Charcoal Soap Recipe with an ‘Etched’ Leaf Design

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How to make soap naturally colored with activated charcoal and decorated with cypress cedar leaves. An easy charcoal soap recipe suitable for the beginner.

DIY Cedarwood & Lemongrass Soap with an ‘Etched’ Leaf Design -- naturally coloured with activated charcoal and decorated with cedar leaves #lovelygreens #soapmaking #soaprecipe #diychristmas

Last year as I was perusing soap at a farmers market I came across some rather interesting ‘Man Soap’. It was chunky, scented with sage and pine, and immediately got my attention. What I loved most about it was the shape, color, and leaf decoration and I couldn’t wait to try making my own. This charcoal soap recipe is my take on it with a simple fragrance blend that both men and women will like. In fact, it’s probably my new favorite! Cedarwood and Lemongrass. In the soap recipe I’ll also show you how to use charcoal as a soap colorant and cypress cedar leaves for decoration.

The natural colorant in this soap is activated charcoal. It’s the same powdered charcoal that you take in supplements and can tint soap blue to lack, depending on how much you use. It doesn’t stain your bath or skin and some say that it might help with removing skin impurities and helping with acne.

Charcoal Soap Recipe

14.1 oz / 400 g batch — makes 3 generously sized bars
5% superfatted*
Read this free 4-part natural soapmaking series

Lye Solution
56g / 1.98 oz Sodium Hydroxide
100g / 3.53 oz Water
Optional: 3/4 tsp Sodium Lactate — adding this will make your soap become harder, faster

How to make Cedarwood & Lemongrass Soap
Pine & Sage Soap by Karmela Botanica at the Ballard Farmers Market

Solid oils
100g / 3.53 oz Coconut Oil, Refined
20g / 0.71 oz Shea Butter
20g / 0.71 oz Cocoa Butter

Liquid oils
160g / 5.64 oz Olive oil
20g / 0.71 oz Castor oil
80g / 2.82 oz Sunflower oil
1 tsp Activated Charcoal (you can also use 7 charcoal-filled capsules)

Scenting & Decorating
1 tsp Cedarwood Atlas Essential oil
1/2 tsp Lemongrass Essential oil
Optional: 4 drops Grapefruit Seed Extract
Optional: Clean and dry cedar leaves to decorate

Special Equipment needed

Digital Thermometer
Digital Kitchen Scale
Stick (Immersion) Blender
Silicone Loaf Soap Mold

How to make Cedarwood & Lemongrass #soap
The finished bars of Cedarwood & Lemongrass soap

Soap Recipe with Luxury Butters

This recipe will make three chunky bars if you pour the batch into a regular 40-44 oz silicone loaf mold. The activated charcoal that you add to the liquid oils will give the finished bars a pleasing blue-grey color but if you want it to be darker feel free to double the amount. After curing, the bars will be hard, the lather fluffy, and the lashings of shea and cocoa butter make the soap super moisturising.

How to Make Soap

If you’ve not made natural soap before, I highly recommend you have a read of my natural soapmaking series. It will help you to understand the directions below a lot better. You can read through all four parts here:

  1. Soap Making Ingredients
  2. Soap Making Equipment & Safety
  3. Easy Soap Recipes
  4. How to Make Cold Process Soap
How to make Cedarwood & Lemongrass Soap
Activated charcoal gives the color

Let’s make charcoal soap

Safety first! Make sure to be wearing closed-toe shoes, long sleeves, eye protection (goggles), and latex or washing-up gloves. You’ll be working with Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) and splashing a bit on your skin isn’t the most pleasant of experiences. To learn more about lye and lye safety read this piece on the equipment and safety needed for soapmaking.

You also need to have all of your ingredients measured and your work surface organised. Open a window for ventilation, close doors on pets and children, and have everything you need layed out:

  • Sodium hydroxide and water measured into heat-proof containers: glass, pyrex, or polypropylene plastic
  • Solid oils measured into a small stainless steel pan.
  • Liquid oils measured into a bowl
  • Charcoal measured out
  • Mold set out and ready. You’ll also need a light towel so have that ready too.
  • Stick blender plugged in and ready
  • Digital thermometer out
  • Utensils laid out: stainless steel spoon for stirring the lye solution, a small fine-mesh strainer, and a flexible spatula
  • Fragrance and extras at the ready: essential oil, grapefruit seed extract, and cedar leaves
  • Read all of the directions thoroughly before making your soap.

Step 1: Make the Lye Solution

Wearing eye and hand protection (goggles & gloves) and in a well-ventilated place, pour the lye crystals into the water. The water should be measured out into a heat-proof plastic jug. Stir well with a stainless steel spoon until fully dissolved, trying not to breathe in the steam. Place the jug of lye solution in a small basin of water to cool down. The water gets super hot when you mix in the lye!  I usually fill my sink with water and place the jug in there.

Step 2: Melt the Solid Oils

Place all of the solid oils into a pan and place it on the stove. Begin melting them at the lowest heat setting.

Step 3: Blend the Charcoal into the Liquid Oils

Blend the charcoal powder into a little of the sunflower oil with a milk frother or spoon. When there are no lumps left, pour it into the rest of the liquid oils and stir well.

Step 4: Mix the Melted Oil with the Liquid

When the solid oils have just finished melting, take the pan off the heat and mix in the charcoal tinted liquid oil. Pour the tinted oil through a mesh strainer to ensure you catch any chunks of charcoal that weren’t completely mixed in.

Stir and take the oil’s temperature — I mixed my soap at 125°F / 52°C. You can comfortably mix yours when the oils are between 110°F and 130°F. The warmer the oils, the more intense the color will be though.

Step 5: Mix the Lye Solution into the Oils

When the oils are at the temperature you want, it’s time to mix in the lye solution. You need to take its temperature too and it should be within ten degrees (plus or minus) of the temperature of the oil. If you’re adding the optional Sodium Lactate (to make the soap harder) then stir it into the lye solution when it’s below 130°F / 54°C. Pour the lye solution through the mesh strainer and into the pan of oils.

Step 6: Bring the charcoal Soap to ‘Trace’

When the lye and oils combine properly, they ‘Saponify’ and become soap. You use a stick (immersion) blender to help this process and you know you’ve succeeded when your oils and lye solution begins to thicken up like in the photo below. You do this by alternating stirring with gentle pulsing, always keeping the head of the blender submerged in the soap batter.

I made a video showing the technique I teach in my soap making lessons in this video on how to make Lemongrass soap. While you’re over there on YouTube, make sure to subscribe to my channel.

How to make Cedarwood & Lemongrass Soap
Trace is when the soap batter thickens to the consistency of warm custard

Step 7: Mix in the Fragrance & Pour

When your soap has hit ‘Trace’, stir in the essential oils and optional Grapefruit Seed Extract. The former is your fragrance and the GSE helps to prolong shelf-life in a natural way — it’s an antioxidant rather than a preservative. When fully mixed in, pour your soap batter into molds, place your optional cedar leaves on top. Wherever the leaves touch the soap, the leaves will darken to almost black. If you want the leaves to stay green you’ll need to press them into the soap after it’s been chopped into bars.

Now cover the soap lightly with a towel. The towel shouldn’t touch the soap and its purpose is to keep the soap warm which helps with creating a consistent color.

How to make Cedarwood & Lemongrass Soap
Decorate the top with cedar leaves

Step 8: Unmold, Cut, & Cure your charcoal soap

You leave your soap in the mold for at least 24 hours and if you used Sodium Lactate the soap will be hard after that time. If you didn’t, the soap will have hardened but it will still be soft around the edges — the soap might stick to the mold when you try to push it out. Best wait a few days before trying and/or pop the mold into the freezer for half an hour beforehand.

Once out of the mold, cut the loaf into bars, and cure for 4-6 weeks before using. All this means is to set the soap in an airy place out of the way, and out of direct sunlight. It needs time for allowing the water content to evaporate out and for the bars to fully harden. For full instructions on how to cure handmade soap head over here

I’m sure that you and any of the recipients of this soap will be pleased with the end product. It smells woodsy yet fresh and has a natural blue-grey tint. Best of all, you’ve made it all by yourself!

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  1. Hi Tanya! Really love this recipe! Would it would be possible to use Dead Sea mud powder instead of charcoal though? If so, when and how would be best, and what quantity? Or if not, do you have any other recipes you think it would work better in?

    1. Hi Keneke, and yes, that’s perfectly fine. Add 1 tsp of Dead Sea mud powder to the lye solution and omit the charcoal from the recipe. That’s all you need to do :)

  2. Hi, I just made your Castile soap for when my babies due next year. It’s currently in the fridge overnight. Can’t wait to try it out. I wanted to make this recipe and the chamomile soap next. Are these pregnancy safe to use on myself? And can the chamomile be used for baby skin. (After 6months+) I’m in love with your website, thank you for sharing so much. I’m hoping to start growing my own herbs and veg soon too. And will definitely be watching all your helpful videos.

    1. Hi Zoe, Castile soap is super sensitive but does take a long time to cure and sometimes a long time to come out of the mold. If you can wait a full year, it will be at its best then! The chamomile soap is ready after a month’s cure though and though I cannot give medical advice I have read that chamomile essential oil is safe to use in the second and third trimesters. Speak to your doctor though for advice :)

  3. I followed your recipe exactly, and did not get blue soap. I got black.

  4. Hi!!! I find your recipes and explanations AMAZING!!!! I have a question though, when I follow your recipes my mix reaches trace extremely quick (even before mixing the essential oils) what am I doing ‘wrong’? Could it be that the lye water and oils temp is too low??
    What can I do to have more time to pour ??

    1. Hi Marisela, I water discount nearly all of my recipes to help speed up trace time and to reduce the chance of soda ash. If you’re finding the trace comes too quickly, then adjust the lye to water amount to 1:2.5 by weight. Water amounts in soap recipes are variable and can be adjusted without affecting the quantities of the other ingredients. Don’t use more than a 1:3 lye to water ratio though :)

  5. I’ve tried to make this soap, and everything was fine until I put the essential oils. It hardened so quick, I couldn’t pour it. I followed the steps thoroughly, not sure why this has happened?

    1. Hi Nadia, I can almost guarantee it was because one of your essential oils was not an essential oil, but a fragrance oil. They’re notorious for causing soap to seize. Look carefully at the bottles because synthetic fragrance oils can often be packaged to fool you into thinking that it’s a natural essential oil.

  6. Thanks for the instructions. They are beautiful. How long will the cedar leaf last before turning brown and drying up? Thanks!

    1. The leaf turns black actually and lasts for many months, if well over a year.

  7. Hello Tanya, I want to ask one thing I made cold process soap first time everything is alright but one thing I did not understand there is white layer on my soap can u tell me why there is white layer on my soap when I cut it into bars and how can I prevent it tbanks

    1. Hi Baila and that layer is called soda ash. It’s common in soap making when you’re using the full water amount called for in a recipe. I also find it happened to me more often when it was cooler — so when I was soap making in winter. If you want to avoid it altogether, then reduce the water in your soap making recipe. I tend to use 1.8x the lye weight for the amount of water I use.

  8. Any oil can substitute cocoa butter and sunflower oil as I don’t have these on hand? Thanks.

    1. Never try substituting oils in a soap recipe unless you’re experienced in making soap. The amount of lye in a recipe will differ based on how much of each type of oil is used. Each oil has it’s own saponification value, meaning it needs a specific amount of lye to convert into soap. If you try substituting oils then your soap could fail or even worse, be unsafe.

  9. Linda Raedisch says:

    I’m eager to try the cedar leaves on top of my soap. What other leaves do you think would work well. It’s winter now, so are there leaves I can find in the supermarket that would do?

  10. Lisa Mitchell says:

    Tanya, can I use just cedarwood eo? I don’t have cw atlas…..

  11. This sounds like a great recipe! Can it be made by hot process?

    1. Yes! Most (if not all) cold process soap recipes can be made using the HP method.

  12. Claudia. Mazurkiewicz says:

    So if you use the melt and pour , you don’t use the lye?

    1. I’ve not tried the charcoal and leaf technique with M&P before but I imagine the colours will be different. Other than that, it should work fine :)

  13. Love the sound of this one, it will make a nice change from the usual florally scents. Thank you for the great recipes.
    You seem to use quite a low amount of EO’s, do you find that the fragrance is still good after the cure?

    1. It’s a very good amount and yes, the scent is great. You really don’t need any more essential oil than 2-3% of a recipe and you actually cannot sell soaps in the European Union that contain more.

  14. ALMA PATTERSON says:

    thank you for your tutorials i enjoy watching and learning from you i am a new soaper