S: Washing with plain water doesn’t remove dirt; commercial detergent bars cause an itchy rash
O: Chapped skin on hands and arms
A: Test reaction to mild soap instead of detergent
P: Switch to handcrafted soap
A few times I’ve considered writing about soapmaking here, but always decided against it. Now one of the blogs I follow, The Examining Room of Dr. Charles, has a post titled Exfoliating Soap is Full of Plastic. Seriously. Technically, he’s writing about detergent bars, not soap. Nonetheless, exfoliating soap is very easy to make.
If you remember grandma’s old lye soap that burned your hands and left them red and chapped, grandma needed a different recipe. She was using too much lye. If the right proportions of lye:fat are used, soap will clean your hands and leave them soft.
Soapmaking is fun and easy. Measure all ingredients. Prepare lye solution. Heat oils. Combine. Stir until it’s thick like a milkshake. If you want an exfoliating soap, stir in oatmeal or cornmeal or lavender flower-heads. Pour into molds. Unmold. Allow to cure. That’s all there is to it!
Properly crafted soap is mild and gentle on your skin (not at all like commercial detergent bars). When I had three kids in diapers I felt like I spent the entire day washing my hands, but never had any dry-skin problems from that much washing.
Should you wish to make your own soap, you first need to find lye crystals. This used to be a product carried everywhere: grocery stores, hardware stores, drugstores… Everyone sold lye. Now it’s harder to find than sudafed (for the same reason), with limits on the quantity you can purchase. My grocery store no longer carries lye; I usually phone the hardware store to make sure they have it in-stock, rather than drive all over town searching. NaOH is the lye you usually find, but KOH works, too.
Any fats will work. Our ancestors saved animal fat for soapmaking. You can do that if you wish (in which case you might also like to make your own lye). I usually purchase oil at the grocery store. It’s easier (and less messy) than rendering lard, and you get a nicer soap. Different oils have different chemical structures that contribute different qualities to the finished product. For instance, coconut oil yields a very hard bar of soap with big lather, while olive oil yields a softer, milder bar with little lather. Combining the two oils gives you the best of both.
Do not use kitchen utensils for soapmaking. Lye can eat into your dishes, then later leach out into your food. Thrift stores and garage sales are great places to find soapmaking supplies. Do not use metal. Plastic or glass are preferred. Wood will not last as long, but is acceptable.
- molds (boxes, drawer dividers, etc)
You’ll also need a scale, since the ingredients are measured by weight, not by volume. Good quality scales can sometimes be found at pawn shops, and often at sheriff’s auctions.
Lye is caustic. If you spill lye solution, make sure every tiny bit of it is cleaned up. If, for instance, you spill it on your washing machine, take the thing apart to clean up all of the spilled lye that drips down inside and behind the panel. Otherwise it might, over a period of months, eat away at the insulation surrounding your electrical wires and lead to a meeting between you and some very kind firemen. (hypothetically)
Be careful when working with lye. Do it outside. Don’t make soap with little kids around. Don’t leave soapmaking stuff laying around where a person might think they’re taking a taste of cake batter or cookie dough…
One Pound Big-Gulp Cold-Process Soap Recipe
1 cup water
2 ounces lye crystals
16 ounces oil
In heatproof container, in a well-ventilated area (such as outdoors), stir lye crystals into the water (order is important). The solution will get very hot (it’s an exothermic reaction, if you like big words – actually, that’s what occurs whether or not you care about big words). Anyhow, it will be hot. Let it cool to around 125 degrees.
Heat oil to 125 degrees. Pour the lye solution into the oil (order is important). Stir until it traces (it will look like a thick milkshake). Pour into a mold, cover (an old dish towel works well for this). When set (a day or two), remove from mold, cut into bars, and place in a draft-free area to finish curing (a couple weeks).
Exfoliating Soap – grind 1/3 cup oatmeal and stir into soap just before pouring into molds (or cornmeal, or lavender flowers)
Yellow Soap – use lemon juice in place of water when mixing the lye solution
Go forth and saponify
*temperatures do not have to be exact. The hotter it is, the faster the soap will trace, but the easier it will curdle. A good range is 110-130.
*any cooking oils will work; I like to use 8oz coconut oil mixed with 8oz of whatever is in the cupboard
*if you want a bigger batch that’s easy to measure, dissolve one 12-oz can of lye crystals in 4C water, and use two (3#) cans of vegetable shortening, melted. Obviously, this will make six times as much soap, so you’ll need a bigger mixing bowl and a bigger mold
*called the big-gulp method because this is a small batch that can be mixed in a big-gulp cup