The best thing about soap making is that you can control every single ingredient that goes into your soap. There’s countless of combinations of ingredients you can use for soap. Glitter, tea leaves, fruit purees, even beer–the possibilities are seriously endless!
Before you start adding these cool, crazy things, you need to start with the basic ingredients for saponification to occur. Saponification is the process that produces soap. For this to happen, an acid needs to react with a base to form a salt. Typically, lye (a base) is combined with an oil (the fatty acid). The soap is actually the resulting salt. Don’t worry, we’re not going to get into too much chemistry.
The cold process and hot process method will require handling lye. Lye can be pretty dangerous so you’ll have to take some precaution when working with it. We’ll get more into it below. If you don’t want to work with it, no worries! You can explore the melt-and-pour and rebatch method. With these methods, you won’t actually need to go through the saponification as you will already be working with pre-made soap.
You should only use distilled water as an ingredient in your soap. Distilled water will be free of minerals and contaminants. If you use tap water, there may be some unknown contents in the liquid that end up reacting with the other ingredients you use in your soap making.
SOAP MAKING BASES
Lye (Sodium Hydroxide)
Lye is what makes soap into SOAP! Lye is also known as sodium hydroxide, a soluble base. If making liquid soap, you’ll actually be using potassium hydroxide instead. Lye has been categorized as generally safe to use for cosmetics. However, working with the pure product is another story. Lye is extremely corrosive. It can penetrate the skin and cause some pretty severe damage. That’s why it’s extremely important to take safety precautions by wearing heavy-duty goggles and rubber gloves while working in a well-ventilated space.
It may seem pretty scary to work with lye but if you’re going to make soap from scratch using the cold or hot process, you’ll have to learn how to handle it. Lye is necessary to react with fat in order to form soap. As long as the lye has reacted with the appropriate amount of oil, the lye should be completely undetectable in the final product of the soap. Use an online lye calculator to determine how much lye you should use.
Lye can be purchased as several different crystals, beads or flakes. It’s normally available in hardware stores but make sure you buy lye that is definitely marked at 100% sodium hydroxide. You might get some strange looks if you buy a huge supply of lye though…just because it’s also an ingredient used to make meth. Who knew? If you don’t want to buy from the store, there’s tons of online stores and websites that sell it. My favorite store to purchase from is Brambleberry.
Here’s a few tips you NEED to know before working with lye:
- WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR. This includes strong rubber gloves, heavy-duty goggles, and protective clothing. You do NOT want this stuff getting anywhere on your skin.
- USE LYE IN A WELL-VENTILATED PLACE. You really don’t want to be breathing any of these fumes. If possible, I would make soap outside. If you want to make soap indoors, make sure there are plenty of windows you can open around that area. Definitely keep children and pets away. If you have children or pets, you may want to consider minimizing all risks involved when working with lye.
- ADD LYE TO WATER (NEVER WATER TO LYE). This is extremely important. If you add water to lye, it puts you at risk of pretty much having the lye explode everywhere. Try to remember that with this cute rhyme I’ve seen many others use: Water into lye will cause you to die, lye into water will make you smarter.
- USE HEAT-RESISTANT PLASTIC OR GLASS BOWLS. You’ll need something pretty durable and safe. Don’t mix lye solution in metal containers since it can cause the lye solution to become too hot and may produce a hazardous reaction depending on the type of metal. Only use silicone, stainless steel and glass equipment when handling lye. Never use aluminum, cast iron, nonstick finishes, weak plastic or thin glass.
- CLEARLY LABEL LYE WHILE IN STORAGE. Do whatever you need to make sure that the lye is appropriately labeled. Keep away from children or pets and label with “DON’T TOUCH,” “DANGEROUS CHEMICALS,” or “POISON.” Always make sure you put the chemical name, the manufacturer and expiration date. This helps if you end up storing it in a container other than the original.
- WASH WITH WATER IF LYE GETS ON YOU. If lye gets on any part of your body or your eyes, wash with water for at least 15 minutes and seek medical attention. If you accidentally inhale it, move to any well-ventilated area for fresh air.
If you are going to work with lye, PLEASE do your research before starting. I cannot stress this enough. Read this guide by the Soap Queen or watch this video to learn all about the safety precautions and proper use of lye.
SOAP MAKING ACIDS (OILS & BUTTERS)
Don’t let the term “acid” scare you off. Lye (the base) needs to react with an oil or fat (the fatty acid) for saponification for occur. You can use a variety of different oils and butters as your fatty acid ingredient. Adding these into your soap mixture will bring a unique characteristic to your product. Every oil or butter will saponify at different values so it’s very important to follow recipes or use an online lye calculator.
Online lye calculators will ensure that there is no residual lye leftover in the final product of the soap. I’ve listed just a few commonly used oils & butters below for soap making.
Beeswax – Beeswax will add a little hardness to your soap. However, you should only use small quantities since it will reduce the amount of lathering if you use too much.
Castor Oil – Castor oil is made from a castor bean plant. You only need a small quantity of castor oil in your soap to reap its thick, lathering benefits.
Cocoa Butter – Oh man. I love cocoa butter. Cocoa butter comes from the fat of cocoa beans. Using cocoa butter will provide a really moisturizing bar of soap. Use this ingredient in small quantities. Too much will produce a bar of soap that pretty much melts in your hand.
Coconut Oil – I’m sure you’ve heard of all the magical properties associated with coconut oil. Using coconut oil in soap will provide a very good lather while increasing the hardness of the soap. Make sure you use no more than 30% of coconut oil in your total oil ingredients.
Olive Oil – Olive oil can be very moisturizing on the skin. It’s great for all skin types! Avoid using extra-virgin olive oil. Keep that for cooking instead!
Palm Oil – So I’m not a big fan of palm oil for MANY reasons…deforestation, illegal wildlife smuggling, human rights abuses. All that jazz. I’m only including it here because you may choose to use it. Palm oil can produce a pretty firm bar when used in soap. If you do use it, please do your research to make sure it’s from a supplier that supports sustainable production of palm oil. Choose a supplier who is a member of the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Soybean Oil – Soybean oil provides an acceptable lather with great conditioning.
Shea Butter – Like cocoa butter, shea butter will produce a pretty wicked moisturizing bar. It will provide a creamy lather while contributing to the hardness of the soap bar.
Sweet Almond Oil – Sweet almond oil also moisturizes and conditions the skin.
Other oils and butters not listed above include aloe butter, aloe oil, apricot kernel oil, argan oil, avocado butter, avocado oil, babassu oil, baobab oil, borage oil, brazil nut oil, candelilla wax, canola oil, cherry kernel oil, chia seed oil, chicken fat (yes, chicken fat), cod liver oil, coffee butter, corn oil, cottonseed oil, emu oil, evening primrose oil, flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil, green tea seed oil, hazelnut oil, jojoba oil, kokum butter, kukui nut oil, lanolin, lard, macademia nut oil, mango butter, manoi oil, meadowfoam oil, milk oil, mustart oil, neatsfoot oil, neem oil, niger seed oil, nutmeg butter, palm buttle, peach kernel oil, peanut oil, perilla oil, pine tar, poppy seed oil, primrose oil, pumpkin seed oil, rapeseed oil, rice bran oil, rosehip seed oil, safflower oil, sal butter, sesame oil, shea oil, shortening, stearic acid, tallow, tamanu oil, walnut oil, watermelon seed oil or wheat germ oil.
Pre-made soap is perfect for those who don’t want to work with lye as the saponification process has already been completed. No worries, you can still add tons of different ingredients to make your soap unique. For the melt-and-pour method, you’ll using pre-made soap bases that you can purchase online or in craft stores. Popular melt-and-pour bases include clear, white, hemp, aloe, honey, shea butter and goat’s milk. If you’re concerned that you can’t control all the ingredients when using a pre-made soap base, look for those labeled as SFIC Soap. It’s a company that only uses natural ingredients in its products. After much searching for an affordable but natural soap base that provides a variety of options, I found the Melt-and-Pour Sampler Kit
from Brambleberry. It’s only $20 and provides 1 lbs. each of 7 different types of bases. I’m not paid to promote their product or anything (I wish!), but I just love this affordable variety pack.
SOAP MAKING ADDITIVES
Beer – You’ll have a great lather to your soap if you use beer in your soap. If you choose to use beer, make sure you remove the alcohol content by boiling it for 5 minutes. Let it chill until there is no more carbonation left in the liquid. Although the scent may be worrisome for some, it won’t last in the end product of your soap.
Bran/Oatmeal – Many people add bran or oatmeal into their soap as an exfoliating agent. You can suspend these in the soap to give it a neat appearance as well.
Coconut Milk – Coconut milk also feels really good on your skin when you use it in soap! It adds a bubbly, moisturizing lather to your soap. If using coconut milk, make sure you do not confuse it with coconut cream and never get the “low-fat” or “light” option. We want the most fat we can get!
Coffee – You can use coffee in your soap for the color since the scent might not last through the soap making process. Brew your coffee with distilled water if you decide to use it in your soap.
Goat’s Milk – Goat’s milk is frequently used in soap making because it’s really soft on the skin and doesn’t dry it. It’s amazing for sensitive skin as well.
Glitter – Glitter looks awesome in translucent soap. Just make sure that the your glittery bar isn’t used as a facial soap. If giving it as a gift, you may want to avoid adding this ingredient. It may look cool but some people don’t enjoy putting glitter all over their body. When adding glitter, make sure you don’t add it into a mixture that’s too hot. Since glitter is plastic, it might melt within the soap mixture. Add it at around 130F. Make sure to sprinkle it or else it will clump.
Herbs/Flowers – This is where you can really get creative. The sky is really the limit here. Just make sure that whatever you put into your soap can be safely used on the skin. Examples of flowers you can incorporate into your soap include chamomile, lavender, rosemary and roses. You can also try spices such as cinnamon or cloves. Depending on the herbs or flowers you add, it can either add color, exfoliate or other qualities to your soap.
Honey – Honey is frequently used for its scent and softening benefits. You’ll have to add honey in small amount since it can quickly raise the temperature of the soap. Start with 1 tablespoon of honey for each pound of oils used.
Tea – Tea or coffee made with distilled water can be used in your soap. Tea can add colors into your soap where tea leaves may add a little bit of texture. The smell of the tea may not remain by the end product of the soap but you may get some of the benefits in your skin from the tea.
Purees – Fruit and vegetable purees can be used in soap making to add color, fragrance or lather. When you become more comfortable with the soap making process, play around with different purees to see what combinations you can make!
Fruits – Fruits can also be pureed and added to the soap. Bright berries can produce some pretty deep and rich colors.
Vegetables – Vegetables in your soap? Yes! I seriously meant it when I said the sky is the limit with your soaps. Try adding vegetables by pureeing avocados, cucumbers, carrots and seaweeds. You can use vegetables to add colors to the soap as well. hat you can come up with!
Sweets/Beverages – To add fragrance to your soap, you can add various desserts and beverages such as brown sugar, cappuccino, chocolate, gingerbread, hazelnut or vanilla.
You’ll also have the option to add fragrances to your soap bar. You can rely on the natural smell of your current ingredients, or you can add a little something to just give it that extra scent. Many people with sensitive skin will try to avoid adding fragrances to their soap. Even if you decide to add some, you’ll still need to be cautious about the amount. Too much fragrance can be very irritating to the skin. Use this online fragrance calculator to give you an idea of how much to put in your soap.
Essential Oils – Many people love using essential oils for their therapeutic qualities. Essential oils can be extracted from bark, roots, seeds, flowers, leaves, wood or any other plants. The efficiency of those therapeutic qualities are debatable but many people swear by them. You need to also know that some essential oils are harmful to pregnant woman, such as basil, cypress, hyssop, marjoram, lemon balm, sage and thyme.
You should always look for high quality essential oils. Essential oils are high quality if they are extracted properly and produced from plants grown naturally. The purity of the essential oil depends on whether there are any unwanted additives or anything taken out that should have been left in. If you’re going to use essential oils, make sure you test them as they may not be as pure as it claims. Here’s a quick and easy test you can do: Place a drop on a white piece of paper. If the essential oil is pure, it will evaporate and leave no residue on the sheet.
Fragrance Oils – Fragrance oils can also be used to add scent to your soap. These are the same types of oils used in scented toiletries like lotions, body wash or shampoos you find in the stores. If you use these type of oils, you won’t be producing a “natural” bar of soap. It’s not recommended for use if you have sensitive skin.
If you want to add natural coloring to your soap, there’s a few different options you have. Each option has its own pros and cons. Explore different options to see what you like!
Clay – By adding certain clays, you can produce colors like pink, green and white to your soap. The clay also helps to exfoliate the skin as well.
Charcoal – Charcoal has skyrocketed in personality in the last few years. Many claim that charcoal provides the benefit of thoroughly cleansing the skin of dirt and oil. As far as its effectiveness goes, there’s no real medical evidence yet at this time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t any benefit, just that it hasn’t been proven yet. The claim comes from its highly absorbent quality (it’s used in the ER for alcohol and drug overdoses). If you want to use charcoal in your soap, it will add a deep, rich black coloring to your product.
Minerals & Mica – Mineral and mica powders can offer a pretty large range of colors. These powders are ‘natural’ but can sometimes be tainted with some pretty nasty metals. Do your research first if you want to use these.