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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
There are recipes all over the internet for facial masks using ingredients found in the kitchen.
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.
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.
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:
- Wholesale Supplies Plus – they also have melt and pour if you are afraid of the lye
- Bramble Berry Soap – especially for fragrances
- Somerset Cosmetics – for hard-to-find, top-of-the-line cosmetic ingredients, formulary, and newsletter
- Coastal Scents – for makeup ingredients, recipes, and anything related to makeup
- TKB trading – especially for pigments and micas
- The Chemistry Store – does have sodium hydroxide
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…..
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.
If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:
- A Case Study in Creating Community (SagerXX)
- Peak Certainty, Food Resilience, and Aquaponics (Farmer Brown)
- Creating Healthy Snacks from Your Garden (EndGamePlayer)
- The Essential Gardening and Food Resilience Library (Old Hippie)
- Installing A Solar Energy System (rhare)
- The Keys to Transitioning Healthcare: Empowerment, Education, & Prevention (suziegruber)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers – Part 1 (Cycle9)
- A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers – Part 2 (Cycle9)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 – Fire Starting (Aaron Moyer)
- Raising Your Own Chickens (Woodman)
- Dealing With a Reluctant Partner (Becca Martenson)
- Making the Urban-to-Rural Transition (joemanc)
- Prepping on a Shoestring (Amanda)
- Practical Survival Skills 101 – Water (Aaron Moyer)
- Small-Scale Beekeeping (apismellifera)
- Making Soap (maceves)
This series is a companion to this site's free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the CM.com staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.