One of my favorite winter time activities is making our family’s old fashioned lye soap. Both nourishing and moisturizing, this easy to make soap takes only a few short hours to create and takes up little storage space during the year. To keep things interesting, we like to mix things up and use both essential oils and fragrance oils, depending on our interests at the time.
Next, you’ll need lye and distilled water (or filtered water) to turn all those oils and fats into soap. To saponify ingredients into a solid, be sure to select sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and not potassium hydroxide (KOH) which is intended for liquid soap production. Most hardware and several big box stores carry lye (NOT DRANO!) in the cleaning aisle. However, I have found in recent years that a lot of stores are no longer carrying lye, so you may find it easier online—it’s often less expensive, too.
While not necessary, you can include essential or fragrance oils to your recipe. Essential oils (EOs) are the oils collected from various plants while fragrance oils (FOs) are manmade concoctions. Many suppliers, particularly of FOs, will provide guidelines as to how much to include in various sized recipes. These are all fun to experiment with and make the soap making journey even more exciting.
When taking that first step towards soap making, do be warned. Once you experience the goodness of all natural soaps, you’ll be addicted, begrudging every hand washing or bathing you have to endure with ‘the store bought stuff.’ You’ll discover new ways to make your soaps your own creations, all while learning to avoid those family and friends that are always after your stash.
Here’s what to do, in a nutshell…
Soapmaking is like any other venture—it can be as simple or as complex as you wish to make it. For the first several batches, however, keep things simple. Also, don’t invest heavily in equipment, as many of these items can be found on the cheap at garage sales or thrift shops.
- safety goggles (Yes, really. Caustic lye is painful and damaging if it gets in the eyes.)
- old clothes that can handle stains or lye burns
- latex gloves
- workspace covering—newspapers, flattened paper bags, plastic table cover
- kitchen scale measuring in ounces, pounds, and/or grams
- gallon sized heavy duty pitcher with pour spout
- smaller plastic/glass containers, pour spout optional
- large stainless steal or enameled stock pot
- rubber spatula
- stick blender (optional, but it really speeds up the process and ensures lye/oils mix properly)
- heavy duty, long handled mixing spoon if foregoing the stick blender
- digital thermometer
- old blanket or towels to insulate mold
- paper towels/old rags for cleanup
- freezer paper or trash bags to line mold
- soap mold—10” x 4” x 4” To learn how to change mold sizes, click here
Before we start having fun, I do have to be grown-up and bring up the whole safety thing first…
Lye is highly caustic and should be handled with care. Store out of reach of children. On soap making day, ensure children and pets are out of the working area. Also, provide plenty of ventilation by utilizing windows and fans. Never place your head over the lye solution as breathing the fumes can lead to respiratory distress. Dial 911 immediately if you experience breathing difficulties. Should lye come in contact with skin, apply vinegar and/or copious amounts of water to neutralize the burning. The good news about lye soap is that once saponification is complete, no lye remains in the finished product, provided the soap was created and cured properly.
Basic Baking Aisle Soap Recipe
Note: Use weighted measurements only for oils, lye, and water
lye – 7.02 oz.
distilled water – 16.39 oz.
coconut oil (76 degree) – 13.57 oz.
palm oil or lard – 13.57 oz.
olive oil – 22.29 oz.
Variation 1: Oats & Honey
1/4 c. finely ground oats
1 Tbsp. warm honey
Variation 2: Lavender
1/4 c. lavender flowers
Variation 3: Patchouli Musk
1-3 tsp. patchouli EO
Cover workspace with paper or plastic to protect counters. Gather all equipment and ingredients. Line mold with freezer paper or trash bag.
Measure additives such as EO/FO, oats, or honey and set aside.
Don goggles and gloves.
Place container on scale and hit ‘tare.’ Measure distilled water. Remove from scale and pour into gallon pitcher.
Place dry container on scale and hit ‘tare.’ Carefully measure lye. Remove from scale and very slowly add to water in gallon pitcher while carefully stirring. I like to do this near a window with a fan blowing to my back to push the fumes outside. The lye solution will reach appx. 200° F. Set bowl aside out of reach of children or pets to cool to 90-105°F.
In a separate bowl, measure each liquid oil. Set aside.
- Measure each solid fat and add to stockpot. Over medium heat, melt solids.
Once melted, add liquid oils. Stir to incorporate.
Remove oils from heat. Allow to cool to 90-105°F. Once oils and lye solution are both in the same temperature range, don goggles and gloves again. Slowly drizzle lye solution into oils, carefully stirring with heavy duty spatula until all lye solution has been mixed with the oils.
If using a stick blender, gently set blender into oils and give short bursts throughout the pan until you see the solution begin to thicken. If hand-stirring, begin with short, gentle strokes to keep solution moving, increasing speed and force as solution thickens. Scrape sides of pot periodically to incorporate all oils and lye together.
Eventually, the solution will ‘trace,’ resembling a fairly thin pudding. To check for trace, take your spatula or stick blender and drizzle a small amount of liquid across the top of the solution. If the drizzle immediately settles back into the pot, you’ve not reached trace. Continue stirring/blending. If, however, the drizzle leaves a faint ‘trace’ of the pattern you made before sinking back into the solution, you have reached trace.
Once you reach trace, it is time to add nutrients. Add herbals first, then EO/FO, stirring between each addition.
Quickly, but carefully, pour solution into mold.
Wrap mold with an old blanket or towels and allow to rest for 24 hours.
At the end of 24 hours, remove covers and check hardness of soap.If soap feels hard enough to release from the mold, do so. Otherwise, allow to harden another 24 hours or longer uncovered.
Once soap is removed, slice into bars and place in a well-ventilated location to cure for 3-4 weeks which allows the saponification process to complete. Do not be tempted to use bars early, as lye will still be present and can cause irritation. Once curing is complete, take a bath and enjoy!