Making Soap

With a wide variety of oils available today, making your own soap is once again very inexpensive, and a good choice for those concerned about quality, health related benefits, and the environment. Successful soap making today is a result of a much better understanding of chemistry, experience, and a wider variety of ingredients to choose from. Today's soaps are milder and better for skin thanks to the availability of vegetable and plant based oils.

Chemically speaking, soap is a salt. An acid and a base react with one another and are neutralized to form a salt or soap. A more basic explanation is: oils or fats combine with Sodium Hydroxide or “Lye” in a process called saponification to produce soap. Hand made soap retains extra glycerin, known to soften the skin naturally. Glycerin is one of the best known humecants (attracts moisture to the skin). It is often extracted during the process of manufacturing commercially made soap, then sold as a valuable by-product. Natural ingredients are rarely used in commercially manufactured soap. If used at all, it is sparingly. One of the best advantages of making your own soap is that you are in charge of quality control. You decide which ingredients to use and how much.

Animal versus Vegetable-based Soaps - Originally, all soap was made from animal fats - mainly lard from pigs and tallow from cattle. It was readily available and at the time no one questioned the use of animal by-products. Over time, new oils were extracted from vegetables, grains and nuts providing an alternative to animal oils. Vegetable oil soaps are chemically superior and can be of higher quality than soaps made with animal fats. Vegetable oils are more readily absorbed by the skin while animal oils have been found to clog pores and aggravate certain skin conditions, such as eczema.

Different soap making processes include:

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The Soap Process

Natural hand-made soap is not difficult to make, once you understand the basics. You can make a batch of soap in as little as one hour, depending on the formula. The following is the basic formula for making all soap:

Fatty acid (oil) + Base (lye) = “A Salt” (soap)

The oil or fat is heated gently. Lye and water are combined separately. When both ingredients reach the required temperature, they are combined. When the mixture becomes the desired consistency, it is poured into a mould. The bars are then removed from the mould after setting up (approximately 24 to 48 hours). They are restacked and allowed to “cure” or dry until hard. This can take anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks depending on the formula.

The cold process of making soap involves mixing a combination of fats (natural oils) with a lye solution until a process of saponification takes place. Saponification is a chemical process which converts a fat into a soap by reaction with an alkali (lye). Each fat has a saponification value which measures the amount of lye necessary to saponify one gram of fat. The amounts of the fats, along with their saponification values, are inserted into a mathematical formula that will give the total amount of lye needed to saponify a batch of soap. You can use the old method of figuring -

6 ounces of lye to 2.5 cups of water + 13 3/4 lbs. of fat

or use the Lye Calculator at the Majestic Mountain Sage website to calcuate the lye fat and water formulations.

Just about any fat or combination of fats can be used. The qualities of the soap, such as hardness or softness, amount of lather, and whether it is harsh or mild, are determined by the types of fats used. Once the saponification process has begun to take place, at trace (the point at which a line begins to form when stirring the mixture) the soap is poured into molds and allowed to solidify. Once the soap has solidified (after a couple of days), the soap is sliced into individual bars and set aside to cure. The curing process generally takes up to 6 weeks.

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Soap Preservatives

A preservative is defined as something that protects against decomposition. However, nature has its own agenda and decay is inevitable. There are no preservatives, synthetic or natural, that can completely stop this process — they can only slow it down.

Oxidation occurs within fats/oils which causes rancidity and spoilage to occur. Carrot oil, Vitamin E oil, and Grapefruit Seed Extract are three natural preservatives that are recommended. They contain powerful anti-oxidants such as vitamin A, E and C, which can help prevent spoilage.

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Preparations for Making Soap

Soap Making Supplies Needed:

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Soap Moulds

Generally, you can use just about any type of plastic, wood, or cardboard as a soap mould. Do not use tin, aluminum, Teflon, or copper as they react with the lye. Candy and candle moulds may work well, too. If you want something simple, choose a square or rectangular container and cut the bars to size after your soap has set. Cardboard milk or juice containers work well as they are coated with wax. To make round soaps try recycling a plastic bottle. Using an empty, clean, plastic pop or round shampoo bottle, carefully slice the sides of the bottle lengthwise. Tape sides using plastic packing tape to prevent leakage. Pour the soap mixture and let set for required amount of time. Peel tape back and release your soap, then cut the bars to a desired size. Set to cure as usual.

If you are having trouble getting your soap to release from the mould, try placing it in the freezer for two hours. This will cause the soap mixture to shrink from the sides and make removal easier. To help with release, use vegetable shortening to grease your moulds. Cardboard or wooden moulds require a combination of waxed paper or freezer paper and vegetable shortening.

Tip: Line your moulds with brown freezer or butcher’s paper. Apply some vegetable shortening to the inside surfaces of your mould, lay in some freezer paper, shiny side up, and trim to fit. After removal, simply peel off the paper from your soap block the next day.

Caution - Hazardous Materials!

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Adding Soap Ingredients

Remember to add all optional ingredients after your soap has traced.

Essential Oils are defined as: "Highly concentrated essences extracted from portions of the plant." They have been valued and used throughout history for their therapeutic and scent qualities. You can add a wide variety of essential oils to your soap as long as they are considered safe. Essential oils are highly concentrated and are extremely powerful. Some are beneficial while others can be harmful. It is best to research an oil before using it to:

For the soap maker, the only oils that have a habit of causing some problems (if added in high volume) are the citrus oils. They can disrupt the soap making process causing the soap to curdle. Limit these oils to no more than 2 tablespoons (30ml) per 700g (1 1/2 lb.) batch.

Blending for scent qualities: Many scents today are the direct result of scent characteristics present in nature. When it comes to blending a scent there are three main scent classifications or "notes": top, middle, and base. The top note is the odour that is immediately perceived, generally uplifting and stimulating; i.e. orange. The middle note, or modifier, provides full, solid character to the scent. Clary Sage and Marjoram are often selected as middle notes. The base note, or end note, adds depth to a blend. It becomes apparent when the top and middle notes have faded and the last volatile components remain. Clove and Sandalwood are common base notes. 

A general guideline for scenting your soap using top, middle, and base notes is:



Natural Additives to give Color, Scent, and Texture

  • Calendula (chopped or ground flower petals)- retains its yellow color nicely
  • Chamomile Flowers - You can also make tea from it and use it in place of your water
  • Coffee Grounds
  • Eucalyptus Leaves (ground – can be a bit scratchy if not ground finely enough)
  • Lavender Buds - Grind them up a bit or they tend to look like mouse droppings (they turn brown in cold process soap)
  • Loofah - either whole, sliced or ground - popular in melt-n-pour
  • Oatmeal - different amounts of grinding give different effects
  • Patchouli- Can be a little scratchy - but smells amazing!
  • Peppermint - Be careful of "botanical bleed"
  • Poppy Seeds - probably my overall favorite exfoliant!
  • Pumice
  • Rose Hips (not the seeds) (finely ground) - great for color and for scrub
  • Rose Petals - nice scrub, but remember they do turn black
  • Sandalwood powder -(makes a really lovely purple color, but very scratchy)
  • Spearmint - Again, beware the "botanical bleed"
  • Tea leaves - Will likewise bleed

Natural Fixatives

Scenting your soaps is a personal choice and individual tastes will vary. It s best to add a fixative to your soap if you are adding essential oils. Common fixatives are:

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Colouring Soaps Chart #1

Here are Color Ingredient options, and the color they impart - Remember that dried plant material must be infused in warm oil, and then the colored oil is added to the soap mix at trace.

  • Alfalfa – medium green
  • Alkanet – steep in oil first - deep purple to muted blue
  • Annatto Seed – steep in oil first - yellow orange
  • Beet Root – muted pink to red
  • Ground Calendula Petals - yellow
  • Carrots, shredded or ground - yellow to orange
  • Ground Chamomile – yellow-beige
  • Chlorophyll - medium greens
  • Cinnamon - tan to brown – can be an irritant
  • Clays (rhassoul, kaolin, bentonite, pink, red moroccan, french green etc.)
  • Cloves, ground – brown
  • Cochineal powder– deep red
  • Cocoa powder– brown
  • Coffee/coffee grounds - brown to black
  • Comfrey Root – light milky brown
  • Cucumber – bright green
  • Curry powder - yellow
  • Elderberries – steep in lye solution – light brown
  • Henna, ground - olive to deep drab green - brown
  • Indigo root - deep blues - caution, can stain
  • Kaolin Clay - white
  • Kelp/seaweed - green
  • Madder root - rosy red - purple
  • Milk (goats or cow's) - tan to brown, depending upon sugar & fat content
  • Morrocan Red Clay - Brick Red
  • Paprika – light peach to salmon - can be an irritant
  • Poppy Seeds - Blue-grey to light black specks
  • Pumice, ground - grey
  • Pumpkin, pureed - lovely deep orange
  • Rattanjot – lavender to purple
  • Rose Pink Clay - Brick red
  • Rosehip seeds, ground - light tan to deep brown
  • Safflower Petals- yellow to deep orange
  • Saffron - yellows
  • Sage - green
  • Spinach – light green
  • Spirulina/Blue-Green Algae – blue-green
  • Titanium Dioxide- bright white
  • Tumeric – gold to amber


Colouring Soaps Chart #2

Here are some more color ingredient options, and the color they impart - Remember that dried plant material must be infused in warm oil, and the colored oil is then added to the soap mix at trace.

Herb/spice common name
    Botanical name

Part/form used


Usage ratio

Alkanet root
Alcanna tintoria
Dried root (infused in oil) Mauve/lavender, fading to grey


Annatto seeds
Bixa orellana
Dried seeds (infused in oil) Yellow to orange


Calendula officinalis
Petals only Yellow or orange

4 ts per lb

    Blue Algae
Industrially made liquid Green, fading to grey

4 ts per lb

Cinnamon, cassia
Cinnamomum zeylanicum, C. cassia
Powdered bark Pale to medium brown

1 ts per lb

Theobroma cacao
Powder Brown

3 ts per lb

Comfrey root
Symphytum officinale
Powdered root Light brown

2 ts per lb

Dark (bitter) chocolate
Blocks Brown

1 oz per lb

Lawsonia alba
Powdered leaves Murky green

1 ts per lb

n/a Pale ivory to medium brown

1 oz per lb

Kelp (sea weed)
Fucus vesciculosus
Dried plant Murky green

2 ts per lb

Madder root
Rubia tintorum
Powdered root Pink

1 ts per lb

Mentha piperita, M. spicata, M. arvensis
Crushed or powdered leaves Green, fading to grey

4 ts per lb

Paprika (sweet)
Capsicum annuum
Powdered fruit (seedless pod) Pale to medium pink/orange

1 ts per lb

Petroselinum, Carum petroselinum
Crushed or powdered leaves Green, fading to grey

4 ts per lb

Poppy seeds
Papaver spp.
Seeds Black "dots"

4 ts per lb

Rose hips
Rosa rubiginosa, Rosa spp.
Powdered hips Reddish tan

1 1/2 ts per lb

Crocus sativus
Dried stamina or stigma Yellow

1/10 ts per lb

Spirulina (fresh water algae)
Industrially made powder or tablets Murky green

2 ts per lb

Stinging nettle
Urtica dioica
Crushed or powdered leaves Green, fading to grey

4 ts per lb

Curcuma longa
Powdered rhizome Ochre yellow

2 ts per lb

Caution: It's important to do some simple tests before adding herbs or additives to your soap.

Testing Natural Colours

There are three tests for natural colorants:

  1. A lye test - test how your colorant will react to the lye, dissolve about a tablespoon of lye into a half cup of water. Stir until the lye is completely dissolved and let it cool. Slowly add some of the plant material. You don’t need to use much – perhaps ¼ teaspoon of powdered colorant, or a few leaves of a fresh.
  2. An oil test - If you're going to add the color to the oil, you can either add it at the beginning to the oils, or at the end, at trace. Either way seems to work about the same. Heat up about 4 ounces of oil. (I prefer to use coconut oil or lard so that I know that the oil is not imparting any color to the final results.) Add your colorant as before, and let it steep. Check back in a few hours and again after about 24.
  3. Soap test - After you’ve tested the colorant in both the lye and oil, you should be ready to try it in a small batch of soap. Depending on whether the colorant acted better in the lye or the oil will determine when you add it to the mix. Some plant materials work better when steeped in the lye solution, others work better when added at trace. There is no hard and fast rule for how much of each colorant to add to your soap. Different plants have stronger coloring abilities, as well as each person's tastes in being different. When testing out a recipe - start with 1 tsp. of colorant for each pound of oils in your recipe. Then, based on those results, adjust the amount from there. If you're going to steep the colorant in the lye water, mix your lye-water first, then add the color. Let it steep for a few minutes - or a few hours if necessary. Then using this colored lye-water, make your soap.

TAKE NOTES - how much of the colorant you used, when you added it, how it reacted in the soap. Your memory may be good now, but several months from now, when you want to duplicate your wonderful results, you'll be grateful for those notes.

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Finishing and Personalizing your Soap

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Description of Soap Ingredients

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Testing pH level of Soap

You can test your soap for excess lye by applying a few drops of Phenolphthalein, a colourless, clear liquid. This chemical will turn pink or fuchsia in the presence of an alkali or an excess of lye. Soap that is to be used on the skin should be in the range of 7 to 9.5.

It’s the degree of pink that determines how alkaline your soap is. If a drop applied to the middle of a soap cutting turns deep pink or fuchsia then the soap should not be used on the skin. This soap however is great for the house and or laundry. If the drop stays clear or turns just the lightest shade of transparent pink then your soap should be fine.

If your soap was left uncovered while in the mould then the white chalk-like substance on the surface (soda ash) will also test alkaline. This can be trimmed off or avoided by applying plastic wrap to the surface right after pouring your soap into the mould.

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Soap Making: Cold Process Method #1

Carefully read the sections on Caution, and Soap making: the procedure before beginning. One of the most common mistakes soap makers make is not weighing the ingredients carefully. This is a crucial step. Make sure you use an accurate digital scale to weigh your oils and your Lye.

Within 1/2 hour of pouring your soap into the mould you should notice it becoming hotter and turning dark in the middle. It can become quite dark and somewhat transparent. Bubbles may also come to the surface. This is a sign that your soap is properly neutralizing. It should stay hot like this for several hours before cooling and becoming light in colour again. Soap that is not properly insulated, cooled too much during tracing, poured into too small a mould, or with initial temperatures too low may not completely neutralize. 

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Soap Making Cold Process Method #2

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Rebatching into Fancy Moulds

Handmilling or rebatching soap after unmoulding is done to achieve greater medicinal benefits from ingredients like herbs and essential oils, to increase colour intensity, and to change the shape and texture of the soap.

Rebatching can be done after unmoulding by grating or chopping a soap bar and using water to melt it. As a general rule, combine one cup of grated soap to 1/4 cup of water or herbal infusion. Heat in a double boiler or use a glass Pyrex container to microwave. Heat gently, stirring constantly to help break down soap pieces and evaporate the water. Continue until all water has evaporated. Remove from heat and add optional ingredients i.e.: herbs, spices, grains, essential oils, creams or lotions, or carrier oils such as jojoba or shea butter.

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Making Liquid Soap

Because of the moisture content of a natural liquid soap, they can be susceptible to rancidity. Keep your liquid soap in a cool dry place and in an air tight bottle, preferably with a pump or flip top to dispense your soap.

  1. Follow the procedure for making soap as specified in the formula, with one exception — no curing time.
  2. After you have removed your soap from a simple mould, shave, shred or chop the soap into small pieces.
  3. Place one cup of shredded soap in a double-boiler and add 3 cups of water. Stir continually on medium heat until melted.

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    Troubleshooting Soap Problems

Trouble Signs in Cooking the Soap

Trouble Signs in Finished Soap

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