As ugly as homemade soap.
We’ve all heard the phrase, but today’s home-made beauty products are anything but homely. In fact, making your own personal care products allows you to have better control over the ingredients that come in contact with your your skin every day… and allows you to be more self-sufficient when a disaster shuts down your local stores.
Before you begin
Cold-process soap allows you to use lye to convert oils and other fatty acids into the salt that we know as soap. Lye is a caustic base, meaning that it has a very high pH, and it can lead to chemical burns if not handled correctly. Wearing protective gear like gloves and an apron, and working in a well-ventilated area when mixing the ingredients can help you sidestep most of the dangers of working with lye. You also want to be sure that all of the equipment you use for soap making are not used for food or liquids that will be ingested. Soap making is a precise process, so all of your ingredients need to be accurately measured.
Most recipes are based on weight, not volume, so invest in a nice digital kitchen scale. The amount of lye required in each recipe varies depending on both the oils you’re using and the size of the batch. There are a number of lye calculators available on the Internet, but Juliebeth Mezzy, owner of Julie’s Stuff Natural Beauty Products, recommends Majestic Mountain Sage’s Lye Calculator (https://www.thesage.com/calcs/LyeCalc.html), which enables users to select the type and amount of oils they are using to determine how much lye is required for the saponification process.
Once you have calculated and measured all of the ingredients, the first step is to add the lye to the water—carefully. You want to use a heat-resistant tool to stir the mixture and ensure that the lye crystals have been properly dissolved. This process generates a great deal of heat, despite starting with room-temperature ingredients, and can reach upward of 300 degrees. “It’s very important to let the lye/water mixture cool to about 100 degrees before you combine it with your oils, so use a thermometer to monitor the temperature,” advises Mezzy. “And be patient.” While the lye mixture is cooling, it’s a good time to increase the temperature of the oils you plan to use, whether vegetable- or animal-based, to get them into liquid form.
Many oils such as coconut oil and shea butter are solid at room temperature, so use a double-boiler to heat them gently until just melted, much like working with chocolate. Before mixing the cooled lye and the oils, take the temperature of both solutions. They should both be around 100 degrees. If either has cooled below that, you can increase the temperature by placing the bottom of the pot into a sink of hot water. Likewise, if either remains too warm, you can lower the pot’s base into a sink of cold water.
Time to make soap
Once your lye and oils are prepared, it’s time to make soap. Slowly pour the lye/water mixture into the oils while stirring. If you’re stirring by hand, use a figure-eight pattern to ensure that all of the ingredients have been mixed well. Or, you can do what Mezzy does—use a stick blender to make the process easier and faster. Mezzy advises stirring until the mixture is the consistency of pudding, which is an indication that saponification is starting to take place. This could take as little as 10 minutes or as long as an hour. But be careful; going too far past what is called the “trace” stage (the step when the ingredients are perfectly mixed) will cause your soap to harden in the pot and not be pourable.
Check for trace every five to 10 minutes if you’re stirring by hand, or more often if you’re using a stick blender. Once you’ve achieved trace, add essential oils for fragrance, as well as any colorants. Mezzy admits to using trial and error to customize her soap, which hasn’t always created a winning product. “I came into the process with no prior knowledge of what would and wouldn’t work, so there were a few early batches where the fragrance just didn’t work,” she says. “I rely on my preferences and intuition to develop basic fragrance mixtures. It also helps to be mindful of where you’ll be using the soap, too. Peppermint oil, for example, isn’t a good match for sensitive areas of skin.”
After adding the oils and ensuring the mixture is a uniform consistency, you need to pour it quickly into prepared molds. Early on, Mezzy says she used soup cans, silicon molds and a number of other vessels for her soap. Today, she uses a custom-made wooden mold that delivers more consistent shapes and sizes, and she hand-cuts the soap into similar sizes based on weight. The soap needs to sit in the mold for approximately 24 hours before being removed and cut into the finished sizes. Then comes the hard part – waiting for the soap to cure. The key to creating a hard, long-lasting bar of homemade soap is allowing the water to evaporate, which can take between four and six weeks.
As you become more comfortable with basic soap recipes, branch out a little and try new oils and fats, as wellas fragrance combinations. Be sure to write everything down during these experiments, though, so you’ll know how to repeat the process—or what to avoid. Above all, says Mezzy, “Covet the soap that you make. Keep it in a nice dish and show it off. A lot of love and labor went into that little bar.”
How it works
“Saponification” translates to “soap making.” In basic terms, it’s the process that produces soap. Chemically, it involves combining a “base,” or lye (either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide), and a fatty acid such as oil (or animal fat) to create a salt, or what we know as soap.
Each fatty acid has unique characteristics that influence the outcome of the reaction, so it’s highly important to accurately measure each ingredient and make allowances for the specific type of fat you’re using. During the reaction, the acid releases a single glycerol molecule (which turns into skin nourishing glycerin), enabling the fatty acids and base to bond and form soap.