When my friend Melissa began making soap, I just didn’t get it. As she stirred hot oil and scalding lye in her scorching (Texas) kitchen in August, I thought she was certifiably crazy. For goodness sake. You can buy soap at the store for 75 cents, I thought. Why would anyone on God’s green earth spend hours of their life making soap and peddling it at craft fairs? And for that matter, why would anyone in their right mind pay $5 – or more – for a bar of soap?
In her obsession, Melissa told me about the health benefits of handmade soap.
See, most commercial soaps aren’t “soaps” at all, but detergents. (In fact, most of them don’t even claim they are soap, but will be called body wash or body bars.) These so-called soaps are usually harsher to your skin than natural soap because the glycerin, a naturally occurring product of the saponification process, is removed. Glycerin is commonly sold to other companies that use it to make other products- including products like lotions and moisturizers you might not need as much of if you didn’t use detergent on your skin in the first place!
Your skin is your body’s biggest organ– and a highly absorbent one at that. What you put on your skin matters. (Depending on you talk to, it can matter just as much as what you put in your mouth). Commercial soaps are often made with synthetic detergents and lathering agents (sulfates, anyone?), preservatives, parabens, phthalates, artificial colors, or even known carcinogens or hormone disruptors (like triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps). For more information on the toxic load of body products and cosmetics, go to the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Database.
And just think, when you’re done bathing yourself and your kids, all of those ingredients find their way to the environment. . .
But I digress.
Spending time with Melissa often meant time making soap, cutting bars from loaves, wrapping the final product, or going with her to craft fairs. So that’s how I got my start with soapmaking: listening to loud music, shooting the breeze, and following instructions.
In 2009, Melissa and I formed a non-profit called The Nourish Collective. Our mission is to nourish hope by cultivating life-giving solutions to poverty, poor health, and despair. Soapmaking plays a central role in our international programs to date: we teach basic soapmaking skills to women so they can better prevent disease in their families and communities – and possibly earn a little income, too. In 2011 we drafted a simple manual on handwashing and soapmaking that has since been used by groups of women in Morocco, Madagascar, Uganda, Guatemala, and India.
A pro by now, Melissa makes the kind of soap you feel a smidge guilty buying – amazingly fragrant, nicely packaged, organic, fair trade, beautifully colored – you know the sort. She’s a pro at fancy.
But when writing the manual, we needed to know if women without access to the same resources could make soap following our instructions. We needed a beginner to try it out. We needed to know if you could make soap with wood utensils. We needed to know how to teach women to make a batch of soap with tallow – animal fat – something Melissa hadn’t done before. In fact, Melissa’s a vegetarian, so guess who became a soapmaker?
I made my first batch of soap in 2011 with my friend Erin. We used the tallow, olive oil, and vegetable oil. (In a spirit of full disclosure I should say Erin rendered the tallow because I am a big baby when it comes to the smell of cooking meat, or oil in this case.)
We scented the soap with essential oils I had leftover from other projects. For molds we used old yogurt containers, baby food containers, and cake pans lined with inside out grocery bags secured to the pans with masking tape.
And it worked. Mostly.
We had some funny shaped bars of soap. The soap didn’t lather as much as I would have liked (which I think is due to the high percentage of tallow, so I reduced it in future recipes) and the scent didn’t persist very long (so I increased the amount in future batches), but overall, it was a success. The total investment was about $20 and five hours of my life and we made enough soap for several months’ worth of personal use and enough to give away as gifts.
I learned a few important lessons from that first experience.
- Melted tallow smells like hamburgers, but once saponification happens, the smell is neutralized. Thank God.
- Soapmaking isn’t rocket science.
- You can make soap with inexpensive oils, lye from the hardware store, and recycled materials.
- Lye is scary, but it doesn’t attack cautious people. Just be careful.
- Don’t use too much olive oil unless you want cramps in your forearms.
- Saponification is amazing. Well, it’s amazing to me. I’m equal parts Word Girl and Sid the Science Kid and in love with things like germination and I love it when the pot of fat and lye finally reaches “trace” – the point at which saponification is about 80% complete and the soap can be scented and poured.
I’m still a very much a beginner. I’ve only made two batches since that first time, but I’m definitely getting better with practice.
The last batch I made was tallow, coconut oil (from the grocery store) and vegetable oil (from Heather’s pantry). For about $30 and three hours of time (see – getting better!), we made about 50 bars of soap. Not too shabby.
Every time I make soap I learn something new. This time I learned that adding coconut oil instead of the olive oil was a total score. Trace time was MUCH quicker and it should make a better lather, too. I also learned not to drop the candy thermometer you are using to check the temperature of the lye solution into the lye solution itself because the little clip on those darn things is coated with aluminum and will cause a small chemical reaction with the lye. Whoops.
You can do this. Send the kids to grandmas, put on your big girl panties, and make some soap.
Tomorrow: A Reluctant Soaponifier, Part Two–The Soap Recipe
Angela is partner to Matt, foster mom to O and J, Truth-chaser, and education addict. She loves to play with words, workflow rules, herbs, and dirt. Angela lives in rural Illinois, where her family is part of an intentional Christian community. When she gets up the gumption, Angela blogs over at Leaping Greenly and hatch*.