Today I'm very happy to introduce you to Liz of Eight Acres. You may already know of Liz's wonderful blog, but if not I recommend you hop over for a read. But first, Liz has a fantastic post to simplify soap making. She's included lots of useful resources and at the end of the post you'll also find links to her own blog.
I hope you enjoy this as much as I did!
I know a lot of people would like to try making soap, but are put off by the cost of ingredients and equipment, the perceived danger of using caustic or the complexity of the recipes. Soap making does not have to be expensive, dangerous or complex. I want to share a few tips to get you started with simple soap making, and demystify the process to make it more accessible to everyone who would like to give it a try. You can start with a simple soap and add more ingredients as you get more comfortable with the process.
Why make your own soap?
Commercial soap is full of synthetic chemicals (colours and fragrances mostly) and has been processed to remove the glycerine. I prefer simple homemade soap, because I know exactly what’s in it and I can make sure that it won’t be harsh on my skin. I also like to know that its just one more thing that I don’t have to buy from the shop (and it makes a lovely gift). There is more information about this in a post I wrote on my blog Why use natural soaps and salves? Mostly I started making soap to use up all the beef tallow we had from butchering our own beef cattle, but that’s another story.
Soap is produced by the reaction of caustic soda (aka sodium hydroxide or lye) with fats and oils. You cannot avoid using caustic, but you can use it safely. Always wear gloves (washing up gloves are fine) and safety glasses with handing caustic or fresh soap, as it can burn you. Take your time and carefully measure everything. Always add the caustic slowly to the water, as per the recipe, and make sure you have good ventilation. If you follow these safety precautions, then you will have no problem using caustic.
All you need to make soap is caustic and fat or oil. Everything else is just extras to change the way the soap looks, feels or smells. The cheapest form of fat you can get for soap making is tallow or lard. Most butchers will sell it for $2/kg and all you have to do is render the fat and you will have a long-lasting, high quality fat for soap making (and many people will have access to fat if they homekill their own animals as we do).
If you don’t want to use animal fat, you can use olive oil, coconut oil and macadamia nut oil as relatively cheap alternatives. You will probably need to use some palm oil to replace the animal fat (it has a similar composition) or the soap will be soft. These oils get expensive, so I use as much animal fat as possible, and just include olive and coconut oils in certain recipes if I want more lather or to extract herbs into the oil. Some recipes will specify more exotic oils (argan or sweet almond for example), or combinations of several different oils. As a beginner, try to stick to a simple recipe with only 2-3 oils or fats.
Colour, textures and scents can be added to soap to make them more interesting, but none of these are really necessary if you want to keep soap simple. Personally I avoid any artificial colours and fragrance oils, as I think that defeats the benefits of making my own soap. You can get carried away with adding different butters and expensive oils, however, ingredients like coffee grounds, dried herbs and clays are cheaper and still produce nice soap. You should practice with a simple soap recipe first, and then see if you want to add other ingredients.
I only use essential oils in my soap and I don’t use them in every soap. They are the most expensive ingredient, and you do need to use rather a lot as they evaporate from the hot soap mixture. However I would rather use natural essential oils than synthetic fragrance oils. If you like your soap to smell nice, then invest in some good quality essential oils.
You only need a few special implements for soap making and all the rest you can source quite cheaply or use what you already have at first.
You don’t need any fancy moulds to make soap. You can use any silicon baking moulds. If I see any cheap at the op shop or even in the supermarket, I will get them for soap moulds (I’ve also seen milk cartons used). Apart from that, you can use any stainless steel or glass bowls and pots for mixing the soap, either get some from the op shop or use what you already own and give them a wash before cooking in them again.
You will need an accurate thermometer (or two) from the homebrew shop and a good set of digital scales. It is also nice to have a stick blender (you can mix by hand if you want to!), but you don’t have to dedicate it to soap making as long as you clean the soap off it when you’re done.
Starting with Simple Soap
For your first batch of soap, find a simple recipe (there are several on my blog based on tallow, see the links at the end of this post) and follow it exactly. When you’re familiar with the steps, you can start to look at more interesting recipes where you might add some different ingredients for texture or colour. Then if you are really confident you can start designing your own recipes. Until you really understand the chemistry, do not make any changes to recipes, as different oils require different amounts of caustic to complete the soap reaction.
There are a few great resources out there that will help you to get started:
1. Tanya from Lovely Greens wrote a series of posts about natural soapmaking, including some recipes based on oils, and lots of ideas for natural additions to soap.
2. Soap Queen has a summary of all the beginner soapmaking resources including videos.
3. Jan over at The Nerdy Farm Wife has a lovely ebook about natural soapmaking (which I reviewed on my blog here) and a basic tutorial here.
4. The simplest soap recipe I can find is from Rhonda at Down to Earth, you only need olive oil and coconut oil.
On my blog Eight Acres, you will find recipes for simple soap made with tallow:
Sustainable soap - 100% tallow!
Neem oil soap and salve
Soap with coffee grounds
Photos and words provided by Liz Beavis, graphic design & introduction Say! Little Hen