Subjective Symptoms: Washing with plain water doesn’t remove dirt; commercial detergent bars cause an itchy rash
Objective Observable Data: Chapped skin on hands and arms
Assessment: Test reaction to mild soap instead of detergent
Plan: 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-to-fat are used, soap will clean your hands and leave them soft.
Soapmaking is fun and easy. Weigh 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. I am indebted to the members of the old CompuServe Soapmaking forum for sharing their encouragement and expertise.
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. Bundle all the supplies together and store them in a craft-area. These things should not be in your kitchen or come into contact with your food.
- molds (boxes, drawer dividers, etc.)
- protective eyewear
- scale (check pawn shops and sheriff’s auctions)
- lye, fat, liquid
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 out where a person might think they’re taking a taste of cake batter or cookie dough. Apparently, this has really happened and the kid had to be rushed to the hospital (which I don’t understand at all, since the stuff should never be left unattended until after it’s poured into molds).
Soapmaking Process & Recipe
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. Wear protective eye goggles when working with lye. In a heat-proof container, in a well-ventilated area (such as outdoors), stir lye crystals into your liquid of choice. Order is important. If you decide to ignore instructions and pour the liquid onto the lye, the lye will form a hard rock at the bottom of your container; this rock will not dissolve or respond nicely to your attempts to stir it into the water. It is important that the lye crystals be slowly poured & stirred into the liquid. This solution will get very hot (it’s an exothermic reaction, if you like big words. Actually, it’s an exothermic reaction whether or not you care about big words). Anyhow, it will get very hot. Let it cool to around 125° F (plus or minus 10°).
Heat oil to the same temperature as the lye solution (125° ± 10°). I like to use 8 ounces of coconut oil mixed with 8 ounces of whatever is in the cupboard. Any fats will work. My grandmother saved animal fat (beef fat, which is tallow, and lard/bacon grease, and even chicken fat (which doesn’t work quite as nicely) 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. If you do save your own fats, melt and strain them to remove impurities. Different oils contribute different qualities to the soaps they produce. I used to have a great soapmaking book that listed specific chemical properties of various oils, which gave a good idea about which oils would combine well to yield a nice soap, but over the years that book has been misplaced. Coconut oil is known for producing nice, big bubbles and a very hard bar of soap. Olive oil is known for tiny bubbles and a smooth, luxurious, soft soap. Combining both coconut oil and olive oil yields a soap which combines the best properties of both oils: reasonably hard bar of soap with smooth, silky, big lather. If you try soapmaking and decide that it’s a hobby you’d like to do long-term, I recommend purchasing coconut oil in five-gallon buckets at a restaurant supply store.
Mix & Mold
Pour the lye solution into the oil (order is important). Stir until it looks like a thick milkshake (this is called trace). It can happen as soon as ten minutes, or take a full day. My average time is around two hours. Hotter temperatures will trace faster, but are more prone to curdling. I’ve had one batch curdle, so prefer to use lower temps and stir a longer time. Experiment to see what works for you. When the mixture finally gets thick, pour it into a mold. I use Rubbermaid drawer dividers. Cover with an old dish towel, and set aside for a day or two while the soap sets. Once set, remove from mold, cut into bars, and place in a draft-free area for a couple weeks to finish curing.
Exfoliating Soap – grind 1/3 cup oatmeal and stir into soap just before pouring into molds (cornmeal and lavender flowers are other options for a nice exfoliating soap)
Yellow Soap – use lemon juice in place of water when mixing the lye solution