When learning how to make soap, attention to safety protocols is crucial. Learn from good soap-making resources before you begin.
For millennia, civilizations have known how to make soap; easy and difficult recipes alike. From master craftsmen in Aleppo to Old West pioneers leeching ashes behind their cabins, people have tapped into their soap making resources and produced safe products. Modern soap making is even easier. Chemical factories produce lye, which has a constant alkalinity.
Can you make soap without lye? Yes, and no. Soap is a combination of fatty acids plus sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Basically, oil plus lye. If you make soap from scratch, you must use lye. You can skip that step if the soap has been made for you. Many crafters purchase pre-made bases, such as clear glycerin soap, to melt down and mix with colorants and fragrances. But when learning how to make glycerin soap from scratch, you need to know how to safely handle lye.
Workspaces and Equipment
Workspace: Prior to making soap in a kitchen, remove all food products or appliances. A bead of lye can lodge in small gaps, shaking loose when you use tools for cooking. Consider covering all but your stovetop with newspaper to catch loose lye or drops of soap so you can roll it up and dispose of it all at once when you’re done. If you’re working in a garage or dedicated soaping room, be aware of surfaces that can harbor loose lye beads. Keep walkways clear.
Always secure pets so they don’t invade your workspace, and have someone else to watch small children. Be sure you aren’t expecting company, or phone calls for the next hour because you’ll be unable to walk away from your recipe once lye meets oil.
Protective gear: Making soap from scratch requires additional gear to avoid chemical burns. Wear long sleeves and gloves which don’t allow skin to show on the arm or wrist. Eye protection such as safety glasses or goggles keeps errant drops of lye water from damaging your vision. Some soap makers wear gas masks or wrap bandanas over their faces when they add lye to water since the mixture steams with toxins for a few minutes. Others combine the ingredients beneath a fan or outside.
Tools: Prior to saponification, lye can react with aluminum and the heat created can melt some plastics. Though glass is the most nonreactive material, it gets slippery and can drop and splatter liquids all over you. The best materials are a cooking pot that is either stainless steel or covered with enamel, whisks and immersion blenders made of stainless steel, silicon spatulas, plastic spoons, pitchers made of dishwasher-safe plastic, and molds made of approved plastic or silicon.
*Cooking implements that have been used for soap-making should never again be used for food purposes.
Ingredients: Many different oils can be made into soap. But each requires a different amount of lye to saponify one gram of oil. Always check your recipe with a soap calculator (http://soapcalc.net/calc/SoapCalcWP.asp) prior to starting each batch. This soap making resource is your best protection against a lye-heavy product. If you’re learning how to make soap with coconut oil, check to see if you have fractionated, hydrogenated oil that is solid until 92 degrees, or the least-processed 76-degree oil. Research how to add products like honey and goat milk to avoid burning. Some of the best soap-making resources available are online forums where experienced crafters share safety tips with newcomers.
The Soap Making Process
Measuring: Always measure lye, water, and oils by weight instead of volume. When learning how to make bar soap, people often want recipes measured by volume because they don’t own scales. Purchase the scale. It’s the only way to ensure you have the correct chemical balance.
Procedure: Select pots and pitchers deep enough to contain all the water, oils, and lye while avoiding spills and splashes. Always add dry lye to your pitcher of water; never add water to the lye. Pouring water onto the lye can result in splashes. Carefully pour the lye/water mixture into the oils. Avoid splashing as you agitate the liquid and add colorants and fragrance. As you pour the liquid soap into molds, avoid spilling.
The Gel Stage: During active saponification, your soap mixture heats up and resembles petroleum jelly. Because of the heat created, always use dishwasher-safe plastics. Silicon molds can all withstand the heat of gel stage. Certain additives, such as honey or pumice stone, can amplify the heat. Watch your product during gel stage. Though it’s advised to insulate your soap with towels or place it in the oven to ensure gel occurs, this can sometimes hold in too much heat. If beads of oil rise to the top of your soap, remove insulation until it cools a little.
If Accidents Happen: Lye splashes and soap molds tip. Crafters stumble and pots fall. If you spill lye or raw soap, don’t freak out. Lye quickly washes off beneath running water and won’t burn skin unless you let it sit or it gets in your eyes. Forums may advise you to keep vinegar or diet soda within a spray bottle for spills, but other professionals advise against this because spraying acid onto alkali can create a caustic volcano. Rinse off the skin. Always wear eye protection. Wipe up spills with a clean towel then immediately place the towel in the washing machine. A little lye or raw soap can be good for the laundry. Keep surfaces lined with newspaper so spills go right into the garbage. Dryer sheets are excellent for finding stray beads of lye.
Curing and Storage
Inspection: How do you know if the lye has been consumed and your soap is safe? Some soapmakers purchase litmus paper to test alkalinity. Others wait a few days then cut their soap and visually inspect it for dry pockets of white lye. Some use the old-fashioned “zap” method, where they touch their tongues to the soap. If they do not feel a sharp sensation resembling electric shock, the soap is safe.
If you find dry, white pockets in your soap, discard it. Experienced soap-makers may recheck their recipes and, if the initial recipes were followed correctly, may rebatch or grate the soap to make laundry detergent. If you are a new soap-maker, discard the lye-heavy bars.
Curing: Congratulations! If your soap passed the alkalinity tests, you no longer need safety protocols. The only necessary soap-making resource at this point is guidance regarding proper curing and storage.
Because soap is made with oil, it has a potential of going rancid. Some recipes go bad faster than others. To avoid rancidity, cure the bars by placing them in a cool, dry location with plenty of air flow for six weeks or longer. This makes soap milder and longer-lasting.
Storage: Soap can last months to years, and a lot depends on proper storage. Do not encase soap in plastic until it is fully cured. Even then, airflow is key to avoiding dreaded orange spots that indicate rancidity. Experienced soap makers wrap bars in paper or store in cardboard boxes, divided with paper towels. Do not store extra bars in your bathroom because the heat and moisture reduce shelf life. The best place is in the closet of a dry basement.
Before you start your first batch, educate yourself on methods and safety protocols. Ask advice from seasoned crafters. Imagine scenarios which may go wrong. Study the best soap making resources then have fun as you create a fulfilling artisan product.
Originally published in 2016 and regularly vetted for accuracy.