So, here it is at last. The answer to the question: How do I make my own soap? and the additional questions that come with it: What exactly is soap made of? Is it safe? What do I need? etc.
I hope to answer these questions and more in as simple and complete way I can put it to make this invaluable skill and art of making soap accessible for as many of you as possible.
WHAT IS SOAP AND WHY MAKE YOUR OWN?
FATS(oils, butters, tallow etc,) +LYE solution(casutic soda dissolved in water)=SOAP + glycerine
Simply put, soap is the result of combining fats with lye(caustic soda+water). Fats are mildly acidic and lye is a strong base, they react chemically and neutralise each other to produce soap and glycerine, this is called saponification.
Alkaline substances are known for their cleaning properties but lye is such a strong base(alkali) that it's too harsh to use as a cleansing agent, hence the name we all know it by, caustic soda. Because fats are mildly acidic the final product (the soap) that results from the reaction of these two will still be alkaline but just enough for our skin to bear it without problems.
In the past lye was obtained from wood ash and it was quite difficult to accurately measure its strength and required quantity to be used for a certain amount and type of fat. Due to the rough method of lye production and calculation soaps in the past were at times unpleasant to use and harsh, a reputation that stuck to their name to this day.
Modern science has brought forth the production of pure caustic soda which allows for accurate and safe calculations for soap making recipes and has made this skill so much more accessible and enjoyable for homemakers around the world.Not only this but the technology that is available to us in our every day use, the high speed kitchen gadgets, the gas burner stoves, electric blenders and thermometers make the work so much easier than it used to be centuries ago.
Commercial soap manufacturers have taken soap making to a whole different dimension where the line between synthetic detergents and additives and natural soap becomes blurrier by the day.This not only contributes to an increased profit margin based on the use of cheaper synthetic fillers but these additives also put us and our environment in danger.
When we make our own soap we make informed decisions on what to put into that bar of soap, what ingredients we use define the bar of soap we'll get.
A good bar of handmade natural soap carries with it the advantages of its cleaning properties all the while it safeguards our health, strengthens our immunity and is biodegradable and safe for our environment. Not only this, but when we make our own soap we get to play around with different textures, natural colours and fragrances and let our imagination and inspiration go wild all the while being in charge of the quality and safety of the ingredients.
SOAP MAKING TERMINOLOGY
SAPONIFICATION="to turn into soap"
The reaction that starts when the lye solution comes in contact with the oils and continues during the curing period (in case of cold process soaps*) or during the cooking period (in case of hot process soaps*) is called saponification.
The saponification process ends when there is no more free lye left to react with the fats in the soap.
*See differences between cold and hot process soaps below.
CAUSTIC SODA=lye=Sodium Hydroxide (for soap bars)/Potassium Hydroxide (for liquid soap)
Caustic soda crystals are a highly reactive substance that is very high on the PH scale. We generally know and use caustic soda for its drain unclogging properties; this is possible due to the fact that caustic soda is highly corrosive to all tissues and will literally eat away the biological deposits that stick to our drain pipes and it will do the same to your skin, a bead of lye can burn through layers of skin and, if splashed in the eyes it may even blind the vision.
The fact that soap making is not possible without caustic soda in combination with the possible dangers of working carelessly with it should prompt all of us to hold it and use it with great respect and caution.
Caustic soda should always be stored separately from any other frequented storage areas in tight, safe packaging and clearly labeled as such.
NOTE Sodium Hydroxide(NaOH) and Potassium Hydroxide (KOH) are not interchangeable in soap making recipes.
BUYING your caustic soda locally should be quite easy as caustic soda is sold at almost all hardware shops for drain unclogging purposes. When you purchase lye, make sure that you're buying the lye that you actually need (i.e. NaOH or KOH). You also should make sure that the caustic soda crystals or flakes are not clumped together and are not contaminated with any foreign particles.
When we formulate our own soap recipes we will generally want to have a bit extra fats/oils than the caustic soda can actually react with. We may do this by adding extra fats (i.e. superfatting) or by slightly reducing the lye content (i.e. lye discount).
Although technically speaking the 2 terms are not exactly the same they are often used interchangeably. In either way the result will be an extra amount of oils that will be left unsaponified in the soap bar.
Superfatting is necessary and useful for multiple reasons. It offers the soapmaker a safety net for small margin errors in lye calculation and it also enhances the so called "mild/moisturising" properties of soap bars by making them less stripping and is generally better suited for bars that are meant for washing hair.There are also drawbacks to keep in mind though, oils go rancid and the higher the superfat content the higher the risk of untimely spoilage of your soap. Higher superfat content will also generally result in softer soap bars.
The standard superfat quantity in the soap recipe calculator I use is 5% (which means there will be 5% more oils in the recipe that the caustic soda will not saponify) but you may play around with different values and see what you like most;the result will depend on the oil/fat combination you use as well.
TRACE=traces left on the surface of the soap mixture when drizzled from a spatula or other utensil.If by drizzling there is no visible mark then your soap hasn't traced yet. In cold process soap, at the stage of trace we usually add our additional ingredients (i.e. scents, colouring, exfoliants etc.) and then pour it in molds.
Trace itself can be distinguished into 2 separate sub-stages: light trace (when the soap is more runny, somewhat like a thin pancake batter) and heavy trace (when the soap has significantly thickened ,somewhat like heavy cream).
Some additives and techniques require different trace stages for their implementation. For example, in order to create pretty swirls in your soap, you will work at light trace to ensure easy flow of pigments in the soap mixture. You will learn more about these things as you progress in your repeated practice of making soap.
At trace the soap has reached partial saponification. It is of utmost importance to blend your soap thoroughly until it reaches trace before pouring it in molds in order to prevent the separation of the oils from the lye and/or the presence of caustic lye crystals in the soap bar.
During curing the saponification process is completed, all the lye is neutralised by the oils. Curing can be achieved by time or by heat.
In the case of cold process soaps, curing will take place after removing the soap from the molds, when we leave the soap for a minimum of 4 weeks in a well ventilated area, turning it regularly to expose all sides to air. During curing the aspect, smell,texture and weight of the soap may change. As water gradually evaporates the soap bars will likely harden with time as well as loose some of their weight. Soaps may develop a soda ash coating on the outside, they may become more opaque, less fragrant, more pleasant smelling and less soapy smelling etc. When soap is cured it's safe to use.To test soap's safety we test its pH with pH strips or other pH testing devices. A safe range for soaps is 6-10. Anything beyond pH 10 is too caustic to use on skin.
In the case of hot process soaps, the curing process is completed during the cooking of the soap. The heat speeds up the movement of the particles and enhances the contact between them. Technically speaking, from a safety point of view, hot process soap is safe to use immediately after un-molding but it may still be quite malleable due to the water content so it is wise to give hot process soaps a few days on a well ventilated shelf as well before putting them to use in order to allow some of the water content to evaporate.
TYPES OF HANDMADE SOAP...
Depending on the soap making process and the end product we can identify 3 types of soap:
#1 COLD PROCESS SOAP
The word "cold" does not necessarily refer to the temperature of the soap making process but rather it points to the fact that this soap is prepared without any cooking by heat.
Cold process soap is made with Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH).
This is one of the most widely used techniques of making soap bars among beginner and advanced soap makers.
Simply put, you would simply combine the caustic solution with the fatty blend, mix it well and pour it in molds to set.
PROS of Cold Process Soap Making
-the soap making process is short
-makes it easy to produce intricate designs (give that you have the right oil and fat blend, it's easier to keep the soap mixture in a liquid state to create vibrant colour blends and swirls before the soap sets)
-easy to find ingredients
-more intense fragrance ( essential oils are highly volatile and sensitive to high temperature exposure; cold process soaps don't generally rise in temperature so much as to overly evaporate the added essential oil)
CONS of Cold Process Soap Making
-curing time is long (4-8 weeks)
HOT PROCESS SOAP
As you might have guessed, the word "hot" refers to the fact that once the lye and fats have been mixed , the soap will be cured by cooking it.
Hot process soap making also requires the use of NaOH.
PROS of Hot Process Soap Making:
-soap is ready to use (cured) immediately after it sets(usually within 24-48 hours)
CONS of Hot Process Soap Making:
-hard to create intricate designs (by the time the soap is cooked the soap has a semi-gelled texture and makes it difficult to create swirls or other pretty design patterns)
-fragrance is less intense ( because the soap is cooked, it reaches high temperatures by the time we need to add essential oils to it and a part of these essential oils will easily evaporate)
-requires special(not commonly used) equipment, the crock-pot
LIQUID SOAP (a variation of Hot Process Soap)
Making liquid soap also requires that you cook the soap mixture but the caustic soda used is Potassium Hydroxide (KOH) because this results in a more soluble soap which will easily dissolve in water.
Most of the equipment needed for making soap at home you'll probably already have at home. If you plan on making soap regularly i would suggest you invest in a different set of equipment and utensils solely for the purposes of soap making.
DIGITAL SCALE- one that preferably measures in g
THERMOMETER(that measures between 0-100 C)
STEEL and/or PYREX POTS AND BOWLS
SILICONE and/or STAINLESS STEEL UTENSILS
SOAP MOLDS-including butter paper for lining, tape
PH TESTING KIT
-any utensils/equipment made of Aluminium, tin, iron(including cast iron),weak plastic or acrylic, teflon as they react with and are corroded by lye.Do not use glass unless it's heat resistant Pyrex.
Wooden utensil will also get worn out very soon when used in soap making and once used for this purpose they should NEVER be used for any other purpose again.
FORMULATING A SOAP RECIPE
There are several online platforms that enable safe and accurate soap recipe formulation. I personally prefer and recommend soapcalc.net
STEPS OF COLD PROCESS SOAP MAKING
a blend of fats(oils, butters, tallow, beeswax)
a water based liquid (distilled water, herbal tea, fruit/vegetable juice, milk, aloe vera gel etc.)
essential oils for fragrance and therapeutic benefits
natural colouring ingredients (cocoa powder, paprika, turmeric, charcoal etc.)
moisturising ingredients (milk, cream, honey,oils etc.)
other skin benefiting ingredients (exfoliating powders, absorbant clays etc.)
Choose a time and place for making soap that is safe for other members living in your house. Ensure that pets and children are kept at a safe distance from your working space and make sure the time you reserve for making your soap is free from any distractions and allow yourself enough time for the entire process.
It's recommended that you set up close to an easily accessible water source (tap) which is essential to tackling any accidental spills or splashes.
Read your recipe (repeatedly) and prepare yourself mentally for the project ahead.
Keep the recipe sheet where it's easily visible for a glance;also keep a pen handy to Take notes as you go through the steps.
Prepare your molds and, if needed, line them with butter paper.
Set up your workplace. Clean your work surface and take out all the required tools, equipment and utensils. Measure out all of your extra ingredients (essential oils, clays, natural colours etc.) and put away anything that is no longer needed.
Weigh your caustic soda and water (or water based liquid) in separate containers on the digital scale.Put your caustic soda container away immediately.
REMEMBER that all ingredients (including liquids) will be measured by weight, not by volume.
NOTE In case of using milk, juice or other water based liquid that contains organic particles you'll need to freeze and blend it to a slush before you can use it in soap making. This is done in order to control the high temperatures the caustic solution quickly reaches and avoid burning the organic matter in your liquids.
In a well ventilated area add the caustic soda crystals to your liquid and stir with a silicone spatula or steel spoon continuously until all the crystals have dissolved in the liquid.Be prepared for the sudden increase in temperature(the solution can reach close to boiling point within couple minutes) and the fumes. Set the solution aside to cool.If you plan on leaving your work station make sure to clearly label your caustic solution and preferably place it out of reach of children and pets.The time it will take to cool depends on the quantity of your solution and the diameter of the dish it's held in, as well as the material the dish is made of (i.e. steel containers are good conductors and will allow the solution to cool quicker)
In the meantime, in a steel pot or saucepan, accurately measure your fats on the digital scale by using the tare feature to bring the display to "0" after the measurement of each individual fat/oil.
Some oils and butters are hard at room temperature so they need to be melted but even liquid oils have different densities from one another and when combined you can see the swirls of one oil separating from the other. In order to homogenise the density of the blend we need to heat up the fat blend gently.Do not overheat your fats, just heat them enough that the difference in density is no longer visible and the fat blend looks homogenous. Leave the fat blend to cool.
NOTE When choosing the right sized pot for your fats, keep in mind that it should not only fit the fat quantity but also the addition of the lye solution.
You will want the lye solution and fat blend to cool to a similar temperature. Every soap maker has its own preferred temperature for cold process soap making, depending on their experience and usual fat combination used, but my personal suggestion would be somewhere between 30 to 40 C.
NOTE In case your caustic solution cools down completely by the time your fat blend reaches the desired temperature you can warm it up by placing the container in a bowl of hot water. Never try to heat the caustic solution over direct flame or any other direct heat source.
NOTE In case of using beeswax in your fat blend you will have to keep the fat blend temperature at a higher threshold to avoid the beeswax setting.
Step 3-Making the Soap
Pour the lye solution in the pot with the fat blend. You will instantly notice the oils at the bottom of the pot go cloudy. Gently stir with a rubber spatula for about a minute and then immerse the the handheld blender head in the liquid. Start pulsing for short time spams and move the blender head to stir the soap between pulses. As the soap mixture starts to homogenise and thicken gradually increase the length of time that you run the blender. Keep blending until you reach trace.
At the stage, when soap is at trace you can add your essential oils and all other additional ingredients (clays, colouring, moisturising ingredients etc.) , stir thoroughly and pour into the prepared mold.
Cover the soap mold with a cardboard sheet or plywood and wrap in a blanket to keep the heat of the soap for as long as possible.
This step is not absolutely necessary but it will aid the curing process and give the finished soap bar a more gel like texture as opposed to a matte texture when omitting this step.
Step 4-Clean Up
As soon as you pour the soap into your molds proceed to thoroughly clean up your pots and utensils, the work surface and put away all of the ingredients you used.
Wash everything several times to avoid any caustic residues on them.
Step 5-Cutting and Curing
Leave the soap to set and cool for 18 to 36 hours before removing from mold and, if needed, cutting it. Place your soap bars on a shelf lined with brown/butter or tissue paper in a well ventilated room. Allow the bars to cure for at least 4 weeks; keep turning them regularly to expose all sides to air. When ready, store soap bars wrapped in paper in cardboard boxes.
Make sure you date your recipe and take notes for everything you observed during the soap making process.
NOTE In case your soap is still soft and difficult to remove from molds even after several days place the soap mold in the fridge until it firms up enough to be easily removed from the mold.
Great work.Now that you have your basics down, proceed to checking out some of the recipe tutorials below for more specific instructions and techniques.I would recommend going through and trying tout the recipes in the specific order given below.