Sunday, March 5, 2017

Soapy Opera

A few weeks ago I started wondering the following question: why would anyone make their own soap (which seemed expensive and labor intensive) when one can go buy a bar for cheap at the store? Was it the joy of crafting? Was it a hippie thing? I had to know, so I checked out some books from the library, watched tutorials online, and read blog posts.

At first I wasn't impressed. I saw videos showing colorful designs and exotic ingredients and kept thinking "I wouldn't want to use that in the shower." (I'm looking at YOU, dried lavender buds!) Just the thought of having to wash those down the drain made me want to shudder.

Then, somewhere in my dense fog of research, the answers began to emerge. It seems we can blame war for giving us the soaps we buy in the store today (along with canned foods and carrot cake, but I digress). Previous to WW1, all soap was made the old fashioned way: lye and lard. During the war, detergent bars replaced the lye and lard versions and that's pretty much what we use now. The store stuff still sounded like the better deal to me. After all, soap is supposed to clean, so isn't a detergent bar better than rubbing nasty animal fat and scorching lye all over your body?

I found my answer when I read the science behind what happens when you mix fat and lye together. The two ingredients morph and change into a whole new substance entirely. Eh? What's this? Yes, a WHOLE NEW SUBSTANCE! It's like alchemy! It's like magic! Okay okay, it's science, but it still sounded like awesome kitchen witchcraft to me. 

But the cost! Some of the kits of ingredients I saw to make those fancy soaps were over a hundred bucks. What? WHY?! (Just for the record, I still don't know why).

Then I read you can make soap out of olive oil, lye, and water. That's it. (It's called castille soap and it's named after a region in Spain where, I'm assuming, soap has been made that way for hundreds of years). No fancy ingredients (in case you count lye as fancy, but since they make Draino out if it, I don't). Okay, now it's entered into the region of "That might be a fun hobby that I can afford". So I ordered a kit off the internet for 30 bucks and waited for it to arrive.

In the meantime, I watched more videos and read more books. That's when I discovered another gem of knowledge: soap recipes are calculated so there's a little bit more fat (oils) than lye. (The technical term for that is Superfatting.) As the fat and lye pair up, the superfatted oil remains unchanged so when you have a finished bar of soap, some oil or butters stay behind to help nourish your skin. I'm a maniac about putting lotion on my hands after I wash them because I hate that dried out feeling they get. Hence, the idea of possibly not having to do that anymore intrigued me. I'll happily say goodbye to itchy skin! 

And so, my kit arrived and I made some soap. I have all kinds of pictures I took to document the process of course. And I had tons of fun making it. The only downside is this: you can't use the soap for 4 to 6 weeks after you make it. That time is needed to let the magic of science deal with the lye so it disappears into the fats and the soap becomes PH neutral-ish. Enough that you won't have burned skin, anyway. (Raw lye is nasty stuff). Plus, extra water evaporates out of it during that time so it doesn't go all mushy in the shower. There IS a way to make soap where you can technically use it that same night (you cook it on the stove or in a Crock-Pot and the lye is rendered safe within an hour) but you still have to let it harden for six weeks to get the water out so it doesn't turn to mush in the shower.

So here I am, with cool stuff I made. I'm dying to try it. It looks awesome and it felt so creamy and delightful when I popped it out of the mold this morning. But it won't be ready to use for 6 weeks. I guess I'd better plan ahead for holidays! In the meantime, I'll study up on how to make fancier soap in the future. 

As a side note, I opened a package of store soap yesterday since mine isn't ready and I looked at the ingredients. It was one of the gentlest soaps on the market, by the way. The ingredients were basically this: chemical sudsing agents, paraffin, more sudsing agents, some shea butter so they could tout its moisturizing properties, and a whitening agent to make it look more "pure". I guess the natural color would probably be an ivory or off white but that didn't give the right image for marketing purposes. In contrast, the plant oils I used (especially the coconut oil) provide sudsing naturally. I didn't even know that could be done. I will be very excited in 6 weeks to do a comparison of my own.

I sorta feel like I'm doing a science fair project! I even bought a spiral notebook to record my process and results. It has glitter on the cover, but whatever. In my opinion, every lab notebook should have glitter on it. I'm sure the best ones already do. 😁


  1. I make soap too. Aaaand I use lavender buds. They provide a light exfoliation and sort of disolve as you use it. No need to worry about fields of lavender clogging your drain.

    1. That's very good to know! I feel a lot better about that, actually. When did you start making your own? Do you do cold process, hot process, rebatch, melt and pour, or another type I haven't discovered yet?

    2. Melt & pour. It's coconut oil, glycerin & whatever I add- essential oil, flower petals and food coloring. I make salts, soaks, and sachets too.

  2. Woot. You go girl. The post was great!

  3. Woot. You go girl. The post was great!