Okay, so I heat the oils to match the temperature of the lye solution, sprinkle in a little fairy dust, hop up and down three times and bark like a seal?”
The first time I stood in my kitchen and tried to make soap, I’m pretty sure that’s what my instructions said. Soap making seemed just slightly less difficult than building a functional car out of raisins, and I wasn’t sure my trusty crockpot and I were up for the challenge.
There are so many myths about soap making, like whether or not the mixture needs to reach “gel stage” and how long bars of freshly made soap need to cure. But, really, the biggest myth of all is…
Myth #1: Making Soap Is Difficult
According to Anne Watson, author of Smart Soapmaking, the extensive details given in soap making instructions are there so you won’t be left wondering about anything. She writes that “If you were describing how to make pancakes, you could write pages of details. That doesn’t mean it’s hard to make pancakes.” And she’s right. My trusty crockpot and I made it through just fine, and chances are yours is up for the task as well.
Of course, sometimes instructions include myths that do make soap making seem difficult. Anne covers a lot of them in her book, which I highly recommend. Here are a few of the most common ones:
Myth #2: You Can Make Soap Without Lye
So here’s the skinny on fats and lye: Both are needed to cause a chemical reaction called saponification – aka making soap. As Marie of Humblebee & Me put it, making soap without lye “is like trying to make a baking soda and vinegar volcano without the vinegar. No vinegar and you’ve just got a pile of baking soda. No lye, and you’ve just got a bucket of fat.”
Unlike modern chemicals, lye is a naturally occurring substance that has been used for thousands of years. (source) When our great-grandmothers made soap, they got their lye by burning hardwood ashes. Unfortunately each batch was a little different, so it was hard to know exactly how much to mix into a recipe. If too much lye is used, some would be left over in the final product, which could burn skin. If too little lye is used the “soap” would be mostly oil.
These days soapmakers buy lye from the store, which is exactly the same each time. Using store bought lye ensures that recipes work out right.
Myth #3: Soap Making Is Dangerous
Whenever I share a soap recipe, I always get a few comments from people who don’t want to “mess around with lye.” Apparently Anne does, too, because here’s what she had to say:
“I don’t know why, but nearly everyone says ‘mess around with lye,’ as if soapmaking involved slinging the stuff all over the place. I assure you, it doesn’t. You stir some lye into water, and mix the lye solution with fat. I have yet to make a mess doing that. And I have yet to get burned.
Of course, you can. If you’re careless with lye, you may well get hurt. If you’re careless riding a bicycle, you may get hurt, too. This doesn’t keep many people from riding bicycles. It just makes them take reasonable care when they ride. They wear protective gear and pay attention to what they’re doing.”
I treat lye like I would undiluted bleach (if we used it). I wear long sleeves, gloves and protective eye gear. I store it out of reach of children and pets, and do not leave it unattended when I’m making soap. I also make sure I can devote my full attention to what I’m doing, so I wait until the potami are napping or spending time with my husband.
Myth #4: You Need Lots Of Special Equipment To Make Soap
“Aside from a couple of special items, soapmaking uses more or less the same tools that cooking does. Many soapmakers use their regular kitchen equipment, and do it safely. Yes, you’re using lye, but lye isn’t plutonium. It’s easily neutralized, diluted, and removed. If you wash your equipment carefully, there’s no reason not to use your kitchenware. ‘Carefully’ is the key word here – you don’t want soap in the soup, or soup in the soap.” (Source: Smart Soapmaking)
So what is a careful approach? Here’s what Anne recommends:
1. Leave your protective clothing/glasses on while you wash your utensils by hand before loading them into the dishwasher. Don’t skip the initial rinse unless you want to turn your floor into a sudsy slip-n-slide. (Which, to be fair, is seriously fun. Ask me how I know.) If you’re not using a dishwasher, wash everything twice, making sure to thoroughly rinse any pot handles and rims.
2. Wipe down your work area with vinegar and a paper towel.
3. Wash your hands thoroughly with your gloves still on, then remove them along with your goggles.
Here’s one thing I would add: Anne’s recipes are for hot process soap, which does not use a crock pot. For hot process recipes that do, it may be wise to have a dedicated one just for making soap, because over time the lye solution may wear down the enamel. I used my normal crock pot for years without having this problem, but I have heard it may happen.
Myth#5: You Need Lots Of Exotic Ingredients To Make Soap
Totally not true. My coconut oil soap recipe calls for just three ingredients, and most of the other recipes I use aren’t fancy either.
Bonus Myth: You Don’t Need To Make Soap
Okay, yeah, you can technically buy it at the store. But seriously, you need to do this at least once. If not because handmade soap is oh-so-much better, then at least because when you give some away as a gift people will look at you like you built a car out of a box of raisins.
Here are some soap recipes to try:
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Amen! Your coconut soap was actually my first because I had spent years believing it was a mythical talent. Not anymore. The cool thing is when we butcher a cow I get all the suet back to make tallow. I put aside several quarts for soap and that soap lasts all year with three kids on our mini farm so you know the kind of dirt I am talking. plus lately they have. taken to slathering mud from head to toe after seeing a special on the Dead Sea.
Funny, I just made some soap the other day! Honey Oatmeal Goatmilk soap, smelled yummy. I read one horror story about a woman who, on her upteenth batch, got distracted and her toddler spilled the lye solution down his front and into his diaper. She had vinegar handy and he was fine after a few months, but I learned you don’t get complacent with the stuff. Didn’t scare me away from making soap, I just always make my soap when kids are asleep and I allow no distractions. And I obsessively douse everything with vinegar when done!
I just wanted to comment that lye spills should be diluted with WATER. Lye and vinegar create an exothermic reaction meaning that you will cause a heat burn in addition to a chemical burn. Use WATER to clean up lye.
Caroline, do you sell your soap?
Great timing as I am planning to make some when we return from vacation. I remember making it with my mother when I was about 3 or 5, and that was with homemade lye, so this should be easier. I have the lye but need the googles. I learned from your article that you can use the same equipment you use in the kitchen, but just to hand wash it twice with vinegar. (I think that is what you wrote anyway.) I will re-read your article before doing it. Does anyone have experience with making honey soap?
Yes, I made a nice honey, oatmeal soap. I learned not to put the honey in with the lye mixture, save it until later as honey will burn and turn into black clumps (not pretty). I used some of the liquid (I was using goat milk but discounted it and used water with the honey) to thin down the honey and added it at trace. Happy soap making!
Not going to lie (or should I say lye ;)), I was petrified of making soap because of the lye. I had this vision that if it spilled, then my skin would melt off. It wasn’t until someone describe that it’s like a mild rash that can be neutralized with vinegar. Then I thought, “Oh, that’s not so bad. I’m going to try it!” Now it’s my livelihood! 🙂 The unknown is what’s scary.
I use to make soap for a living. The worse was dealing with the folks who insisted thst melt & pour soap was made without lye and therefor safer. For the record the base is made with lye, it’s already gone through the chemical process so you are not dealing with lye in raw form. I know more people burnt by the melt & pour then by lye. I still make soap occasionally and teach soap making. I am looking forward to teaching my kids.
What’s funny is the melt-&-pour’s being described as “making soap”. It’s making soap about the same way “making a bed” is constructing a bed, or “making money” is coining currency.
Thanks for this post! I was totally intrigued by your soap-making recipes, and as soon as I saw they needed protective gear and lye, I thought, nope! 😉 So clearly this post was for me. I’ll have to give it a whirl one of these days. I love the homemade soap a friend gave me.
Love your blog! You post interesting topics. I am going to try making my own soap with your recipe, thank you!!
Nr 1 and 2 have been keeping me from it.. But now I have a little box of lye waiting for the right time:)
Hi. After reading your post, it got me to thinking about the soap I buy from a small Canadian company. I went to their website to check their ingredients, and no, they don’t list lye. Does lye go into the actual soap, or is it simply used in the process? http://puresoapworks.com/bar_soap.htm
When listed in ingredients, they call it sodium hydroxide.
Hi. After reading your post, it got me to thinking about the soap I buy from a small Canadian company. I went to their website to check their ingredients, and no, they don’t list lye. Does lye go into the actual soap, or is it simply used in the process? That would explain why it’s not listed. http://puresoapworks.com/bar_soap.htm
It’s not listed as an ingredient because none remains in the final product. If the recipe is correct the lye is all used up when it converts the fats to soap 🙂
I’d like to add to Heather’s answer… The very first ingredient in the list of the soaps you put a link to is Sodium Palmate – it is lye (Sodium Hydroxide) mixed with Palm Oil. Same with Sodium Palm Kernelate – lye (or Sodium Hydroxide) mixed with Palm Kernel Oil. Hope this helps 🙂
The first time I made soap was using the recipe for your coconut laundry soap. You made it sound so simple and it absolutely was.
THANK YOU for this post! I was one of the wary people when it came to making my own soap until I read this article. I also laughed all the way through it while enjoying my coffee this Saturday morning. I am off to read about the coconut oil recipe. Seems that would be a good place to start. Great blog and valuable information.
Ohh, Saturday coffee and reading is one of my favorite things ever! I’m glad you found the post helpful 🙂
I was SOO scared to make soap the first time! I’ve done it with a friend a couple of times now, and homemade is so much better!! And it’s fun 🙂
Just a note – vinegar, while it neutralizes the lye, is actually not something you want to use to treat lye on skin. This is because vinegar + lye causes a chemical reaction that creates a lot of heat and can cause further burns. This is why the MSDS on sodium hydroxide (lye) recommends using water to dilute, rather than vinegar to neutralize.
The amount of additional heat created by pouring vinegar on lye spilled on your skin, compared to pouring water on it, is insignificant. Water (including the water in your body) acts as an acid in reacting with strong alkali, and even undiluted vinegar is only about 5% acetic acid anyway.
The reason the MSDS says to use water is that water is likely to be available running from a faucet, while vinegar is something you don’t have as handy, and the difference in outcome between using water and using vinegar, other factors equal, will be insignificant. Also, if the skin is already burned, by whatever cause, vinegar will hurt! The main thing is to act fast and not take time casting about for an “antidote”.
I would add, though, that if the lye is solid and dry enough to brush off with an inanimate object or gloved hand, you should do that rather than moistening the lye. Don’t worry about what the particles of lye land on, you can take care of that after you’ve taken care of yourself — speed matters. Just keep others away until you’ve finished the cleanup.
Noel Christopher Derecki
Hi Robert. I’m a scientist, and you’re correct.
You are so funny! 😀 Thank you for sharing all those myths!! I have wanted to make soap from scratch for so long and you guessed it, using lye sounded too scary… Now I feel I can tackle it…
So cool! The lye was what has always scared me away too 🙂 i think i will give it a try though -partly because i have more beef fat than we will eat in one year! Tallow galore and no where to go with – until now i guess .
I like every thing home made any way – from bread to jam to pickles and then some! What else would i do with my time? 😀
Need to stick my nose into the recipes now and gather my needed utensils and give it a try
Thanks! to all the commenters too!
Is there any way you’d consider selling some of that tallow you have galore? I am having no luck finding it. I’ve checked butchers, supermarkets, local farms and online. I’m not so sure i’d trust getting it from amazon and other online places seem so expensive. I’m desperate!
Have you tried US Wellness? They should have some.
THANK YOU for explaining the whole, “You have to use separate equipment to make soap!” I’ve wanted to start making my own, due to allergies, but don’t have the space to store ‘special’ equipment and curing soap for long periods of time. All the soap making blogs were very insistent on that fact but never gave an intelligent reason for their firm stance. I LOVE the way you break it down. 🙂
So if I wash any pans or utensils they can later on be used to cook FOOD with?
One note to remember about utensils. NO ALUMINUM. It will react to the soap. Hope this helps.
yes, it reacts terribly! …. will start to boil furiously and produce an ugly black grey scum and also it will stink in a stinky metally way. DON’T USE ALUMINUM POTS!!!! 🙂
I made the mistake of using Al pot and got a bad smell and black scum. Should I toss the batch? It reads pH >10 & bubbles.
Is the lye you get from the hardware store the same as the lye you buy online for soap making? It is so much cheaper to buy from the hardware store, I just don’t want to use the wrong ingredient.
Hi Cori, if it is 100% lye it will work. However, it definitely needs to be 100%. Sometimes the stuff at the hardware store is mixed with chemicals, and you don’t want that in your soap!
Such a great post!! There are indeed way too many myths about making soap!
I would like to know do I need a special lead free crock pot (which is in any case not available here in South Africa) or can it be any quality. Will the soap mixture react with the glaze of the crock pot and will I then then end up with some lead in my soap?
Hi, I just wanted to write you to tell you that I saw your video from a link from Wellness Mama and I thought, that’s crazy and too much work to deal with all that special clean up and all the tools needed….now I’m so fascinated with all the different types and scents of soap that I cannot wait to get started! I ordered my lye and essential oils for scent, and I just made a homemade wooden soap cutter mold to hold my soap and be able to cut it perfectly afterwards. I have my coconut oil, scale and stick blender, but I still have to get my distilled water. I have purified water, but not distilled. Since it’s my first time, I guess I will use my same kitchen utensils, bowls and crockpot incase I don’t enjoy it (which I doubt, lol). My question is I want to know how to change the recipe to fit my mold or the amount of coconut oil I have on hand. You use 33 oz of coconut oil, and most of the amounts it comes in would suit 32 oz better. Then I have a 5 lb mold to make 18 bars of 1 inch soap, so I need to know how much coconut oil, lye and water I would need to fill my whole mold. I tried using the soap calculator, but it’s like greek to me, lol. HELP! Lol! Also I saw where you can add cocoa powder or coffee grounds to your soap to change the look, I think that is sooo cool!
Here is a really good website for calculating recipes and quantities! I wouldnt be able to live without this website its’ great! http://soapcalc.net/calc/soapcalcwp.asp
Great informational site.
I am wondering since coconut oil is so expensive to buy in the market, it is like 22GBP for 1kg..
what is the price of the coconut oil that you purchase ?
isn’t that an expensive soap ?
i am just reluctant to buy coconut oil from market.. i wish if i can grow them here in uk.
Eager to hear from you.
Pls thank you for the information, but i have a question, and it is….. If i dont have rosemary oil and lavender oil also to add in my medicated soap, are there any other things that i can use?, iam looking forward to hear from u soon.
I love your idea about using local wine to make soap! I have been thinking about getting a double arm mixer so that I can make a whole bunch of soap as Christmas gifts. Perhaps I’ll use wine made from one of the local vineyards so that it’ll be more of a personal gift.
Thank you for sharing your recipe. I noticed that the lye you mention in this post is not the same lye that has been used for thousands of years. Lab manufactured lye has Sodium (Na) vs naturally occurring lye has potassium (K) in its chemical composition.
It is my understanding that Sodium (Na) produces solid soap and potassium (K) produces liquid soap. I haven’t made any liquid soap yet, but want to.
Just looking for some clarification. Is it safe to making soap in the house? I have read other articles that say you need to wear some kind of a medical mask over you face do to the fumes the lye puts out.
It is safe to make soap in the house. There may be some fumes that come from the lye as you add it to the water. Just don’t put your face right over the container. If you notice fumes turn your face away for a few seconds, the fumes dissipate very quickly. I have made all my soap for about 25 years and have never warn a mask. I’ve only noticed fumes once or twice.