Soap Making 101

olive oil barHave you ever read the ingredients label on the back of your shampoo or body wash and asked yourself what are these ingredients? Well, I am going to reintroduce you to the wonder and basics of soap-making, away from the laundry list of chemical additives.

First, A Snippet of History…

Soap has been a long part of human history since the Babylonians, to the ancient Egyptians, the Romans, and so on. The formula for making soaps, for the most part, has still remained the same. Fat, alkali (lye), and water. How cool is that! Every time we use soap, we give a nod to the history of humankind.

Human hygiene has always been essential to health, well-being, and longevity. Things like laundry, housecleaning, bathing/showering, and even something as simple as washing one’s hands revolves around soap. What would life be without soap…?

Why Make Soap?

  • It’s a personally rewarding experience! Every time you use it, you’ll remember the experience of working with your hands.
  • It helps you become self-sustainable
  • It’ll be synthetic-free, especially for those of you that have sensitive skin (like me!).
  • GLYCERIN! This is a natural byproduct of the soap making process and is what keeps the skin moisturized after using soap, but in commercial products it is is taken out because it is profitable.

To read up on my brief journey to soap making, read my previous blog 

**Scroll to the bottom for a good, brief video intro to making soap from scratch. (This process is called cold-process.)


We’re going to start with a very basic and mild soap: Olive oil soap bar. It’s a great all around shower/shampoo bar and produces “low suds.” This is one of the purest forms of soapmaking, in my opinion, because it’s very simple and down-to-earth while producing a great quality soap.

  • 100 oz. Olive Oil (100% Grade A,/ Extra virgin)
  • 12.6 oz. Lye (Sodium Hydroxide, or NaOH, flakes for this process)
  • 30 oz. distilled water

This will make about 24, 4oz. bars.

I got this great recipe from the Little House in the Suburbs blog

WARNING!! LYE can be very dangerous. It WILL eat through flesh upon direct contact. This is an extremely dangerous chemical and should be kept FAR away from children, food, and other things that it might contaminate.

Now that that’s settled…

What You’ll Need:

All-around needed items…

  • Long, Rubber Gloves
  • Eye Protection (Safety goggles!)
  • Disposable face masks (Optional, but recommended IMO – those cheap ones from home depot will work.)
  • Stainless steel spoon

For working with water lye solution..

  • glass jar for weighing out lye
  • Large Pyrex glass measuring cup (MUST BE HEAT RESISTANT!)
  • Scale – This is so important. Measurements are everything in soap making.
  • An accurate, quick reading Thermometer

**(Make sure that everything that touches lye is put in a safe place AWAY from people that might accidentally touch this!)

For combining lye solution with oil…

  • A Stick blender to blend the oils with the lye mixture and start the saponification process
  • More glass measuring cups (make sure they’re heat-resistant!)
  • A mold to pour your raw soap into (literally can be anything. Get creative!)
  • A rubber spatula to scrape any last bits of soap out of the pot

**Don’t forget!

  • VINEGAR for emergency spills. Lye is an extreme base, and vinegar (being an acid) will quickly neutralize it. After spilling lye, pour vinegar to neutralize, then rinse with cold water.
  • Paper towels or dishcloths to wipe up the inevitable spills (keep a bottle of white vinegar on hand to neutralize any spills!)


Getting Started:

  1. Measure out the appropriate amount of lye on your scale. Set your glass measuring cup on the scale. Set the scale to Zero. Pour lye flakes until you get 12.6 oz.
  2. Same thing with the distilled water (It’s VERY important that it is distilled.) Pour this water into the big pitcher until you reach 30 oz. Again, this MUST be heat-resistant for the next step.
  3. We are going to get our lye solution started. IT IS CRUCIAL YOU FOLLOW THIS EXACTLY.This part is actually the most dangerous part of the process because when lye touches water, it produces an almost immediate reaction. In seconds, the solution can bubble to over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. ALWAYS add lye to water. Repeat after me! Lye to water. Lye to water.
  4. Set this aside, but away from people and other things it might accidentally contaminate. Once the solution gets to about 100 degrees, it is ready to mix in to your oil solution.
  5. Prepare 100 oz. of extra virgin olive oil (this can’t be pomace or a low grade olive oil or the recipe will be thrown off).
  6. When the lye solution has cooled to right around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (not too cool or too hot here), pour it into the oil (AGAIN, LYE INTO OIL).
  7. Put that stick blender to work, stir first especially right at the bottom. Hit the bottom to make sure to release all the air bubbles throughout the process. Now mix, mix, mix! But don’t get overzealous! Good spurts and stirs will ensure consistency.
  8. Now comes something called Trace. This traditionally means exactly how it sounds. Either the point where you can leave a “trace” on the surface of the soap mixture, especially when you let the soap drip down on the surface. This is where the art comes in. Some like a light “trail” or trace. I like more of a medium trace. You will see how light the mix gets and how thick it will get. Trust your instincts!
  9. When it gets that trace, it’s time to pour into your mold!!! Whoop out those cute Christmas molds, muffin pans, something that you’re not using anymore but looks adorable.
  10. Cover and store the molds in a cool, dry place.
  11. De-mold after 1-2 days. It should be hard enough to hold it’s form, but still soft to where it will come out of the mold and is easily sliceable (especially if you used a “loaf” type mold.)
  12. Cut down to appropriate size immediately after demolding.
  13. BUT WAIT!! They’re still not ready for use! Set out the slices apart on a wax paper in an open area. The more they can breathe (no touching together) the better. This is the curing stage, which will take anywhere from 4-6 weeks. After 2 or so weeks into this stage I would rotate the side the soaps are standing on just to get an even cure.
  14. NOW…Voila! You’ve made y our very own soap, Congrats!

Rules to follow:

  • Wear gloves whenever handling soap that has not been completely cured.
  • Wear long sleeves, pants, and socks/shoes on top of the protective gear mentioned above when dealing with the lye and soap mixture.
  • Pull hair back and away from face and eyes.
  • Do not breathe in fumes from the lye (and there will be fumes).
  • Work in a well-lit, ventilated area
  • Do not work when there is a lot of traffic around (especially when you’re a novice).
  • Pour vinegar on anything that you spill lye on.
  • Before throwing everything in the dishwasher, soak in vinegar to make sure all lye is gone. Also, do not use said materials for cooking or food; this can be VERY dangerous.

**Texas Poison Control is 1.800.222.1222. If you have swallowed lye, DO NOT induce vomiting. Drink lots of cold water then call poison control.

Working with lye doesn’t have to be a scary experience, just remember to take all the necessary precautions. Just think of the rules you followed in a science lab.

For more information on the basics of soap making, please see this video. She does wonderful tutorials.

For more help on creating the water & lye solution for the process, here’s a straightforward tutorial. He puts our fears of working with lye to rest.

Safely Make Lye Solution

To make other soaps, you’re going to need a good lye calculator to determine the proper amount of lye to oil. Once you find the amount of lye, you can determine the amount of distilled water needed to make a 30% solution. (All this means is that, for example, every cup of lye used, you will dilute with 3 cups distilled water.) However, I’ve given the amounts above for this particular recipe!


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3 responses to “Soap Making 101

  1. Pingback: Waiting for Results | Suburban Mountain Man·

  2. Pingback: Getting squeaky clean: tips for a healthy home | Keep Earth Alive·

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