What Should I Do?

Making Soap

Friday, January 14, 2011, 6:02 PM
History

Roman history notes that the women washing in the water below the temples after sacrifices found the water there to be foamy and excellent for washing clothes.  The fat had run down through the ashes and rain had washed it down the hill.  They took credit for the invention of soap, although some historians believe it was actually first invented in Egypt. The Spaniards later found that they didn’t have to use animal fat; they used olive oil and created the gentle Castille soap.
In the United States, at the end of the 19th century, the meat packers discovered that they could take the fat from the pigs, make soap, and extract the glycerin for nitro glycerin. The money was in the glycerin, but with mass production and clever advertising the soap sold well too. 

Justification

There are lots of reasons not to make soap at home. It takes a lot of equipment you shouldn’t use for other purposes. It is inherently dangerous and the raw materials must be respected. It takes some training and skill to make a product that is gentle and pleasant to use. But any soapmaker will tell you that the process is creative and addictive. The soap forms as if by magic. The fragrance of drying soap is intoxicating. The soap itself is better for the skin than commercially produced soaps.

Pots

You need two containers, a large soap pot and a smaller container to mix the lye. Do not use aluminum—steel is good, or an unblemished enamel pot. Pyrex or Rubbermaid containers can be used for the lye; don’t use cheap plastic. Stainless steel utensils should be used.

Oils

The typical handmade soap uses a combination of oils: olive oil for gentleness, palm oil for hardness, coconut oil for skin conditioning, and castor oil for lather. A very acceptable soap can be made using all lard or lard with 5 percent castor oil. Tallow can also be rendered for soap making. Different oils are chemically different and have different saponification numbers, which are used to calculate the measurement of water and lye necessary to balance the formula. A beginner should use an online “lye calculator” such as this one at Mystic Mountain Sage soaps, which will calculate the correct formula given the ingredients used.

Lye

The lye, or sodium hydroxide, was available as Red Devil drain cleaner. After the Oklahoma bombing and 9/11 it has been more difficult to obtain (I've included several online sources in the 'Provisioning' section below).  Be prepared to protect yourself and your kitchen from accidents. Wear long sleeves and gloves, cover countertops, use eye protection, and have a spray bottle of vinegar nearby to neutralize the caustic in case of a spill. Young children should be kept out of the room until you are done. Personally, I put my pots in both sides of my stainless steel sink, so the lye does not have to travel very far and accidents are easy to clean up.

Process

Saponification is a chemical process in which an acid (oil or fat) combines with a lye solution to make a salt which does not resemble either the oil or the lye. After the mixture comes to “trace,” color and fragrance can be added. Then it is poured into a mold, put to bed, and turned out when it is firm enough to cut. The brave soap maker will touch the soap with the tip of the tongue to insure that it does not zap and the soap is balanced. Then it is set aside to dry for several weeks. 

Follow your formula closely (see “lye calculator” above under Oils). Too much water and the soap will take a long time to dry and harden; too little water and the lye may not be completely dissolved and there will be caustic deposits . Too much lye and you will have a caustic soap that can only be used for laundry. Too much oil and it will eventually go rancid and turn orange. A little superfatting is permissible if you know you will use it soon. Use a scale and measure carefully.

In the large soap pot, melt the oils and turn off the heat. In the other small container, add your measured distilled water. If you use goat's milk for all or part of the water,  it should be frozen or kept very cold. The lye is slowly poured on top of the water. As you mix it, it will get very hot. When the lye solution has cooled to the temperature of the oils, add it to the soap pot. 

The next step is stirring. Most people use a stick blender. Some oil combinations are very quick to thicken and some are very slow. Do not wander off and forget about what you are doing---you may come back to find that the soap has seized and that your spoon is stuck in your pot of solid soap. When the mixture has reached the thickness of a thick pudding, it has traced and it can be poured into molds. A beginner’s mold could be a plastic container or even a cardboard box. Molds can be lined with waxed paper so the soap does not stick to them.

At trace, essential oils or perfume oils can be added. Don’t play with essential oils unless you have studied them and know what you are doing. Lavender is a wonderful oil that won’t burn you while you are learning how to do everything else. Tea tree oil is also safe for a beginner to use.

Cover the soap overnight, and check for hardness in the morning. If it is still soft, let it sit in the mold a little longer. Remove from molds and cut to shape if necessary. A tongue test will tell when the saponification process is complete. The soap will need to dry for several weeks. 

About Shampoo

What we know now as shampoo is a detergent, a variation of the liquid soap we use to wash dishes. A shampoo soap can be made that is wonderful for the scalp and good for the hair, but will strip artificial coloring, so there are liability issues with selling it. A good one uses pomace olive oil. Conditioners are emulsified oils, similar to lotions, with some additives ---it would be easier to add the oils straight to the hair in small amounts.

Bath salts

Bath salts are the easiest thing to make--mix the salt (Epson or Kosher are good salts), some olive or other oil, and a little fragrance or color and mix. That’s it.

Lip balms

Melt together beeswax and castor oil, about 50/50. Cocoa Butter is nice in the mix. For lipsticks add a pigment; micas don’t add much color.

Lotions

Lotions are emulsions of oil in water. If you go to the store and look at the lotions on the shelf you will see that they almost all use mineral oil----that way they can be left on a pallet in China with no worries about rancidity or the date of production. At home you can use an oil that is better for your own skin and choose additives that you feel are important.

Lotions are made in phases---a large bowl for the water and ingredients that dissolve in water, a smaller bowl for the oils and the ingredients that must dissolve in the oils. There is an emulsifier, which may be a wax (such as e-wax) or perhaps a polymer. It is all mixed together. The mixture may need to be heated to melt the emulsifying wax. Preservatives are essential if the mixture is to last more than a few days. The mixture will be whipped until a lotion is produced. A few drops of fragrance or color can enhance the lotion. A lotion is 80 percent water or more, so it is a good extender for expensive oils.

Facial mask

There are recipes all over the internet for facial masks using ingredients found in the kitchen.

Mineral makeup

Mineral makeup is made of minerals: pigments, mica, talc, kaolin clay, titanium or zinc oxide, etc. Except for corn starch and rice powder, everything can be bought in advance and left on the shelf for years until it is needed. If you don’t use water, you don’t need preservatives. Companies such as Coastal Scents or TKB Trading  could get you set up and provide formulas. The only thing needing energy would be a good blender. Small amounts can be made with a mortar and pestle.

About Sustainablity

During colonial times, the lye mixture for soap  was made by collecting wood ashes and making a solution with rain water. It was hard to gauge the concentration of the solution, and frequently the recipe did not balance. They also saved used lard, so they had really stinky soap. Professional chandlers knew what they were doing, but the typical housewife didn’t. They sometimes went from farm to farm making soap for families on those farms. I am hoping we can do better than that.

Provisioning

A few things could be purchased in advance and stored for later use----the sodium hydroxide for soap, soapmaking equipment, preservatives, minerals for makeup,  and containers. Unfortunately, oils oxidize. They can be kept frozen or in airtight containers in the refrigerator for a long time, but eventually they will go bad. Essential oils will eventually lose their fragrance. I am hoping that we will have access to olive oil, and maybe even avocado oil. If you have your own pigs and goats and have set aside some sodium hydroxide, you should be able to make good soap for a long time.

Ingredients for mineral make-up can also be stored. If you set aside some emulsifier and preservative, you should be able to make lotion when you have access to a good oil. 

Companies that I have used that have good service and good products:

All of these sites have recipes, and will give you more information about their products. Some have blogs and educational material. 

I have tried to be brief---every soap maker could write a book. I know there are lots of opinions on how to do things, and there are people here on the forum that have been doing this longer and more consistently than I have.  Please, please, add on to this…..

Mary Aceves


This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by CM.com readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our Input on the What Should I Do? Series feedback forum.

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11 Comments

Poet's picture
Poet
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 21 2009
Posts: 1844
Re: Making Soap

Woohoo! Thank you, Mary! I remember requesting this in Adam's post requesting additional topics in the "What Should I Do?" vein, so it's so nice to see this! (I'm sure it was already in the works, though.) I've always wanted to learn more abou soap-making, so thank you!

Reading about the use of fats and lye reminds of the scenes from Fight Club, where they break into a medical biohazards storage facility to get liposuction slurry for the fat for their soaps, and the confrontation over lye (don't use water!) between Tyler Durden and the Narrator ("Jack").

Poet

maceves's picture
maceves
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 23 2010
Posts: 279
Re: Making Soap

ohhh gross!!

Sometimes I run across recipes for soap using fat from deer kills.  It's doable.

RNcarl's picture
RNcarl
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: May 13 2008
Posts: 361
Re: Making Soap

For What Its Worth -

Check in the bio-diesel / WVO fuel sites.

There are many many posts on making soap from the "waste" of making bio-diesel.

I was into it prior to my move... Now I have resorted to being a "sheeple" for now.

Soap making isn't hard. It isn't quite like making a cake, but for the resilient lot here... It is doable.

"Real" soap is the best. What we buy in the store pales in comparison to what you can make at home.

C.

pinecarr's picture
pinecarr
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 13 2008
Posts: 1607
Re: Making Soap

Thanks Mary!  This is good to know.  I may not have time to experiment with it now (other priorities),  but I'm printing it out and am happy to add it to my collection of useful  referene info/knowledge to have on hand..

earthwise's picture
earthwise
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 10 2009
Posts: 829
Re: Making Soap

maceves wrote:

Too much lye and you will have a caustic soap that can only be used for laundry.

Is there a specific recipe for laundry detergent or should we just add more lye? A while back I had the opportunity to get my hands on a five-gallon pail of laundry detergent from Ecolab that was, according to My Dear Sweet Boss, the best detergent she ever used. But alas, my soap pimp tells me that was a one-time deal. He also explained that the reason it works so well is that it has a higher level of caustic than retail products, which is also why it is so strictly controlled for safety reasons.

Sure would like to be able to make my own if possible.

maceves's picture
maceves
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 23 2010
Posts: 279
Re: Making Soap

Soap and detergent are two entirely different things. 

You could bypass the soap production and make a liquid detergent using soap, borax and washing powder, like this one:http://www.thesimpledollar.com/2008/04/09/making-your-own-laundry-detergent-a-detailed-visual-guide/

I haven't made  it, but I have seen similar recipes in other places. 

What I was referring to was a failed batch of soap that was too causitc for your skin, but OK for clothes. In Mexico, where women still wash with scrub boards, a caustic soap named Octagon is used--it will take the skin off your fingers if you don't wear gloves.  It gets the clothes really clean.

ichor's picture
ichor
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 12 2010
Posts: 2
Re: Making Soap

One VERY IMPORTANT safety tip is when mixing the lye always add the caustic soda to the water and not the other way around.

When caustic soda dissolves in water a lot of heat is given off and the temperature of the mix can quickly rise to around 80 degrees C (176 degrees F). 

If you make the mistake of pouring water into a container containing caustic soda, the water will boil immediately causing small eruptions as the steam escapes - sending  lye everywhere.

You can find a photo gallery of the making soap using a stick blender here http://redgumsoaps.com.au/soapmaking/make-your-own/photo-gallery.html

A. M.'s picture
A. M.
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 22 2008
Posts: 2347
Re: Making Soap

Awesome presentation of a very practical, useful skill.

Bravo - excellent material here!

Cheers,

Aaron

maceves's picture
maceves
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 23 2010
Posts: 279
Re: Making Soap

ichor--what a great website!

Right with the lye and the oils----"It snows on the water, it doesn't water on the snow'

Full Moon's picture
Full Moon
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Oct 14 2008
Posts: 1258
Re: Making Soap

I suggest when you are rendering fat for your soap that you do it outside . It takes quite some time and does not smell so good .    If you eat bacon you can even save the drippings as it works just fine when filtered .

I like to use coconut oil for skin soap .

  I have not tried to make my own lye  but know you can not buy it in large quantities or you may be watched for being a drug factory .

  When you make your own laundry soap it costs  pennies .  I make 15 gallon at a time .  I do like to put a 1/2 cup of liquid softener in it  because it just seems to wash better .   For those of you that travel those cheap little bars of soap work  fine .   

FM

Maria99's picture
Maria99
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 16 2012
Posts: 1
PRe requists of Soap Making

It can be a fun experience to prepare home-made soap on your own, but you will have to find out the best soap making supplies in your vicinity and place an order for all the required materials at a single time, and nothing can be as helpful as using an online store for making purchases.

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