Rachel is a soap-making, wine-brewing homesteader and gardener in Minnesota.
In Defense of Making Real, Natural Soap at Home
Soap making is an old skill, once essential and now almost a moot point. But our great-grandmothers and grandmothers knew how to do it. For some of us, our mothers knew how to do it.
Making your own soap can be a really fun project, whether you’re interested in making a unique product, or you’re looking for an experience with a truly creative craft, or maybe you just want to use real soap rather than store-bought “cleansing bars.” One of the greatest benefits of homemade soap, as far as I'm concerned, is knowing that the soap you wash with is devoid of potential skin irritants like artificial fragrances and artificial colors.
Soap making at home does not have to be an expensive hobby, and I think you’ll find that you already own most, if not all, of the essential ingredients. It doesn’t have to be terribly difficult, either. There are only three ingredients to the soap-making process, and once you understand them, you’ll be on your way to making soap that’s unique and natural.
Before we begin, I should mention that there are actually two ways to make soap at home: cold process and hot process soap-making. In this article, we'll be discussing cold process soap-making.
- Lye (100% lye)
- A liquid to dissolve the lye in (water, milk, coffee, tea, beer, orange juice, etc.)
- Oils and/or fats
- (Optional) Herbs or honey for fragrance or decoration
- (Optional) Essential oils (derived from plants, for fragrance)
Soap-Making Ingredients Aren't Hard to Obtain!
You probably have a lot of what you already need to get started making soap today in your own kitchen. For instance, do you use olive oil, corn oil, vegetable shortening, peanut oil, soybean oil, or lard in any of your cooking? Do you own castor oil? Have any linseed (flax) oil laying around? Well, then you already have the oils that you need to make soap!
Now, for the lye, you may or may not have a 100% lye product in your home already. There are several products sold as drain openers that are 100% lye. But if it doesn’t say so on the label, do not attempt to use it for soap making. The good news is, even if you don’t have a lye drain de-clogger in the cupboard or under your bathroom sink, you can purchase one easily from the grocery store or hardware store. The other good news is that they are fairly cheap, about five dollars per pound.
How Soap Is Made (It's No Mystery!)
The soap-making process is a fairly simple chemical reaction in which lye (sodium hydroxide) reacts with water and then with fats and oils, “saponifying” the fats and oils. The end result, if the process is done properly, is soap that contains no lingering lye and almost no oil or fat.
The trick to making soap is using the correct amount of lye for the correct type and amount of oil or fat. It takes a certain amount of lye to turn a certain amount of any given oil or fat into soap. But in reality, you don’t actually want all of the oil or fat to saponify.
So we use something called superfatting, or a lye discount (same thing). Typical lye discounts are between 5 and 8%. I usually use 6%. This means that 6% of the lye that it would take to saponify all of the fat in one of my recipes is left out.
And how do I figure out this complicated math? Well, I can tell you that I’m not sitting up all hours of the night studying saponification tables and doing algebra. No. Here in the twenty-first century, makers of homemade soap are lucky to have something else that’s really useful: the internet.
Here’s a great website for calculating how much lye you need for your soap recipe—SoapCalc.
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There are instructions on SoapCalc that explain how to use the calculator. If you’re still kind of confused, you should input 38% for your “water as percent of oils” and leave the lye to water ratio alone; input somewhere between 5 and 7% for the “superfat”; input 0 for the ounces of fragrance oil, unless you’ve purchased some that you want to use.
It's also important to understand that while we may not want to eat a whole lot of corn oil, or especially partially hydrogenated oils, these are still good for soap making. The saponification process itself changes the oils so that they are no longer in their original form, so you don't need to feel like you will be rubbing shortening or lard into your skin. Lard, in fact, is one of the oldest soap-making ingredients we know of.