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Making soap for the first time may be intimidating, but isn't difficult. This quick and easy beginner soap recipe comes with fun ideas for personalizing it by adding exfoliants, essential oils, etc.
You know when you get really excited about making something…
Then it flops?
That was me making soap for the first time.
Growing up, I was always interested in making things.
I loved being outside in the garden, and growing herbs in every little spare area of the garden. My mom didn't appreciate my spearmint overtaking the rest of her garden quite as much as I did, but she still allowed me to explore my creativity.
One of the books at home that I loved was a book about making your own soaps and perfumes. I followed a few of the recipes, but didn't really have much luck with them. I tried making a rose petal perfume, but it made a brown liquid that went bad right away.
Looking back, that book probably wasn't as great as I remember it being. 😉
My first attempt at making homemade soap
The worst disaster, though, was when I tried to make soap.
The book shared ways to be frugal. It explained how to clean used cooking oil for making soap.
For some reason, I decided that I would recycle oil that very first time I made soap.
I mean, reuse, recycle, right?!?!?
Refining the oil was a horrible, messy process, and I don't know what sort of quality fat I ended up with. I proceeded, though, and continued to make my soap.
I was excited, hopeful, and optimistic about my soap. I mean it looked like soap, so I must have reached success, right?
Um, no! It stung every time I used it!
Years later, I think I know what the problem was…
I probably refined an unknown mixture of vegetable oils. Unless you know which oil you are using, you can't just use the same amount of lye for all oils and expect the soap to turn out the same. Plus, the typical light vegetable oils like corn oil or canola oil, just don't make very good soaps on their own. (You can use them in smaller percentages in soaps with other oils like olive oil and coconut oil.)
I thought that maybe it was because I didn't let it sit. In fact, years later, I don't even remember the book mentioning that you should let your soap sit; it probably did; I probably had. Either way, though, had I made the soap right, it shouldn't have stung days later.
By that point, the saponification process, the chemical reaction which turns lye and oil into soap, would have finished. More likely, my soap used too much lye for the amount of (low quality) oil I was using. I ended up throwing most of my soap away, only to find, and try, a bar years later. It was covered with brown spots (aka dreaded orange spots in soapmaking). While it lathered up and no longer stung as much, it still wasn't a great soap so I threw it away.
Part of me had been wanting to try making soap again, but part of me was held back by my not-so-stellar first experience with soap making.
Trying to make homemade soap. Again.
Months ago, I bought lye with the intention of making some soap again. The bottle of lye sat in my kitchen unused for weeks. When I finally sat down to find a good recipe for it, I became overwhelmed!
I wasn't really finding straight recipes for making soap but was instead led to various lye calculators that would help me formulate my own soap recipe.
Normally I love this sort of experimentation, but being a newbie with soap making, I just wanted somebody to tell me exactly what to do; just this once!!
To be honest, seeing that most of the calculations and recipes were calculated in ounces really intimidated me too. Although, after being in Spain for many years now, I still weigh myself in pounds and not kilos, I much prefer seeing these sorts of things in grams than ounces.
Are they weight ounces? Fluid ounces?!?!?!?
I searched the web in Spanish, hoping to find some good soap recipes in grams, and I did!
I made my second soap from a recipe on a Spanish blog, and I have been playing with the concentrations ever since.
Ar first I was going to make a pure Castile soap.
What is Castile soap?
In the eyes of a purist, Castile soap uses olive oil as the only oil in the recipe. After much experimentation, I now have several Castile soap recipes up on the blog. If you prefer, you can make my pure Castile bar soap or my homemade liquid castile soap. The problem with a pure Castile bar soap, though, is that some people find it slimy and wish it had more lather.
The term “Castile soap” has, over the years, expanded to include soaps made with only vegetable oils. Coconut oil is often added to improve lather, and other oils may also be added to give the soap other properties. (Soaps made with only coconut oil are very cleansing and provide a great, bubbly lather, but they can be drying on the skin.)
Soaps made with only olive oil tend to be very conditioning soaps. Olive oil is great for making soaps for face and body for that very reason. The problem with olive oil in soap is that it isn't considered to be as “cleansing,” nor does it make a bubbly lather. They lack that squeaky-clean feeling given by coconut oil soaps.
I had bought a liter of olive oil to make soap earlier that morning, but I decided that my husband wasn't going to be impressed with a soap that wouldn't lather much…
So, I decided to make a modified castile soap, a soap that not only uses olive oil, but that also uses coconut oil.
Watch me make this Easy, Beginner Soap.
Why This combination for an Easy, Beginner Soap?
Why did I formulate this soap the way I did to make it a great, customizable basic beginner soap?
It's a great, conditioning soap that is perfect for the face and body!
There are lye calculators online that will help you to formulate a recipe for a balanced bar of soap. They will give you an idea about how cleansing vs. conditioning a soap will be, what type of lather it will give, etc.. This soap falls on the conditioning end of the spectrum.
If you based this recipe just on the prediction of one of those calculators, you'd say that this soap could be improved by increasing its cleansing qualities, and it could use more bubbles.
In practice, though, I find this soap to be great! I don't have a problem with this soap leaving a greasy residue, and it feels perfectly cleansing to me. It also gives me lather from the beginning. (Some soaps, like the pure Castile soap, need to cure for longer first.)
I'm not the only one who feels this way. A lot of people prefer using a pure Castile soap, made with only olive oil, for face and body. Pure Castile soap falls further down the conditioning/less lather/less cleansing end of the spectrum, though, and many people don't like it because they find it slimy or not cleansing enough.
Apart from this being a great soap, it is a simple soap to make.
Not only are the ingredients simple to find, but there aren't a lot of them. I purposely didn't want to use a lot of different oils in this soap because seeing too many ingredients is enough to scare off beginner soap makers! Olive oil and coconut oil are both oils that should be relatively simple for anybody to find. Plus they are some of the more economical oils that are good for making soaps.
This soap also has a long working time once you've reached trace. “Trace” refers to the stage in soap making when the oils and the lye have begun to emulsify and the chemical process of saponification (becoming soap) begins. Some soaps move from thickening to solidifying very quickly, leaving little time for personalizing your soap with essential oils, colorants, or exfoliants. This soap recipe has a longer working time that will allow people to have fun adding ingredients to their soaps.
I had considered adding more coconut oil to this soap. That would make for a quicker soap to make. It would also give more lather and a really squeaky clean feeling afterward! The problem with that is that coconut oil greatly reduces the working time. I was afraid that first-time soap makers would stress if their soap hardened too quickly.
Before you begin making soap, read these safety warnings:
Keep in mind when making soap that you have to be very careful with the lye. I don't think the book I had read was quite as emphatic about that as most places I have read since. I don't remember mixing the lye into the water outside or wearing protective gloves or glasses. Luckily, nothing bad happened.
I don't want to scare you, but I do want you to be careful. Lye is a strong base that is very caustic and can cause chemical burns just like any strong acid would. Keeping that in mind, protect yourself when making soap!
Wear glasses and gloves throughout the process!
Mix the soap outside or in a well-ventilated area.
If you should happen to get some lye on your skin, rinse it off with plenty of clean, cool water- not vinegar.
You can later neutralize leftover lye wherever you have spilled it with a bit of vinegar if you feel it is necessary, but always rinse everything well with water first.
I had read in the past that lye on the skin should be quickly neutralized with vinegar, to neutralize it as quickly as possible, but it was pointed out to me that you should NOT do that. After further investigation, it appears that you could inadvertently be setting off a chemical reaction that gives off enough heat to burn you further.
Should you use separate equipment for making your soap? Is lye toxic? Read more about lye in my post about using lye in soapmaking.
Is temperature important?
I have been told many times that it is very important to have the oils and the lye solution at certain temperatures in order to successfully make soap. That said, I haven't found that to be the case.
I've experimented over the years with using everything from a cold lye solution with cold, solid coconut oil (Yes, the tricky part was combining it well, but I was stubborn in wanting to prove my point. 😉 ) to using very warm ingredients.
The process moves much more quickly with warm ingredients. It also is quite helpful to use the lye solution while still warm. (When you mix the lye with the water, a chemical reaction occurs that gives off heat.) The residual heat from the chemical reaction is enough to warm the oils and move things along.
What I would suggest, though, is that you at least melt the coconut oil before using it if it's solid when you are going to make soap. (Coconut oil is normally liquid at temperatures above 76ºF/24.4ºC, but solidifies when it's colder than that.)
Easy Beginner Soap Recipe
- Mix your lye into your water (Not the other way around!!!). Do this in a recipient that can handle heat; I used to use a thick glass bowl, but have now switched to stainless steel after hearing stories of people having the container break from the heat given off when you mix the lye with water. (Avoid other metals as they may react with the lye.) It is best to do this step outside so that you don't fill your house with the fumes. Try not to breathe them in! Once the lye has dissolved, leave the mix to cool in an area where no kids or pets have access to it while you go measure out your oils!
- Meanwhile, you can weigh and mix your olive and coconut oils. I mixed them in a large, glass bowl with room for adding and mixing the other ingredients.If your coconut oil is in a solid state, it will make things easier for you to melt the coconut oil first. Otherwise, there is no need to heat your oils.
- After the lye mixture has cooled a bit (enough to easily handle the container), bring it back inside and pour the lye solution into your oil mix. (Or, you can continue outside, of course. 😉 ) Mix them together gently at first.Note: You do not need to wait very long. The residual heat of the lye solution reaction can help speed the process along. I normally just have it cooling while I measure out the oils and then immediately proceed to mix everything together.
- Once your lye mix has been incorporated into your oils, you can start to blend them with a hand blender. Be careful not to spray the mixture all over!! I blended mine in the bottom of my sink, and distanced myself as much as the blender would allow, just in case!! You can do this step by hand, but it supposedly will take a very long time. (I'm not patient enough to have ever tried myself.)
- When your mixture starts to thicken like mayonnaise, after a few minutes, you are at the stage that is called "trace." That is what you want!
- Mix in your essential oils or any other fun ingredients like fragrances, colorants, exfoliants, etc.
- Pour into soap molds. (I used a silicone pan and some plastic containers. It's a good idea to oil the plastic containers beforehand to help prevent sticking.)
- Set aside for at least 24 hours. It will probably get warm.
- After 24 hours, uncover and gently press on it to determine if you can easily unmold it. If it is too soft, wait a few more hours/days and unmold. You can put it in a cold place to help shrink it a little to help the process out. Don't wait too long or it will be too hard to easily cut into bars.
- Cut into bars. I like the look of big, chunky square-ish bars. The nice thing about making your own, is that you can decide how you want to cut them.
- Let cure/set for around a month, turning every day or two at first, and then every week later on. This is to let your soap dry out and harden.
- Enjoy your soap!!
Once I reached trace, I decided I couldn't resist trying out adding things to my soap…
Customizing the basic soap recipe to make it fun!
I made the majority of the soap in a silicone bread pan using lavender essential oil just as the recipe had suggested. That said, I set some of it aside before adding in the essential oil. I divided the soap without lavender oil and added coffee grounds to part of it and tangerine essential oil and poppy seeds to the rest.
The coffee grounds and poppy seeds should help with exfoliation when using the soap. If I decide that I like the coffee soap, I would probably substitute coffee for the water in the recipe when making a coffee soap to give it more of a coffee scent next time. Who knows, maybe the caffeine in the grounds can help with circulation and combatting cellulite. A lot of cellulite creams do add caffeine! Coffee is also known to help remove odors, so it might be a good soap for cleaning up in the kitchen too.
As for the tangerine poppy seed soap, it just sounded like a fun combination to me. I love citrus scents and think I will have to buy more citrus essential oils for use in soaps and other personal products.
Now that I have gotten over the hurdle that has kept me from making soap again all of these years, I foresee myself experimenting with it quite a bit. The lye calculators no longer intimidate me either; I can just convert from ounces to grams! (That said, most digital scales allow you to weigh in either.)
What is the curing time?
Once you have finished making your soap and cutting it into bars, I told you to leave it alone for several weeks.
The resting period in soap making is referred to as the “curing period.”
Many people think that the curing time is important because it allows the saponification (aka. Soap making process) to complete. They think it is unsafe to use your soap before the time passes.
Well, while it's true that the saponification process is normally finishing up in the first few days after making your soap, it is pretty much finished in a few days time and the soap is “safe” to use. In a recipe like this one, you shouldn't have to worry about any residual lye being harsh on the skin. (Some people mistakenly choose to make “hot-process soap” vs. this “cold-process soap” thinking that they can immediately use their soap rather than needing to wait out of lye safety concerns.)
So why is the curing time important?
During the curing time, the quality of the soap improves.
Bar soaps have a certain crystalline structure that keeps them hard and gives them their shape. (Liquid soaps don't have this same crystalline structure, which is why you don't need to cure them before using them.) Over time, that structure is changing and improving. The moisture in the soap is evaporating, too, so the soap is getting harder. A hard bar of soap will last much longer!
Basically, over the weeks of curing the soap should have better lather and improve in quality. It's not that you can't use your soap before then. It's just better to wait.
Some soaps, like a pure Castile soap, are often given much longer curing periods before use! Because they have much less lather and feel “slimier” than soaps made with only coconut oil, very long curing times can help overcome those shortcomings. Some people refuse to use pure Castile soap without having cured it for a full year!
Since I originally wrote this post, I've shared more soap recipes:
The first two soap recipes I shared after this one, my Pumpkin Spice Soap and Gingerbread Soap were both soaps based on this very recipe. I wanted to show you how to work with other ingredients without complicating things too much.
The pumpkin spice soap tutorial shows you how to work with added sugars like goat milk and fresh pumpkin puree. The gingerbread soap is just a fun recipe for Christmas time.
Some may look a bit more complicated because you need to heat the soap to make it, but once you've successfully made your first bar of soap, hopefully, you'll have developed the confidence to give one of those recipes a try!