So you wish to dip your toe in the big adventure that is soap making. Ready? This is your first step!
If you wish to make natural soap at home, start from the very beginning: find out where to get soap equipment, where to buy ingredients, know the most important safety recommendations.
Soap Making Equipment
There may be a temptation to start buying and end up spending a small fortune on special tools when we start thinking about making soaps. The good news is that you can find almost anything in the kitchen! And you can always go shopping if you feel like going more professional. Or bigger.
But as a first step, I recommend taking a look in the kitchen drawers and cupboards for all the necessary tools, before going out to buy:
Molds for Soap
Silicone molds are the easiest to use when starting to learn how to make soaps, as they are the easiest to unmold your soap. With hard molds you will find it almost impossible to unmold without damaging them, unless you use a piece of wax paper. And pay attention to aluminum molds, because aluminum reacts with lye!
You can use silicone molds to make small cookies or chocolates, or any type of silicone molds for small cakes that you have at home. Silicone cake molds, like English cakes, can also be used, but note that later the soap will have to be cut into bars.
If you want or need to buy silicone molds, here are some recommendations:
- rectangular molds: to make soaps with a more professional look;
- molds of various shapes: flowers, hearts: to make small assorted cute soaps for gifts;
- small “100% handmade” molds: to make guest soaps, with engraved letters
When you have a little more experience, and if you want to try making bar soap to cut later, you can use wooden box-type molds. Many of them have a practical silicone lining to easily unmold. If you buy one without a silicone lining, you will always have to line the mold with wax paper, or you will not be able to unmold the bar…
If you want to buy a wooden mold for bar soaps, which I advise you to do only when you have more experience in making soaps:
- Wooden soap box mold (2.5 lb ~ 1.2 Kg): a good professional soap box mold, made of wood and with a silicone liner. Good for beginners, as you can make a batch of 2 lb (1 kg) for this mold.
- Soap cutter: I am not unhappy with my soap cutter box, but I did take a good look at these wire cutters. For a professional, smooth soap cutting, these are the best.
The advantage of making a bar of soap is the flexibility you will have in making textures and color effects, as well as adding some decoration, so you can make beautiful soaps like those that appear on the net.
You can still try to recycle plastic packages and use them as soap molds, such as yogurt ones. But you will have to break them to unmold the soap without any problems. You can also use Tetrapak milk or juice packs but beware of the aluminum protection, as it reacts with lye. Make sure to line the pack with wax paper.
Measurements for making soap should be accurate to gram (+/- 1g), hence recommending a digital scale. Making these recipes “by eye” gives rise to further problems with the soaps, they can even become irritating to the skin (and we don’t want that, right?)
It is possible to use a digital thermometer (infrared, gunlike, to measure the temperature) or a kitchen thermometer, provided it is stainless steel. It will be necessary to measure the temperature of the oils and the lye water.
Ah, yes, it takes a stainless steel immersion blender to make soap from scratch, the alternative is to beat the dough with a spoon for hours and hours … You should choose one that will not be used for cooking. More than essential equipment to make handmade soaps!
Other Containers and Utensils
Big soap-making bowl: it must be resistant to temperature and caustic soda. It can be a 1lt or 2lt pyrex or stainless steel bowl, but the ideal is something like this 4lt pyrex bowl.
Measuring containers: 1 cup to measure lye, 1 glass to mix water with lye, some cups for measuring oils, measuring spoons for essential oils. Also, easy pour pitchers to pour soap batter, mainly to be able to do swirlings (design purposes). They must be made of pyrex, or temperature resistant plastic.
Spoons, spatulas, strainers: in stainless steel or silicone. Avoid aluminum or normal plastic utensils. Avoid using these utensils in cooking and serving food.
Microwave ou stove + double boiler: Personally, I always used the microwave. Many websites that teach how to make soaps indicate the heating process using a double boiler. I have never tried and I do not feel that my soaps suffer from the microwave heating process. What is not advisable is to heat the oils with direct heat, so as not to alter them with unwanted overheating.
Do not use the same utensils for making soaps and for preparing and eating food, as washing does not completely remove the lye and it can be ingested.
Do not use utensils in aluminum or any type of plastic other than silicone, as they can react with lye and contaminate / spoil the soap.
All the websites I have consulted advise against using used oil to make soaps, just like cooking. The reason is the degradation of oil properties with temperature, and possible chemical structure change, including a potential presence of toxic substances. Only fresh, good quality oils make quality products.
Again, I advise you to inspect the kitchen before buying equipment to make handmade soaps. Alternatively, the supermarket surely also has almost everything needed to get started.
When you want to make soap from scratch, the ingredients part is the most interesting part, because to make soap, you only need:
OILS + LYE (CAUSTIC SODA) -> SOAP SALT + GLYCERINE = SOAP
And that’s it!! No other fancy chemicals with weird names! Surprising, isn’t it? We will then list the ingredients in more detail.
In all the recipes I found and wanted to try, I always tried to use only natural or minimally processed ingredients, so you won’t find perfumes or artificial colors here.
Even the idea of adding dyes or herbs is just to make the soap more decorative, therefore more pleasant to the eye. Essential oils add aroma, but they also provide some medicinal properties: vitamin, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, moisturizing, smoothing, etc.
However, they are optional ingredients; the base ingredients are only oils and lye (sodium hydroxide for solid soap and potassium hydroxide for liquid soap).
So let’s go to the ingredients:
Base Ingredients: water, sodium hydroxide (lye), oils
Sodium hydroxide: 100% pure caustic soda / lye /sodium hydroxide, in grain or small spheres, do not use drain pipe cleaners without checking ingredients list, as they may contain other substances.
Potassium hydroxide: 90%-95% pure potash, in grain or flakes, do not use drain pipe cleaners without checking ingredients list, as they may contain other substances.
Water: preferably distilled or relatively demineralized. If you have a tumble dryer or a dehumidifier, use the water in the tank after filtrating it with a muslin tissue or cheesecloth (to clean dust and laundry fibers).
Oils / butters (fats):
I mainly use vegetable oils, having only done one experiment with lard. I advise you to buy deodorized or refined products, so that you have a more neutral product in terms of color or scent, but you can use the more natural products, having in mind the oil or butter scents in the final soap.
See Soap Making Oils Chart for a full list of oils used in soap making and its properties.
Where I purchase my ingredients
As much as possible, I always buy organic or cold-pressed products, a process that allows oils to taste softer and closer to the original seeds or plants.
I use extra virgin olive oil purchased in the supermarket, which is already of quality. Sunflower oil can also be purchased at the supermarket, but be careful when buying, as many oils are mixtures: buy 100% sunflower oil.
Coconut oil is also becoming common in Portuguese supermarkets, probably everywhere but I noticed that the Plena Natura has the organic coconut oil cheaper if bought by the kg: 8,5 € / kg versus supermarket oils that are around 10 € / kg or more. However, to start, it is best to use small portions.
Palm oil raises a lot of controversy because of the deforestation that its plantation causes, so I use only from producers who belong to the RSPO. They are also appearing in supermarkets, even RSPO ones.
Personally, I buy these ingredients partly in the supermarket, and partly in 2 local online stores, Plena Natura and Granvelada, depending on ingredients availability.
Ok, you are brave if you came THIS FAR wondering if there is no other way to make soap without using lye! There is, fortunately. I probably should have started with soap bases, but I like too much to make soap from base ingredients, so you know now what is my favorite way to make soap 🙂
This is definitely the ideal way to start making soap, especially if you are wary of using lye. Soap bases are basically glycerin soap, most commonly named by “Melt and Pour” that can be melted and redecorated with different colors, scent, and shape to make a customized soap. If you want to know more about glycerin and glycerin soap, check out Glycerin vs Vegetable Glycerin.
What we call glycerin soaps are actually transparent soaps, made with oils and lye, but where alcohol and sugar syrup is added to give it the transparent/translucid characteristic quality.
Back to soap bases and melt and pour. As mentioned, this soap is still made with lye and oils (no soap can be made otherwise), but the fact that you have to melt it to make the final soap, makes it ideal as a sellable pre-made soap base. This way, new soap makers do not have to worry about lye and saponification.
There are several options to choose from when selecting a base, including bases with additives like shea butter, goat milk, or aloe vera. However, clear or white melt and pour is a good place to start.
You can purchase melt and pour soap in the following links:
Special Soap Bases
Optional Ingredients: essential oils, dyes, and other extras
I only use essential oils as soap fragrance, making an exception for some fragrances whose respective essential oils are extremely expensive (for example, absolut rose or jasmine).
To get started you can buy a starter kit with 6 of the most common essential oils on one of these stores: Plant Therapy or Organic Aromas. Please, make sure to also purchase May Chang essential oil, to fix/keep the citrus essential oils scent (see Essential Oils To Make Soap).
Personally, I have been buying almost every essential oils at Plena Natura, because they are cheap and they give a great deal of trust by presenting good online on all their products.
Recently, I’ve reviewed other essential oils suppliers, see Good Essential Oils Brands – a Guide. It didn’t make me change from Plena Natura for now, but it gave me a good insight of how much in the dark we actually are about these products.
Essential Oils or Fragrance Oils?
I am no longer an essential oils “fundamentalist” as I believe that cheap essential oils (there are numerous at Amazon or Ebay) are worse than some good quality fragrances, and we honestly don’t know what manufacturers actually put in these so-called essential oils.
My advice, whether you prefer to purchase an essential oil, a natural fragrance, or a “normal” fragrance, is to get information on their ingredients and see if there are substances there that raise concerns (such as allergens, see Commercial Soap Ingredients – What Are They?). Know what you are buying.
Be ware that there’s no fragrance or essential oil without any sort of allergens like geraniol, linalool, limonene, to mention only a few. I personally have never developed an allergic reaction to any of them, so they are not harmful per se.
It is possible to use only one essential oil or a mixture of some, they give a very pleasant aroma to the soaps and may even add some medicinal properties (see Essential Oils To Make Soap and Essential Oils for Natural Cosmetics).
Or you can mix essential oils with fragrance oils. Some of the best perfumes are a blend of essential oils and synthetic fragrances. I particularly like the Rose one, to mix with geranium rose essential oil.
I try to use only natural dyes. Many of these products can be found in the kitchen: cinnamon, sweet pepper, paprika, turmeric, spinach, carrot, pumpkin …
To better control colors, or to obtain tones less common in nature, I also use micas, which are considered natural dyes, despite being minerals. Or cosmetic clays, here are the ones I use the most: french green clay, kaolin pink clay or kaolin white clay, but there are also others like Ghassoul/Rhassoul clay, a Moroccan red clay and white Bentonite clay.
Clays are not also good as natural colorants, but they also help absorb the water (good for olive oil soaps) and they are scent ‘fixers’.
Herbs and flowers (optional)
They are only for decoration or exfoliation purposes, as their herbal properties usually do not survive saponification, and must always be added dried, in puree, or ground into powder. Something I learned from my experience was not to use large pieces of fresh herbs and flowers: they become brown, rotten and ugly (ugh!).
Many flower petals, even when dried, turn brown and make the soap look… unpleasant. Having “pieces of soft matter” coming out of the soap and falling into the bathtub during the bath may also not be desirable for many. So, you actually can skip completely adding herbs, it’s totally a matter of personal taste.
If you don’t have the possibility of growing and drying your own herbs, you can purchase dry herbs here.
Making soap from scratch at home involves handling sodium hydroxide (lye) and there are some safety recommendations to take into account. Please, read the text below or watch this video:
I can safely say from one year of soapmaking experience that if you follow them strictly, you will never have a problem with lye.
- Lye or caustic soda is an alkaline chemical that can cause chemical burns on any exposed part of the human body. Its reaction with water also generates chemical vapors that must not be breathed
- Use always protective goggles, protective gloves and a mask. Wear clothing and shoes that completely cover the skin.
- If a little bit of soap or lye involuntarily reaches a portion of the skin, wash the affected area immediately in abundant cold water. Do NOT attempt to use vinegar instead, but you can add some afterwards.
- Mix the water with lye in a ventilated place, preferably near an open window or in the outdoors. Always use your mask.
- Always mix the lye (granules) with water and never the opposite, as it can cause the lye to erupt. Never use hot water.
- There is lye in the soap batter during the saponification process until it is quite advanced. Handle soap batter always with gloves, even in solid state, for at least 48 hours
- Keep pets and children out of reach of utensils and soap batter during soap production
- Do not use the same utensils and equipment in soap making for food. Lye may not be completely eliminated when washing and… it goes without saying that it is not recommended to eat lye…
- Never use utensils in aluminum or any type of plastic other than silicone, as they can react with lye and contaminate/spoil the soap.
Making soap from scratch at home involves handling sodium hydroxide (lye) which can be scary. However, if you follow these recommendations, you will be able to manufacture soap at home without any problem.
Always wear gloves, goggles and a mask if you don’t have a well-ventilated environment and wear clothing that completely covers your skin.
When mixing water and lye, do not breathe vapors directly. Always pour the lye into the water.
Do not use aluminum utensils. Do not use soap making utensils in food preparation.
Keep animals and children out of the area where the soap is made.
Hope this article was informative. If you have a question or a suggestion to make, please, leave a comment below.