One of the first skills I wanted to learn when we began homesteading was how to make soap. In fact, when we brought home our first two dairy goats, making soap from their milk was high on my list of why I wanted goats.
The benefits of handmade, natural soap are many, but there is a risk involved as well. Let’s explore the benefits first.
Take a look at the bar of soap currently in your bathroom shower. If it’s commercial “soap,” it’s probably called something like “bath bar,” “deodorizing bar” or even a “beauty bar.” It isn’t really soap.
It’s actually detergent made with synthetic ingredients such as petroleum products, foaming agents, and chemicals we can’t pronounce. Detergent is extremely harsh to our skin, stripping it of natural oils and moisture. Our skin is the largest organ in our body, and it’s also our first layer of defense against a polluted world. Skin absorbs anything that’s put on it, whether it’s natural or toxic.
A Quick Look at How Real Soap is Made
Simply put, real soap is made by combining fat with sodium hydroxide (lye) and a liquid, and mixing it together until it reaches “trace.” At trace the mixture will be thick and resembles pudding. The raw soap is then poured into molds. In about 24 hours the mixture has saponified into soap, and is removed from the molds and cut into bars. The bars are then cured for four to six weeks before it’s ready to use. It’s not a quick process, but it’s definitely worth the wait.
Natural Soap is Made with Natural Ingredients
Natural soap is made with rich, natural oils, fats and butters that are nourishing and moisturizing to your skin. High quality ingredients such as organic oils will produce high quality soap.
While vegan soaps are very popular with consumers, tallow and lard have benefits as well. Both tallow and lard are inexpensive and easy to obtain (you might even have some from your own steer or hog), but should be combined with other vegetable oils to make soap. Vegan soaps usually contain palm oil instead of animal fats.
A variety of liquid ingredients can be used. Water is the liquid most often used, but other liquids can be used. Herbal tea will lend its herbal benefits to the soap, while goat milk adds extra fat for a luxurious bar.
Artificial colors and fragrance oils are available for use in handmade soaps but natural colors and essential oils are healthier choices. The properties of essential oils used to scent soap are also in the soap, so a bar of soap scented with lavender essential oil will help you relax. A morning shower with a soap containing peppermint or citrus essential oils will help wake you up. Others such as lime will produce soap with a manly scent.
Adding color and fragrance are optional, of course. Soap can be colored naturally by using plants, flowers, or powdered clay. Some colors won’t survive the saponification process, but I’ve found that soap will take on the color of herbal-infused oils to a certain degree. Using goat milk as the liquid will result in a cream or light brown soap.
There is no need to add glycerin to handmade soap. It’s a by-product of soapmaking, not an added ingredient, and occurs naturally during the saponification process. Glycerin is a humectant. It naturally attracts moisture from the air around us and pulls it deep into the cells of our skin to prevent dryness, itching and even aging.
The Advantage of Making Your Own Soap
There are endless recipes for soap, from castile soap made from olive oil alone, to recipes with seven or more varieties of oils, fats and butters. The most common recipe is a three-oil soap made with coconut oil, olive oil and palm oil. Each oil has differing properties and recipes can be customized by adding ingredients that will soothe your unique skin.
We can craft a soap with luxurious lather and skin-nourishing vitamins by using certain oils and butters. Adding clay will absorb toxins and impurities from skin. Oils can be infused with herbs before using them to make soap. How about a soap made with jewelweed-infused oil to fight the effects of poison ivy?
Some folks who use handmade soaps find that it relieves their psoriasis, acne and other skin problems. A moisturizing bar of handmade soap won’t dry out skin like commercial detergents.
There is, however, a risk in making your own soap. That risk is the use of lye, or sodium hydroxide. Lye is a caustic material and must be handled with respect. Lye can cause serious damage to your skin and eyes if it splashes during the soapmaking process. It’s harmful if inhaled and is fatal if swallowed. You can significantly minimize this risk by using proper safety equipment and following safety procedures.
Always protect your eyes with safety glasses when you are handling lye.
Wear long-sleeved clothing to protect your arms, and wear rubber gloves when handling lye and when making soap. Raw soap, or soap that hasn’t saponified yet, is just as caustic as lye itself.
Avoid inhaling the fumes when you mix lye with liquid.
Have dedicated utensils and equipment to use when making soap. Don’t use these items for food preparation.
Use glass or plastic utensils and pots to make soap, not metal.
Cover the table or countertop with several layers of newspaper, which can be rolled up and thrown away after your soapmaking session.
Keep children and pets out of the room when you are making soap. Not only can they distract you, they can also cause spills and splashes or be the victim of a spill or splash.
Don’t be distracted by the phone or doorbell. Never leave your soap-in-progress unattended.
Work near a source of running water. In the event of spills or splashes, run water over the affected area for at least 15 minutes.
Clean up completely and carefully. Dispose of the newspaper on your countertops in an outdoor trash receptacle, not in the kitchen garbage can. Continue to wear rubber gloves when cleaning your soapmaking equipment and utensils, because raw soap is still caustic and dangerous.
Label your soapmaking equipment and store it on a shelf or in a cupboard out of the reach of children and pets.
Store lye out of the reach of children, such as in a locked cabinet.
While making soap, always add lye to the liquid, and then add the liquid/lye mixture to the fats in your recipe. Doing the opposite – adding liquid to lye – will result in a volcano of caustic liquid that can spew across your work area and all over you.
Is It Worth The Risk?
Making soap has its dangers, but driving a car and using a chainsaw are also dangerous activities. In all cases, if we are aware of the dangers and make the effort to do the activity in a safe manner, we reduce the risk.
By following these safety precautions and always treating lye with the respect it deserves, you can significantly reduce the risk involved in making your own soap. The reward is real soap, healthy skin, and another skill perfected.