Saturday, December 2, 2006

Awesome guide to making healthy soap at home

So, you want to make soap? Good! I'll try my best to tell you how. I'm Elaine White, author of "Soap Recipes: Seventy tried-and-true ways to make modern soap with herbs, beeswax and vegetable oils".

These instructions are very condensed and cannot possibly contain the details included in "Soap Recipes." Nonetheless, I believe you will have a good overview after you read these instructions. Once you learn basic safety precautions, soapmaking procedures and termonology, you will be able to make soap from any recipe. The outline for these instructions is:

  • A) Safety precautions in handling lye, lye/water and freshly-made soap
  • B) The equipment list
  • C) The procedure of combining ingredients and molding soap
  • D) Herbal soap
  • E) Superfatting soap
Once you read these instructions and if possible, join the soapmakers at America Online. Go to "The Exchange" click on "Crafts and sewing" then "other crafts" and you will find "soapmaking." AOL gives me free time online to help soapmakers and I often join the discussions. I am glad to help you in any way.

A) Locating lye and safety precautions in handling it.

(The following may frighten you, but I promise that thousands of people make soap everyday without mishap. You need to know all the dangers present in order to avoid trouble. If you can get past the following warnings--you are destined to make soap!)

Look where drain cleaners are sold and buy 100% lye (Red Devil is onebrand). Don't bother looking at liquid drain cleaners and don't try Draino (it contains metal). If you aren't sure the product is 100% lye, then order lye from a soapmaking or chemical supplier (addresses listed). Most good soap recipes list lye by weight for accuracy: lye in granular form (drain cleaner) measures differently than lye in flake form (the form of lye from laboratory chemical suppliers, pool chemical suppliers, etc). Scales are a necessary part of successful soapmaking and allows you to use any type of lye.

Lye can be nasty if handled improperly. Lye (sodium hydroxide) is also known as caustic soda. Upon opening a container of lye, the lye crystals absorb water from the air, which can weaken the strength of the lye and cause it to form a solid lump. When not in use, keep lye closely capped.

Lye reacts with some metals: aluminum, zinc, and tin. Safe containers include heatproof stoneware, glass, enamel, stainless steel and plastic.

Lye can be fatal if swallowed. Always keep it out of the hands of children.

Lye can remove paint. If lye, lye/water or freshly-made soap splatters onto a painted surface, wipe it off immediately. Wash the area with water and detergent; wash it with clear water, then wipe it dry.

Lye, lye/water and freshly-made soap can burn and irritate skin. Burns from lye are not instantaneous. It takes awhile for lye to irritate skin. Chances are you will notice if lye splashes on you. You'll notice itching before burning. Lye/water on skin is first noticed by a slippery feeling. Rinse your hands with vinegar and immediately rinse them with running water.

Since lye can burn skin, you can imagine what it does to eyes. It's difficult to rinse your eyes while they're burning and you can't see. This painful and dangerous situation in entirely avoidable. Always wear eye protection!

You may wonder why anyone wants to bathe with soap that contains something as harsh as lye. Well, the good news is that soap is *made* with lye, but soap doesn't *contain* lye. Lye reacts with fats, creating roughly three molecules soap and one molecule glycerin. The lye is no longer present--only great soap and glycerin.

B) The equipment list:

  • one 4-to-6 cup mixing container made of lye-resistant material (I use a stainless steel mixing bowl)
  • one heatproof container that holds at least 2 cups (I use a Pyrex measuring cup)
  • stainess steel, plastic, wooden spoon or a rubber spatula
  • two thermometers made of glass or stainless steel (candy and meat thermometers work well)
  • eye protection (wear sunglasses if you have to!)
  • rubber gloves (optional)
  • scale to weigh the fats and lye
  • soap molds (any flexible plastic container works well)
  • a clock with a second hand or other type timer
  • wire whisk (optional)
  • pot holders or oven mitts
  • measuring spoons


C) The procedure

1) Put the fats in a lye-resistant container and place a glass or stainless steel thermometer into the fats. Be sure the thermometer doesn't touch the bottom of the container and give a false reading. Heat the fats and optional ingredients to the temperature specified in the recipe.

2) Put on eye protection and rubber gloves.

3) Dissolve the lye in cold water (use distilled water if your water is hard). Wait for it to reach the temperature specified in the recipe. Use a heat-proof container to measure the amount of cold water (70 to 75 degrees F) specified in the recipe. Cold water is important.

If you add lye to hot or boiling water, the water could "boil-up" out of the container; if you add lye to *really* cold water, the lye/water might not reach the high temperatures required to make some recipes.

Stir the water and slowly add the lye. The water will get hot and turn cloudy. Continue to stir until the lye dissolves. Don't breathe or intentionally smell the fumes coming from the cup because they are quite "chokey." If you wait too long to stir the water, the lye could harden in the bottom of the container. This is not a problem. You can still stir it, but it will be more difficult. Add a glass or stainless steel thermometer to the lye/water and wait until it reaches the temperature specified in the recipe.

4) When both the fat and the lye/water reach the temperature specified in the recipe, add the lye/water to the fat. I's sometimes a balancing act to get the fat mixture and the lye/water mxiture to specific temperatures at the same time. Never place lye/water in a microwave (the cup could break). It takes lye/water longer to cool than it takes fat to heat. Most soapmakers wait for the lye/water to cool to about five degrees above the desired temperature, then heat the fat.

When both the lye/water and the fat are within five degrees of the temperatures specified in the recipe, use a pot holder and move the bowl to a sink (to contain splatters). Slowly pour the lye/water into the fats while stirring. (Note: Temperatures for small one-pound batches of soap poured into individual molds aren't critical. As long as the lye/water and fats are between 120 and 140 degrees F you will have good success. Larger batches or batches poured into a single mold, require the lower temperature range.)

5) Stir the soap until it "traces." When lye, water and fat first combine, the mixture is thin and watery. Gradually, as the lye and fat react chemically to form soap, the mixture thickens and turns opaque. "Tracing" is a term to describe the consistency (thickness) of soap when it's ready to pour into molds.

To test for tracing:

  • a. Drip some soap onto the surface of the soap in the stirring bowl. It should leave a "trace" or small mound.
  • b. Draw a line in the soap with a spoon or rubber spatula. If a "trace" of the line remains for a few seconds, the soap has traced.
  • Tracing is easy to recognize, yet it causes new soapmakers a lot of worry. Relax and know that the soap will trace eventually. Just stir the soap constantly for the first 15 minutes or so, then stir the soap every fifteen minutes until it thickens and traces, no matter how long it takes.

6) After the soap traces, add up to one tablespoon essential oil (if desired) and stir a few minutes longer to incorporate the oil. About the only soap that remains totally scent-free is the Pure Soap Recipe that follows. Other fats result in soap that has a "fatty lye" smell. Essentials oils are necessary for a pleasant-smelling product.

7) Pour the soap into molds and wait for it to harden.

8) Unmold the soap, Soap is still harsh when it's time to remove it from the molds. Put on rubber gloves and press the back of each mold compartment to release the soap. It's a lot like removing ice cubes from a tray.

Sometimes the soap doesn't release easily from the mold. To overcome this problem, leave the soap in a freezer for a few hours. Freezing soap causes it to contract slightly, become hard and release from the plastic mold.

9) Wait the time specified in a recipe for the soap to "age." (usually 3 weeks). During the aging time the pH of the soap decreased (the soap becomes mild) and the bars harden.

It's a good idea to write the following information on a piece of paper and place it with the soap: the date you made the soap, the date the aging time is over, and the recipe name.

10) Step 10 is *enjoy your soap!*

As soap ages, a fine, white powder may appear on the surface. This is soda ash (sodium carbonate) formed by a reaction of lye with carbon dioxide in air. This white powder is mostly on the surface exposed to air while the soap was in the molds. Soap that contains wax develops little or no soda ash. There are three ways to deal with soda ash:

  • a. Try to prevent it. Immediately after pouring soap into molds, cover the soap with plastic wrap or waxed paper. Press the wrap or paper onto the surface of the soap to prevent air contact.
  • b. Cut it away. Overfill the molds slightly. Later, when the soap hardens, take a knife and cut the soap level with the mold. This also cuts away the soda ash.
  • c. Wash it away. Wait until the soap ages and hardens. Wash the powder away by rubbing the soap with your hands under running water or by rubbing the soap over a wet dishcloth. Set the soap aside to dry

D. Herbal soap

You can replace the water in soap recipes with herbal tea, but to be honest, most of the properties (color and fragrance) are lost.

The best way to use herbs in soap is to add dry, finely powdered herbs to the fats before adding the lye/water. Use anywhere from 1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup dried herbs to 1 lb soap. Coarsly ground herbs should be restricted to about 1 or 2 tablespoons per lb soap because they contribute a coarseness to the soap that sometimes makes it uncomfortable during use.

The nicest way to add properties of herbs to soap is the addition of pure essential oils. Use anywhere from 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons essential oil per lb soap (depending on the strength of the oil).

Color is an illusive thing as far as soap is concerned. Natural colors can be obtained by adding 2 tablespoons red clay, calendula petals, or palm oil from Lorann Oils (yellow). Strong, true color can be obtained from Pourette's dye recommended for soap. Use up to 1/8 teaspoon Pourette dye per lb soap.

E. Superfatting soap

The following recipes have the exact amount of lye to make soap that contains very little excess fat. This soap leaves skin perfectly clean and smooth feeling. The Pure Soap without essential oil is a good laundry product, dishwashing soap etc.

Some people like excess fat in recipes. For this I recommend 2 to 4 tablespoons castor oil added when the soap traces. Castor oil is emollient and contributes to soap lather. Adding castor oil after tracing along with 1 tablespoon essential oil also seems to help retain the soap fragrance.

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