Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Soap Making... It's Good Clean Fun!

This article was written by me for the newspaper I work for a few years ago... thought I'd share it with you guys.

The purchase of two bars of homemade soap from a couple running a booth at Stone Mountain, Georgia one weekend, began a quest to learn this craft for myself.

Always fascinated by simpler times, the olden days, and self- sufficiency, I began asking questions. I learned from the couple at Stone Mountain that they lived on a farm, rendered fat from their cows and pigs, mixed the fat with lye, added natural scents and colorants, stirred, and soap was formed.
I didn't have cows and pigs, and even if I had, I would be most hesitant to slaughter them for their tallow and fat. I turned to my favorite way of researching this ancient craft, the Internet.

There was an abundance of information on the World Wide Web to feed my new obsession. I learned about vegetable oils such as olive, coconut, palm, as well as exotic oils like almond, avocado, hemp, and mango. Each of the oils provides its own unique benefits to soap and to skin. I learned the terms sodium hydroxide (lye) and potassium hydroxide (potash) and the chemical reaction they form when mixed with the oils and fats (saponification).

Essential oils were my next discovery. These are concentrated oils distilled from various plants, offering a natural way to scent soap, as well as giving it additional beneficial qualities for the skin. Orange oil, for example, is a deep cleaning oil; ginger stimulates circulation; peppermint soothes tired muscles; lavender calms and heals; and tea tree is a natural antibacterial and anti- fungal oil.

Begin by gathering your equipment together
There were many artificial fragrance oils available, providing smells from baby powder to Irish Spring. Artificial colorants were also offered. These additives would make it possible to manufacture pretty soaps with pretty smells. All well and good, but I was determined to craft a product that was all natural, as close to the old timey method as my modern day equipment would allow.

After discovering, through my research, that most of the soaps and shampoos we purchase today, are not really soap at all, but detergents, harsh to body, skin, and hair, my determination increased. I wanted to make real soap, with natural ingredients, natural scents, natural coloring, soap that would be gentle and moisturizing to the skin, soap that would cleanse without stripping the skin of its own natural oils and moisture.

I measure my ingredients using a digital scale (exact
measuring is important).

I bought a stainless steel pot (lye reacts badly to aluminum! Don't ask me how I know), a ceramic bowl, and a hand- held stick blender. I used a candy thermometer to gauge temperatures. I then gathered my ingredients, olive, palm, and coconut oils, lye, and water. I experimented with several ways of molding my soaps, using wooden molds, baking pans, etc., finally settling on empty Pringle's potato chip cans, which with their cylindrical shape and cardboard construction, worked perfectly. I could peel off the cardboard and slice my soaps into perfect rounds. Pam's Soap Kitchen was born.

Adventures in my mad scientist laboratory have resulted in quite a number of successes and a few disasters. I destroyed a couple of aluminum pans I tried to use as soap molds; I burned my lips, more than once, hovering too closely over a newly mixed batch of lye and water (lye gives off caustic fumes before mixed with oils and it gets really hot).

The "Trinity" of oils... Palm, Coconut, and Olive!

Successes outnumber disasters greatly. Some of my favorites include: for my dad who works outside a lot and gets attacked by mosquitoes… I made a soap with citronella oil and lemongrass to ward off those pesky insects; my sister has extremely sensitive skin… I developed a facial soap with geranium oil in it that she uses and loves; I developed a shampoo bar using rosemary and peppermint with avocado oil that leaves hair lustrous and healthy- looking with no need for conditioner; and my lavender/oatmeal soap is a big hit with many of my friends… it smells great and is super moisturizing with the exfoliating quality of oatmeal.

The lye must be CAREFULLY mixed (and don't hold your
face over the bowl, you'll get a burn from the vapors!)
It heats super fast to about 200 degrees, you need to let it
cool to about 100 degrees before mixing it into your oils.

The mixture of oils, I melt and heat in my big stainless
steel pot. The oils need to come up to a temperature
of about 100 degrees before mixing with the lye.

The oils and lye are mixed together until they come to
"trace" which is a soapmaking term that means when you lift
up the mixer/blender you can see a trail or "trace" of soap
on top of the mixture... it's about the consistency of
pudding. This is an old picture, by the way, I've since
started using a stick (immersion) blender which works more
efficiently and more quickly. This step can take 5-10 minutes,
up to 30-40 minutes, depending on oils used, humidity in the air,
and many other factors.

After the soap "traces" I then add my essential oil(s)
for scent as well as skin benefits.

I pour the soap mixture into the mold, wrap in towels to
insulate and set aside to cure for at least 24 hours before

After unmolding the cured soap, I slice it into "bars"... then
put the bars on a drying rack to finish curing for 4-6 weeks
before using.

Conjuring soap concoctions in my laboratory/ kitchen, has led to experimenting with lotions, lip balms, creams, bath salts and more… They all include many of the same ingredients.
It's all good clean fun.

My basic soap "recipe" for a one pound "log" of soap is as follows:

10 ounces palm oil
4 ounces coconut oil
2 ounces olive oil
(heat together, bringing to a temp of 100 degrees)

2.25 ounces lye flakes (this will make the soap 8% superfat, which means it will be a nice, moisturizing soap)
Dissolved in:
6 ounces water
(stir the lye into the water, it will heat up in about 3 seconds to a temperature of 150-200 degrees, allow to cool to 100 degrees before mixing with the heated oils)

After blending to "trace" I add about 3/4 ounce of the essential oil of choice and mix for a few seconds to incorporate the EO, then pour into molds and allow to cure.

A good lye calculator is essential in soapmaking... I use the one at Majestic Mountain Sage (click here)


  1. " I developed a shampoo bar using rosemary and peppermint with avocado oil that leaves hair lustrous and healthy" <-- I want to hear more about this!!

  2. Where do you find lye flakes locally?

  3. WOW! Thank You So Much! This is great!