I never really gave soap much thought. I know it’s in my shopping list all the time – sometimes just a bar of Dove soap and sometimes I wander into a Lush shop and splurge. It’s just soap, right? Wrong.
After hoarding soap from Lush, I’ve realized that I actually enjoy lathering up with artisan soap. They don’t bubble like the usual mass-produced grocery brands. Instead, a luxurious creamy lather pampers my skin. Shower time isn’t a hurried task anymore. It’s a joy!
Curiosity got the better of me and so I found myself in a soap-making class last week, not knowing what to expect. My intention was to find out what goes into basic soap and what makes artisan soap so irresistible!
I knew nothing about soap-making so it came as a shock to find out that all soap is made with lye!
Lye or caustic soda is a chemical compound that drain de-cloggers are made of! Go ahead and check under your kitchen sink or cleaning cabinet for a bottle of liquid Sosa. It’s scientific name is sodium hydroxide and it is a hazardous substance. It can burn skin and cause blindness if it gets in your eyes. Therefore, working with this chemical requires chemical-safe gloves and goggles!
Okay, admittedly, I freaked out. But, as the lecture progressed, I learned that a chemical process called “saponification” happens when sodium hydroxide mixes with oil.
Geek alert! Yes, it took me a while to wrap my head around this one but it does make sense. The end product of this chemical reaction is soap! All traces of sodium hydroxide is gone at the end of the soap-making process, which takes up to 6 weeks.
Is there a way to make soap without lye? Yes and No. Again, all soap is made with lye. No lye, no soap. But if you’d like to try making soap at home without handling a hazardous substance, you can use commercial-made soap. There is also such a thing as “melt and pour” soap base. Grate or chop into small pieces. Melt and add extracts and fragrances. This doesn’t mean your soap didn’t have any lye. It was made with lye but all the lye’s gone when you bought it. You just didn’t handle lye to make your own soap. It’s a short cut. It’s a great project to do with children. I’ve included some links below for so-called “lye-free” soap.
In my case, I want the real deal. I want to make soap from scratch. Using store-bought commercial soap as a base is like buying macaron shells and just making home made filling and putting them together to make macarons. It’s just not the same. I just have to make sure I get chemical-safe gloves and goggles and an airtight container for sodium hydroxide.
How I wish my Lolo Jing’s still around to guide me thru this soap-making project. My grandpa was a chemist and he had a lab in the basement of our house. He made ketchup, hairspray, wine, and many other things down there. I still remember hanging out in his lab, amazed at all the big bottles, beakers, test tubes, thermometers, burners, flasks… not exactly the safest playroom for kids. I guess my inner geek was born in that room. 🙂
Walking into soap-making class gave me a sense of nostalgia but I was a little disappointed that the room didn’t resemble my Lolo’s lab. It was just a cramped messy room with bottles, samples, and books stacked everywhere.
The session started with a brief lecture, much like chemistry class. The instructor familiarized us with the periodic table and explained the chemical process that was about to happen. Almost got bored there. It reminded me too much of boring lectures way back in high school.
It’s a good thing that I’m comfortable in the proximity of chemicals. Nostalgic. It was a hands-on class!
The label scared me! But, with gloves on and seeing the contents in white flakes, I was able to go past the fear and just handle the substance with confidence.
Sodium hydroxide needs a vessel to proceed to saponification. The most basic recipe uses water. Just adding the flakes to the water causes the mixture to get really hot!
Soap-making is not for the impatient. Ingredients are weighed in precise amounts, mixed, and then the temperature have to be just right before adding oils. We had to wait a while until the temperature dropped to the required degree.
I should really rethink this! But then again, I’ve successfully made macarons and those needed a lot of patience!
As this is a basic recipe, we used vegetable oil and added an oil-soluble powdered colorant. The temperature of both mixtures (water and oil) have to be the same before saponification can start.
Finally, the water and oil mixtures are incorporated by whisking to the desired thickness. Extracts and fragrance oils go into the mixture last. We used Sampaguita fragrance oil in class. If I’m making my own artisan soap, I have to find really good supplier of fragrance oils!
Mixing to a thicker consistency took a while. I’m going to get an inexpensive immersion blender for this purpose when I start crafting my own artisan soap at home.
The soap I made in class now has to rest at room temperature covered in paper or cloth for up to 6 weeks. The resting time will ensure that all the sodium hydroxide is gone.
I still have to figure out the intensity of colorants. I had expected this one to turn out red but it’s much lighter now that it’s rested for a few days.
So much to research but I’ve devoured two books already and still have a few books too read. Also researching sources for good quality extracts, fragrances, butters and oils.
I really don’t know where this new passion will lead me. I just know that I’m crazy for artisan soap and that being like a chemist in my kitchen will bring back memories of hanging out in my Lolo’s chem lab many years ago.
Hopefully, my artisan soaps will look close to these! And it isn’t just about aesthetics. I want my soaps to have the best ingredients I can find! Olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil, almond oil, cocoa butter, shea butter, mango butter, avocado butter… Exciting!
“Lye-Free” Soap Recipes to try: