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How To Make Your Own Soap

People have been making and using soap for nearly 5,000 years, and possibly much longer than that. At around 3,000 B.C. enterprising Babylonians, Mesopotamians, and Egyptians began making simple soaps to use for sanitizing cooking implements. These days, we rely on soaps to clean just about everything…our cooking utensils, our clothes, and, of course, ourselves.

For most of those 5,000 years, people made their own soap. So if you are thinking about homemade soap of your own, you are in good company, at least historically! It is a simple process, with lots of ways to have fun and be creative. However, the chemical process of soap making does involve some caustic substances, so rubber gloves and safety glasses should be among the materials you gather for your project.

How Does Soap Work?

Knowing that soap has been around for so long, I started to get curious about how those little suds work their magic. Why can soap break down all sorts of crud that water is mostly powerless against?

Well, there are a bunch of substances out there that are hydrophobic, or “water-fearing”. This means that they will not mix with or dissolve in water, and no matter how vigorously you stir them together, the molecules will always separate themselves again. Among these water-fearing substances are a couple of major offenders in the world of crud: oil and grease.

Not only are oil and grease plenty cruddy on their own, they also trap dirt particles in their sticky grasp. Attack these invaders with water, and it will slide over them as though they are protected by a force field.

This is where soap comes in. The properties of soap may not actually be magic, but they are pretty cool nonetheless. See, soap molecules have a hydrophobic part, but they also have a hydrophilic, or “water-loving” part. When soap is mixed with water it clusters into little spherical groups called micelles, in which the water-loving ends form the surface of the sphere and interact with the water, while the water-fearing ends hide from the water in the middle.

When soapy water is combined with oil, grease, and dirt, the hydrophobic molecules of crud get trapped in the middle of the micelles along with the hydrophobic ends of the soap molecules. Now these little soap spheres with crud inside can all be rinsed away. Voila!

Cold Process Soap Making

There are several different processes for “making” soap, but I am going to focus on the simplest and most common process for homemade soap. This is called cold process soap making. The other method for making soap from scratch is a variation on cold process called hot process. The “melt and pour” process and “rebatching” process are really just methods for taking manufactured soap and adding your own scents, colors, and shapes.

Gather Your Ingredients

The technical term for soap making is saponification. This word refers to the chemical reaction between fats and a strong alkali (usually lye) that produces a basic soap. In order to ensure that the ingredients combine with the right consistency to make soap, you will need to use careful measurements of solid oils, liquid oils, and lye solution. When you are starting out, it is best to use established recipes, of which there are hundreds to be found online and in books. Once you have mastered the basic process, you can start to experiment with different ingredients to make unique soaps.

Most soap recipe will have four major components. First, there is a selection of solid oils such as coconut oil or shortening. Second, recipes will contain a few liquid oils such as olive oil or sunflower oil. Soap recipes also usually contain dyes, scents, herbs, and other components to make the soap lovely to look at and to smell. Finally, these ingredients must be mixed with a lye solution in order for saponification to happen.

Lye is available commercially, and it is also possible to make at home. Commercial lye is quicker, since homemade lye can take several days to obtain, and more reliable since it can be tricky to judge the strength of your homemade lye. Lye that is too weak or too strong will ruin a batch of soap. However, for those of you determined to try, you can find detailed instructions for creating homemade lye here or here! Water and hard wood ash are the only ingredients. My recommendation would be to use homemade lye after a few successful batches of soap with commercial lye.

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Once your ingredients are gathered and carefully measured, it’s time to begin!

Step 1: Making the Lye Solution

Once again, your soap recipe should give you exact measurements for the water and lye crystals you will combine for your solution. This step definitely calls for rubber gloves and safety glasses. Once you have measured each separately, pour the lye into the water and stir until it has dissolved completely. DO NOT pour the water into the lye, unless you want to create a bubbly lye volcano. The mixture will become cloudy and heat up to nearly 200 degrees, at which point you should set it aside in a safe place and allow it to cool down to around 100 degrees.

Step 2: Melting and Combining the Oils

In a large pot, melt the solid oils until they become liquid. Then, add the liquid oils to the pot and stir them together over the heat until the mixture reaches approximately 100 degrees. You want to add the lye solution when the oils are at 100 degrees, so you may want to heat the oils beyond that point knowing that they will cool slightly when you turn off the heat.

Step 3: Adding the Lye

Once your oils and lye solution are both at 100 degrees, it is time to combine them. Turn off the heat under your pot and slowly and carefully pour the lye solution into the pot that contains the oils. As you pour, use a switched-off stick blender or a spoon to begin to mix the two together. Once all of the lye solution is added to your pot, you can really begin to blend.

Use a Stick Blender to Reach “Trace”

The advent of the humble stick blender revolutionized soap making, taking the time required to reach the critical “trace” stage from an hour to around one minute. If you use a spoon to mix the two, you will see that the natural inclination of the oil and lye water is to separate. Eventually, stirring would be enough to cause the two to react and blend, but a feisty little stick blender can make all happen in a fraction of the time.

Use the stick blender in bursts of several seconds at a time, continuing to stir as you do so. You are looking for trace, which is the point in the blending process when the substances will never separate. The mixture will also begin to thicken as you blend, but you do not need to wait for it to thicken a great deal before it is ready for the mold. Traditionally, soap at trace was about the consistency of manufactured hand soap, and if you dribbled some off a spoon back into the pot you would see the trace of where it landed – hence the name. However, with a stick blender you can reach the point-of-no-separation well before the mixture thickens that much.

Adding Scent, Additives, and Color

Now, before the mixture thickens too much, is the time to add the touches that will make your soap special. Oils for fragrance, herbs, flower petals, or spices for texture, and color will make the soap unique and fun to use. It is best to add the fragrance and additives first and blend them thoroughly before you add your color. This will ensure that your color does not appear streaky if you want it to be smooth throughout the soap. It can also allow you the freedom to swirl your color with a spatula rather than mixing it thoroughly if you want each bar of soap to have a unique color pattern.

Pour the Soap into a Mold and Allow it to Cure

You can purchase soap molds, or make your own fro scraps of wood. Some molds allow you to pour individual bars of soap, while some will form a log of soap that can then be sliced into individual bars. For the next 24 hours, the soap is undergoing saponification (which will cause it to heat up) and setting in the mold. Keep it in a warm place and cover it with a towel to encourage the reaction and keep it unmolested. If you are using a log mold, 24 hours is the period after which the soap will have set enough to allow you to slice it.

The soap will be safe to use after several days, but most soap makers prefer to allow it to cure for several weeks. Curing allows the last traces of water to evaporate from the soap, making it harder and more finished.

Soap for Sensitive Skin

Fortunately, homemade soap formed through the cold process is extremely mild in its basic form, and should not irritate sensitive skin. But super basic soap isn’t very fun! Most fragrant and colorful manufactured soaps contain chemicals that can bother sensitive skin and are not great for babies or young children.

When spicing up your homemade soap, you can select natural, organic ingredients with soothing properties to make the perfect soap for you. Olive oil soap, or soap with healing herbs can work wonders for irritated skin. Even those of you with healthy skin may be converted!

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