Words & Photos By Mara Ripani
By using oils and fats readily available, soap can be made at home free from synthetic fragrances and colours and can be used to wash everything from your hair and body to household dishes.
There are only two ways to make soap using raw ingredients; cold process and hot process. Cold-process soap making uses heat at the beginning of the process only, while hot-process soap making continues to use heat beyond the initial stages to cure soap faster.
Soap is made from four basic ingredients: animal fat or oil, lye (sodium hydroxide), water and essential oils. This will produce a bar of soap with the colour properties of the fats or oils you use. For example, lard produces a very white soap while olive oil produces a light-green soap, and essential oils are added as fragrance.
Common kitchen tools can be used to make soap; there’s no need to buy anything particularly unusual. However, if using items that will also be used for cooking, then you must wash things immediately to remove any traces of lye (also known as caustic soda).
Lye is a very strong alkali with a pH level of 12. Protect your eyes with safety glasses and your skin with reusable gloves and an old, long-sleeved shirt. When washing cooking ware, add a dash of vinegar to your water to neutralise the lye.
Lye is caustic on its own but, when mixed with a fat or oil, makes soap. Melt-and-pour kits give the impression it’s possible to make soap without lye, but that is never the case. Lye can be purchased from hardware or cleaning supply stores. It is possible to make your own lye from wood ash, but it’s pretty tricky.
Oils And Fats
There is a huge range of fats and oils that can be used in soap making, up to 150 of them. Each has distinctive qualities: hardness, cleansing, conditioning, bubbliness and creaminess. Soap makers often combine two or more to achieve a soap that meets their specific needs, but it is possible to make soap from just a single oil or fat.
The oils and fats you use will not only determine how the soap performs, but also how sustainable it is. Consider where the oil or fat you are using comes from, how far it has travelled and what process was used to make it. Animal lard, for example, is often frowned upon, yet it makes beautiful soap and is often a readily available waste product. If sourced locally and from ethically run and free-range farms, lard makes fantastic soap. Olive oil is another great ingredient; try and source it from a local supplier.
Essential oils are the most natural and pure fragrances you can use in your soaps. Look for bottles that list the name of the derivative plant in Latin, for example Lavandula angustifolia for lavender.
Use essential oils in small amounts as it takes a huge amount of plant material to make just a single drop and they can be harmful in excessive doses. Online soap calculators will tell you how much essential oil to use but, as many of these calculators benefit from sales made by essential-oil companies, veer towards using less than what is suggested. These calculators are a great resource for you to design your own bespoke soaps.
Strong, vibrant colours that retain their intensity beyond the first few days can only be produced from dyes (petrochemicals) and pigments, both of which are now always produced synthetically. Coloured micas (minerals) use oxides and these create muted colours in coldprocess soap making.
Clays can produce gentle colours, however while they occur naturally, the ones you buy are almost always coloured with oxides. Australia produces some clays but most commercially available clays come from France and Brazil. There is also activated charcoal, which produces a black soap.
Household ingredients such as turmeric, coffee grounds, cocoa, tandoori and beetroot powder can be used to colour soaps, they’ll usually produce muted colours and of varying shades. Some soap makers extract plant colours by placing plant material in their oils for a few days.
Soap making is an art form and if you start to play with colour it will involve a great deal of trial and error. To make the healthiest, most-sustainable natural soap, do away with coloured bars altogether. For a splash of colour, add dried calendula or corn flowers to your soap mixture before it sets. These two flowers retain their colour while other flowers turn an unpleasant brown after a week.
Basic cold-process soap
2 x medium stainless-steel saucepans
Small stainless-steel saucepan
Tall bowl (any material)
Jug of water
Caustic soda (lye)
Baking tray (29 cm x 13 cm minimum)
Stick blender (with stainless-steel blades)
Chopping board (if making lard soap)
Gloves and eye protection
380 ml water
142 g lye
300 g coconut oil
700 g olive oil
15 g essential oil
380 ml water
143 g lye
2 kg lard (to make 1 kg of oil)
25 g essential oil
125 ml water for rendering
For the vegetarian recipe, melt coconut oil in a mediumsized saucepan and add olive oil. If you’re using lard, ask to have your lard minced, or cut it into very small pieces to speed up rendering. Place half a cup of water in a pot and add the lard. Heat gently until most of it has dissolved. The more gentle you are in the rendering process, the better results you’ll gain in terms of a whiter appearance and a cleaner aroma.
Line a colander with muslin and place on top of the second pot. Place the pot/colander combination on top of digital scales which are protected by a tea towel. Tare the weight of the pot/colander/muslin and then pour the hot, rendered lard (now an oil) into the muslin-lined colander until the scales read one kilogram.
From here on, the process is the same. Line a baking tray with baking paper and hold paper in place with bulldog clips. Bring temperature of oils to 55 ºC but no higher, then turn off.
Place water in a small saucepan. Gently add lye to the water one spoonful at a time and mix gently until dissolved (always add lye to water, never the other way around to avoid a volcanic-like eruption) ensuring each spoonful is dissolved before adding the next. Now add the dissolved lye to the oils.
Using the stick blender, mix first at slow speed and then at high speed until you have reached a custard-like consistency. Add essential oil and mix until incorporated. Sometimes essential oils can cause the soap mixture to curdle. If this happens, mix until the consistency is smooth again. Pour mixture into lined baking dish and add dried corn or calendula flowers to the top. Leave at room temperature for 48 hours or so.
Remove when the soap is hard to the touch. Place on a chopping board and cut to desired size before placing on paper and curing for six weeks.
This article represents the permaculture principle USE AND VALUE RENEWABLE RESOURCES.