Making Soap is truly an art. There's a saying that goes "if two soap makers make soap using the exact same recipe, you will end up with two completely different soaps". Soap in itself is so simple, but making soap actually requires a lot of concentration, patience, perseverance and precision.
There are different types of soaps. Some include colorants, palm oil or even animal fat. Some others are all about the designs or the colors. I will teach you how to make all natural, palm oil free, vegan soap!
Before we start, grab my introductory zero waste soap making free guide below! The guide contains an overview of the main ingredients and tools you will need to start making palm-oil free, vegan soap.
What is soap?
A bit of science here (not too much though!). Soap is the result of the reaction (also called saponification) between fats (contained in oils/butters) and an alkaline solution (sodium hydroxide, also called lye/lye solution or caustic soda - NaoH). To put it in simpler words, soap is the result of mixing together the Sodium Hydroxide with your chosen oil/s.
When mixing together water and sodium hydroxide, we get what we call a "lye solution". This lye solution is then added to the oils you chose to use in your soap. Upon mixing the two, a reaction called saponification happens, and the oils turns into soap. The soap is liquid at first but will start to thicken until it reaches a thicker stage called "trace".
Cold process Method
There are different methods to make soap. My favourite one is called "cold process" method. It's one of the most popular for a very good reason: it only relies on a natural saponification process with no added heat other than the heat that is naturally created during the saponification reaction. During this method, the soap is also able to preserve the essential qualities of the ingredients used. Because there is no added heat in this process, any water used to prepare the lye solution will need to evaporate before the soap can be used.
This is why this methods required a long “curing” time of about 4-6 weeks before the soap can be used. I guess this is also the downside of using this method but hey, it has definitely taught me how to be more patient and appreciate soap at its natural pace!
Hot Process Method
The other method is called “hot process”. This involves cooking the soap mixture (oils/butters and lye) to achieve the saponification through heat. This method allows the soap to be ready to use pretty much right after it has hardened into the mould.
Why not always using this method then? Well, the heating involved will weaken some of the natural qualities of the ingredients, or the natural occurrence of glycerin which is formed during the natural saponification reaction during the cold process method.
When you prepare hot process soap, the mixture becomes hot, sticky and has a very gloppy texture which requires cooking for 1-2 hours depending on the formulation. The soap will also have a very rough appearance, which would be ok in some cases, but not if you are trying to achieve a pretty soap with a smooth surface. Finally, natural colours don't always turn out as well as they may with the cold process method.
Melt and Pour Soap
The last method is called "melt and pour". This method involves using a pre-made soap base, usually made with a mix of glycerin and naturally derived or synthetic detergents, melting it in the microwave and adding any colors and fragrances to "dress" the soap up. Many colours also act so much better in melt and pour soap as they are not hit by any "chemical" saponification reaction. For example, with melt and pour soap you would be able to achieve a nice green colour out of green tea or match tea powder. If you were to try the same with cold process soap, you would end up with the ugliest brown soap!
Melt and pour soap is also really safe and fun to play with children as it doesn't involve handling any lye. As mentioned, melt and pour soap is normally made with a mix of glycerin and emulsifying agents, but bear in mind that some bases are more natural than others which may contain harsh detergents such as SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate).
From a crafting perspective, with melt and pour soap you have less control over which oils and butters are in the soap, as these have already been selected and mixed up in the base. You are basically missing the "fun" that comes with developing your own recipes and really tailoring them to your needs. It is still a great option if you want to make soap, still get the fun factor by adding colour, essential oils and other decorations to the soap, but don't want to handle lye and making soap from scratch.
Ok, so what oils should I use if I want to make my own soap?
Each oil has a “recommended” percentage to be able to "perform" well in soap. For example, you could make a 100% olive oil soap and it will turn out beautifully, curing into a very hard soap overtime. Instead, if you tried to make a 100% castor oil soap you will have a super sticky and soft soap bar. However, if you use around 5% castor oil in a soap recipe it will give your soap the most luxurious bubbles.
To learn more about the basics behind oils and fatty acids in soap making, download my FREE Soap Making Oils Guide!
Hang on! Before diving into your first cold process soap, it's super important you familiarise yourself with essential safety measures. Cold process soap involves handling sodium hydroxide, also called lye, which is a very caustic material, so be careful and read on! When in contact with water, sodium hydroxide can burn down tissues very easily.
Can you make soap without lye? Soap - in its more "raw" and natural form - without lye does not exist! If you still want to make soap but do not want to handle lye, then melt and pour soap is the way to go :)
This is not to scare you and make you give up on your dreams to make soap but it's important that you follow the safety measures really diligently! Just like driving, if you take the necessary safety measures is very safe but if you don't, it could be dangerous.
Safety Precautions Checklist:
- Always wear safety goggles when handling lye and raw soap, even if you wear glasses.
- Always wear a pair of reusable rubber gloves, long sleeves and long pants. Yep, also during the summer.
- Always, always add the lye to the water and never the opposite. If you do the opposite, the reaction will be too strong and the solution may “erupt” from its container. A little trick to remember this (and I am sorry it sounds sooo dramatic but I use to sing this in my head at the beginning if I wasn’t sure): if you add the water to the lye, you will dye. Add the lye to the water to make it proper!
- When you are adding the lye to the water, make sure you are in a well-ventilated area
- When you are pouring the lye into the water, always wear a respirator or hold your breath/take a couple of steps back. As soon as you have finished mixing the last bit of lye into the water, leave the room to avoid breathing any of the fumes that the solution will create
- Keep the work area as tidy as possible to avoid spilling liquids
- If for any reason you get any lye on you, immediately wash off with cold water and see medical help
Making soap doesn't require any fancy or expensive tools and equipments and most of the stuff you need to start it's very likely already in your kitchen.
- 1 stainless steel container or a pyrex glass bowl to prepare your lye solution. If you are using glass, it's essential that it's pyrex material because the lye solution will heat over 93 C° / 200 F° so it must be a heat resistant glass. Never ever use aluminum as sodium hydroxide reacts with it and may cause the solution to explode. Don't use wood or any other type of glass as these will either get damaged or shattered. You can use heavy-duty plastic buckets if you have them around to be reused, but if you need to buy, I would always choose a reusable, durable option.
- A high-precision digital scale to measure all the ingredients. Some can be super expensive but I found this type to be cheap and very effective. It's important to get a digital scale that can measure up the milligrams and doesn't round up the numbers. Also keep in mind that in soap making every ingredients, whether it's liquid or solid, it's alway measured up by weight and not volume. This is because different oils might have very different weights even if they cover the same volume. For example, castor oil is such a heavy and thick liquid which will weight much more than sweet almond oil, even though they will both cover the same volume when poured at the same quantity. Soap making is truly a precision game!
- 1 or 2 glass bowls : these don't have to be pyrex but make sure they are quite sturdy and of good quality. These are my favourites. You will need these to measure the oils. Alternatively, you can use this set of tempered glass measuring cups which comes already in a variety of shapes. I use them all the time to weight the different oils.
- A pair of tight-fitting reusable rubber gloves. Try to get some reusable options as any disposal ones are very difficult to get clean and reuse..
- A pair of reusable goggles to protect your eyes when handling the lye and raw soap
- 1 or 2 silicone spatulas. Just 2 would be enough, I recommend a set of a small and a big one.
- 1 or 2 stainless steel spoons. You can get these second hand or you can sacrifice them from your cutlery set. Bear in mind that you will not be able to reuse them for eating again afterwards!
- A stick blender. This is essential, as making soap stirring with a simple spoon will take you hours, compared to a few minutes using a stick blender. Any low-priced, or second hand stick blender will work. If you can choose, select one with 2 speeds settings. I am currently using the one linked above and loving it!
- A laser digital thermometer. This little guy enables you to measure the temperature while at distance from the hot oils/soap or lye allowing you to avoid splashes as much as possible. It is super exact and lasts forever. However if you don't want to invest in a digital thermometer as yet, you could use a candy thermometer like this one will work fine. I completely recommend the digital one though!
- A silicone soap mold. To start off, I would get a silicone soap mould with the shape you like the most. This will allow you to test small quantities. Most of the times any silicone cookie shapes are just fine! Make sure it's made of silicone and never use rigid materials as you will never be able to get the soap out once it's harden. Once you get more experienced and want to try bigger batches you could also get a rectangular silicone and wood mold. Make sure you get one with a lid as you will need it to cover the soap loaf after it has been poured.
- A non-serrated kitchen knife to cut the soap once it's unmolded. Later on you could also invest in a soap cutter like this one.
Are you really motivated to start making your own soap and are thinking to give it a go? Sign up to my newsletter to grab your FREE Soap Making Oils Guide!
Have you tried making your first soap yet? What's your absolute DREAM soap?For any questions, suggestions, requests: let me know in the comments below!