You can make soap completely from scratch by using the cold process method of soap making. If you like being able to control every single ingredient in the soap, then this method is definitely for you!
This method is referred to as the “cold” process because you aren’t really using any heat to cook the soap. However, you do use heat to liquify some of your ingredients so that they are easier to mix.
You also will be working with lye during the cold process method. Lye can be dangerous and extreme caution is required to work with it. Lye combines with a fat to form soap — this is called saponification. If you don’t want to work with lye, you can try to rebatch method or the melt and pour method. In these methods, you’ll work with pre-made soap that has already gone through the saponfication process.
The supplies needed for the cold process are listed below. For specific information about these supplies, check out this guide here.
- Ventilated space
- Rubber gloves, goggles, mask
- Water (distilled and tap)
- Stainless steel pot
- Stainless steel saucepan
- Heat-safe glass containers
- Stainless steel measuring spoons
- Digital scale
- Thermometers (2)
- Silicone spatulas
- Electric stick blender
- Rubbing alcohol
- Soap mold
- Pipettes (optional)
Working with Lye
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.
IMPORTANT SOAP MAKING Terms
Trace – This term refers to the moment when oils and lye have emulsified. It refers to the traces of the soap mixture that can be seen. You will be adding your ingredients at different levels of trace. Trace can be referred to as “light” to “heavy” and will become heavier the more you stir the mixture.
Saponification – Saponification is essentially the process of your lye solution and oil mixture turning into soap. The reaction starts as soon as the lye solution comes into contact with the oil. When your soap mixture fully saponifies, there will be no lye remaining in the product (which is good!).
Curing – Curing is the time period when the water evaporates from your soap bars causing it to become milder and harder. This can take up to 4-6 weeks with the cold process method of soap making. The longer you cure your bars, the longer you extend its shelf life. However, just know that the shelf-life of homemade soaps will never exceed the commercial-grade soaps. There’s a lot of preservatives added to those soap bars that you won’t have in yours.
How to Make Soap Using the Cold Process Method
The cold process method of soap making will vary based on your recipe but generally you’re going to follow the basic steps I’ve listed below. Always check with your recipe and always check the amount of lye you have in your recipe with an online calculator. If the ratio is off between lye and oil, the soap will not fully saponify and you may have lye leftover in your final product. Leftover lye is NOT good.
- Work in a well-ventilated space. Make sure you are wearing all your protective gear (rubber gloves, goggles, long sleeves, and mask). This is because lye doesn’t like to play nice.
- Measure out your ingredients. Remember, only use silicone, stainless steel and glass equipment when handling lye. Never use aluminum, cast iron, nonstick finishes, weak plastic or thin glass. Weigh out using a digital scale to get exact weights. The ratio of the ingredients will definitely make a difference.
- Fill a heat-safe container with water. Use distilled water when making your own soap. You never know what sort of contaminants you might find in regular water. Since you’re working with lye, you don’t want the risk of it reacting to anything you don’t want it to react to. If you want to work with milk, replace the water with the milk of choice. You can use different types of milk in your soaps including cow’s milk, goat’s milk, buttermilk or even half-and-half. Don’t use room temperature milk though; it will lead to a disgusting color when you add lye. The most effective way is to use frozen milk.
- Slowly add lye into water. Sprinkle the lye carefully into the water. Remember, water into lye will cause you to die, lye into water will make you smarter. NEVER EVER add water into lye. This can cause a very unwanted, terrible reaction. The lye solution WILL heat up so be careful. Once you have mixed the lye in, set it aside to cool.
- Combine your oils. In a separate heat-proof glass container or saucepan, combine the oils you will be using in your soap. Melt these together over the stove or using a microwave. Stir so that the oils are evenly mixed. Do NOT overheat your oils so watch them closely. Set this aside to cool. It’ll most likely take longer to cool than your lye solution.
- Use your thermometers to track the temperatures. Once the mixtures are at 110F, you will slowly pour the oils into the lye solution.
- Stir the mixture. Since you are still working with lye, make sure you use only silicone, stainless steel or heavy-duty glass equipment to stir. You can also use an electric stick blender here. Stir for about 10 – 20 minutes until you start to notice traces.
- Add any additional ingredients. If you want to add any extra ingredients, now is the time to do it. Different ingredients will need to be added at varying levels of trace so do your research. Also remember that the mixture will be hot so you shouldn’t add anything that might melt. Since glitter is plastic, it will melt when added at high temperatures. If this is something you want to add, make sure it’s mixed in when the mixture starts to cool down a bit.
- Pour the mixture into the mold. When the mixture starts to trace, pour it into your mold. Cover your mold with a plastic wrap. You can also wrap it in a towel for additional warmth. Let it sit for 2 days.
- Unmold your soap. Make sure you are wearing your gloves and goggles for this. If your soap is having difficult coming out of its mold, throw it in the freezer for an hour. If you used a mold that will result in a long log of soap, use a knife to cut it into bars.
- Let the bars cure. Store the bars in a paper bag to dry. You can turn over the soap bars daily to make sure that the cure evenly. In 4-6 weeks, your soap will be ready to use!
SPECIAL TECHNIQUES FOR COLD PROCESS SOAP MAKING
You can embed pretty much anything you want inside a bar of soap such as plastic toys, gemstones, or even silk flowers. Remember that certain objects can melt under high temperatures.
- Fill your mold halfway with your mixture.
- Generously spray your object with rubbing alcohol.
- Press your object into the soap mold but don’t press it so hard that it hits the bottom surface of the mold.
- Pour the remaining soap mixture to fill up the remainder of the mold.
Layering soap can create some pretty sweet looking creations. You can get really creative with colors and shapes when you layer.
- Pour your first layer of mixture into the mold. Let this layer cool but not so much where the whole layer is hardened.
- Spray the first layer with rubbing alcohol to allow the next layer to stick.
- Pour the second layer onto the first layer.
- If you want more layers, repeat the above steps.
Swirling & Marbling
Swirling and marbling take a lot of practice! If you really enjoy soap making, you should try exploring this special technique. Swirling is generally done by controlling the level of trace of the mixture and the way your pour into your mold. Since swirling can really only appear if you use different colors, pour at a thin-medium trace for a thinner swirl. Pour when the mixture is heavily traced for thick colors. Use a toothpick to lightly drag through the mixture to create a marbling effect. If you want to the whole bar of soap to have this effect, make sure to use a thin, marbling tool that will touch the bottom of the mold. Play around with this special technique to see what you can create!
Ready to start creating? Check out our ultimate soap making recipe index for over 100 recipes and ideas!