I’ve been making my own soap since around 2006. In 2011 I started to sell soap at farmer’s markets. I belong or have belonged to several soap making forums that field a lot of questions from people who are new to soap making. After the gateway skills of learning to bake bread, make your own yogurt, and make your own granola, homemade soap is often the next step in your homesteading evolution. Know what goes into your soap and onto your body? Check. Avoid ingredients that you don’t understand and can’t pronounce? Check. Make a product you can feel good about your family using? Check. Make products to help with skin issues? Check. Make inexpensive gifts for friends and family? Check. Use up all of that lard/tallow from your wild harvested deer or elk or bear, or your own butchered goat or cow or pig? Check.
I wrote this Soap Making 201 post on cold process soap making a while ago. And it was a “here’s the stuff the beginning sites don’t tell you” type of brain dump. There are LOTS of good beginning resources out there, so I thought it wasn’t necessary to write my own. But I’m now realizing that the number of information sources out there are overwhelming for someone new to this craft. Knowing what you can trust can be difficult, and if you mess up, the consequences could be burned skin, so it’s not to be taken lightly.
So, without actually writing a How To Make Cold Process Soap post, I’m going to give you the advice here that I give to newbies on these forums over and over again, along with resources to get people started. (I’ll put a list of beginning resources at the bottom of this post). Some of the information below is redundant to my Soap Making 201 post. Most of it is not. I’m assuming you know and understand the basic safety precautions of working with lye. Stuff like not using any aluminum utensils and always wearing skin and eye protection. If not, please watch this video before you consider moving forward with the process. You also need an accurate scale (non negotiable – any site listing oil or lye ingredients by volume rather than weight should be summarily ignored), and unless you are a glutton for punishment, a stick blender before you get started. The rest of the tools you probably already have around the house.
Number 1: Can you give me a good beginner recipe? OK, I’m going to say this a gently as I can. Stop looking for the boxed cake mix recipe for your soap making. First, it’s a formula, not a recipe. Ladies and gentleman, this is chemistry. When you are learning to cook, its OK to start with a boxed cake mix and canned frosting, and once you successfully have that down, you branch out to making a cake from scratch. Yes, you can go down that road with soap making too, but you won’t really understand what each ingredient does, and what it brings to your bar, or know for sure if your formula has the right amount of lye in it and is therefore safe. I want new soap makers to be empowered to create their own formulas, in any size they like. Which means you’re going to have to do some homework first. I want you to learn how to make soap from scratch from the beginning. Yes, it is more scary that way, and yes, it takes longer. But what you gain from this knowledge will serve you well for years to come, and empower you in ways that a boxed mix never will. Never ever ever EVER make a recipe you found anywhere, including published books, without double checking the lye amount by running it through a lye calculator first. Ever. That said, there are a couple of beginning formulas to get you started in the links below.
As an aside, because I highly encourage you to join in conversations on online soap making sites, if you want help with a formula, always say “could you help me design a soap that will do THIS” or “could you take a look at this formula and tell me what you think”. It’s poor etiquette to ask a soap maker for his/her formula, especially if they sell soap. Some soap makers take many years and many batches to arrive at their “go to” formula and it is presumptuous to ask for a short cut. If they offer it, that’s something else all together.
Number 2: What exactly is happening when we make soap? Want to understand the chemical reaction of fatty acids (oils) + sodium hydroxide (lye) = soap salts (soap) + glycerine (a lovely skin moisturizer), and understand it in a fun and memorable way? Check out this cartoon description. This cartoon has been around since at least 2008, which is when I first saw it. I thought it was lost forever, as the original website was taken down. But thankfully a recent search turned it up again. Remember, you want to end up with no wolves, but not too many fluffy bunnies.
Number 3: What oils should I use? Oils (by which I mean fats, butters, liquid oils, solid oils etc.) are made up of different mixes of fatty acids. Each different fatty acid will bring different qualities to your soap. Some will make your soap hard. Some will give it big fluffy bubbles. Some will be super cleaning. Some will be wonderfully conditioning on your skin. Some will give you a small dense lather. Making a good bar of soap is about obtaining a good balance of all of these things. There is no one perfect formula that will max out everything. There are always trade offs. And remember, ALL soap cleans, no matter how your “cleaning” number comes out on a soap calculator. See this chart for a quick overview of what different fatty acids bring to your bar.
When first starting out, strive for relatively inexpensive ingredients, and keep the number of oils to 3 or 4. Leave the expensive butters out until you have the basic process down. The “trinity” of oils for soap making are coconut, palm and olive. You can make a truly great bar of soap with only these three oils. See this post on single oil soap bars to see how different oils might behave in a real bar of soap.
Coconut oil is everywhere these days, including WalMart, as it has become the darling of the alternative nutrition crowd. Coconut oil brings cleaning and big bubbles to the party. Unless you have a deep pocket-book or serious ethical issues about processing, just buy the least expensive 100% coconut oil brand you can find. Start with a 16 oz (one pound) jar. The only real substitutes for coconut that will give you the same cleaning power and bubbles are palm kernel flakes (not available locally and more expensive) or babassu oil (very expensive). It’s the high amount of lauric and myristic acids found in these oils that gives them their special role in soap.
Palm oil brings some conditioning qualities as well as hardness to your bar. Palm oil is a little harder to find locally, but Spectrum brand (found in the natural food section of most grocery stores) makes a 100% palm shortening in a 24 oz size. This is probably more than you need, but you can always use it to make a pie crust if you don’t use it in soap. (Once you get going, coconut and palm oils are much less expensive if you buy them online – but let’s make sure you like this hobby first, right?). There are some environmental/ethical issues with using palm. See a pretty balanced discussion about the pros and cons here. I chose to use it. It’s OK if you choose not to.
As a less expensive alternative to palm, you can substitute WalMart’s Great Value All Vegetable Shortening (a blend of liquid and partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil) and get similar results – but then there are all the issues with GMO’s and endocrine disruption issues with the soy…. Lard or beef tallow may also be substituted for palm, if you have no objections to using animal fats. Lard will give you a slightly softer bar, tallow a slightly harder bar than palm. Some studies show that pig fat (lard) is the most similar in make up to the fat in our own skin. You can find cleaned ready to use lard in grocery stores, normally in the Latin food aisle. Tallow you will likely need to render yourself.
Olive oil is hands down one of the best conditioning oils for your skin, period. And any old olive oil will do. No need for extra virgin or organic (again, unless you have ethical issues with how conventional olive oil is processed). Look for an inexpensive bottle of 100% olive on sale at any big box store. Yes, you could use sunflower or soy or canola or some other less expensive liquid oil instead, but there are trade offs that I won’t get into here. Olive will make a consistently excellent conditioning bar of soap. It doesn’t go rancid quickly. And it’s literally been used in soap for centuries. There really is no substitute, in my opinion.
Number 4. Where do I find lye? 100% lye used to be in every hardware store, sold as drain cleaner. Then the Meth explosion happened and people started making meth in their homes. To make meth, you need lye. So it is now much more tightly regulated, and harder to find locally. Lowes sells a 2 lb container of 100% lye. The brand is Roebic and it will cost you around $16.00. I’ve heard that you can also find a the 1 lb Rooto brand at Ace Hardware, though I’ve never found it locally myself. I now buy my lye from Essential Depot in Florida (even though their website design makes my head hurt and it has to ship diagonally across the country to me). They have the best prices online, which gets confirmed over and over on the soap making forums. I personally prefer beads to flakes, because they dissolve much easier, but some people find they have static issues with them.
Number 5: What can I use for a mold? You can use just about anything that will hold water for a mold. An old shoebox with the edges taped. A 2 quart milk carton with the top cut off. A small wooden box. A plastic food storage container. A silicone bread pan. A pringles can. You’ll want to line your molds so the soap doesn’t stick to the sides. The most frequently mentioned mold liner is freezer paper, shiny side towards the soap. Some people use plastic wrap. Some people coat the inside of plastic or silicone molds with mineral oil (which is a petroleum product and will not react at all with the soap, but will leave a residue on your soap until it gets washed off). Once you start looking, you’ll realize how many things you throw out every day that could instead be used as a one time or permanent soap mold.
Number 6: How much will my mold hold? Well, to some extent, it’s going to depend on your formula, but here’s a way to approximate it. Figure out your mold’s volume in inches (oh look, high school math, turning out to actually have a use!). Generally, this is length x width x height (or height x pi x radius squared – abbreviated hπr²). Then multiply this number by .39 to give you total oz your mold will hold. So, if I had a shoebox that was 11″ x 5.5″ x 4.5″, than my volume would be 272.25″. Multiply this number by .39 and I get about 106 oz. This box would hold 106 oz of soap batter. That’s a LOT of soap batter (almost 5 lbs of oils). Keep in mind, you don’t have to fill the mold all the way up.
How much soap batter will your formula make? You’ll have to plug your formula into a lye calculator to get your lye and water weights. Once you do that, you’re going to add up the total weight of the oils, the total lye, and the total water in ounces to give you your total weight of soap batter. Weight is approximately the same as volume in this case. A 16 oz of oils (one pound) formula will give you around 24 oz total batter.
Number 7: How much soap should I make the first time? My strong suggestion is to keep it small, but not too small. One to two pounds of total oil is plenty. You want enough that you aren’t going to get big measuring errors trying to measure 1/4 oz of something, but small enough that if it turns into a disaster, you won’t have wasted pounds and pounds of ingredients.
By the way, it is hugely helpful to learn to formulate in percentages rather than measurements. That way, it’s really easy to ramp a formula up or down to fit your mold. You can plug a formula into SoapCalc using weight (make sure the weight column is activated) and choose oz, grams or lbs for your “weight of oils” measurement. Hit calculate. This will now show you the formula in both weight and percent. Then click over to make the percent column active. Change your total “weight of oils” to a new amount (up top – not in the % column), and hit calculate again. You are now working in percents. To ramp up or down, just change the “weight of oils” amount up or down and recalculate. You’ll need to hit the “view or print” button, which will bring up a new page, to get the water and lye amounts. Easy.
Number 8. I want to make a batch of oatmeal, milk and honey soap scented with orange and lavender and colored with annatto seed oil for my first batch. Can you give me a good starting place? No, I can’t. I’m sorry but in my opinion, your first batch should be plain Jane. No colors. No fragrance or essential oil. No added honey or oatmeal or milks of any kind (which easily overheat). No colors. No fancy piping or swirls. You want to understand how a basic formula looks as it goes through trace, and then sets up in the mold. Then how it cuts and cures. Many fragrances and essential oils can cause the soap reaction to accelerate, and for your first time out, you don’t need that additional pressure.
I know, I know. You want to make a natural product for your family, but lets face it, you are really in it for the smell! I don’t know how many times a day I see people post about how yummy their soap smells. I get it. Walk down any cleaning aisle and observe the number of air fresheners and candles or watch a Gain laundry soap commercial and you will realize how addicted Americans are to covering up every possible smell with a new and different smell. But just this once, put the lavender essential oil down, and leave the scent out of your first batch. Your soap WILL still have a faint smell. It will smell like soap. And you need to know what real soap smells like before you cover it up with fragrance. (Part of the reason I don’t recommend canola oil in soap is that it leaves a very distinct scent that some people find objectionable.)
Number 9. OK, I’ve done my first batch. Now I’m ready for scent. How much fragrance should I use? When you do graduate to using essential oils (EO’s) or fragrance oils (FO’s) in your soaps, realize that it is going to take a lot. Those tiny half ounce bottles of Aura Cacia essential oils from the health food store that cost from $5 to $10 dollars each? You’re likely going to need two of them to fragrance a one pound batch of soap. That’s right. The general rule of thumb is .7 to 1 ounce of fragrance compound per pound of oils (ppo) in your formula. There are exceptions. Some EO’s are not safe to use in high amounts. Some (like patchouli) would be overwhelming at this rate. But fragrance is definitely the most expensive part of soap making. Any fragrance you use should be skin safe and give usage rates in cold process soap. Don’t assume that the random bottle of scent at the craft store is good for use in soap (a very high alkali mixture). Unless it says “OK for cold process soap”, it probably isn’t. My favorite online places to buy EO’s and FO’s are Brambleberry and Wholesale Supplies Plus. There are many more out there.
Number 10: Should I measure my soap’s pH? I have never tested the pH of my bar soaps. Never. Not in almost 10 years of soap making. I know that they would come in somewhere between 8 and 10. I know they are carefully measured and mixed and formulated, and are therefore safe and healthy on the skin. If I ever have any doubt, I do the zap test. This is where you touch your tongue to your soap. If it tingles like chewing on tinfoil with metal fillings, then your soap is lye heavy. If not, its OK. If you understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, and have faith in your scale and ability to remember all of your ingredients, than there is no need to test your pH. And after reading this, I think most of the measurements people are getting are incorrect anyway.
And for the love of all that is soap making, please stop using recipes that add citric acid or vinegar or lemon juice or other acidic ingredients to your soap. These acids may or may not have a role to play, but even I, with hundreds of batches of soap under my belt and 3 semesters of chemistry in college, don’t know how to calculate how much of my lye an acidic ingredient will neutralize and how much byproduct I will end up with from that reaction. (The sad part? When I was taking chemistry 15 years ago, I could have figured this out!) Learn to play with superfat levels instead (which is mostly what the addition of these acids is doing anyway). And remember, if you add too much acid, you can drive the chemical soap reaction backwards, and end up with unusable goop. Any recipe that contains an acid is decidedly NOT a beginner recipe. I personally think they are pointless, and will continue to think that until someone can explain to me, using scientific language, what they bring to a soap that is any different from superfatting. Careful testing has shown that it does NOT prevent rancidity in soap.
Number 11. How much superfat (aka lye discount) should I do and how much water should I use? My suggestion is start with 5% superfat. Don’t ever go below that unless you are making laundry soap. You can go higher. Sometimes when you go higher, some of those extra oils will go rancid, and you’ll end up with Dreaded Orange Spots (DOS). These are not harmful, but they smell bad and are not attractive. I generally soap at between 5 and 8% superfat. Calculate and put ALL of your oils in from the beginning. Scientific studies have shown that adding oils at trace is pointless. At trace, the lye/oil reaction is just beginning. Lye will saponify what it wants to saponify, and withholding certain oils for a few minutes will not change that.
When first starting out, stick to the full amount of water suggested by the calculator you are using. Your first few batches is no time to experiment with water discounting. Once you have a few batches under your belt, it can become a powerful tool.
Number 12. I’d like to start a business selling soap. Any advice? So you’ve successfully made a few batches of soap, and now you want to start selling your soap. Please please wait a year. This is a super fun and creative hobby, and I’m still learning things after 7 or 8 years. I cringe when I see people who have made one or two successful batches of soap and tried one or two formulas, and off they go starting a business. Soaps age differently. Some get DOS. Some of the scents fade or morph. Some turn brown. Some shrink a lot. If you haven’t had a bar of your soap around for 6 months to a year, how do you know how its going to behave for a customer in that time? You’ll likely need a business license. You absolutely should have liability insurance. You need to understand cosmetic labeling laws (straight soap is not a cosmetic, but as soon as you claim it does anything but clean, it becomes one). And, full disclosure, it’s hard to make a living selling something that is a low-cost item. You have to sell a LOT of bars of soap when your profit per bar is only a couple of bucks.
Right now, the soap making business is largely unregulated. And a lot of us would like to keep it that way. But if people who have not really mastered their craft start selling, and someone gets hurt, or even has a bad experience, it gives the whole industry a black eye. And with that bad press comes more regulation. Remember, your soap business isn’t just representing you, its representing every home crafting soap maker out there. Consider that before you start to sell. For more information on handcrafted soapmaking as an industry, consult the Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetics Guild.
Links to beginning resources.
- Soap Queen TV. Look for the six part series on beginning soap making.
- Soaping 101. An amazing resource for all types of soap creativity. You could spend days just watching these videos. Start with the oldest ones for good beginning information. Note that most of her recipes are palm free, which means they will be a little softer than my personal preference. Soaping 101 Study Hall on Facebook is also a great place to ask questions. You have to ask to join, but they will let you join the fun. I’m a member, and a lot of this blog was inspired by questions asked again and again there.
- Candle and Soapmaking on About.com. I’m generally not a big fan of About.com because of all the advertizing, but David Fisher, who writes the soap making section, knows his stuff. Great info on the basics, and doing things like soaping with milks instead of water or formulating shampoo bars. Also a good place for beginner recipes.
- Lye calculators. I encourage you to learn to use SoapCalc. I know, it seems really intimidating at first. It was to me too. But once you learn to use it, it’s really powerful. For easier to understand beginning calculators, try the one by Brambleberry or The Sage. Or better yet, plug the same formula into all three and compare. You’ll learn a lot. While the lye amount will be similar between the sites, it will generally not be exact, because oils vary year to year and location to location and so their SAP value is always an estimate.
- And lastly, here’s a good piece by Soap Queen on formulating your own recipes and a great Soapmaking 101 video on making a dollar store soap.
Well, that’s it. That’s what I think I know. I keep learning all the time. Sometimes I say stuff that other people flat-out disagree with. Sometimes I learn that, gasp, something I thought I knew is wrong. It happens. That’s OK. Your mileage may vary. That’s what makes this craft so darned much fun. We all start with the same basic chemistry, yet the variations are seemingly endless. So, be safe, and GO MAKE SOAP!
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2013. Now, I’m going to go clean my house, cause I’m tired of talking about soap, said no soap maker, ever.