Friday, September 14, 2012

Make Your Own Soap, Part I

This is the first in a four part series on how to make your own soap. In order to avoid an exceptionally long (and potentially boring) post on the entire soapmaking process all at once, I thought it would be a little more interesting to divide it into four separate posts.  So, for the next four Fridays, I will post about how to make your own soap at home. 

Today's post will concentrate on mixing the lye water. Part II will show you how to determine what base oils to use, discuss the properties of different base oils and how they contribute to the soap. The third post will show you how to combine the lye and base oils, how to determine when it is ready to go into the mold, and how I prepare the molds. In Part IV, I will share some of my favorite recipes. I have been using these recipes for over 20 years to make laundry soap and bath soap. I will also tell you where I get my supplies and share some soapmaking links that will help you to make your own!

Let me start by saying that I would not call soap making anywhere near frugal living.  Making your own soap is more expensive than purchasing it at the store.  However, homemade soap is far superior to anything you find in a store!

Without going into detail about the natural chemical process that takes place when you mix up a batch of soap, let me just say that home made soap contains natural glycerin. The glycerin makes it moisturizing. Commercial soap products have the natural glycerin removed and as we all know, they are anything but moisturizing. When you make your own soap, you can also control the ingredients in order to make the soap even more moisturizing.  For example, I sometimes 'super fat' my soap by adding additional cocoa butter to make it more moisturizing.  'Super fatting' is a term that means adding additional fats/oils above and beyond what is needed by the chemical process to make the soap.

Today's homemade soap is not like your great-grandmother's lye soap. While all soap (even the commercial stuff at the store) is made with lye, I weigh and measure all ingredients, your great-grandmother did not. Go back in time a few hundred years and those women didn't know how or why the ingredients worked together to make soap. Today we have the benefit of modern science and it has definitely improved the quality of homemade soap.

My posts on soapmaking are an overview of the soapmaking process.  My goal here is to show you that you can do it yourself and let you know it isn't difficult. However, it would take way too many words and pages to provide you all the details. In addition, the details can and will change depending on the fats (oils) you will use. If you use tallow and lard to make your soap, you will need a different amount of lye then if you use coconut and palm oil. To find out the additional details you need, there are many good soapmaking books on the market.  You can find many of them at your local library - no need to purchase one.

Now, let's make some soap. In this day and age, there are two popular ways to make soap, one called the 'hot process' and one called the 'cold process'. Your great-grandmothers probably cooked their soap over the stove until the chemical process was complete- that is the 'hot process' method.  While I have used the hot process method in the past, I prefer the 'cold process' method.  The soap isn't cooked, just poured into a mold and insulated until the chemical process is finished on its own, usually overnight. That is what I am going to show you here.

Soapmaking starts with the correct tools.  As a minimum, you need a pot and some spoons. I recommend that you do not use the same kitchenware that you cook in.  I know people who do. However, for safety sake, I do not. Here is a picture and list of all the tools I use to make soap:

  • Two pots - the large one is used to mix the soap, the small one to help with the lye water.
  • Various spoons - When I first started making soap over 20 years ago, I used wood utensils.  However, it didn't take me long to understand that the lye water eventually eats the wood and you will get splinters in the soap.  So, I switched to plastic and have used the spoons shown here for about 18 years.
  • Scale - this is important. If you are weighing your ingredients for accuracy, you will need a good scale. Your soap can fail because you don't have the correct ingredients in the correct portions. This is my second scale.  My first scale lasted about 15 years. I think I bought this one about 6 years ago. I got it at an office supply store. I verify its accuracy a few times each year by placing five quarters on the scale and checking to make sure the weight states one ounce.
  • Plastic and glass measuring containers- to measure out the lye, water, oils and soap scents (if using).  These containers are also only used for soapmaking, never for the beverages we drink.
  • Stick blender - this is about the only electric appliance I will hate giving up if had to do this without electricity! While it is possible to stir the soap with just a spoon (I have done it many times), you will be stirring and stirring for about four hours.  Using a stick blender, you will only be stirring the soap about 5 minutes!
  • Thermometer - I have two.  One to check the temperature of the lye water and one to check the temperature of the oils. I combine them when they are both at 90 - 95 degrees.  (The trick is to get them both at the same temperature at the same time!)
  • A small mixing cup to add color (if I am using it). Sometimes I do add color and sometimes I don't.
  • Tools to cut the soap. I have various tools - only some are in the picture. I will go into more detail on the tools I use to cut the soap in the last post of the series.
  • Soap molds  - (not shown) I have a few different molds I use and I will discuss them in the next soapmaking post.
  • Rubber Gloves and Goggles - (not shown) very important safety equipment.You should always wear safety glasses and rubber gloves when making soap. Some of the chemicals are extremely harmful if they get on your skin or in your eyes. If you make soap frequently, lye water or soap will splash on your face and hands - it has happened to me!  You don't want to suffer a bad burn or loose your eyesight because you made a batch of homemade soap. 
I would like to say one more word about safety with the lye water. I have read on many web sites to have vinegar handy to wipe the lye water off of your skin if you should accidentally splash it on you.  This is WRONG!!  If you get lye water on your skin the very best thing you can do is rinse with water.  Lots of water.  Nothing will dilute the lye from your skin like water can. If I get splashed with the lye water, I calmly (but quickly) put everything down and go directly to the sink to rinse off my skin. The soap will wait, your skin will not.

Mixing the Lye Water

To make the lye available to the oils, you need to mix it in water. Start with the water -measure out the amount you need. Notice there is ice in the water in the picture? I usually start with ice water to help keep the temperature of the lye water as low as possible. Otherwise you must wait longer for the lye water to cool before you can use it.

 I mix my lye water in the garage.  I do this for safety reasons. If something happened and I spilled it, I don't want lye water all over my hardwood floors or kitchen counters. Here is a picture of how I mix the lye and water. This is all laid out on the concrete garage floor, covered with newspaper in case I spill the dry lye crystals. Before I took this picture, I transferred the water to the glass container I use to mix the lye water.

The glass measuring cup on the scale is used to measure and weigh the dry lye crystals. If this is the same glass measuring cup you used to measure the water, be sure to dry it well before measuring the lye.  (Since I have two, I use one for the water and one to measure out the lye.)  I put the glass container where I mix the lye and water together in a small pot because when lye is mixed with water it gets extremely hot extremely fast. Using ice water does lend itself to a potential problem here, when the water temperature goes between the two extremes, it can stress the glass container. If the glass ever gets a small crack that I can't see, the container could burst when used.  I don't want lye water all over my garage either so if the container ever bursts, it will do so in the pot. Now let me say that I have been mixing my lye water in the same glass container for over 20 years. I have never had a container break on me. However, I do know people who did have their lye water container break and I ALWAYS practice safety first. I also use this smaller pot to make hand lotion so this isn't its only function.

Pour the lye crystals into the water, not the other way around.  This is also done for safety. Stir until the crystals dissolve.

Leave the lye water to cool. I never remove the glass container from the pot to cool faster- just in case it got a new stress crack while mixing.

Another reason to mix the lye water in the garage is to allow it to cool undisturbed.  The lye water is dangerous at this stage and I don't want anyone in the house to touch it.  No one is allowed in my garage while the lye water is in there cooling. It takes a few hours to cool to the proper temperature. It is well over 130 degrees when first mixed and I usually cool it down to between 90 - 95 degrees before mixing with the oils.

There are times when you may need the lye water to cool faster.  If that is the case, you can fill the sink with four or five inches of water and ice and place the glass container holding your lye water into the sink full of water.  Stir the lye water constantly and measure the temperature every few minutes or so. It will cool much quicker this way. I have done this in the past a few times. On those occasions, the oils were cooling much faster then the lye water and I would either have to reheat the oils or cool the lye water so they could be combined. So, I decided to cool the lye water. Please remember though, the more you handle the lye water container, the greater your risk of spilling it.  The lye water is extremely caustic at this stage and not only will it burn your skin as mentioned above, it wil also  damage the finish on your home furnishings if you are not careful. For this reason, I try to limit my handling of the lye water container.  If faced with this situation, I do think it is easier to reheat the oils again, if necessary, to get everything to the proper temperature to combine them. 

I like to make soap when no one else is home.  I have heard from other people who make soap that family members have touched the lye water and burned themselves. I read on a soapmaking forum once about a lady whose husband drank the lye water by mistake and had to go to the hospital. I can't stress enough that safety must come first here. That doesn't go just for the two legged family members but it is equally important for the four legged ones too.  If you want to make soap when others are at home with you, lock the door to the room where the lye water is cooling and put a sign on the door to keep others out.

While the lye water is cooling, you can turn your attention to the base oils.  The base oils are covered in the next post!

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