DIY Soap | Easy Homemade Soap for Beginners

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handmade soap – castile shampoo bars by Kim CC2.0

This Easy Handmade Soap Guide for Beginners is for people like me who want to make soap but get confused because they come across lot s of contradictory information.

So I wrote a guide to try to help other people. I explain how to make soap here, but I also try to resolve questions you might have come across yourself.

I’ve got things like whether to use tap or distilled or whether you really should put vinegar on that lye burn, and I’ve put my sources if you’d like to check them out yourself. I’ve also split up the post so that people can go back and forth and choose how much they want to read.

I’ve made 4 sections, and written down problems or info I offer right after.

Ingredients: Different olive oil classifications and which to choose, lye grades and what to buy, and whether to use distilled versus tap water

Equipment: Should you use water or vinegar for emergencies?, Is glass better than plastic for our lye water mix?, and stick blender and equipment specs

Process: An discussion of why Castile soap doesn’t require oils to be heated, and the different types and uses of trace

Cleanup: which is so unglamorous no-one talks about it

Ingredients

The easiest handmade soap for beginners is Castile Soap.

Made of only 3 ingredients, this DIY Soap is a traditional recipe composed of olive oil, lye, and distilled water. It is very mild and gentle and is often used for babies and those with sensitive skin. It’s also inexpensive.1

It does take a while before it can be used. Unmolding takes 2 weeks and curing is another 4 to 6. Veteran soap makers say that best results are after 10 months, which I’ll admit is a heck of a long time to wait.2,3

We’ll make a small test batch of 1 pound batch of soap, making 4 bars of 4 ounces. There’s a little allowance since you’ll never get all the raw soap out of the containers and there’s some water shrinkage. It’s a short ingredient list:

It really can’t get simpler than that. Plus, it’s an oldie but a goodie, tried and tested through centuries of use since its inception in the Middles Ages. What else could you ask for?

For those who want to get going, skip ahead to the Equipment Section but for those who have questions on the ingredients, I’ve written a few things about olive oil grades, the kind of lye, and the debate on water.

Olive Oil

If you are a perfectionist, this is where you start to worry.

Should I buy extra virgin? What about pomace olive oil? What is pomace olive oil?

Based on the USDA4, there are 2 main types of olive oil and several subcategories under them. We are most familiar with food grade olive oils such as extra virgin, virgin, refined and regular olive oil and less familiar with pomace olive oils, which are intended for further refining for human consumption or technical use.

But here’s the thing – let’s keep it simple.

Since the fatty acid structure of the oils are the same, the soap produced is going to turn out pretty similar. Some soap makers will avoid pomace olive oil since it can produce a bar with a stronger smell, but the properties of the bar will be the same as other olive oil grades.

Buy the grade you prefer. Choose a reputable supplier since some groceries stock olive oil with other oils mixed into it or have old stock.

Just to illustrate my point, Soap Queen5 tested Olive oils from the grocery shelf and soon found that they exhibited rancidity – this is when the oils go bad and ruin both odor and appearance with little orange spots.

So, make sure you get fresh 100% Olive Oil without any additives and you’re good to go.

Sodium Hydroxide or Lye

There are two types of lye. Sodium Hydroxide (NaOH) is used for making bar soap while Potassium Hydroxide (KOH) is used for making liquid soap. Liquid soap and bar soap have different formulations by the way so if you plan on making a liquid version, don’t just substitute one for the other.

Since this is a bar soap recipe, we’ll be using Sodium Hydroxide.

Usually, Sodium Hydroxide can be found in hardware stores at tech grade or sometimes food grade. Tech grade contains more impurities and some say they can tell the difference in their soap.

But tech grade is commonly used by big suppliers and several crafts people have reported using it, so grades seem to be a matter of personal choice. Buy 100% lye without additives and your soap should turn out well.

Also, a word on safety.

Lye is pretty caustic so it can hurt if you don’t take the proper safety precautions and wear the correct equipment. I’ve included a mini-homily on lye down below and the right safety equipment because I can’t stress safety enough – soap making should be fun, not hazardous!

Water

This is self-explanatory.

Okay, actually there is some debate on this.6

Yes, I know. Yet another lengthy debate about ingredients!

Tldr: you can use tap.

Some people only use distilled water because they say that some hard water has such a high mineral content that impurities abound. They say distilled is better if you don’t know the qualities of your water because it ruins a soap batch. Others say that they’ve used tap and the bars turn out fine.

Sooo…

Tldr: you should be fine with tap. 😊

Equipment

It can be tempting to use items from your kitchen, but remember that once you’ve used them for soap you should never use them again for food.

Below is a list of basic soap making gear for Castile soap or really simple recipes. There’s a lot of other auxiliary stuff you can get for fragrances, essentials oils and colors, but it’s really not needed for Castile.

  • Personal Protective Equipment or PPE such as safety goggles and rubber gloves and practical measures such as wearing long pants, long sleeves and closed toe shoes. Also, always work in a well-ventilated area near a source of running water in case of spills.
  • Stick Blender with a stainless steel shaft
  • An accurate scale with ounces, grams and pounds which can handle at least 5kg unless you’d like to make even bigger batches of soap. A Tare function is definitely recommended.
  • A thermometer which is preferably no-contact and handheld
  • A lye water container of polypropylene (PP 5) with a spout and handles. Others have recommended glass or stainless steel but both are problematic.
  • A long handled, stainless steel spoon for stirring lye solution. Avoid wood.
  • Stainless steel large pot or polypropylene plastic (PP 5) to mix lye solution and oil
  • Silicone spatula for scrapping soap batter into mold. Avoid wood.
  • Soap mold lined with freezer paper, although some say parchment or wax paper works fine.
  • Knife for cutting soap with a smooth edge
  • Cleanup Supplies such as paper towels, dish cloths and black garbage bags for dealing with the mess.

Eager to start? You can skip ahead to the soap making process but I would strongly suggest reading the PPE section. Safety should always come first!

Below, I’ve added a few tips on what to look for in equipment. Before I bought anything for soap making, I spent a month reading up on what to buy so it’s chock full of my notes as I made my way through soap making.

Personal Protective Equipment or PPE

Okay guys – this is where we get serious.

Lye is the number one reason that most people are wary of making their own soap.

Lye is a caustic base meaning that it is corrosive when it comes in contact with skin and several metals. It eats away at hair and can cause blindness. It’s a pretty harsh chemical by all standards.

There’s a lot of conflicting information about how to handle lye spills or what to do if solid flakes come in contact with your skin. Some people say flush with vinegar while others say not.

But think about it.

What happened when you were in the 1st grade and you put baking soda and vinegar together for the volcano science project? Do you remember the eruption?

When you put an acid like a vinegar and a base like lye together – even weak ones like these –  you get an explosion.

Not good.

Water will also cause a reaction but it will be weaker than one with an acid.

To be extra sure, check out the guidelines of the Center for Disease Control7 or the Canadian Center for Disease Control and Prevention8.  For contact with eyes or skin, use water and irrigate for 60 minutes. If a lot has been inhaled, move to an area with lots of fresh air. In all cases, get medical attention promptly, especially if ingested.

So that’s why I’m stressing safety right here.

Be careful when handling lye. There’s no way to make soap without it unless you do a melt and pour, so it’s really important that we treat it with respect.

There will be some inevitable spills but hazards can be quickly reduced if you have the proper PPE. Always choose equipment that is a tight fit – a lot of accidents occur simply because a sleeve was snagged or a loose glove caused a container to fall.

Hands

According to OSHA9, Neoprene, Latex/Rubber, Butyl, and Nitrile glove are graded VG for both sodium and potassium hydroxide.

Always check before starting for leaks and tears and replace as needed. Always use gloves with a good fit, since many accidents happen because the gloves didn’t allow a firm grip.

Body

Cover up!

Wear thick, tight fitting jeans and long sleeves to make sure there’s an extra layer if lye does spill on you. Use close toed shoes to protect your feet. Some people also wear a leather apron.

And move fast! Remove the clothing immediately and continuously flush with water if you do get a spill.

Eyes

Goggles are necessary.

Others may prefer full face shields and I can understand why! I came across a soapers forum where someone had nearly been blinded when lye splashed into her eyes.

Use safety goggles – prescription glasses are not enough. Safety goggles that seal completely around the eye. This way, if something splashes from the side, you’re covered.

Well ventilated area

Always work in a well-ventilated area with running water. In case you do get a spill, you can immediately start washing with water.

Stick Blender

I don’t have personal experience with all the brands – who does? So instead I read up massively on them and tried to figure out what I needed before spending a penny.

What I learned is that they will break and there is a lot of personal choice.

I found that a stainless steel shaft of a single piece construction is preferable because it wears well and is more sanitary. A detachable shaft is easier to clean. I also found that the deeper it could be submerged without liquid touching the motor allowed for bigger batches of soap and less spillage. A longer cord is preferable so you can move around easily.

Don’t spend too much. Buy something that will do the job and then as you get more confident (and when it breaks 😊) buy something else.

An Accurate Scale

I remember thinking that since I had measuring cups, I really didn’t need to buy a scale.

That couldn’t be more wrong.

I definitely needed a scale. A scale measures weight or mass and it is mass that that determines how much lye is needed.

Each oil has a different mass because it is made up of different fatty acids. Long chain fatty acids need less lye since they have less carboxylic functional groups per gram than short chain fatty acids.

Since it is mass that drives how much lye to use10, a scale is needed. Measuring cups would measure volume and we would make big mistakes in our soap.

Get a scale that is sturdy, has a flat top that can take at least 5kg of weight and can measure in ounces, pounds and grams. A tare function is also helpful since it allows you to disregard the container’s weight and just measure the contents of the container.

Splurge on this – you’ll need it as a serious soap maker!

A thermometer

Temperatures are important!

Too hot, and the soap can rise up out of the old like a volcano or have a puckered, wavy surface. Too cool, and soda ash forms on top of the soap.

The usual range for soap making is 120 to 130°F or 49 to 54°C mainly because this is where most butters and oils melt and where lye traces at the right speed.

I find there are pages and pages on the effect of temperature on soap – controlling it can be useful depending on what you want to accomplish.

Temperatures needed vary, especially for advanced soap making. You might want to add milk or avoid gel phase. You might want to intensify colors or work with solid beeswax. These are all examples of what you can do with temperature control, although they should be done for later projects.

Temperature control matters and so, buy a good thermometer if you plan to be a serious soap maker. For Castile, you really just need to check that the lye is at 120°F or 49°C.

You might use a candy thermometer but I’d like to suggest a temperature gun. This is so much easier than cleaning your thermometer all the time, and I really can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t like a little shortcut.

A lye water PP 5 plastic container with a lid

Buy something larger than needed with a handle and a spout to control pouring and reduce possible spills. A lid also helps to prevent spills. This is still lye that we are working with, so any spill or splash can be dangerous!

In addition, avoid aluminum, magnesium, zinc, tin, chromium, bronze, brass, copper, tantalum11, cast iron and Teflon since lye reacts with them violently. Stainless steel can be used, but lye water is going to be hot – it may become too hot to handle easily and cause an accident.

And surprisingly, avoid glass as well.

Heat resistant glass is recommended by more than one website. Less commonly known – but apparently true – is that Pyrex shatters after many uses12 since the lye can etch small scratches in the glass, which causes it to break. Apparently, lye reacts with the silicates in glass – although this is a sloooow process –  and scratches the glass causing it to shatter or even explode.

I’d just skip it.

I’d use heat resistant plastic as polypropylene can handle boiling water and wouldn’t chemically react with lye. Find the PP 5 stamp which is usually at the bottom of the container, and you’re set13,14. Remember to use just PP 5 since others are graded for lower temperatures.

A Stainless Steel Spoon

A long handled stainless steel spoon or whisk for stirring lye solution. Avoid wood since the lye eats away at the wood and you’d have wood splinters in your soap.

A Stainless Steel Pot

I’d go for a stainless steel soap pot for mixing my oils and lye solution in since this allows me to melt my oils in it after measuring and then add in the lye. I completely avoid having to transfer to a new container, so automatically less cleanup and much more convenience.

Also, grab something with good strong handles so that you can easily transport it from one area to another and avoid accidents.

A Silicone Spatula

Silicone Spatula to remove all soap batter from the soap pot. Again, avoid wood as splinters may end up in your soap.

Soap mold

There are tons of soap molds. You can use wood, plastic, silicone or many items around the house.15

Wood molds can used for hot process as well as cold process soaping and have great insulation. The only thing is they must be lined since wood is porous and absorptive.

There’s quite a bit of debate around what liner to use since people have reported differing results16. Wax paper is reported to melt into soap and parchment may not be too durable. I have not heard any complaints about freezer paper however, so that is what I would buy.

If you don’t want to line your molds, silicone molds might be a good option. It is easy to take soap out and they are also easy to clean though soap might take longer to unmold.

Plastic molds also do not require lining but are often less sturdy than silicone. They also take a longer time to unmold.

Recycling a container is also perfectly fine and just require lining. Also make sure that there is a little “give” in the mold so that you can remove your soap. One of the saddest things is having a perfectly formed bar and then realizing that it’s impossible to remove from the mold.

In any case, you’ve got options. So long as you line your mold and can remove the soap easily, you should be fine.

Soap Knife

Knife for cutting your bars of soap which should not be serrated so that you’ll have a nice smooth edge.

Cleanup Supplies

Paper towels, dish cloths and garbage bags to deal with the mess.

For more complicated recipes, you’ll find that you need to have mixing bowls for fragrance, essential oils and different colors of batter; mixing spoons, spatulas and whisks as well as other tools such as funnels, squirt bottles, small mixers and coffee grinders. It all depends on how far you want to go.

Process

Finally, we’re ready to go!

If you’ve read the ingredients section, you’ll have found your 100% olive o­il, your sodium hydroxide and decided on your water.

The equipment section will have put to rest the confusion you might have felt on deciding on the materials for your lye water pot and the correct materials for your stirring tools. I hope the emergency procedures for lye accidents and personal protective equipment or PPE were also clearly understood – be careful when working with lye since its corrosive.

I’ve written down a super duper easy to follow procedure below with several pro tips and quick explanations to help us beginners along. Keep safe!

Step 1: Prepare your workspace by making sure you’ve got enough space to work, covering it with newspapers or cardboard, and setting out your equipment. Make sure it’s clear of tripping hazards, well ventilated and near a source of running water in case of accidents.

It’s also really helpful to set out your equipment and pre-measured ingredients in the order that you’ll need them. I’d also line the mold with freezer paper so that you can immediately pour the soap. I’d reserve bringing out the lye until you are ready to start – just to be on the safe side. 😊

Step 2: Put on your PPE. This includes safety goggles, gloves, tight fitting pants and long-sleeved shirts, closed toed shoes and an apron. Please do read the PPE section to make your you’ve got the right protective gear!

Step 3: Measure your water and place in the chemical resistant PP 5 plastic container. Measure your lye and add to the water slowly. Stir and then wait till the solution is clear.

Pro tips:

  1. Always add lye to water because otherwise it explodes.
  2. Add lye slowly to water to ensure control and minimize splashes.
  3. Water should be at room temperature and not hot or even lukewarm to avoid over-heating.
  4. To speed up the cooling down of lye, you can use cold water, use ice cubes for half of the water, or put the lye solution in a sink of cold water. Don’t put the lye solution in the ref – it’s fumes are dangerous.
  5. Use every bit if lye – saves clean-up after!

Step 4: Measure your oil into a large stainless steel or PP 5 plastic pot.

Step 5: Add the lye solution into the oils when your lye water solution is 130°F or 54° Minimize bubbles by pouring the solution slowly or by pouring it down the shaft of your stick blender.

Lots of recipes mention that the oil and lye should be within 10°F or roughly 6°C of each other, but so long as the oils are above their melting point – i.e. they are liquid – you’re good.

Pro tips:

  1. Avoid air bubbles by tapping the stick blender on your container’s bottom. When no more air bubbles rise to the surface, you’re good.
  2. Run your stick blender in short bursts to avoid overheating the motor.
  3. Submerge your stick blender as far as it can go so that soap doesn’t end up flying around. Lye’s still pretty harsh at this point so it’s best to be safe.

Step 6: When everything is thoroughly mixed, it begins to thicken to the consistency of cake batter. In soap making lingo, this thickening is called trace. Trace indicates that soap has begun to form.

There are 3 types of trace:

  1. Light trace is the consistency of light cake batter
  2. Medium trace has the texture of heavy cake batter and is when we add ingredients that we’d like to remain suspended.
  3. Thick trace is when the soap holds its shape after its been poured. Like frosting, it can be used to make decorative tops and textures.

Beware of false trace or of using soap batter before everything has been fully mixed.

In false trace, thickening occurs because the oils have started to solidify. Oils solidify when they’re below their melting point so keep an eye on temperature!

Sometimes soap will be poured into a mold when it hasn’t properly mixed. Streaks of oil indicate you should keep on mixing since if used at that stage, pockets of harsh lye may appear in the final soap. This would be dangerous to use.

For Castile, our oil is liquid at room temperature and all we need to hit is medium trace, so we just have to make sure that we mix really well. Castile takes a while to trace, so don’t worry if it takes longer than you’d expect.

Step 7: Leave the soap in the mold for 2 weeks, since this is an especially soft soap. Unmold and cut and cure for an additional 4 to 6 weeks. It can already be used after this, but best results will really come after a 10 month cure time.

And that’s a wrap!

😊

Cleaning up

Clean up’s boring – but necessary! The lye is still active and needs to be disposed of properly.

When you use as much batter as you can, there is less clean-up plus more soap, so use that spatula when you’re emptying your soap batter into the mold.

Oh, and don’t put things in the dishwasher – there’s still lye on it so you should avoid mixing food and soap making equipment. Better safe than sorry!

Step 1: First, make sure you still have your protective gear on. You’ll need it since the lye is still harsh.

Step 2: Make sure the area is still secure from small marauders like children and pets.

Step 3: Collect your equipment and move it to the sink. I would deal with the raw lye water items first and then the containers that have the oils and raw soap batter.

Step 4: Rinse items that have lye water solution residue such as your lye water container and lye water stirrer.

Step 5: Remove as much raw soap batter and oil from your equipment with rags to prevent pipes clogging. Put the rags in a plastic bag when done. Rinse with hot water and a strong degreaser or detergent.

Alternatively, you can leave your rags for 24 hours in the plastic bag. It will then become soap and should be easy to launder. Personally, I don’t do this simply because I think it might not be good for my washing machine, but that’s just me.

Step 6: Strip your working surface of newspapers or cardboard and wash with water. Wipe down and spray with vinegar.

You made it (In more ways than one; that was a long guide)! Congratulations!

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Cavitech, Susan. 1997. The Soapmaker’s Companion. United States: Versa Press
  2. Faiola, Anne-Marie. 2016. Pure Soapmaking: How to Create Nourishing, Natural Skin Care Soaps. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
  3. Gail, Amanda. 2008. Saponification Versus Cure Time in Soap Making. Lovin’ Soap [Weblog] 6 May 2016. Available at http://www.lovinsoap.com/2016/05/saponification-versus-cure-time-in-soap-making/ %5BAccessed 22 June 2017].
  4. Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil Grades and Standards. n.d. [online] Available at https://www.ams.usda.gov/grades-standards/olive-oi l-and-olive-pomace-oil-grades-and-standards [Accessed 11 June 2017]
  5. Faviola, Ann-Marie. 2007. All Olive Oils are not created equal. Soap Queen [Weblog] 12 Feb 2014. Available at http://www.soapqueen.com/bath-and-body-tutorials/tips-and-tricks/olive-oils-created-equally/ [Accessed 22 June 2017]
  6. Fisher, David. 2017. Do I need to use distilled water in my soap recipes? The Spruce. [Weblog] 04 April 2017. Available at https://www.thespruce.com/distilled-water-for-soap-516591 [Accessed 22 June 2017]
  7. Sodium Hydroxide. 2016. [online] Available at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npg/npgd0565.html %5BAccessed 12 June 2017].
  8. Sodium Hydroxide. 2016. [online] Available at https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/chem_profiles/sodium_hydroxide.html %5BAccessed 12 June 2017].
  9. Personal Protective Equipment. 2004. [pdf] n.p.: Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Available at https://www.osha.gov/Publications/osha3151.pdf %5BAccessed 13 June 2017].
  10. Saponification Value. 2017. Wikipedia. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saponification_value [Accessed 13 June 2017].
  11. Caustic Soda [online] Available at http://www.dow.com/causticsoda/offer/physical.htm [Accessed 13 June 2017].
  12. Gail, Amanda. 2008. Private Soapmaking Class, Pyrex and Lye, Essential Oils and Plastic [Weblog] Lovin’ Soap. 5 December 2015. Available at http://www.lovinsoap.com/2015/12/private-soapmakin g-class-pyrex-and-lye-essential-oils-and-plastic/ [Accessed 15 June 2017]
  13. Gail, Amanda. 2008. How to pick containers for soapmaking (What is safe to soap in?) [Weblog] Lovin’ Soap. 17 December 2015. Available at http://www.lovinsoap.com/2015/12/how-to-pick-containers-for-making-soap/ %5BAccessed 15 June 2017]
  14. Can A Polypropylene Container Hold A 10% Solution of Sodium Hydroxide (lye, NaOH)?. 2012. [online] Available at https://www.quora.com/Can-a-polypropylene-containe r-hold-a-10-solution-of-sodium-hydroxide-lye-NaOH [Accessed 22 June 2017].
  15. Faiola, Anne-Marie. 2016. Pure Soapmaking: How to Create Nourishing, Natural Skin Care Soaps. North Adams MA, USA: Storey Publishing.
  16. Freezer Paper Vs Wax Paper. 2012. [online] Available at http://www.soapmakingforum.com/showthread.php?t=21595 [Accessed 22 June 2017].
  17. Grosso, Alicia. 2013. The Everything Soapmaking Book 3rd Edition. Avon MA, USA: Adams Media.
  18. Trew, Sally with Gould, Zonella. 2010. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Making Natural Soap. New York NY, USA: Alpha