This article is the first one on how to make soaps from scratch at home – the soap making learning series. Explains where to obtain and purchase the necessary equipment and ingredients, and presents all important safety recommendations.
Soap Making Equipment
There may be a temptation to spend 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.
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:
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 box mold (1Kg) set with a wooden cutting box and two cutters included: this makes it more professional to cut soaps at home. Note that the thermal insulation of this mold is very low.
- Silicone loaf soap mold (1Kg) with wooden cutting box and cutter included: this makes it more professional to cut soaps at home. Note that the thermal insulation of this mold is very low.
The advantage of making a bar of soap is the flexibhttps://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/61xllQGuaGL.AC_SL1000.jpgility 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 it 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 as long as they don’t have aluminum protection, which was what discouraged me from trying them: apparently, in other countries these packages are made of cardboard and plastic only.
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, 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
Measuring containers: 1 glass to measure lye, 1 glass to mix water with lye, some cups for measuring oils, measuring spoons for essential oils. Also, funnel 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. 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.
The ingredients part is the most interesting part, because to make soap, you only need:
OILS + LYE (CAUSTIC SODA) -> SOAP SALT + GLYCERINE = SOAP
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, as the base is 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.
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 smell, but you can use the more natural products, having in mind the oil or butter scents in the final soap.
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, 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 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 Plena Natura, Celeiro and at Amazon.com, depending on ingredients availability. Celeiro is very expensive, so I use them only as last resort.
Optional Ingredients: essential oils, dyes, and other extras
Essential oils: 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 this article about Essential Oils To Make Soap). Personally, I have been buying almost every essential oils at Plena Natura, because they are cheap, portuguese and they give a great deal of trust by presenting an extensive datasheet on all their products.
Still, I am reviewing more carefully my essential oils supplier, since, to be honest, I don’t have a comparison to know how good they are. Beware of cheap essential oils in Amazon, that end up to be fragrances. It’s ok if you buy fragrance oils, but know what you are buying.
It is possible to use only one essential oil or a mixture of some, they give a very pleasant aroma to the soaps and even add medicinal properties (see Essential Oils To Make Soap).
As for fragrances, I also buy them at Plena Natura: I particularly like the English Rose to replace or complement the rose essential oil. They buy the fragrances from a British soap-making company, Gracefruit. However, as I mentioned, they are the exception.
Dyes: I only use 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 oxides and micas, which are considered natural dyes, despite being minerals. Or cosmetic clays, here are the ones I use the most: french green clay, french pink clay and kaolin white clay, but there are also french yellow clay, 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 and must always be added dry to prevent the water that contains them from rotting, 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 and rotten (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.
Watch this video with all safety recommendations to make soap at home:
Making soap from scratch at home involves handling sodium hydroxide (lye) and there are some safety recommendations to take into account:
- 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 (if the lye has to be handled without ventilation). 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.
- Mix the water with lye in a ventilated place, preferably near an open window or in the outdoors.
- 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.