The Benefits (and Risks) of Making Your Own Soap

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benefits-and-risks-of-making-soap

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

benefits-and-risks-of-making-soap

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

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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.

The Risk

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.

Safety Guidelines

Always protect your eyes with safety glasses when you are handling lye.

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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.

benefits-and-risks-of-making-soap

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.

Making soap has its dangers but if we are aware of the dangers and make the effort to do the activity in a safe manner, we reduce the risk.
  • Linda Myers says:

    What are your thoughts on making glycerin soap?

    • Kathleen says:

      Glycerin base is a premade soap base. It does remove the risk of working with lye, but it also takes away your control over the ingredients. You can add fragrance and coloring, and pour it into the shape mold you want, but you can’t change much more than that. Still, it’s a good way to get your feet wet and gain some confidence. Making your own from scratch is a little more work, but not much.

  • Nan says:

    Loved this article. Thank you!

  • Heidi Villegas says:

    Kathleen, I love reading your soaping posts! And your Sunday gratitude posts too! ๐Ÿ™‚ Great safety tips!

  • Jan Brown says:

    Kathleen, I am going to try making or adding to shea butter soap case the scents that I want as gifts. I read your article & even before reading it I was shying away from lye. Is the shea butter safer?

    • Kathi says:

      Shea butter is simply another kind of oil used in making soap, so it isn’t any safer or any more dangerous when using lye. If you change a recipe you MUST use a lye calculator to get the correct amount of lye to use. You can google “lye calculator” and find several. You can add any fragrance you like to your soaps, no matter what kind of oils the recipe uses.

  • Kory says:

    I have started making my own soaps with lye this year. The recipe I use only has olive, coconut oil and Shea butter. I always add VE to them. I just got 5 lbs of honey. How much should I add for 2 lbs of soap?

  • Brenda B says:

    Great post! I took a soap making class a couple years ago but have yet to try it at ‘home alone’ ๐Ÿ™‚ I was even nervous in the class but made some nice soap. Using lye does freak me about a bit but safety is primary.
    Do you use a respirator to avoid fumes? I know they can be strong and I cannot remember using one in the class. I am very sensitive to strong smells.

  • Penny Soo says:

    Great information! I remember my lab partner & I blowing up our soap experiment in high school by adding the ingredients in the wrong order. When you talked about the difference between soap and detergent take into account that for those of us who have hard water with a high mineral content real soap forms a slime scum that coats the skin and makes the tub or shower floor slippery and dangerous!

    • Donnalee says:

      Water, water, always use distilled water for soap. Tap water has junk in it (chlorine, dissolved minerals, etc) that alters the soap in sometimes unpleasant ways.

  • Kevin Walton says:

    Lye is not dangerous with a few simple precautions. Always add lye to the water, not water to the lye which will prevent flare ups and splash back as earlier stated. Always use cold water for either cold or hot process. Plastic is fine for cold process soaps, for hot process use stainless steel Adding lye to hot water will speed the chemical reaction and increase the fumes.Third as already stated eye protection is mandatory. Heavy nitrile glove, elbow length if you can get them help. Wear long sleeve shirts and pants. Minimize exposed. When adding lye stay back at arms length and poor slowly. Stand back and wait a few minutes to allow the heaviest of fumes to dissipate. Always use a non reactive container, preferably stainless steel. I also use lye to make bagels and pretzels (20 per cent solution for pretzels and 10 per cent for bagels). Lye is what gives that dark brown hard crunchy texture on pretzels and the chewy crust on bagels. An added benefit of using lye is will leave stainless steel looking brand new. Do not work with lye inside unless you have good ventilation.Left over water from bagels or pretzels can be poured down sink or tub drains to keep them clear.Stainless used for soap making can also be used later in the kitchen, if rinsed and then cleaned thoroughly. If you are still nervous about using the pan, rinse with vinegar (5.5 per cent acid) which will help take care of any residual traces. Plastic cannot be because it is porous. I have an extra step when I use lye is that I keep a bucket 4.5 PH liquid on had to help neutralize lye’s 12.5 PH which is lowered once it is added to the water to make soup. Another use for lye is to clean up old cast iron pots and pans you might find a yard sale or auction. use a sturdy plastic container with lid. Place your pans in the container, add water, add lye, cover and wait. Use nitrile gloves and eye protection remove pans after three days rinse, scrub and start over if the are not clean enough. If you don’ have kids or pets this left over water can be used as a week killer for those stubborn weed commercial herbicides do not kill. The next rain will neutralize it. If you have kids or pets, pour down an outside drain. I do not like single use items. Current stock 15 lbs of lye.

  • Claudette says:

    Very useful information with good advice safty in using lye in making my goats milk soap I didn’t make the soap yet just gadering tips ect. Thanks

  • Luana says:

    Loved your text!
    Thanks for sharing!

  • Marilyn says:

    Two myths I have learned after soaping for a couple decades: 1.) vinegar helps or neutralizes a lye spill or soap splash. False. Always use water. 2.) Always pour lye into water, else volcano. False. I always pour my distilled water from a jug into my lye crystals and never have had a volcano effect! It saves me time and dishes.

  • Stela says:

    Use a lye free base. Problem solved.

  • Donna Lee says:

    I’ve been using stainless steel utensils as well as a couple of stainless steel steam table containers (husband found them somewhere) and I have had absolutely no problem whatsoever. Just DON’T USE ALUMINUM! It will ruin your soap, and the lye in the mixture will ruin your aluminum. Also, who wants aluminum in a product you put on your face?

  • Sis. Brooks says:

    I enjoyed this story. I love making soaps, everlearning. The first thing I did was learn about lye. After knowing what to do when, soap making is a joy. Keep writing. I especially enjoyed the soap pictures. What was that chocolate colored one? Pine Tar?

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