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How to make your first batch of homemade soap | DIY cold process soap

One of my favorites to make and also one of the messiest!

One of my favorites to make and also one of the messiest!

Do you love handmade soap and want to learn how to make your own?

I have been researching, designing and manufacturing my own bath and body products for personal use and for sale on my website,
Soapmarked, for years and have learned a lot! This article is designed to help you overcome a lot of my early hurdles and help set you on the road to making your own handmade soap.

I've included some suppliers' info to get you started and also your first soapy recipe for FREE!

Once you have learned to make your own soap you'll never look at the oils in your grocery store the same way again.

The picture here is my signature soap, Cruise. 14 colors and my own scent blend. Never fear, with practice you'll get here, too.

Are you a pro?

What supplies do I need?

Finding the right stuff for your first batch

Basically, to make soap, you need:

-Oils and /or fats
-A mold
-Something to melt the oils/fats in, not made out of aluminum (it will react badly with the lye)
-Something to combine the water and lye in, also not made out of aluminum. Glass is not recommended, as it can shatter. The lye is going to heat up quite a bit, so make sure it’s something that can take almost-boiling temperatures. I use a plastic pitcher that can take high heat.
-Long-handled spoons to stir. It’s best to avoid wooden spoons to stir your lye water, as it will eat away at them.
-A scale that can weigh in ounces, usually a kitchen scale. Measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume means we can be much more accurate, which can help avoid common disastrous soap batches.

-A stick/immersion blender
-A candy or meat thermometer
-Freezer paper to line the mold (depending on the type of mold. We’ll get more into that later.)

Note the scale, goggles and gloves. Newbies should start with long sleeves as well.

Note the scale, goggles and gloves. Newbies should start with long sleeves as well.

If you don't use lye, it's not really handmade soap

All soap is made with lye. If you want to make your own soap from scratch, you’re going to have to use lye. The most important thing to remember about using lye is not to fear it, but to respect it. If you’re afraid of it, you’ll be nervous and could potentially injure yourself or others.

You must protect yourself when handling lye, lye water and raw soap. At the very least, goggles that fit closely around the eyes (simply wearing glasses won’t be enough; you could splash something nasty up into your eyes), gloves, and closed-toed shoes (in case of accidental dripping) are the absolute bare minimum. Many soapers will also add a long-sleeved shirt to avoid splashes on their arms and long pants to make sure they completely cover their skin. Once you are comfortable with handling the caustic materials, you need to make your own decision about your own safety. In the pictures you’ll see here, I am not wearing long sleeves. That’s my own personal decision and definitely not recommended for newbies. I’ve made many, many batches of soap and am very comfortable handling the caustic materials. (I live somewhere very hot and run the risk of some slight burns to avoid being so hot I steam up my goggles!) Lye will burn my skin if I splash myself with the raw soap, but it’s a slow burn. If you do splash your skin with lye, rinse it off immediately. Any contact with the eyes requires medical attention, so wear your goggles!

Obtaining lye can be difficult. Although it’s very useful and used in the manufacture of various foods (like pretzels, mandarin oranges, etc.) and as drain cleaner, it’s also used to make some drugs. I had no clue when I first started and went to several different hardware stores looking for it before I found it. In the end, I purchased a drain cleaner that worked ok, but despite it being labelled as 100% lye, who knows what kind of impurities that lye may have had in it?

i highly recommend purchasing lye from a reputable supplier. Some may allow pick up locally, but many will sell it online and ship it to you. I’ve included several suppliers that stock good quality lye in the Resources section.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, your mother or in any way a medical professional. Please take responsibility for your own safety when handling any and all soap making materials. The safety suggestions I’ve made here are just that, suggestions. Use your own common sense. Lye can harm you if handled incorrectly. So can hot oils, hot water and falling off the toilet because your cat startles you at three AM when you’re half asleep (ask me how I know). Basically, stay safe. I can’t be held be held responsible for any resulting injuries.

Oils and fats

Which ones should I choose?

There are a myriad of oils and fats being used in handmade soaps today, from as basic as Beef Tallow, Vegetable shortening and Canola oil to as exotic as Argan and Avacado oils. Each oil or fat has different properties that add to the cleansing, lather, conditioning or hardness of your soap bar. We’re not going to go into why one oil or fat is better than another; it takes a lot of research and testing to find the ultimate recipe that’s going to be best for you. Many soap makers go through a phase of trying the most exotic oils they can afford to find. This is perfectly fine, but in the end, most settle on a recipe that has 3-4 main oils, many of which are surprisingly common. The recipe we’ll use here has ingredients you can find in your local grocery store (apart from the lye). Keep in mind when you’re going through your rarer-is-better phase that soap is a wash-off product and the wonderful properties of those exotic oils will often be better used in a product that is absorbed into the skin, such as moisturizer.

The most important part about your soap recipe is that it is balanced, meaning that there is enough lye used to make a nice bar of soap, with neither too little, which results in a squishy mess, or too much, which gets you a bar of soap which is called “lye heavy.” Lye heavy soap is made with a recipe that has so much lye in it that the lye is not completely used up in the chemical reaction that makes soap, called saponification. This means you get soap, but when you try to use it you can potentially burn yourself with the leftover lye, and it definitely won’t be gentle on your skin! In order to avoid this, we build what is called a “superfat” into the recipe. This means that we use extra oils and fats in the recipe than the lye can convert to soap. For example, say one ounce of lye can turn two ounces of oil into soap. We’ll add a little extra oil, about 2.25-2.5 ounces, to make sure that one ounce of lye is completely used up and there is no lye remaining in the final bar of soap. Usually basic recipes will have a superfat of 5-8%. In some instances you’ll want to make the superfat higher, but that will be for more specialty soaps. Our basic soap recipe has a 6% superfat.

Our soap is going to use:

-Olive oil, which is very gentle and conditioning. It will also help make the bar harder and more moisturizing. Extra virgin olive oil isn’t needed to make soap, so save your money there. Do make sure to buy a brand you’re familiar with rather than going straight for the cheapest olive oil, though, because unfortunately olive oil is sometimes adulterated with other oils, which can have a negative effect on your soapmaking experience.
-Coconut oil, which helps with the soap’s cleansing ability. It will greatly contribute to the bar’s hardness and make more lather.
-Crisco. Yes, Crisco. It’s easy to get, relatively inexpensive, and makes pretty good soap. You will probably move on from this later in your soapmaking adventures, but for now it’s also easy to use when you’re learning the process.

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A basic soap recipe

How I learned to stop worrying and use the lye

Keep in mind that all measurements are in weight, not volume. Trying to use this recipe with a measuring cup instead of a scale will result in an epic fail!

Make sure you have plenty of time to work and no distractions like toddlers or cute fluffy cats likely to wander through your workspace. You definitely don’t want your cat jumping up on the counters while you’re doing this project.

This is a fairly small recipe, to make just over one pound of soap. That’s big enough to play with; I will usually use a batch of 1-2 pounds to test a new fragrance or color before making a large batch. Once you’re comfortable with this recipe, you can start to play with scent and color, too. But for your first batch (or three) I highly recommend making a simple unscented, uncolored batch. That way you’ll learn how soap making should go before you throw in more ingredients, some of which can be difficult to work with.

Prepare your mold. For a small batch like this you can use a paper milk carton (well rinsed and dried), a Pringles can (also well rinsed and dried) or even a plastic shoe box. These molds will not require lining, as you’ll be able to tear away the first two once the soap is set, and pop it out of the shoe box if you choose to use that instead. You can also use a small cardboard box, but that you will have to line in freezer paper. Make sure to keep the shiny side in and crease it well so the soap batter will be fully contained inside the freezer paper. Waxed paper is not recommended as a substitute, as the soap batter will soak into it and it will be very soggy and hard to remove (I know because I’ve tried and it’s not fun).

Measure out into a non-aluminum pot:

5 oz. Olive Oil
3 oz. Coconut Oil
7 oz. Crisco

Make sure the pot you’re using is large enough to hold the lye and water as well, since you will be pouring them into this pot when we combine all the ingredients. Place the pot over low heat to melt the solid oils to liquids, stirring occasionally.

Measure into a plastic pitcher (or what you are using to hold the lye/water combo):

5 oz. water

Making sure you have your gloves and goggles on, then measure 2 oz. of lye. Pour the lye into the water, stirring until it dissolves. The lye water will heat up rapidly and give off fumes, which you need to avoid. I stand well back of my lye pitcher when I am stirring to avoid inhaling them. The fumes will definitely make you cough if you get them into your lungs! Also, always make sure to add the lye to the water, instead of the water to the lye. Adding water to lye can cause it to volcano up out of your container and can create a hazardous mess.

Set the lye water aside in a safe place until it is about 100 degrees F. If you don’t have a thermometer to check it, wait until the outside of your container feels lukewarm. You can place the container in a sink of ice water to speed up this process.

Meanwhile, once your oils are all melted to liquid, take them off the heat. You also want to cool the oils to about 100 degrees F or until the outside of the pot feels lukewarm to the touch. You can place the container in a sink of ice water if you want to speed up the process.

When your oils and lye water are both about 100 degrees F or lukewarm, you’re going to combine them. Make sure your mold is ready and nearby. Give the lye water and oils a gentle stir to make sure all the lye is dissolved and all the oils are liquid, then pour the lye water into the melted oils, being careful not to splash. This is when you’re going to start stirring gently.

If you have a stick/immersion blender you can use it in shorts bursts to blend your oils and lye water. The mixture should nearly immediately start to turn cloudy and then start to look creamy. Alternate using the stick blender in short bursts with just using it (turned off) to stir.

If you don’t have a stick blender, this may take some time. Using a long-handled spoon (not aluminum or wooden), stir your mixture gently until it is uniformly creamy. The creaminess means the water and oils have emulsified or mixed together.

Once the raw soap has that creamy appearance, it will start to thicken. (If you’ve made pudding the feeling is similar.) The thickening is called “trace.” When your soap batter reaches a thick enough trace, you will start to see the spoon or stick blender leaving a little trail behind it before the soap batter closes over the trail. Don’t wait until the soap is too thick, or it will be difficult to fill your mold. You’re looking for a pudding-like consistency. With practice you will be able to tell exactly when your soap is ready to pour, so don’t worry too much about it for this first batch. The main idea is to make sure the lye water and oils/fats are completely emulsified before you put it in the mold; otherwise your soap mixture could separate and you’ll have a yucky batch.

Being careful not to splash, pour your soap into your prepared mold. At this point, the saponification process has already started but the soap is still raw; it still contains lye and is still caustic. You’ll need to have a safe, dry place where you can leave the soap undisturbed in the mold for 12-24 hours.

After that time, check your soap. It should be fairly firm and cool to the touch. If you have used a potato chip can or milk carton as your mold, you should be able to tear it away from your block of soap. If it’s in a plastic shoe box you may need to turn it upside down and bend and whack it a little to get the soap out. If you’re really having trouble, you can freeze it (the soap will shrink slightly when frozen) and then it should come out fairly easily. If you’ve used a freezer-paper lined shoebox, the soap should also lift out easily and the freezer paper will be easy to peel away.

Now you’ve got a big block of handmade soap. It’s going to be firm but not as firm as you’re used to. As it is, it’s useable but it will get used up very fast if you chose to use it now. To make it easier to use and last longer, cut your block of soap into individual pieces and set them aside to dry. This is known as curing the soap.

Make sure there is room for air to get to your soap, as curing the soap is essentially letting it have time to evaporate excess water. As you progress in your soapmaking skills you’ll learn all kinds of tricks to make this curing time shorter, For now, it can take 3-6 weeks for your soap to cure enough to be hard enough to be really useable. Meanwhile, you can make more batches and refine your technique until your closets and bathrooms are as full of soap as mine are!

Ready for more challenges? Try milk in your soap.

Goat milk, oatmeal and honey soap.

Goat milk, oatmeal and honey soap.

Are you ready to make soap?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. How many toddlers do you need as assistants while you're melting coconut oil?
    • Toddlers don't make great assistants because they frequently wander off or demand cookies.
    • Make use of your fluffy cat instead to help you. Extra fur in your soap only makes it scrubbier!
    • Seven toddlers, because they can also screw in a lightbulb and go into a bar and...
  2. What color should your aluminum pot be?
    • Black, like my heart.
    • Aluminum isn't a good choice because it can cause an adverse chemical reaction.
    • Aluminum is great because you can use it to cook some lima beans while you're also stirring your soap to trace.
  3. Why should you pour water over your lye crystals?
    • Because you can then make sure you've incorporated as much lye as possible into your recipe.
    • You shouldn't, unless you want the potential for a dangerous lye volcano!
    • Because your fluffy cat doesn't like it when you pour water on him.

Answer Key

  1. Toddlers don't make great assistants because they frequently wander off or demand cookies.
  2. Aluminum isn't a good choice because it can cause an adverse chemical reaction.
  3. You shouldn't, unless you want the potential for a dangerous lye volcano!


Where to get the stuff we're talking about, and where to find out more information

Suppliers are located all over the country and carry different products. Some will be more economical for you to use (shipping-wise) depending on where you live. Here are some of my favorites.

Summerbee Meadow has a great comparison chart with the properties of different oils when you want to explore more. It also has a lye calculator to help you start making your own recipes. And they sell soapmaking supplies.

Magestic Mountain Sage has a wealth of recipes and a frequently-updated blog. They are also a supplier (though no lye), and have excellent customer service.

The Dish Forum has an incredible group of people talking about soap, cosmetics and more! Be warned, this is a strong-minded community of hobbyists and professionals, so do your research by searching through the archives before asking basic questions.

David Fisher has some great basic info up here on You can find him here:

One of my favorite suppliers is Camden Grey. They have a wealth of essential oils, and a great customer rewards program.

When you’re looking for larger amounts of lye, I highly recommend Essential Depot.

© 2014 Soapmarked

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