Frugal Friday: Make your own soap

I bet you knew this was coming, right? After last weeks post about trying to start a small, handmade soap business, it should come as no surprise that I would like to share how easy and fun it can be to make your own soap.

But wait! This is not only about saving money. This is also about keeping things local, learning skills and not littering the world in plastic. Just think about it, all those bottles of liquid soap need a container to be shipped in, and most of the time, that is plastic. A bar of soap is also more compact, taking up less shipping space for the same amount of washing value, and can easily be wrapped in sustainable and reusable paper or fabric. They are not riddled with germs as many people seem to believe, and even if they were, the action of washing our hands (with soap!) would still kill or rinse off the majority of them. Even if it is just as your hand soap of choice in the bathroom, I encourage you to give bar soap a chance. In the Frugasaurus household, all our personal hygiene needs are covered with my handmade soap, hands, hair and body. We haven’t yet tried to wash our dishes with it, but I know of other people who do, so maybe we’ll try that when our current bottle of dish-washing liquid runs out.

Yes, I know that you can probably get a really cheap soap for less than it costs to make your own. I will admit that freely. But making your own gives you a nice bar of soap that does not drain your skin of moisture and leaves your hands dry. You can also choose to omit rainforest-killing palm oil from your own soap. And, let’s admit it, at least to me, there is less value to living a long, prosperous life in financial independence if it is contributing to a planet that is less diverse and less awesome. 

The bare bones

At the heart of it, soap is a chemical reaction between fats and lye. Lye breaks down the fat into free fatty acid chains and glycerin, and different fats will give you soap with different qualities. For fancyness or added luxury, you can add fragrances, clays, flower petals, colours or whatever else you want, but at the very basic, that is soap. One of the most charming books I know, which also happens to include a part about soap making, as well as address non-typical mental health from the inside is The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss (not recommended unless you’ve already read the other books in the series).

A great place to start if you like very specific recipes is Brambleberry’s affiliate site, The Soap Queen, which features a whole bunch of recipes to get you started. Of course, they heavily advertise their own wares, which I have no experience with, as shipping to Norway would cost me a small fortune.

If you’re more like me and like to experiment or use what you have, then the Sage lye calculator is my favourite. Because different fats contain different numbers of molecules by weight, you need to adjust your lye accordingly. A lye calculator helps you with this, and also gives you basic instructions.

A note on lye: Lye, and especially the concentrations we work at in soapmaking, are very corrosive. Keep out of reach of children and pets, make sure you protect your eyes in case of splashes, and make sure you always have a source of running water nearby. Don’t try to neutralise it with vinegar or anything like that. If you spill some on yourself, straight in the sink or in the shower and apply copious amount of water. You must continue rinsing with water until your skin no longer feels soapy (the lye is transforming the fats in your skin into soap, so that is exactly what happens). I’ve not yet had a mishap in my kitchen, but you should still take basic precautions, of which protecting your eyes and access to running water are the most important. You should also work under a strong kitchen fan or even outside, as lye will sting your nose.

A basic procedure

While I am still experimenting a lot myself, I have had a lot of good feedback from a very simple base soap using the following ingredients: coconut oil, olive oil and sunflower oil. The coconut oil helps create nice, frothy bubbles, the olive oil is good for the skin, especially those with sensitive skin, and the sunflower oil is a good, all round oil (plus it’s often a frugal option). I like to keep at least 1/3 of my oils solid at room temperature, as it helps create a solid bar, but this can also be remedied by letting the bar cure for longer. Shea butter is also a good, solid fat, and many people use 2-3% castor oil for even better bubbles.

I will simply sketch out how much (by weight) I am going to use of each fat, write down those numbers in the lye calculator above, and then get my lye and water amount. it is important to go by weight here, so I would not recommend trying to make soap without a scale. If you use too much oil, you will get a lot of oil and fat clogging your sink and pipes, while too much lye will create a hard and brittle bar that is not too kind on your hands. A little bit (~5%) more oil than lye is generally a good ballpark to aim for, which will give you a safe, moisturising bar of soap.

Once measured, I dissolve my lye in water (always lye to water, not the other way around, also, make sure all your utensils are either stainless steel or plastic). This is an exothermic reaction, which is to say it creates heat. This is normal, but I often place my container of lye water in a bowl of ice water. This is simply because I am an impatient soul. It is generally advised to have your oils and your lye at approximately the same temperature when you mix them, around 45-55 C (115-130 F), so putting it in a bowl of icewater helps it reach that temperature quicker. I then melt my solid fats and mix them all up.

Once my lye and oils are around the same temperature, you can get your immersion blender and place it in the oil. Tap it a couple of times against the bottom to get rid of air bubbles. Then, add the lye in a slow stream while pulsing gently. Once all the lye is added, keep mixing until everything is mixed, and you do not see an obvious layer of unmixed oil at the top. There is no set rule for how long this will take. Some oils are quicker than others, but generally, solid fats are quicker, and olive oil is one of the slowest of all. Your ratios of each of these will affect how long it takes to reach what is known as “trace”.

Trace is when you have formed a stable emulsion between your lye water and your fats (just like mayonnaise). If I am not trying to do anything fancy, I generally try to go for a medium trace, which lets me know without a doubt that everything is properly mixed and on the way to become soap. This is a relatively thick consistency, but still pourable.

At this point, you would add any fragrance or other additive you might like to try, such as used coffee grounds for a scrubby bar of soap. Mix it well and pour into your moulds. I have bought silicone moulds for just this purpose, but if you would just like to try it out, you can line pretty much anything with parchment paper and use that. People use old ice cream cartons and the bottom of milk cartons or yogurt containers, so the sky is the limit here!

Once poured, you need to wait for your soap to set. This can take anything from 12-24 hours to a week or two, again, depending on your oil composition. Once hardened, you can remove it from the mould, cut it up if you want to, and place it somewhere well ventilated to cure. The soap can technically be used now, and there will be next to no lye left after the first 24 hours, but it is still a good idea to let your soap dry out for at least 4-6 weeks. This removes a lot of the water in the soap, and allows for a harder bar that will last longer.

Protip: Homemade soap make great Christmas gifts. Making a batch now will have them ready just in time for the holidays!

Best of luck!

3 Comments on “Frugal Friday: Make your own soap

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