By Melissa Dick with support from Ally Dick

It’s been a few years now that I’ve wanted to learn to make my own soap. I would start looking up instructions and recipes, and get overwhelmed by the seeming complexity, and also intimidated by warnings of working with some ingredients. I had talked about it with my sister, Ally, who was also interested in learning to make her own soap, so we decided to learn together and try it out. Despite the fact that she lives in British Columbia and I live in Quebec, we figured we could do some research on our own, do some experimenting and trials, and report back to how it went. Ally was way more motivated than me to get started, so started making her own soap almost a year ago. I was still intimidated to give it a go myself, but during Ally’s most recent visit to see family in Quebec, we said, OK this is the time for us to do this together. 

It was extra special to learn how to make soap with Ally, with the intention of sharing our experience on the Cautious Optimist blog in honor of Danielle Moore’s legacy, because we both individually knew Danielle through different experiences. I knew Danielle as a fellow member of the Waterlution Youth Advisory Board in 2018-2019, and Ally knew Danielle from working together on a hops farm in Hazelton, British Columbia, in the summer of 2017. It was special to share this skills-building and knowledge-sharing as sisters and knowing that we both had a connection to Danielle and that she had impacted both of us in an important way. Danielle continues to inspire both of us to get outside our comfort zones and learn new skills, as well as pass along that knowledge to others, through the Cautious Optimist project.

Ally and myself walking along Nooksack River.

My favorite way of learning a new skill (especially one that seems a bit intimidating) is learning directly from someone, so I was really glad when I had the opportunity to go through the steps with Ally. 

Melissa Dick

Ally started from square one and walked me through the steps and reassured me that the process is fun and fairly straightforward, but some steps require caution. One ingredient to be conscious of in terms of safety precautions is lye, or sodium hydroxide, which is a very caustic chemical. In the soap making process, the lye interacts with the water to make a lye solution which becomes very hot – this is the part where you have to be careful! You also need to be careful when you’re measuring out the lye, because if your skin comes in contact with the lye you can get a burn. It’s a good idea to wear PPE when working with lye – see “Step 3: Prepare your ingredients and materials” below for more info on how to protect yourself. The process where the lye solution and oils are mixed is called saponification. Using lye to make soap in this way is called the “cold cure process”. There are other methods such as melt and pour, hot process, and rebatch which you can learn more about here.  

When preparing for our soapmaking experience, Ally suggested that I get some tools that I would dedicate for soapmaking only – an immersion blender, a mixing bucket, molds, and a spatula. This ensures that ingredients such as lye and essential oils don’t touch any accessories you’d typically use for cooking, and to avoid the risk of potentially contaminating your food. 

Step 1: Seek out guidance or help from someone you know who makes soap. 

Consider joining a class (I had looked into this option before I knew Ally and I would have the chance to do some soapmaking together), or look online for resources. My favorite way of learning a new skill (especially one that seems a bit intimidating) is learning directly from someone, so I was really glad when I had the opportunity to go through the steps with Ally. 

Step 2: Check out some soapmaking recipes online for inspiration.

 This will help you decide the combination of oils, fats, and waxes you could use as your soap base, and could inspire some fragrance choices. Ally and I turned to my stock of butters and essential oils I had used previously to make other homemade body care products, and the kitchen pantry. 

Step 3: Prepare your ingredients and materials. 

You will need:

  • Oils, fats, waxes that you will use to make the base of your soap
  • Fragrance oils (or essential oils) to add some nice scent to your soap 
    • We used: Pink Grapefruit essential oil, Grapefruit Seed Extract, Lavender, Rosemary
  • Materials you’d like to incorporate into the soap for texture (for exfoliation) or colour 
    • We sprinkled some lavender buds on top of the soap 
    • Other natural exfoliants you can incorporate include calendula, chamomile flowers, coffee grounds, eucalyptus leaves (more info and ideas here)
    • Ally has experimented with adding charcoal to her soap to make a dark/light swirl (more info on using charcoal powder in your homemade soap here)
  • Lye (also known as Lye Crystals, or as I learned in French it is referred to as cristaux de soude caustique) 
  • Water
  • Immersion blender (dedicated to soap making only)
  • Mixing bucket (dedicated to soap making only) – we used an old 5L plastic ice cream bucket
  • Kitchen scale
  • Spatula to help with pouring/mixing (dedicated to soap making only)
  • Mold to pour the soap into to allow it to cure – you could consider using a loaf baking pan or muffin tins, but again make sure whatever you use is for soap making only – we used silicone cups that I had for other DIY body care product projects and old yogurt containers 
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): safety glasses and thick rubber gloves for when measuring and mixing the lye solution. 

Step 4: Prepare your working area

  • You will need access to a sink/faucet, so you could set up in the kitchen like Ally and I did but make sure there isn’t any food around or people coming in and out. 
  • Crack a window when you mix the lye with the water– the fumes generated could be harmful, so make sure the area is well ventilated. 
  • While your soap will likely be hardened enough to cut after 24 hours of curing (letting it sit after you poured it) you should prepare a spot where you can let the soap cure for an additional 4-6 weeks – it will slowly continue to harden over this time. The harder the bar, the longer it will last!

Step 5: Start making your soap. 

First, we need to measure and mix the Oils, Fats, Waxes. 

  • Decide the size of the batch you want to make. We decided on a 2lb batch and I recommend sticking to 1-3lb batch for beginners as it lets you become familiar with the process without requiring lots of ingredients. The total batch size is input into the recipe and the weight of ingredients is calculated based on that.
  • Refer to the Recipe Calculator from SoapCalc to enter in your different oils, fats, and waxes to figure out the quantities you need to make your desired kind of soap. Some tips when putting together your recipe on SoapCalc:
    • “Super Fat” – this number tells you how moisturizing your soap will be, it’s a good idea to have it be at least 5% on the SoapCalc recipe (a higher % means your soap will potentially need more curing time) 
    • “Soap Qualities and Oils, Fats, Waxes” – select ingredients from the list and add them to the Recipe Oil List
      • If using Coconut Oil, never have it be more than 20% of your entire recipe
      • It’s nice to use 3-5 types of oil, every recipe is different! Looking at beginner recipes online for guidance is good.
  • Add the Oils, Fats, Waxes (excluding the scented essential oils) in a pot. Use the kitchen scale to measure your ingredients into the pot – just tare the scale and add ingredients. Heat the mixture on the oven on low heat until all of the oils have melted and become combined. Remove the mixture from the heat and let it sit and cool slightly. 
A screenshot of our soap recipe
A photo of some of the essential oils we used

Step 6: It’s time to mix the lye and the water. 

Put on your safety glasses and gloves, and make sure your area is well ventilated. 

  • Put your “soapmaking only” mixing bucket on the scale and measure out the quantity of lye as described in your SoapCalc recipe. 
  • Add the required amount of cold water to the lye. NOTE: It is very important that you add the lye to the water and not the water to the lye.
  • We mixed it with the solution with a wooden chopstick which we then threw out, but you can use a plastic spoon/something you then use ONLY for soap making as it will have lye residue on it. 
  • You will notice the lye solution starts to warm up as you mix – be careful, as it can get very hot to touch the outside of the mixing container. 

Step 7: Mix the Oils, Fats, Waxes mixture with the lye solution. 

  • The Oils, Fats, Waxes mixture and lye solution are ready to be combined once they are within 10 degrees F of each other (temperature range of 120-130 ° F). The proper method to measure this is to use a thermometer to check the temperature of both solutions, but we just touched the sides of the containers to get a feel for the temperature. 
  • Pour the Oils, Fats, Waxes mixture into the container with the lye solution. This is when you use your immersion blender! Start by just using the immersion blender as a big spoon (don’t turn it on) to start the blending process and then you turn it on and mix until you get “trace”. Trace is a consistency you are looking for that is similar to custard. Depends on the type of ingredients you use and how fast the saponification process happens but in Ally’s experience it takes between 5-10 minutes of blending until she gets trace. 

Step 8: Add the essential oils for fragrance.

This is calculated in the soap calc recipe under “fragrance weight”. We used Pink Grapefruit Oil, Grapefruit Seed Extract, Rosemary, and Lavender essential oils. 

The Grapefruit Seed Extract we added appeared to have accelerated the soap batter, making the “trace” happen quicker – this is the indicator you are looking for when mixing the Oils, Fats, Waxes mixture with the lye solution. More about trace and the impact of some fragrance oils here

Step 9: Pour the soap mixture into the molds and let it cure. 

  • After 24 hours, check to see if it has cured enough and hardened – if it is still soft, let it sit and cure for longer. Cold process soap recommends curing for 4-6 weeks, but again it depends on the type of oils you use – some oils don’t harden naturally at room temperature so take longer to cure… it’s a big chemistry project so you will likely learn something new with every batch! 
  • Once it has reached a solid and sturdy consistency, you can gently remove it from the molds. 
  • At this point you can cut the soap into bars. 

Step 10: Use the soap! 

Our soap before curing
How was the soap once I used it? It lathers nicely and smells good – it has an energizing and fresh scent. I definitely have that “squeaky clean” feeling on my skin after using it, and it seems to offer a good amount of moisturization – my skin isn’t super dry or tight or anything after using it. The lavender I sprinkled on the top pretty much washes off after first use, so I’m not sure if I would do that again. Or I would grind it a bit so it incorporates more with the soap. 

As we adapt to the ever-changing situation with COVID-19, I am reassured knowing that I have a good stock of soap on hand for all the additional hand-washing, and I can make soap at home with just a few ingredients.

Melissa Dick

I have joined the Facebook page Saponification Nation, which brings together passionate (and super talented!) soap makers from all over the place. I use it mainly as a source of inspiration, as many of the techniques and products are way more advanced than what I have done at this point, but it’s pretty cool to see what you can do in the soap making world. 

The odd combination of fragrances in our soap made it so that there is no strong, signature scent to the soap, which is good in some ways. The Pink Grapefruit essential oil and Grapefruit Seed Extract definitely give it a certain citrusy, refreshing scent, with some hints of the Lavender and Rosemary fragrances. Next time, I would stick to a distinct fragrance combination so as to not dilute the scents. 

Big thanks to Ally for sharing her soap making knowledge with me! As we adapt to the ever-changing situation with COVID-19, I am reassured knowing that I have a good stock of soap on hand for all the additional hand-washing, and I can make soap at home with just a few ingredients. I look forward to passing on this skill and knowledge to the next eager person I meet who wants to learn to make their own soap.