So you wish to dip your toe in the big adventure that is soap making. You’re 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.
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.
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 artificial colors or weird addictives here.
Even the idea of adding dyes or herbs is just to make the soap more decorative, more pleasant to the eye. Essential oils add aroma, but they may also provide some medicinal properties: vitamin, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, moisturizing, smoothing, etc.
In the end they are all optional ingredients. The base ingredients are 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 experiments also 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 will influence the scent 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 some of the most common essential oils from one of these brands: Plant Therapy, Jade Bloom, Now Foods, Alteya. 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. 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 (see Good Essential Oils Brands – a Guide to know more).
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 for you (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.
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.