making dangerous soap!

My babies! (soap I made)

My babies!

Hand-made soap is hard to beat in creaminess and conditioning for the skin. That is why trying this soap if you never have before is extremely dangerous, because once you do you will never want to go back to your regular store-bought soaps again! 🙂

I’ve been interested in making soap ever since my stay at Finca Bona Fide on Ometepe lake. At Bona Fide we boiled beans twice every day over a wood fire, which gave us lots of ashes that we sifted and put in a little bowl next to the hand wash basin for us “hippies” to wash our hands with. We would even use it on our clothes when things were dire. This led me to think of using those ashes to make soap, the way it used to be done my mixing it with the leftover animal fats from slaughter (yes, people were barbaric during those times), and I started researching the subject. I’m now in San Marcos de Atitlán, in Guatemala, and almost a year has gone by, but I’ve finally started to make soap!

Soap is basically fat or oil that is made to react with a strong base or alkali (the lye), which gives us soap with all its cleaning properties and its natural glycerine. There are tons of websites already out there on making soap with information about the chemistry of the process and some wonderful artistic techniques, so I’m not going to repeat what’s already been said elsewhere (check out the Soap Queen blog, for example, for great techniques and a nice beginner’s guide to soap making that explains all the different technical jargon, what the terms mean and why they matter!). I’ll just give you some pointers to web pages that describe interesting parts and recommend a couple of books and useful tools, and mostly just let you know that despite all the warnings out there making soap is EASY, and if you haven’t tried making your own yet, you should start RIGHT NOW! 🙂

So, having already gone through the process of reading up on soap making and being utterly lost and confused when it came to formulating my first bar of soap (instead of just blindly following a recipe) I’ll tell you what I think are the basic steps to start thinking about when you come to formulating your first bar for yourself:

  1. Choose your oils. The oils you use will define the properties of your soap, more than any scent or extra additives you choose, so read up on the different properties of the oils and see which ones you want to use in your soap and then come back down to Earth and see which ones you can actually buy (without having to give up a month’s wages). To help you in this process, check out what David Fisher has to say in this post, which makes it easy to start thinking of different oils in terms of their properties by classifying them into only 4 easy-to-understand categories (and if you’d like more detailed information on the soap-making qualities of different oils check this detailed oil chart):

    Though you can make soap using only one oil, the best soap recipes have a balance of oils.
    Each oil will contribute a different quality to the final bar of soap. The qualities can be categorized in four ways:

    1. Hard, stable, long lasting – (palm oil, beef tallow, lard)
    2. Lathering – (coconut, castor, palm kernel)
    3. Moisturizing/Conditioning – (olive oil, canola, sunflower, soybean)
    4. Luxury/Super Moisturizing – (cocoa butter, shea butter, almond oil, hemp oil, jojoba)

    (Many oils will have multiple characteristics – e.g. shea butter is super moisturising and makes a very hard bar of soap as well. Coconut is primarily used because it makes great lather, but makes a super hard bar too. Tallow is primarily used as a base oil (hard), but it makes really creamy, moisturizing lather. Etc.)
    A basic balanced recipe should have some of at least the first three oil categories – hard, lathering, and moisturising.

  2. Once you’ve chosen the oils you want to have in your soap, now you have to try to figure out the percentage of each you want to have in your soap. The qualities of the different oils should help you determine this. You might want to read up on what the Soap Queen has to say on this here. Some good alternatives would be 66% Olive Oil and 34% Coconut Oil, which give the lovely moisturising properties of Olive Oil and the bubbly lather and hardening of the Coconut Oil.
  3. Now that you have chosen the oils you want to use in your soap and the percentage of each, you have to know how much lye you need to react with your oils to make your soap, and for that there are some very handy tools on the internet that come to our rescue. An easy one to start with is the Bramble Berry lye calculator, but for more control over what you are doing to your soap you should check out the Soap Calc lye calculator, a bit daunting at first but a really powerful tool that lets you tweak the different proportions of ingredients in your soap and has all the information you need on the different oils and their soap-making qualities. Lye can burn the skin, so you always want more oil in your soap than the lye can neutralise just to be on the safe side, and also because it makes the soap more moisturising! This is what in the soap making jargon is called superfatting or lye discounting, which is nicely explained in this post. Oils may change slightly from batch to batch and the lye calculators are based on average values, so a standard value to go by is 5% superfat.
  4. Choose a scent for your soap if you’d like to perfume it, maybe something for colour, and think of any other additives you’d like to incorporate in it, such as oats for a bit of a scrub, flowers as decoration over the top, aloe gel for its moisturising qualities… Figure out how to use your colouring (check here for a start), if you want to dissolve it in your lye solution or in the oils, and if you want to colour your whole batch or just half and then do some fun swirls… the sky is the limit!

So, you’ve figured out that you want to make a nice moisturising soap, for which you want to use olive oil with some added coconut oil for lathering and hardness, and thinking that it would come out slightly greenish you’ve decided that the lemon verbena scent that you adore would nicely match a soft green colour, and then you’ve gone all artistic thinking of a contrasting colour to swirl into the mix and you’ve settled on a light yellow swirl to match the citrus part of the oil. You’re going to use annatto seed to get that yellow colour since you’re fortunate enough to be in Central America and the seeds are all around you. Now you just need to gather your equipment and get soaping! 🙂

Here are some pictures of my own first attempt at soap making, for which I tried a recipe with 2/3 Olive Oil and 1/3 Coconut Oil, coloured with achiote (annatto seed) and with oats as an exfoliant. I have since made some batches with 100% coconut oil (see recipe here, there is also a good discussion on superfatting and on how the different properties of some oils allow you to break some of the soap making “rules”), but this one remains my favourite!

And for those of you still aching for more information on soap making, here’s a list of some great books on the subject:

  • The Natural Soap Book: Making Herbal and Vegetable-Based Soaps, by Susan Miller Cavitch – A great introduction to making soaps with natural ingredients.
  • Soap Crafting, by Anne-Marie Faiola – This book by the author of the SoapQueen blog is your best resource for getting creative with your soap making. It discusses all kinds of swirls, embeds and other colouring techniques that you should definitely check out if you want to take your soap that extra step further.
  • The Soapmaker’s Companion, also by Susan Miller Cavitch – Check out this book if you’re interested in making transparent soap! Advanced techniques and lots of in-depth information on everything including the actual chemistry involved in the soap making process.

So, I hope this helps you along on your exploration into soap making. For actual details on the process check any old page on Cold Process soap making (any of the blogs I’ve linked to in this post will do), and happy soaping! 🙂

Stirring the soap mixture for it to emulsify

Here I am mixing the lye solution with the oils and stirring until trace, which took over an hour. You can see the soap moulds in the background and the essential oils and oats ready to go into the soap at trace.

Unmoulding the soap

This is the soap after 1 day. I had used normal paper to line the moulds and had to break the first one to unmould the soap. I managed to save the other mould by waiting another day or two for the soap to harden a bit more before I could knock it out. I have since bought waxed paper to make the process easier.

My first soap. Olive and coconut oil with oats and a patchouli scent

My beautiful babies, with gift wrapping! 😉

Rosemary and mint-scented, all-coconut oil soap

These are from the second batch of soap I made, a 100% Coconut Oil soap scented with rosemary and mint.

old and new soaps together

Here they are all living happily together, curing in my bedroom.


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  1. baking for a living | from soil to soul

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