How To Make Soap Essay

This is a guest post and entry in our non-fiction writing contest  by Bam Bam

It is really easy to make soap at home. And the homemade product is by far superior to anything you could buy in the box stores. It is better for your skin and gives you something with which to barter. Everyone loves a nicely scented homemade bar of soap.

In this post, I want to walk you through the cold process method of making homemade soap. It’s easier than you might think. Soap is made from three basic ingredients: lye, water and fat (oil). Adding lye water to fat results in a chemical reaction called saponification, the end result of which is soap.

About the ingredients: make sure your lye is 100 percent sodium hydroxide. (You don’t want any additives.) Next use either rainwater or bottled water. There are all kinds of oils that are used to make soap, and some of them are very expensive. The ones that I have used so far include olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, jojoba oil, caster oil, vegetable shortening and lard. It’s good to use a combination of oils because different oils add different characteristics to the fished soap. For instance, caster oil is added for lather and olive oil is added to make a nice hard bar of soap. (More on this later.)

Here is the quick and dirty explanation of soap making. Measure out the water and the lye, and then add the lye to the water. Cool until lye mixture reaches 100 degrees. Then heat the oils to 100 degrees. When the lye water and the oils are both 100 degrees, add the lye water to the oils. Stir until the mixture reaches “trace”. Then pour into your mold and leave unmolested overnight. Remove the soap from the mold and cut into bars. Let cure for six to eight weeks. (I will give a detailed explanation later.)

Equipment and Supplies

Now that you have a basic understanding of the ingredients and the process of soap making, let’s get into the details. There are a few items that you will need. Let’s start with safety first.

Safety Items:

  • Latex gloves
  • N95 mask
  • Safety goggles

Keep in mind that lye is a chemical and it has some dangerous properties. It can burn your skin and its fumes can irritate your nose and throat. If lye water is splashed into your eyes, it can cause blindness. This is why it is advisable to wear gloves, a mask and safety goggles. If handled properly, lye is no different than any of the other chemicals you handled in high school chemistry class. Do not fear lye; just be careful.

Kitchen Items:

  • Digital scale
  • Stick blender
  • 2 cup (liquid) measuring cup
  • 1 cup (liquid) measuring cup
  • Half gallon pitcher with secure lid
  • Thermometer
  • Dish pan (not pictured)
  • Enamel or stainless steel pan
  • Wooden spoon
  • Spatula

Note: Once these kitchen items have come into contact with lye, they cannot be used for food preparation. Lye is a poison.

When making soap, ingredients are measured by weight and not by volume. Therefore you will need a good scale. I ordered this one from for $18.95.

Whatever scale you purchase, make sure it has a tare function. You want to be able to put the (empty) pitcher on the scale, hit the tare button and return the scale to zero. That will allow you to weigh the water without having to subtract the weight of the pitcher.

You will use the one-cup liquid measuring cup to weigh the lye. A liquid measuring cup has a lip to help pour out the liquid or in our case, the excess lye. The pour spout on the liquid measure will come in handy when you have poured too much lye into the measuring cup and need to put some back into the bottle.

You will use the two-cup liquid measuring cup to weigh the oils. Again, put the empty measuring cup on the scale and hit the tare button to return the scale to zero. Then measure each oil one at a time. Measure out one oil and then pour it into the pan. Measure the next oil and pour it into the pan. And so forth. You don’t want to measure all the oils together because if you pour too much, you will have to pour oil back into the jar.

You will need a thermometer that reads between 80 degrees and 120. Both the oil mixture and the lye water need to be 100 degrees when you pour the lye mixture into the oil. You will use the dishpan filled with ice water as a water bath to cool down the pitcher containing the lye water. You may also need it to cool down the oil mixture.

Although not essential for soap making, a stick blender makes things a lot easier After you add the lye water to the oil, you need to stir the mixture until it reaches “trace”. (The notion of trace will be explained below.) You can stir for a few minutes with a stick blender or 25 minutes by hand. A stick blender is a good idea.

Selecting Oils

There are many oils suitable for making soap. Your budget and what you want from your soap will help determine which oils you use. Here is a list of common oils.

Lard is rendered pig fat. The good thing about lard is that it is cheap. One pound of lard is just over $2. Lard makes a reasonably hard, mild soap. The problem is that soap made exclusively from lard does not lather well and it tends to be brittle. (That is why you want a mixture of oils—because no one oil will have every quality you are bound to want in your soap.)

Palm oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm. It comes in a number of colors including white, orange and red. Palm oil tends to make a soft soap. So if you use palm oil, you will want to use oil (such as olive) that makes a very hard bar of soap.

Coconut oil is oil derived from the flesh of the coconut. Coconut oil makes a fairly hard bar of soap that lathers well. The problem with coconut oil is that it dries out the skin.

Olive oil is the fat obtained from the olive. To make soap, get the cheapest olive oil you can find. There is no need to use extra virgin olive oil. There are many good features of soap made from olive oil (castile soap). Soap made from olive oil is very hard and mild on the skin. The soap lathers very well and is long-lasting. If you were going to make soap from a single oil, the best choice would be olive oil. But it’s good we don’t have to limit ourselves to one type of oil, as the one drawback of castile soap is that it tends to be brittle.

Caster oil is derived from the caster bean, which really isn’t a bean; it’s a seed. Caster oil makes soap with a very fine lather. Caster oil is added in very small amounts.

Jojoba oil is not really an oil; it is a wax found in the seed of the jojoba plant. Jojoba oil is the most expensive oil on this list. It is used sparingly in soap making, not just because of the expense but also because using more than 10 percent in a recipe makes for a very soft soap. Jojoba oil is used because it is an exceptional moisturizer. Jojoba oil is added in very small amounts.

Soap Making Recipes

There are all kinds of soap making recipes floating around the Internet. Before using them, I recommend that you run them through a lye calculator such as the one that can be found at Bramble Berry. Even if you find a recipe in a book that you want to try, run it through a lye calculator just to double check the figures.

A lye calculator will let you tweak a recipe or even invent your own recipe. You just enter how many ounces of each oil you wish to use and press “calculate” and the calculator spits back the amount of lye and the amount of water you will need. It will also calculate the total yield of the batch.

My soap molds hold 40 ounces of soap. So the recipes I have made all make approximately 40 ounces.

Here are the recipes I have made so far.

Lavender Soap

Lye Water Solution

  • 3.81 oz. Lye
  • 8.91 oz. Water

Oil Mixture

  • 11 oz. Olive oil
  • 6 oz. Coconut oil
  • 6 oz. Palm oil
  • 2 oz. Jojoba oil
  • 2 oz. Caster oil

Essential Oil

  • .5 oz. Lavender essential oil

To make the ylang-ylang soap, use ylang-ylang essential oil instead of lavender oil.

Rose Soap

Lye Water Solution

  • 4.02 oz. Lye
  • 9.24 oz. Rosewater

Oil Mixture

  • 16 oz. Olive oil
  • 5 oz. Palm oil
  • 5 oz. Coconut oil
  • 2 oz. Caster 0il

Essential Oil

  • .5 oz. Rose Essential Oil

Old Fashioned Peppermint Soap

Lye Water Solution

  • 3.86 oz. Lye
  • 8.91 oz. Water

Oil Mixture

  • 16 oz. Lard
  • 6 oz. Olive oil
  • 1 oz. Caster oil

Essential Oil

  • .5 oz. Peppermint essential oil

Now that I’ve introduced you to the recipes, let me walk you through soap making step-by-step. We will make the Old Fashioned Peppermint Soap.

Step 1: Set Up

You will want to get out all your equipment and ingredients. Make sure you have enough of each ingredient on hand. If you are short even one ingredient and want to use another, make sure you run the recipe through the lye calculator.

  • Fill up your sink with soapy dishwater.
  • Cover your work area with newspaper.
  • Set out a dishpan with cold water and lots of ice cubes. You will use this as a water bath to cool down the lye water.
  • Line your soap mold with either saran wrap or freezer paper.
  • Put on goggles, safety mask and gloves.

Step 2: Lye Water

Grab the half-gallon pitcher and measure out 8.91 oz. bottled water. Set aside. Take the one-cup measuring cup and measure out 3.86 oz. of lye. Slowly pour the lye into the water. Stir with wooden spoon until lye is dissolved. A minute is plenty of time. Put top on pitcher. Place pitcher in water bath and let it cool. Put the measuring cup that contained the lye and the wooden spoon in the soapy water.

Step 3: Mix the Oils

Measure out 16 oz. of lard. Cut into smaller chunks and put into pan. Measure out 6 oz. olive oil and 1 oz. caster oil. Pour into pan. Turn on burner and heat on low until lard has melted. Turn off burner.

Step 4: Temperature Regulation

  • Check the temperature of the lye water. You want the temperature of the lye water to go down to 100 degrees. When the lye water reaches 105 degrees take it out of the water bath. Clean thermometer.
  • Next, check the temperature of the oil mixture. Place pot in water bath until oil mixture reaches approximately 100 degrees. Then take pot out of water bath. Clean thermometer.
  • Double check to make sure lye mixture and oil mixture are within five degrees of each other, cleaning thermometer after each use.

Step 5: Combine Lye Water and Oil

Insert your stick blender into oil mixture. Slowly pour the lye water into the oil. Be careful not to splash the lye water. Blend with stick blender until soap traces. Soap reaches trace when it thickens sufficiently that you can turn off the blender and see ripples across the top of the soap, that is, if you drizzle some of the soap on the surface of the mixture, you can notice a “trace” or a ripple effect.

Step 6: Essential Oil

Add the peppermint essential oil. Pour the soap into the mold you have selected, using the spatula to get all the soap off the sides of the pot. Cover with towels or old blankets and set aside where it will be undisturbed until the following day.

Step 7: Cut and Dry Soap

The following morning take your soap out of the molds. The soap will shrink slightly overnight so it’s really easy to plop the soap log out of the mold. Remove saran wrap or freezer paper. Cut into one-inch bars of soap. Let cure in a cool, dry place for six to eight weeks before using. You will need to flip over your bars of soap every few days so they can dry evenly. Store them on white freezer paper. If you store them on a colored surface, they may pick up the color of that surface.

Soap Molds

Just about anything can work as a soap mold. If you just want to make one batch to see if soap making is for you, use an old shoebox. I bartered to have a friend build soap molds from wood. I knew that I wanted a standard bar of soap, which is 2.5 x 3.5 x 1 inch. I knew that I wanted to make relatively small batches. So I opted to make 10 bars at a time. I then calculated the interior dimensions of the molds: 2.5 x 3.5 x 10 inches. I gave this figure to my friend and just had him add on the thickness of the wood.

If you use a wood mold make sure you line the mold with either saran wrap or freezer paper. You could also use plastic containers. If you use plastic containers, make sure you spray the containers with cooking spray.

That’s it. Easy peasy.

Let me list one more recipe. This recipe is for plain soap—no essential oils added. For a mold I used the box from a dozen pint Ball Jars lined with freezer paper.

Unscented Soap (Large Batch)

Lye Water Solution

  • 12.18 oz. Lye
  • 27.39 oz. Water

Oil Mixture

  • 30 oz. Olive oil
  • 20 oz. Coconut oil
  • 15 oz. Crisco
  • 14 oz. Palm Oil
  • 4 oz. Caster Oil

That’s it!

I made this plain batch so I can hand-mill it in a couple of weeks. I want to experiment with adding things like rose petals from my garden, oatmeal, and fragrance oils. To hand-mill the soap, grate it with a cheese grater and put it in a double boiler with some water. Let it melt. Then add the additional ingredients. Such ingredients cannot be added until the lye has set. So I plan to let my unscented soap dry for two weeks, grate it with a cheese grater, melt it and then add interesting stuff. I want to try a concoction of canned coconut milk, honey and vanilla. I need to do more research here. I don’t know if I should add vanilla fragrance oil or vanilla extract.

This has been my adventure into soap making. I have had a lot of fun and learned a lot. I am hoping some of the more experienced soap makers will share some of their recipes below.

Helpful Resources:

This is an entry in our non-fiction writing contest where you could win:

First Prize) Winner will receive a Wise Essentials Kit courtesy of LPC Survival and an EcoZoom’s Versa Stove courtesy of EcoZoom stoves.. A value of over $300.

Second Prize) Winner will receive a Stealth Body Armor Level II vest courtesy of SafeGuard ARMOR™ LLC and a $150 gift certificate for Wolf Ammo courtesy of A total prize value of over $600.

Third Prize) Winner will receive copies of both of my books “31 Days to Survival: A Complete Plan for Emergency Preparedness” and “Dirt-Cheap Survival Retreat: One Man’s Solution” and a Katadyn Siphon Water Filter courtesy of Mayflower Trading Company. A total prize value of $107.

Contest ends on June 5 2012.

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Common soap bars are a 19th century invention, but soap was used in the textile industry and medicinally for at least the last 5000 years. Some snapshots of the role soap plays in our lives make for a fascinating tour back through time.

Archaelogical evidence of soap was found in Babylonian clay containers dated at 2800 B.C. Inscriptions on the containers state that the product was made from fats boiled with ashes. The product thus produced was not necessarily used to wash the body; it might have been used to wash wool used in textile manufacture.

The Ebers papyrus, 1500 B.C. refers to medicinal use of soap for skin diseases. These texts suggest that both animal and vegetable fats were combined with alkaline salts to make a substance used for treating sores as well as washing.

Thanks to the aqueducts, bathing became convenient and popular in Roman times; however, it is believed that people in those days cleaned their bodies by rubbing abrasive substances, like sand or pumice, over the skin and then scrapping off the grime and gravel with sticks. This exfoliation ritual might have been followed by luxuriating in scented baths and then massage with perfumed oils. Scents were added to baths as disinfectants and to lotions for aesthetic purposes.

We will recall that the word "lavender" comes from the Latin word lavare, meaning "to wash" but lavare might originally have been a medical term for cleansing wounds. Thus, while lavender was added to water for its value in maintaining hygiene in communal baths, its use in soaps was most likely determined by medical demands.

Regardless of the end uses of soap, soap was popular throughout the Roman Empire. An entire soap factory was discovered in the ruins of Pompeii, one of the cities destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. We do not know whether this factory supplied the textile industry or apothecaries and physicians. We do know that the dual use of soap for commercial and soap for personal use has existed for millennia.

The famous Greek physician Galen recommended washing with soap as a preventative measure for certain diseases, especially diseases of the skin. Historically, soap was not used to promote luster to the skin or hair nor was it used to impart fragrance. These aesthetic aims were achieved with bath scents and body lotions. Thus, to the extent that soap was used on an individual basis, it was for medical and hygienic purposes, not bathing or beauty.

Which came first, a decline in bathing habits or the plague, is not clear, but hundreds of years ago, bath houses were closed because their use was associated with the rampant spread of the Black Death. We might recall that similar public health measures were implemented more recently when the AIDS epidemic was linked to bath houses!

With the demise of public bath houses, bathing and washing became a luxury only the rich could enjoy. However, soap making remained an important activity for both the textile industry and apothecaries. People who carried on the arduous work of making soaps for personal use tended also to make candles since some of the same raw materials are used in both products.

In short, throughout history, soap use for personal hygiene was medically motivated. However, short-cuts in manufacturing techniques achieved in the 19th century resulted in two important developments:

First, a new process, using sodium hydroxide, made for a hard rather than liquid product that was easier to store and ship.

Second, soap became easier and cheaper to make and thus became more affordable and popular.

The result was entirely predictable: public hygiene in more affluent areas of the world experienced a quantum leap.

As can be deduced by the notes in the table, soap should have a neutral pH. It should not burn the skin. It should also be made from pure ingredients so let's discuss the ingredients.

Animal Fat:

Most inexpensive soaps are by-products of the meat packing industry. There are, however, a large number of reasons for preferring vegetable-based soaps over animal ones, not the least of which is that toxins, including synthetic hormones used to bulk up animals, tend to accumulate in fat tissue. If this were not a cogent enough argument, it is fairly easy to demonstrate that animal fats tend to clog pores more than vegetable oils. Even going back many centuries, soaps made from vegetable oils, like Castile soap, were regarded as superior to those made from lard.

Animal fat has to be "rendered" or purified. This involves cooking and odor. Meat has to be separated from the fat. This is usually done by heating the fat so that the cracklings separate. The meat looks like it has been cooked, which, of course, it has. The meat must be removed. Sometimes, water has to be added so that it absorbs the impurities. Then, the "soup" has to cooled, usually slowly, so that the fat separates and rises to the top while the heavier parts sink. The fat is then skimmed off. If the fat still has odor and impurities, the process has to be repeated.

Vegetable Oils:

In Spain, there was a tradition of fine soap making, called Castile because of the place name. These soaps used mainly olive oil. Today, coconut oil, sometimes called coconut butter, is used in many soaps because it lathers nicely and is almost odorless. However, almost any vegetable oil can be used. The more common ones are almond, avocado, jojoba, palm, and shea butter.

Lye Water:

As noted, this is made by pouring or dripping water over ashes. Different woods or other organic materials produce variations in color. Soft water, i.e., rain or spring water, should be used. If the solution does not have a high enough pH, it needs to be poured over more ash. If it is too corrosive, more water needs to be added. This is a time consuming process that requires burning one's own organic materials over an open fire or in a cast iron pot. If a feather dissolves in the lye, the pH is probably about right. Some try floating eggs or potatoes in the brew. These objects should float so that half their mass is below the water line.

This kind of base will make a soft soap, not a hard soap.

Caustic Soda:

Sodium hydroxide is a nasty chemical that requires special handling, like safety goggles and gloves. It was introduced in the 19th century by a French chemist named Nicolas Leblanc (1742-1806) and improved by a Belgian chemist, Ernest Solvay (1836-1922), who changed the nature of the soap and impacted the industry radically. Basically, the newer methods substituted sodium hydroxide for the lye water made from potash. The result was a hard soap that was easy to store and ship. Soap making moved from the farm to industrial manufacturers who realized huge profits from the recycling of animal fats into commercially viable cakes that were easy to sell.

Other Ingredients:

As everyone knows, there can be a lot of ingredients in soap: chemical stabilizers, preservatives, fragrances, vitamins, seaweed, corn, oatmeal, pumice, aloe, dyes, milk, fruit or berries, cucumbers or carrots or other vegetables, exotic oils, beeswax, herbs and flowers . . . Each ingredient changes the chemistry of the bar of soap. Let's see how clear I can be. Milk, from goats or other animals, counts towards the acid (and water) component of the soap. Aloe gel counts towards the base component and enhances the disinfecting properties of the soap.

Intuitive people as well as those who are cutting edge in new ecological developments must realize that each constituent not only has to go through some process to prepare it for use in the soap but each one changes the pH of the soap—and our environment—because even if run-off today does not start in a temple where animal sacrifices are performed, it starts with animal sacrifice and ends up laced with antibiotics and derivatives of the petrochemical industry that eventually end up in sewage and septic systems.

Commercial Soap

Dial is a good example of a commercial soap. It is produced by Armour, but it is a truly distant cousin of Borax, a cleanser that went into production after the discovery of vast deposits of borax in Death Valley during the Gold Rush in 1880. The Armour family went into the soap business eight years later. Then, it produced a scouring pad for aluminum cookware called Brillo (1913). Purex began in a garage in Los Angeles in 1922. Enter the meatpacking industry: Dial is introduced in 1948 as the first antibacterial soap. The ad campaign was enormous and promised 24-hour protection from bacteria-causing odors. Next comes Vienna sausage in aluminum containers . . . beginning to see a flash back of your childhood?

Let me continue. In 1988, while the former host of "Death Valley Days" was sitting in the Oval Office, the rights to market 20-mule team of Boraxo were acquired. Next came the first microwave cup meals. A year later, Liquid Dial is introduced. It rings up a million in sales in the first 10 weeks on the market. The deal with WalMart took another decade to pull together. In the meantime, the company split and spun off some products and acquired new ones.

Soap versus Detergent

A detergent is a synthetic imitation of a soap, i.e. a laundering agent made from chemicals. Detergents were developed in Germany in 1916. They are not just "imitation soaps." Detergents are different from soaps in that they do not combine with natural mineral salts in water and do not form scum. Unlike real soap, detergents work in cold water and with salt water. Soap and detergent have similar capacities to emulsify fats and oils and to hold dirt, but from this point on, they are significantly different due to the presence of surfactants and additives, such as whitening agents. The list of the chemicals used to produce these detergent effects is hair raising.

Beginning around 1960, it was noted that there was more foam on rivers and that sewage treatment facilities were encountering serious problems, including that water foamed when it came out of the tap, this due to the fact that propylene-based alkyl benzene sulphonates are not completely degraded by the bacteria naturally present in effluents. It is not for me to try to explain the chemistry of all that started to go wrong, but merely to note that the correction being sought was to increase use of proteolytic enzymes to aid the breakdown of materials that were not readily "bio-degradable." The ramifications of this are almost too far-reaching to imagine.


It is not possible to do justice to soap's fascinating history in a single web page, but this overview ought to give many people incentive to reflect on the many, many soap products they use daily: liquid soap, bar soap, shampoo, liquid and powdered dishwasher and laundry detergents, and a host of specialty cleaning products, all of which have a major impact on health and the environment.

Fortunately, however, there is a resurgence of interest in cottage industry soap manufacturing in which both the hygienic and aesthetic demands of the most fastidious connoisseur can be satisfied.


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