The Nature of Soapmaking
Natural processes and simple ingredients help fill our growing need for simplicity and sustainability in our busy consumer lives today. Soapmaking allows us to both express and experience the quiet simple beauty of the past and create a natural and unique product that contains all of the wholesome qualities we want it to have.
Soap is derived from the saponification of oils with caustic soda or lye. Saponification is a chemical reaction that occurs when oils and lye are mixed together and neutralized, so while soap is made with lye, it does not contain lye. Handmade soaps do, however, contain glycerin--a natural foaming emollient that is removed from most commercial soaps and replaced with chemicals. Handmade soaps can be customized to certain skin types by adding botanicals and essential oils known to contain specific properties. In this tutorial, we will be making a basic soap containing oatmeal, which acts as a gentle exfoliant and is known to be soothing to the skin.
Fortunately, most of the equipment required in soapmaking can be found in the average kitchen. Provided everything is washed properly afterward, there is no need to set aside special equipment specifically for soapmaking. Choose equipment made from plastic, glass, stainless steel, and wood. Do not use materials containing aluminum as it will react with the lye:
- Medium stainless steel pot
- Measuring cup
- Measuring spoons
- Kitchen scale
- Glass or plastic bowls
- Wooden or plastic spoon
- Two candy thermometers
- A container to use as a mold for the soap
- Parchment paper to line the mold
- Sharp knife for cutting the soap into bars
- Stick blender (optional)
Today we will be using the following recipe, which makes approximately 2 lbs of soap.
- 180 g Coconut oil
- 460 g Olive oil
- 225 g Distilled water
- 88 g Lye (sodium hydroxide)
- 1/2 cup Rolled Oats slightly ground through the blender (optional)
Coconut oil is the number one selection for soapmakers because it makes a hard, white bar of soap with good bubbles; however, on its own it can be a bit drying to the skin. Olive oil on the other hand is a wonderful emollient and a popular addition to recipes for that reason. Both are readily available at any grocery store.
Lye can normally be found in the cleaning aisle in most grocery or hardware stores. In Canada, many storeowners have stopped carrying lye as it has become commonly used in the production of harmful and illicit products. Fortunately lye is still readily available to soapmakers at most Home Hardware locations.
While it is true that lye is highly caustic and requires careful handling, with a little knowledge and common sense, this fact simply becomes a standard part of the soapmaking process. Just be aware of the potential dangers and incorporate safe practices to accommodate for them:
If you are new to soapmaking, please do not attempt this process when children or pets are about as lye is highly caustic. When lye is mixed with water it heats up. If it comes into contact with your skin or eyes, rinse immediately with cool water. If you spill it on any surface, wash it immediately or it will corrode. Keep a jug of vinegar nearby to help neutralize any spills. When mixing the lye and water together, keep your face away from the container and ensure you are working in a well-ventilated area. Use safety equipment such as latex gloves, safety glasses, an apron and a mask when handling lye at least until you are experienced at which point you can make an informed decision for yourself (I admit I do not use any safety equipment apart from a gorgeous apron for inspirational purposes). Once the lye solution and oils have been mixed together and saponified, the solution is neutralized and no longer caustic.
Alright, now that is out of the way, let’s make some soap!
1. First of all, grease your mold and line it with parchment paper.
This will ensure you are able to remove the soap once it’s set. Although there are many different types of soap molds available on the market, many hobbyist soapmakers use whatever they have available. Even the bottom of a cardboard box lined with plastic wrap works perfectly fine, just make sure there are no leaks. I use an old plastic tray that fits a 2lb recipe perfectly.
Tip: To get an idea of the size of mold you will need, add together the amount of oils and water called for in the recipe and fill the mold with that amount of water.
Most soap recipes are measured by weight rather than volume. Careful measuring is a must to ensure full saponification of the fats and lye--you don’t want leftover lye as a remnant in the soap as it will be too harsh. Too much oil and your soap will be greasy.
3. Place your coconut oil and olive oil into the stainless steel pot and warm it slowly over low heat. Once the oils have melted, remove from heat and set aside.
Now you will need to be careful.
4. At arms length and with your face held away from the container, very carefully pour the lye into the water. Not the other way around as you want to minimize any potential for splashing.
5. Gently stir the lye/water solution with a clean spoon until all the lye is dissolved.
The solution will begin to heat up. There will initially be fumes emanating from the mixture as the lye and water react together. If your face is over the container, the fumes will poof up and burn your eyes and throat. Keep your face away until the fumes dissipate which should be no more than a few moments.
6. Place a candy thermometer in the pot with the oils and one in the lye/water mixture. Wait for the two solutions to cool to an equal temperature range, between 120 and 140 degrees F.
Warning: Do not leave the lye solution unattended during the cooling period. Ensure children and pets do not come into contact with the lye solution.
7. When both solutions have cooled to the correct temperature range, carefully pour the lye solution into the pot containing the oils. Intermittently stir or whisk the liquid soap ensuring it is well mixed until it reaches trace*.
*Trace is the point at which the oils and the lye solution are completely mixed together and will no longer separate. The soapmaker can recognize the trace stage when the mixture takes on a consistency similar to a thin pudding, and a small amount of mixture drizzled from the spoon leaves a trace or trail visible on the top of the mixture for a few seconds before disappearing.
Trace can sometimes take a long time to reach, anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours depending on what type of oils are used. This particular recipe contains a significant amount of olive oil which takes a longer time to trace. In order to speed up this process, many soapmakers use a stick blender which speeds up the trace time considerably. I do not own a stick blender and personally savor the relaxing and hypnotic process of hand stirring my creamy beautiful soap base. I have always made my soap this way and believe the approach to be beneficial to my mental health. However, I realize not everyone would agree with me on this point, hence I mention the stick blender.
Once your mixture reaches trace, the majority of the saponification process has taken place, although there is still an amount of oil and lye remaining in the solution that will continue to neutralize during the curing process.
It is at the trace stage where you may choose to stir natural botanicals or essential oils into your mixture to give the soap the properties you want it to have. Add oatmeal or crushed almonds for a gentle and natural scrubby bar. Dried lavender or calendula flowers are another option. If you choose to use essential oils, now is the time to add those too. If we were to add these elements prior to the trace stage, the caustic nature of the mixture would break them down and diminish their effects in the soap.
9. Pour the mixture into your prepared mold and allow to set in a safe place for 24 to 48 hours until the soap reaches a solid consistency, similar to a block of cheese.
The soap will still be somewhat soft. As long as it is firm enough to handle and cut, don’t worry as it will continue to harden as it cures. Just reshape any mishaps with your fingers.
At this point most of the oils and lye have neutralized, but there still may be remnants in the soap. Consider wearing latex gloves while handling the soap at this stage. If you do not, you may feel some tingling in your hands as the soap comes into contact with your skin. If you feel any burning sensation whatsoever, rinse your hands immediately with cool running water and wear the gloves.
11. Store the soap on racks in a warm dark place for four to six weeks to fully cure before using.
Turn the soap daily so it dries evenly. If you really can’t wait to test your wares, the soap will be safe to use after about a week, but will not be at its prime until the four- to six-week mark is reached. A fully cured bar of soap is a harder bar of soap and therefore a longer lasting bar of soap.
12. After the soap is cured, trim up the bars nicely with a sharp paring knife, and think of creative ways to label and decorate your soap.
You will also need to come up with creative ways to pacify friends and family members as they recognize your newly found skill and make special requests for more and more of your lovely soap.
Congratulations, you are now officially a soapmaker! Please drop me a line to let me know how your batch turns out :)