How to make your own chemical-free soap
Would you consider washing your face and body with detergent? If you bought your soap from the supermarket, there’s a good chance you’re doing just that. Many store-bought soaps now contain synthetic detergents with chemical additives such as artificial fragrance, preservative and colorants that are often allergens.
These soaps can strip the skin of natural oil and moisture, leaving it dry and feeling tight. Even commercial soaps made with traditional ingredients often have the moisturising glycerine removed. This is then sold as a separate product.
History of soapmaking
The earliest records of soapmaking date back to 2500 BC. Similarly, bathing also has a long history. Cleopatra bathed in asses milk and indeed milk is recognised to this day as a wonderful skin treatment. Not as aesthetically pleasing but maybe as effective was the olive oil and sand used by the Greeks and then the Romans. The oil and sand mixture, along with the daily grime, was scraped off and soothing oils and salves were then applied.
My favourite story is a myth that tells of a hill called Sapo near Rome. Here, the Romans sacrificed animals to their gods. Rain would wash the mixture of melted animal fats and wood ash down the hill to the Tiber River below, where the washerwomen worked. To their delight, they discovered that the soapy mixture was useful for washing clothes. The interesting thing about this myth is that the word used today for the chemical reaction for making soap is saponification in my opinion, that lends some authenticity to the myth!
Hand-made, chemical-free soap: the real thing
Our great-grandmothers made soap using homemade lye from wood ashes and fat from the last animal to be slaughtered. Forget about great-grandma’s lye soap, which is guaranteed to lift skin along with the dirt.
The handcrafted soap you can make in your kitchen is a far cry from either great-grandma’s version or indeed the synthetic soaps being mass-marketed today. This soap has a wonderful cleansing action, while still being gentle and moisturising to the skin.
These days there’s a resurgence of interest in soapmaking as people prefer to use products containing real fruit, vegetable and seed oils rather than synthetic ingredients. You can make soap with ingredients found in the supermarket. There are even internet mailing lists devoted to the craft of soapmaking. A search engine trawl will reveal many lists to choose from.
The method below is suitable for novice soapmakers. Providing the cautions are observed, you’ll have an enjoyable experience that will result in your first batch of handcrafted soap.
What you will need to make soap
The quality of water used in soapmaking is very important as hard water contains minerals that can interfere with the action of the lye and your soap will be a failure. Distilled water is best and is available from the supermarket at very little cost.
Fats & oils
The list below is for your first batch of soap. For this reason, the oils listed are inexpensive and easy to find in the supermarket. Some of the oils you may want to use in the future to create luxury facial soaps with creaminess and skin-softening properties include almond, canola, castor, palm, peanut, sesame and wheatgerm oil. Because many of these oils are added in small amounts they are best left out in this first adventure.
The basic oils for your first soap are:
- Copha: the trade name of a hydrogenated coconut oil. It’s much cheaper than coconut oil and is a good choice for your initial experiments.
- Frymasta: a hydrogenated blend of 100 per cent vegetable oils. A good one for vegetarians and vegans to begin their soaping experiments.
- Olive oil: the classic oil to use in soapmaking. Olive oil is moisturising and gentle enough for a baby but 100 per cent olive oil soap may not be the best choice for beginners – as it can take many weeks to harden unless quite sophisticated methods are used.
Lye (caustic soda, sodium hydroxide 98 per cent)
Mechanix, Glendale and Diggers are three brands of caustic soda commonly found in the supermarket. They contain caustic soda with no other additives. Don’t be tempted to buy other brands if they have any ingredients other than sodium hydroxide. Not to be confused with washing soda.
Many additives may be used in soap. These should never constitute more than 5-10 per cent of the total fats. These extras (see below) are usually added just before the soap is ready to pour. If they’re added too soon the caustic either destroys or radically changes them:
- To add emollient properties: additional oils; dried milk (goat’s milk is lovely)
- To create a mildly abrasive but softening soap: finely ground oats or bran, ground almonds, fine cornmeal
- To make soaps to clean dirty and greasy hands: fine pumice, sugar, sand
Colouring soap using natural materials is quite difficult as many colours change or fade radically in the presence of caustic. Commercial soap manufacturers rely on synthetic colours and perfumes. Many of these synthetics are potential irritants or can produce allergic-type reactions. For this reason, the recipe shown below doesnt include the use of colouring material. As you become more experienced you will probably want to experiment with colour so you can refer to the information available on the internet.
Perfuming soap can be as tricky as adding colour. The most aesthetic way of adding scent is undoubtedly using essential oil. No more than 3-4 per cent (of the total volume of vegetable oils) essential oil should be added, as these oils are very powerful.
Almost anything suitably shaped may be used as a soap mould. Aluminium containers should never be used because aluminium will react with the caustic. The simplest soap mould for a beginner is a waxed milk carton. If you’re using an enclosed container such as a milk carton you’ll need to tear the carton away carefully from the soap about four to five hours after pouring, or when the soap reaches the consistency of hard butter.
Cut the blocks of soap before they become too hard. Similarly, if a plastic container is used, the soap should be cut into squares at this stage of firmness. You need to put on your rubber gloves before doing either of the above as the lye will still be active.
Remember that liquid and fresh soap is caustic and will damage varnish, paint or other colour. Their colour might also be transferred to your soap and ruin it.
After cutting and curing is complete, it’s a good idea to wrap the soap to preserve both the appearance and perfume. Use cellophane, waxed paper or plastic wrap. Never use aluminium foil, as soap, by its very nature and chemical composition, remains slightly alkaline.
Equipment needed to make soap
- Two-litre stainless-steel pan
- Long-handled steel or plastic tablespoon
- Dishwasher-proof plastic jug with lid that holds 500g, labelled CAUSTIC and POISON
- Preserving or laboratory thermometer
- Accurate metric scales are essential. Those that measure from 1g and can be tared or reset for each additional ingredient are best
- Long rubber gloves
- Safety glasses
- Plastic spatula
- Roll of paper towel or toilet paper to clean up oil spills
- Jar of water for soaking spoons, spatulas etc
- Portable icebox with lid (eg an Esky or something similar. Polystyrene boxes are readily available from your supermarket or fruit and veg shop)
- Spray bottle of water
How to make soap
What you will need:
250g olive oil (virgin or light, both are good)
130g copha (hydrogenated coconut oil)
100g Frymasta (palm oil)
20g castor oil
71g lye (98 per cent sodium hydroxide)
20ml essential oil
1 tablespoon dried calendula petals (optional)
Basic method for making chemical-free soap:
- Read the cautions below. Lay out all your equipment and ingredients in the order in which you will use them. Put on the shirt, safety glasses and rubber gloves (under the sleeves of the shirt) as well as long trousers and proper shoes (not sandals).
- Measure out all ingredients using weight, not volume.
- Put 180g very cold distilled water in the heatproof jug.
- Slowly sprinkle 71g lye into the jug. Stir until dissolved without breathing in the fumes. It will immediately get very, very hot. Leave in a safe place to cool to 38-40°C. Cooling is slow and may take up to an hour.
- Measure out the olive oil, copha and Frymasta into the steel pan. Heat gently to melt the solid fats but try not to overheat. If necessary, cool to 38-40°C.
- When both the lye and oils reach the desired temperatures, pour the lye water in a thin, slow stream into the fat, stirring constantly.
- Now find somewhere comfortable to sit! Stir the mixture slowly in a figure eight to avoid creating a whirlpool. Introducing air can spoil the appearance of the soap.
- Stir and stir some more, until a spoonful of the mixture holds a trail when drizzled on the surface of the soap (think thin custard). This can take from 10 to 60 minutes. When the soap holds the thin trail its referred to as being at trace.
- Scrape any crusty deposits (free caustic) that form on the sides of the bowl back into the mixture. Make sure you mix the scrapings in really well. The length of time taken to stir to the right consistency will depend largely on air temperature and the temperature of the mixture initially. Even if you’re getting really bored and anxious you must not rush this stage or the soap won’t set properly and might even separate into two layers.
- When the soap is at trace you can quickly add any extra ingredients (see additives) and your essential oils. Incorporate really well but work quickly.
- Pour the soap into the prepared mould. Quickly scrape out the bowl onto the soap in the mould, using a spatula to smooth the surface if necessary.
- Fold the top of the milk carton down over the soap, or cover the surface with a piece of plastic clingwrap if youre using an open mould.
- Put the mould into the icebox and fit the lid to the icebox. The lid will help to insulate the soap and assist the soap to become firm during the initial saponification stage.
- Take the soap out of the mould when it is the consistency of hard butter and cut into bars (don’t forget your gloves) with a sharp stainless-steel knife, placed back into the icebox on baking or greaseproof paper and left for 24-48 hours.
- The soap then needs to mature in an airy place for two to three weeks before use. Stack the soap bars in a way that exposes as much of the surface to the air as possible. At the end of the curing time there may be a white film on the soap. This is harmless soda ash that may be scraped or washed off.
- Finally, shave any sharp edges off the soap using a potato peeler. Alternatively, buff the edges with a rough towel to remove them.
There are a few cautions regarding the process of making soap but please don’t let them deter you. Once you’re familiar with lye and learn to treat it with respect there should be no problems.
- Caustic soda must always be added to water. Never pour water over caustic soda. When caustic soda is added to cold water, the temperature rises almost immediately to about 90-95°C. If water is poured over caustic you might create a hotspot, which could crack or melt the container, or there could even be an explosion!
- Never put caustic soda into aluminium – it eats it!
- Never leave your flesh exposed. Wear long rubber gloves, long sleeves that come down over the gloves, safety glasses, long pants and shoes.
- Never have children or pets around. Choose a time when the children are elsewhere. Put pets in a separate room.
- Never breathe in the fumes. Every effort should be made to avoid inhalation. In fact, its better to make your lye solution outdoors and put it up somewhere high to cool, out of reach of pets and children.
- Never put the lye solution in a container that looks like the contents might be something good to drink. Always use the same container, which should be strong plastic, heatproof glass or stainless steel and labelled with the words CAUSTIC and POISON.
Treating injuries resulting from lye/Caustic soda:
- If the caustic is swallowed, use vinegar or milk as an antidote. DON’T INDUCE VOMITING. Get professional help quickly.
- You’ll need to have a spray bottle of water at hand. If you get a splash of the caustic liquid or a grain of dry caustic on your skin, irrigate thoroughly with cold water, then go to the nearest source of running water. Keep the affected area under cold running water for a minimum of 10 minutes. You will read soapmaking articles that suggest spraying the lye splash with vinegar to counteract the burn. This is not correct.
- If lye spills on your clothing and through to your skin, treat the skin in the same manner, then remove the affected clothing immediately and wash before reuse.
- Don’t handle the finished soap without protective rubber gloves until it has cured for about two weeks.
There are many Forums on the internet for soapmakers and makers of moisturising creams and lotions that welcome newcomers to soap and toiletry making. There are also scrupulous and unscrupulous ingredient suppliers.
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