So you want to make soap, eh? This is a key aspect of running a suburban homestead. Plus there is the added benefit of it being part scary and part fun. There is definitely a bit of a Breaking Bad feeling when making soap. You get all geared up (or at least you damn well should), cause this stuff is no joke! It’s pretty much like being a crazy baking scientist who is hoping they don’t burn their eyes out or skin off. So what I’m trying to say is you HAVE TO BE CAREFUL when making cold process soap. You need to use lye, which is the same thing the bad guys use to dissolve dead bodies when the pigs are too full…just sayin’
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So assuming I haven’t completely scared you off and only instilled in you a healthy bit of lye fear, let’s move on. This post is going to be about making cold-process soap. There are two other main methods being “melt and pour” and hot process soap. The first I don’t really consider a method of making soap as you are just
That is a picture of the orange essential oil soap I made the other day. It’s really quite pretty and smells amazing (if only this post was
As I mentioned (maybe once or twice), you need to be careful when making soap. Primarily when using Sodium hydroxide, or as it is more commonly called lye or caustic soda. This stuff is no joke, it can easily cause blindness or chemical burns. I also wasn’t joking about it being able to dissolve flesh. It 100% can, so please treat it with respect and a healthy dose of fear.
Make sure that you are wearing long sleeves and that you have at least socks on your feet. Safety glasses are a must and you may or may not want a mask as the lye water can get pretty stinky and isn’t very good to breathe in. Oh, and of course you will absolutely need to get yourself some good gloves. I would suggest you grab some nitrile gloves as they are heavy duty and latex-free so its win-win. Now that you are aware of the necessary safety gear let’s move on.
Can you make soap without lye?
So you may be wondering why you would put something that can dissolve dead bodies into something that goes on your skin. This would be a very valid question to have. So let me explain why we use lye and what your alternatives are if you are dead set against it.
So let’s first look at what lye is and what role it plays in the traditional soap making process. You don’t get true soap without the occurrence of a chemical process called saponification. So what the heck is saponification, other than a big fancy word?
So the longwinded answer is no, you can’t make real soap without lye. But there also
Essential vs Fragrance Oil
It is a personal decision about whether or not to use fragrance oil. It can be tempting as there are so many more options if you do choose to go down the fragrance oil route. I get most of mine from Mystic Moments. I would suggest you get at least 100ml as you need 2oz for most recipes, so it goes quickly. There are loads of other places you could get essential oils from, I just mention Mystic Moments as it is what I have used and I love them. But you do you if there is somewhere you swear by then, by all means, use that.
As I said there are unending smell potentials if you decide to use fragrance oils. This is because they are created in a lab by very smart people. So they can create just about any smell that can not or does not exist in nature. While this can be very exciting (and I have been sucked in myself) there is something you should know. They don’t always fare so well during the cold process soap process. This means that you may choose the most amazing smelling fragrance only to have it all but disappear from your cured batch of soap. I had this exact issue happen to me with a batch of watermelon soap. So you will have to play it by ear.
If you are making cold process soap then you should definitely have some essential oils in your tool kit. I love sweet orange essential oil, lavender essential oil and pink grapefruit essential oil, so I have them on hand all the time. The wonderful thing about essential oils is that they are all-natural. They are a concentrated hydrophobic liquid made up of chemical compounds from plants. They are volatile, which means they will easily evaporate at normal temperatures. Essential oils get their name as they basically contain the very “essence” (input smell here) of the plant.
The most common method of extracting essential oils is through the use of steam. This distillation process uses both steam and light pressure, which pass through the selected plant material. This causes the essential oils to be released. As the vapour cools and condenses, the essential oils separate from the hydrosol (floral water) and rise to the top.
When it comes to colourants, much like fragrance, you have two main choices. Natural colourants or micas. Which you use may depend on if you are trying to keep your soap 100% natural vs trying to get a specific colour. Micas (much like fragrance oils) will always give you more options to choose from. Micas also tend to give more vibrant colours than the more natural options.
One thing that is important to note regardless of the type of colourant that you use is the fact that the cold process soap making process can alter colours (sometimes drastically). This can be true of both micas and natural dye options. When choosing micas typically the seller will show you how it will perform in cold process vs melt and pour etc. Pay attention so you aren’t disappointed when you unmold your precious soap.
Some natural options for colouring your soap include:
- Madder root – red to purple
- Rose pink clay – brownish pink
- Saffron – yellow
- Sage – green to brown
- Paprika – orange
- Indigo powder – deep blue
- Spinach – light green
- Alkanet root – pu
rple to blue
Cold Process Soap Supplies
So now that you have decided to make your own soap you will need a bunch of supplies. I’m not going to lie it’s cheaper to go to the store and just buy a bar of soap. But where is the fun in that? Not to mention all the sketchy ingredients… So while there is a certain amount of start-up cost in getting the reusable supplies and a reoccurring cost for the ingredients, at least you know what’s in your soap. You also have the ability to customize the formula to be right for you and your skin type. But more on that later. First, let’s look at the supplies you will need.
In terms of the reusable supplies, you will need the list isn’t huge, but these things are necessary. So let’s begin:
- Large glass bowl
- Small glass bowls
- Stick blender
- Digital infrared thermometer
- Digital scale
- Glass measuring cup
- Safety glasses
- Nitrile gloves
- Measuring spoons
It may look like a lot, but if you are serious about making your own soap then these are sound investments.
If you live in Canada then there are three sites that I use and they are:
If you are in the USA, then there is pretty much one place to get all your supplies from and that is Bramble Berry. They have pretty much everything you could ever dream to want.
The Great Palm Oil Debate
There is no denying that the cultivation of palm oil has had a huge impact on the planet. It is grown in large plantations mostly in Malaysia and Indonesia as well as other Soth Asian and African countries. Its cultivation has been linked to the destruction of the rainforests and orangutang habitats. So why use it at all?
Palm oil helps to harden the cold process soap and is a secondary lathering agent. However, unlike lye, it is not your only option for the role it plays in soapmaking. If you do include palm oil in your recipes, then make sure that it is labelled as RSPO. This identifies it as meeting the standards of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil vendors. They help to ensure that there are guidelines for certified growers, with a focus on sustainability. But beyond that, they push for legal, social and environmentally responsible management.
Using lard (or tallow)
If you set against using palm oil, then one main substitute is lard or tallow. However, this brings up another issue. This is a non-vegan/vegetarian alternative, and this may or may not be an issue for you. Using lard/tallow will result in a nice hard bar that stands up well in the shower which produces creamy bubbles that are mild on
If you decide to use lard/tallow then you can buy them from the store or take your fat offcuts and render them down to separate the fats.
Silicone vs wood molds
This is another personal choice. I tend to use the silicone loaf pans for smaller batches of soap. Wood ones are better for large batches as they are more sturdy.
Silicone has the advantage of being easier to unmold, also they don’t require lining. They also give the soap a nice smooth finish and they are easy to clean and maintain. One negative is that if you use strong fragrances they can embed themselves in the silicone. It is also possible for soda ash to end up on the
Unmolding from wood molds can be a bit easier as they tend to have better airflow that silicone molds.
Making your own recipe
Once you get the hang of the basics of the cold process soap process you can branch out and start to get fancy. Do you prefer a more moisturizing soap? Maybe you like more suds? These are all things that can be customized. BUT, you can’t just wing it. This is chemistry people, so I refer you again to my earlier warnings. So repeat after me… WE DO NOT MESS AROUND WHEN USING LYE. What this means is that if you want to change the recipe you have to figure out the new amount of lye water to use. So how the heck do we do this? We play it safe and use SoapCalc that’s how.
Now before you go off clicking on the link I need to warn you, SoapCalc is hella intimidating! But once you walk through it slowly it starts to make sense. There are lots of YouTube videos explaining how to use it. Some of the ones I would recommend are:
That said I would not suggest forging your own path using SoapCalc until you have a few batches of soap under your belt using a proven recipe. It also gives you a benchmark to decide how you want to tailor your own recipe.
Basic Cold Process Soap Recipe
So this is pretty much the recipe off of SoapQueen who as I mentioned earlier is the soap guru. I didn’t buy the premade mixes of soap as I wanted to go through the whole process (and it was super expensive to ship to Canada). The recipe below is for a 10″ loaf
- 10.9 oz. Coconut Oil (32%)
- 10.9 oz. Palm Oil (32%)
- 10.9 oz. Olive Oil (32%)
- 1.4 oz. Castor Oil (4%)
- 4.9 oz. Lye
- 11.3 oz. Distilled Water
- 2 tsp Sodium Lactate
- 2 oz Essential or Fragrance oil
- 1 tsp mica/pigment (optional)
Making the lye water
- Using a heatproof glass measuring cup measure out the 11.3oz of distilled water.
- In a separate glass bowl measure out the 4.9oz of lye.
- Carefully and SLOWLY add the lye to the water while stirring continuously (NEVER ADD THE WATER TO THE LYE. This can cause it to explode).
- Set aside to cool to 49-54C (120-130F)
Before you start
Get all your safety gear and put it on. Make sure you have your scale and thermometer and all your glass bowls and measuring spoons ready and within reach.
Making the base
- Melt all your oils completely and make sure they are thoroughly mixed (this is crucial for palm oil)
- In a large glass bowl measure out all the oils and set aside to cool.
- In a small glass bowl measure out 2oz of your desired essential or fragrance oil and set aside.
Mixing it all together
- Check the temperature of your oils and lye water. They should be within the 43-54C (110-130F) range.
- Carefully add 2 tsp of Sodium lactate into the lye water and give it a stir.
- Measure out 1tsp of mica (if using) and add it directly into the oils.
- Place the stick blender into the oils and bang it gently on the bottom of the bowl a few times. This is called ‘burping’ and it is important to make sure that there is no air trapped around the blades of the blender. We don’t want to introduce air bubbles into the batter. Any time you take the stick blender out of the batter it is necessary to burp it. trust me you will know it if you don’t. I’m talking deer in the headlights. It makes a distinctive sound. Is it the end of the world? No…but just burp it ok?
- CAREFULLY and SLOWLY pour the lye water down the shaft of the stick blender into the oils.
- Pulse the stick blender for about 10-20 seconds to start mixing the oils and lye water. You should see it start to change colour, use the stick blender to stir the mixture a bit.
- Alternate between blending and stirring for about 1 minute. You should be at
thintrace at this point. Add in the essential/fragrance oil and use the stick blender to completely incorporate it into the batter.
- Keep blending and checking to see when you have reached a thick trace. So it should be like thick pudding and it should hold any peaks.
- Set your stick blender aside and get your
- Carefully pour the batter into the
mold, you can (carefully) bang the moldon the counter a few times to help it settle. Just be careful as soap batter can burn. But you still have your gloves and safety glasses on (you do right????) so you should be fine.
- Using a spoon or fork you can make a design on your soap. If you are adding anything to the top such as poppy seeds, lavender flowers, dried citrus rind etc now is the time to add it.
- Spritz with 99% isopropyl alcohol.
- Set aside the loaf of soap and wait…..patiently.
What is trace?
Trace is reached when the oils and lye water have emulsified. This represents the start of the saponification process. There are multiple stages to trace and it will continue to thicken as it passes through them. Depending on what you are doing you may need to reach different stages of
So how do you know if you have achieved trace? This is tricky for a soap newb but gets easier to determine as you get more familiar with the process. Basically, you want to be able to see a “trace” of what you have done. So if you lift the stick blender out of the batter and swirl it around in the air (obviously keeping it above the bowl) you should see traces of the swirls on top of the batter.
Thin Trace – No oils is visible and it has the consistency of thin cake batter
Medium Trace – Consistency of thick cake batter
Thick Trace – Consistency of thick pudding/custard and it will hold its shape when poured
Making cold process soap introduces you to a whole new vocabulary. From saponification to trace and now gel phase. So what exactly is this new and wonderful thing? It is the stage of saponification when the soap batter heats up. It starts when you pour your soap batter into the
Avoiding gel phase
Choosing this option will depend on two things. The look of the soap you would like and on your ingredients. Avoiding
Forcing gel phase
If you want colours that pop then you will want to make sure your soap goes through
Things that can (and do) go wrong
So you made your first (or 50th) batch of cold process soap and suddenly it’s not looking like the picture. Something has gone terribly awry… Let’s look at some common soapmaking issues that you will most likely run into at some point.
So you have poured your soap batter into the
Soda ash is created when unsaponified lye reacts with the carbon dioxide that is naturally present in the air. It looks like a white ashy film that occurs on the soap bars and crushes your dreams (Pitch Perfect reference there for any fans). Don’t
It tends to occur when you are working with thin trace (for swirls) or when lye water and oils are lower than 100F. Using the isopropyl alcohol acts as a backup, helping to form a barrier between the soap and surrounding air.
Soap not hardening
There are two main causes of soap that will not harden. They are not enough lye/too much water or not enough hard oils/butter. When there isn’t enough lye in the recipe the soap will not properly be able to go through the saponification process. This can lead to a soft bar of soap that will not harden. Another cause can be not having enough hard oils or
Nothing is more unsightly in a batch of soap than ricing, ok well maybe soda ash is. In any
There are multiple reasons that can cause your precious soap to crack. They are as follows:
- Too many hard oils/
- Lye heaviness
- Dry ingredients
If you hard
This can easily be confused with ricing, however, the main difference is that with
Curing is crucial as it gives your soap time to progress through the saponification process. Thus ensuring to don’t irritate your skin using soap that still contains active lye. It also gives the bars time to harden up properly so that they don’t turn into mush as soon as you take them into the shower. Cause nobody has time for that. When the soap has been unmolded and cut, the next step is curing.
It is important to make sure that there is enough space between each bar to allow for proper air circulation. The other crucial component is adequate time. Most cold process soaps need to cure for 4-6 weeks, after which time it is safe to use. On my to-do list is building this awesome food storing rack from Ana White that I plan to use as a soap curing rack. The curing process is important as it gives time for any excess water to evaporate. This leads to a harder bar of soap that will last longer in the shower.
The last steps: Unmolding, Cutting and Storing
Assuming you haven’t encountered any of the above-mentioned pitfalls then you must excitedly be awaiting the unmolding of your new soap. This is an exciting step, getting to see the fruits of your labour! It is important to make sure you don’t unmold too soon (or too late).
You can safely unfold soap about 2-3 days after it has been put in
Now is the time to carefully cut your loaf of soap into bars. You can use a knife or you can get yourself a soap cutter. I think it is important to keep any soapmaking tools separate from normal kitchen utensils so I grabbed a soap cutter.
So that my friends is how to make cold process soap. Are you just curious about making soap? Have you tried it before or are you a seasoned pro?