Coronacrafts, or: My venture into first time natural soap making

Coronacrafts, or:  My venture into first time natural soap making

I am not stuck at home, having to work at the hospital every day. It’s a mixed blessing. I do some “hot site” work as well as having to work really close to patients and risk exposure to COVID-19. But…  I get out, I get paid, I don’t really get bored. I wash my hands a bloody ton. So, what better way to explore #coronacrafts than to venture into first time natural soap making?

Useful #Coronacrafts: First-time natural Soap Making

In lieu of other leisure activities I normally like, I have started also sewing again. I started with face masks and a few bit and bobs with leftover fabric – a scrub cap here, a knot bag there – just getting re-acquainted with a machine before I  tackle a summer dress and linen curtains!

Something  that has fascinated me for a long time is making natural soap.  Ideally one I can use as a shampoo as well for travelling. If you’ve read this blog before, you may know my obsession with soap. On my recent trips to Turkey and Jordan, I brought some home.

But what about making your own all-natural soap? I was scared of the lye, to be honest, but last weekend, I finally tackled  first time natural soap. There are excellent online tutorials, and the amazing thing is, you need much less than you think to make soap, and you’re likely to have most ingredients in the house already.

So, if you are into organic cruelty-free cosmetics, zero waste or simply want to play with some chemicals, I encourage you to go ahead with first time natural soap making! The method of soap making I used is called cold process.

All commissions from this will be donated!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links to Amazon, and I am shamelessly putting them in because…  100% of any commission made from purchases through these links (minus tax deducted) will be donated during the Corona Pandemic, but at least for the months of April, May and June 2020. Update 21. May 2020: I have stopped using the Amazon.com Affiliate Programme. I made a donation anyway which exceeds any income from commissions. I will use a different shopping affiliate programme in the future, if any. 

The money will go to El Gato Andaluz, a cat shelter in La Linea, Andalucia. 

And not just that, I will match any commission with a donation from my own funds.  La Linea is a  city in one of the poorest regions of Spain. What’s worse, many cats got abandoned now because their owners wrongly thought the pets can give them COVID-19. The  shelter is closed to visitors, adoptions cannot go ahead and lots of stray cats cannot be trapped and sterilized and will have their kittens now, with no one there to take care of them! Should there unexpectedly be tons of commissions, I may divide the funds to support other animal shelters in Spain. 

What You need – equipment

You need some small bowls to weigh the ingredients and a heatproof pot or bowl. Stainless steel is best. I used a Pyrex glass bowl which was fine. This one is pretty much what I’ve got.  Also some stirring implements. I used stainless steel spoons. A silicone spatula will help get the soap out of the bowl mess-free.

I also used my digital kitchen scales  and a sugar thermometer.  And it helps to have a stick blender.

Safety is absolutely paramount! You will need safety goggles, gloves and a long-sleeved top. Some people prefer to wear a mask.  As I do the all fume-producing steps outside, I did not use one.

Melting and heating oils
A crowded kitchen counter isn’t ideal but perfectly safe for weighing and melting oils

Do you need separate utensils? Absolutely not! The sodium hydroxide is highly caustic, but it’s not toxic. Where would pretzels and bagels be without sodium hydroxide?  After washing the utensils thoroughly, they are fine for food use again.

You can get special moulds to pour the soap. I bought some individual moulds as well as a silicone mould. But… cake and confiserie moulds made from silicone will be fine. The silicone will make it easy to unmould the finished soaps.  But I used a plastic cat treat container as well, and that worked! Other people have successfully used Tetra Paks, Pringles tubes and inner tubes of a toilet or kitchen roll!

What you need – Supplies

The only thing I had to buy was Sodium hydroxide.  I bought a pound of food grade pellets – a little will really go a long way here, and I found the solid easier and safer to store. I already had distilled water. And I used virgin olive oil which I always have lots of in the kitchen. Not my best Spanish Olive Oil, but a decent quality organic olive oil. And this is, in theory, all you need to make a simple organic bar of castile soap! In practice, castile soap is a bit tricky to make – so use at least 20% other oil.

Solid cocoa butter and coconut oil in olive oil
Melting the oils and butters

I also added coconut oil (the unrefined kitchen variety that melts at 25 Celsius) as well as some cocoa butter. The coconut oil helps to develop a good lather and cleanse, and produces a firmer bar. It’s a kitchen staple in my house – its high smoke point and long shelf life make it excellent for food use – and to moisturize hair!

Last not least, a small part of my soap was going to be cocoa butter.  Cocoa butter smells gorgeous and is highly nourishing and firming for skin. We have it already for other cosmetic uses and it keeps a long time in the fridge.

Nice-to-have in first time natural soap: Scent and Colour

I decided to colour my soap with activated charcoal – already in our kitchen/first aid cupboard. It’s a pretty easy colourant. I just mixed it in a little olive oil to minimize mess and clumping before pouring it into the soap later.

Other natural colourants you might already have in your kitchen are paprika/chili powder (orange-red), turmeric (yellow), spirulina powder (green), coffee (brown). There are plenty more, but you’d usually have to buy them specifically. I pushed out the boat and bought some bentonite clay (white). Also, some other coloured clays are available to buy and can improve texture and improve cleansing properties.

Last not least, I used organic essential oils to scent my soap. I used petitgrain, lemon verbena and lemon. But honestly, there is no need to go overboard with expensive scents for first-time soap making. Lemon on its own works quite well, and so does mint. Mint survives saponification well, but most citrus (including lemon) don’t.  Peppermint and rosemary is a popular combination as well. My next try will either have grapefruit or blood orange in it, as I love these single notes.

My essential oils are either from Primavera, Pranarom or Ressources Naturelles. When I lived in Britain, I also liked Neal’s Yard Remedies Essential Oils. I even did a natural perfumery course with them once – they are pretty confident about the quality of their oils and I agree they worked really well in perfume – and kept for a long time.

I also decorated the soap with some gold mica. It was a bit of a “luxury purchase” at Christmas – stuff you don’t really need… you know. It is not essential, and some micas are synthetic and therefore don’t go with the idea of an all-natural soap.

Finished soaps curing in a well aerated box
The finished soaps after two days – curing in a well aerated box

The Soapmaking process

Most importantly: Where on earth you get the recipe from? There are many online. I looked at a few sites. Brambleberry is quite good to just give you an idea of how multifaceted soap making is. Their ingredients are not all natural and/ or organic, but they are pretty transparent about it. And they have many recipes to be inspired by or to follow.

I wanted for my first time natural soap something easy, organic, vegan, with not too many oils. In the end and calculated what I needed using an online soap calculator. The one I used is Soapcalc. I wanted my soap to be fairly bubbly, fairly cleansing, with a superfat content of 6%. It was my first attempt, and I was not yet to bothered about using it as a shampoo – I’ll pH test it and if it is too alkaline, I just use it as a general soap.

My first time natural soap recipe

Olive oil: 300g (0.66lb)

Coconut oil: 200g (0.44lb)

Cocoa butter: 100g (0.22lb)

Sodium Hydroxide: 86g ( (0.19lB) to be dissolved in 228g (0.50) lb of distilled water. This allowed for my colourant/fragrance to be about 20g. I mixed 2 tablespoons of activated charcoal with olive oil and added approximately 5ml of essential oil in total. In retrospect, that was a bit much essential oil, but as its citrus/ top notes it’s tolerable.

Mixing colour beforehand in a spoon or two of oil – activated charcoal in this case, messy but safe

Step by step first time natural soap process: Tidy and prepare

I locked husband and cats away and took possession of the kitchen. First I weighed all ingredients except the lye and measured out the distilled water. I mixed the oils in my Pyrex bowl and put it in the oven at about 80 degree Celsius. It’s best to cut the cocoa butter and coconut oil into smallish pieces or they will take forever to melt. The second time, I used a stainless steel pot and melted the oils on a hob at low setting while stirring constantly and checking with a sugar thermometer – you want to melt the oils, not deep fry. It was much simpler.

Weigh Sodium Hydroxide and Make lye water

Now comes the point where you definitely want to don safety goggles and gloves. I weighed the solid Sodium hydroxide in a high walled old plastic container… just in case.

Then I took my distilled water (in a pyrex jug) outside and carefully added the Sodium Hydroxide pellets. It fumes really nicely and can splash, so this is the most “dangerous” bit. The reaction heated up the lye water to about 70 C. I stirred it and brought out the now-melted oils which had reached a temperature of about 60C.

Waiting for lye and oil to rech around 50-60 Celsius - outside
All fume-producing steps happened outside! Waiting for temperatures to come to 50-60 Celsius

Mix lye water into the oils and let them saponify

I waited for a few minutes for the temperatures to be nearer to 10 degrees Celsius of each other. The best saponification temperature for cold process soap is 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit, s about 49-55 degrees Celsius.  Then, still outside, I poured the lye water into the oil, and stirred gently. The mixture immediately became cloudy… but not much happened.

Even though the saponification is already in progress at this point, it is still a very caustic mixture! I then stick-blended for 5 minutes, stirred in my charcoal, then my essential oils,  stirred again, and after 15-20min and another bout of stick blending it finally reached trace, meaning it thickened up considerably.

Pour Soap into moulds

So at this stage,  I was able to pour my soap into my moulds. At this point I haphazardly scattered the mica powder on top some of the moulds. It looked crap, so I used a spoon to make some swirls.

It is still caustic at this point, so don’t take off those gloves and goggles! I covered my moulds with clingfilm and put them in the still warm oven at about 50C, closed the door and left it to heat a bit more and hopefully push through gel phase. At this point wrapping the moulds with an old towel will also help. The oven is not necessary, but I would always cover my soaps – they’re caustic and still a safety hazard.

Freshly poured soap in moulds about to go int he oven
Freshly poured soap in a mix of shop bought and DIY moulds

A day later, the soap was still too soft, but after 48 hours, I unmolded it, hands newly gloved, and cut the log of soap with a kitchen knife. then put the bars on old paper in a box.

Curing the soap

I made the soap on Palm Sunday, three weeks ago today.  It should  go through the first couple of weeks of the curing process, to make sure there is no nasty surprises! I cure the soap in an open box in my study, well exposed to air but shielded from light. At first, I turned them every day. It is still important to wear gloves for this – there is still some lye. After four or five days, I turned them every other day, after another week or two, every few days to a week.

I cut my soap into bars after about two or three days, but with this recipe I could have cut it after a week. It was easy to cut with sharp kitchen knife – and a ruler if necessary. I tried a few scraps, and it produces a creamy lather and a rather small amount of bubbles, but enough for washing, and no greasy residue. So far, so good! Where I touched it, there are faint traces of white on the black bars – unsure whether this is soda ash. Either way, I will try to steam it off after they finished curing – at five to six weeks.

Advice from the novice soap maker for first time natural soap making

Safety above all

From the moment you weigh the lye to moulding and unmoulding your soap, bear in mind anything with lye is extremely caustic. Getting lye in your eye or onto your skin is a serious injury at the best of times. You don;t want to go into hospital during an pandemic for a lye burn, either.

Use a basic recipe with cheap yet established oils

There is no need to splash out on specialised expensive oils like argan or macadamia nut oil. Even though I have argan oil, I would not put it into a soap – most of it will saponify and you lose some of the benefits of argan oil. Olive and coconut oil are good staple oils that saponify well. If you have grapeseed oil, avocado oil or cocoa /shea butter, it’s fine to add it in small amounts.

Don’t go too fancy with embellishments

A single note scent from essential oil, a simple or no colour, and a little embellishment should be enough to put your first soap just the right side of fancy. Again, the simplest shape is the simple log, for which you can buy a mould – or use a milk or juice Tetra Pak or a cake tin lined with parchment paper. For my second soap, I also used the cardboard tubes inside toilet rolls to make travel-size soap that fits in a round tin – its best to line them with greaseproof paper! Similarly, I would use cheaper essential oils. I love citrus, but unfortunately they rarely make it through saponification on their own. The essential oil scents that I used so far and that survived were petitgrain and peppermint.

My finished soap still curing in a box
My soap: gelled, nice smooth surface – so far, so good!

The approximate cost of making a kilogram of soap

You’ll need about 400ml of olive oil, and 200-300ml of other oil. This will set you back approximately 4-6 Euro for the oils. Add to that the price of the lye. You’ll need about 80g, but usually lye is just available in larger containers for 10-15 Euro for a kilogram. So, that’ll be 1,50 Euro. Add 3-6 Euro for a bottle of good quality organic essential oil.  At Primavera Germany,  lemon, blood orange, lemon verbena start at 4 Euro for 5ml, and you’d need about 2-3ml depending on how strong a scent you want. If you use colourants you already have in the kitchen, that’s it –  a relatively low price to pay for an all natural soap – even if you consider the trial -and error.

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