There’s a phrase in gardening that really rang true starting last year with the perennials in my permaculture garden: “First it sleeps, then the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps!” After watching the garden grow last year and seeing how much was produced, I went about drying herbs from the garden. I had a short list of projects to try- starting with making tea blends and using the natural soap book I was given so long ago, tinctures, salves, and maybe one day: candles.
I had always been afraid to make soap because of the danger of Lye, but the idea of creating my own blends with things I have grown myself was so exciting to me. My initial varieties were made using a soap base recipe straight from my book that was more traditional, but involved palm oil instead of lard. Because of the environmental impacts of both of those products- I wanted to offer a Vegan, Palm-free version.
All the literature out there talks about mishaps, eruptions and burns caused by improper ratios or carelessness. It is very important to keep the ratios in proportion for the saponification process and to avoid any of these issues. I’ve only been making soap for a year, but it seems that as long as you’re careful to measure the exact amount in weight of the materials in the recipe- all should be ok. Don’t improvise- it’s not like making brownies. Its always important to take this chemistry process seriously, and practice safety. Suit up and do not touch anything with your bare hands. Rinse everything that has come into contact with Lye or uncured soap with vinegar and then wash thoroughly in the sink. Keep a bottle of white vinegar on the counter just-in-case. Be ready to rinse with vinegar if any lye gets on you.
- Safety Glasses
- Rubber Gloves for handling chemicals
- White Distilled Vinegar- neutralizes a chemical burn (remember that scene from Fight Club? If not, watch a clip so that it is in your mind whenever you make soap!)
- Clothing: Long Sleeves, Pants, Closed-toe shoes
- Workstation and Well-ventilated area. (I mix my lye-water outside on the back deck, near my kitchen where I melt the oils)
- Each time you make soap, be sure you have everything you will need before you get started. I always lay out all the supplies and materials to make sure everything is in good shape, which helps avoid sudden trips to the store.
- Set aside a large chunk of time for this.
Supplies: (Most of this stuff you can get at the thrift-store)
- FOR LYE: Heat-resistant Glass Pitcher, Food Thermometer, Silicone Spatula, Measuring Container
- FOR FATS: Large Ceramic-coated Stew Pot, Food Thermometer, Silicone Spatula
- MEASURING: Food scale (need to be able to tare weights, and do oz/g conversion)
- BLENDING: Stick Blender (Immersion-style), Silicone Spatula
- CUSTOMIZING: Various large & medium bowls, smaller bowls for mixing herbs/exfoliants/oils. I reuse plastic utensils for stirring
- CURING: Soap mold (Initially, I’d made my own from wooden and cardboard boxes lined with wax paper), Soap Cutter (Ruler and a sharp knife work well), Drying rack (stackable wire baking racks?)
Read through the entire recipe before you begin to make sure you understand the whole process. This base recipe will make plain, unscented bars. If you’d like to make them have a certain scent, exfoliating property or healing property- most times, those items can be added just before the base recipe is ready to pour into the mold.
Base Recipe for Vegan, Palm-free Cold Process Soap:
- Distilled Water (10oz./293.49g)
- Lye (aka Sodium Hydroxide) (4.4oz./124.73g)
- Organic Castor Oil (1oz./28.35g)
- Organic Coconut Oil (6oz./170g)
- Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (26oz./737g)
- Grape Seed Extract (natural preservative) (7g)
Makes a 42 oz. batch: approx. 12 bars
* HOT TIP: I’d just like to point out that several of these items are available at any grocery store and are considered food items so they’re covered by public aid programs. In my 20’s I’d once been on a version of foodstamps, and kindof wish I knew then how to make my own soap!
Wearing all your safety gear: Measure out the water, bring outside for next step. Measure out Lye and bring outside to the water for mixing in open air. Slowly pour Lye into water stirring slowly to dissolve. A strong fume will emit during the chemical reaction- do not breathe it. For safety, Lye must always go into water (not the other way around) Use a food-grade thermometer to monitor the temperature. It will shoot up to over 180ºF when the chemical reaction starts. Let it drop to 80ºF . If it’s dropping too slowly, set the pitcher in an icebath to bring the temp down faster.
80º: *keep your safety gear on* Meanwhile, measure out the Oils and heat the pot, stirring just enough to melt any solids. Both the Water and Oils need to be the same temperature before blending, this may require letting both cool down or heating up the Oils. When both reach about 80º, pour the Lye Water into the Fat/Oils and begin blending with the immersion blender. This process is called Saponification- changing the oils into a soap.
Reaching Trace: Be sure you’re still wearing safety gear- It will splash if you’re not careful! Blend with the immersion blender thoroughly for 5 minutes or so. As you’re blending you see the liquid change into more of a pudding consistency. When you lift the immersion blender- it leaves a trail or “trace” of the blender. Once the soap “reaches trace”, it is ready to be poured into a mold- or you can add scents & textures.
Making varieties: Here’s the point where you might want to add essential oils, special nutrients, or dried herbs. So far I’ve been able to incorporate many different plants from my garden including: Loofa Gourd, Thyme, Rosemary, Lavender, Calendula, Chamomile, Comfrey, Sage, Rose, Yarrow, and Sunflowers. I pre-blend these into the pot or a bowl depending on what variety of soap I’m making, and add them just after the saponified oils reach trace.
Pour into the mold and wrap with several layers of plastic wrap and an old towel. I also like to set my molds on an old cookie tray so that they can be moved if needed while they set. They’ll be slowly cooling and hardening over the next day or few, depending on what additional ingredients were added at the last phase. Once they’ve set for a few days, take them out of the mold and cut the bars. Some people like to do a pH test at this point using pH strips from a lab supply company. Let them continue to cure and harden for 4-6 weeks before using.
Yes, so that was a year of work and a ton of research distilled into one post, so I hope it helps if you’re curious about the soap making process. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below! I’m happy to point you in directions of places I have found helpful on my journey. Remember that you’re doing a chemistry process and treat the materials with respect, and you shouldn’t have any trouble.