side. That's okay. You don't want it to be too hard as it becomes very difficult to cut.
- Allow soap to cure for 3-4 weeks. Once the soap is cut into bars, sit it somewhere where it won't be disturbed for about 3-4 weeks. Once it has cured, you'll have hardened bars that you can utilize like any other bar soap.
You should run your recipe through a lye calculator (even this one) to make sure the measurements are correct. I use soapcalc here.
We made our own soap molds, but you can also purchase them online.
There you have it. I know, this is a super long post, but I hope it encourages you to give this a try. It’s not as scary or difficult as it sounds and it gets you one step closer to becoming self-sufficient and who doesn’t want that?
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