Soap Making For Beginners: A Step By Step Guide

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Are you interested in making your own soap at home? This beginner’s guide to cold-process soap making will walk you through the steps and supplies needed to create your own all-natural soap. It includes guidance on ingredients, equipment, recipes, and how to make a simple soap recipe.

Making handmade soap is one of the most creative and useful skills that I can think of. You begin with raw ingredients such as oil, sodium hydroxide, and water, and through the wizardry of natural chemistry, you transform them into gentle, all-natural soap bars. Once you have the basics down, you can even make products for different skin types, for washing your face, homemade dish soap, and more. If you’re interested in art, there’s even a world of soapmaking that focuses on pattern, color, and intricate designs. This introduction will focus on getting you started with beginner soap making and understanding more about what’s involved in the cold-process method. It carries on with further details in the free four-part soap making series.

There are quite a few ways to make handmade soap, but cold-process is my favorite. It’s relatively quick, more versatile than hot-process soap, and creates from-scratch recipes with a beautifully smooth and even texture. Making a small batch using this method takes about an hour of active time, including measuring ingredients, gearing up, and actually making soap. After you’ve made it, you must allow some weeks for the bars to cure before using them. During that time, you don’t have to do anything, though. You can just get on with making even more batches!

Melt and Pour Soap

Let’s get a big topic out of the way before we proceed. Many people who are new to making soap begin with a pre-made soap base called melt-and-pour. It comes in solid blocks which you chop up and melt in a microwave. After that, you add extra ingredients and then pour it into molds to harden. Melt and pour is the equivalent of ready-meal food since it’s all ready to go! It has its place, especially if you want to make soap with kids, but it is not the type of soap that I’m covering below. Cold process soap is a way to control the ingredients completely and ensure that your end product is 100% handmade and natural.

A pan filled with coconut oil and shea butter and a jug with olive oil.
You’ll find both solid and liquid oils in most soap recipes.

Natural Soap Ingredients

I’ve briefly gone over the three main ingredients you need: oils, sodium hydroxide (lye), and water. If you want to make simple, unscented cold process soap, that’s honestly all that you need. However, there’s a wide range of extra ingredients that you can use to add color, texture, scent, and decoration and improve function and feel. These are soap additives and are optional ingredients. They include essential oils, clays, milk, honey, herbs, salt, coffee grounds, and sugar, and have different methods and reasons for including them. Another thing to know is that the main ingredients are always measured by weight, not volume. That means all good soap recipes use grams or ounces as the measurement unit. Learn more about natural soap ingredients.

Soap making equipment laid out on a table, including a silicone mold, stainless steel pan, stick blender, kitchen scale, and goggles.
The equipment that you’ll need to make soap.

Equipment

To make handmade soap, you’ll need a few key pieces of equipment and personal protective gear. You can find some of it second-hand and reuse some items from your kitchen. At the bare minimum, you’ll need a stainless steel saucepan, a kitchen scale, a stick blender (aka immersion blender), spoons, bowls, a thermometer, soap molds, measuring spoons, goggles, rubber gloves, and a silicone spatula. Those are enough for making small and simple recipes. For more intricate soap designs, you’ll use hangers, towers, and different types of molds. Then, of course, if you graduate to making larger batches, you’ll need a different set of tools that include heavy-duty immersion blenders and soap cutters. Here’s more on soap-making equipment.

Cutting bars of handmade soap on a wooden cutting board.
Small 1-lb (454 g) batches are ideal for beginners to make. They create 5-6 bars.

Easy Soap Recipes

For your first batch of soap, it’s best to work with a small and simple recipe from a trusted source. Don’t try to formulate your own until you understand how to make a good bar of soap. You’ll hear other makers say differently, but trust me. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel while you’re learning to drive. I’d also advise not making large batches until you’ve mastered making small ones. That way, you won’t waste money if things go awry. You could even go as far as to avoid making recipes that include expensive ingredients, such as essential oil or more than five base oils. Stick to easy soap recipes that you know will work, make good bars, and won’t cost as much.

A pan filled with thick, custard-like soap batter with an immersion blender held over it.
This honey soap recipe shows a thick medium trace.

How to Make Homemade Soap

Soap making is natural chemistry, and the steps you use cause saponification to occur between oils and lye. This is a chemical reaction where the fatty acids in oils form permanent bonds with lye. It leads to the ingredients transforming into a completely different compound – soap!

You usually begin with multiple types of oil since each type can give a different property to the finished soap. Coconut oil creates lots of bubbles and high cleansing, olive oil creates gentle soap with a creamy lather, and tallow creates hard bars with a fluffy lather. Just a touch of castor oil in soap recipes (5-8% of the base oils) stops the lather and bubbles from collapsing too soon. There are also luxury butters that you can use to make soap, including mango butter, cocoa butter, and shea butter. These are all solid oils that create soap that is hard but highly conditioning.

A thin cream-colored soap batter is poured from a pan into a square silicone mold.
A thin batter is much easier to pour into molds, so don’t over-mix.

Cold-process soap making is a method to combine oils, lye, water, and additives and kick-start the saponification process. It involves using a high-shear tool to blend the ingredients and prompt the dissolved lye to bond with the oils. You then pour the thickening batter into molds and wait for it to solidify. After that, you cure the soap bars and can use them after four to six weeks. Here are the steps that you can expect to follow:

A hand holds a white bar of soap with thick, creamy lather.
This tallow soap recipe makes bars with incredibly fluffy lather.

Step-by-Step: How to Make Soap

  1. Prepare your workstation with everything you need. That includes pre-measured ingredients and equipment. Work in a place where you won’t be disturbed and wear safety gear such as long sleeves, an apron, goggles, and gloves.
  2. Make the lye solution by mixing lye crystals into water and allowing it to cool. Harmful fumes come off the lye solution in its early stages of being mixed. Don’t breathe them in.
  3. Melt the solid oils completely in a stainless steel pan over low heat. Then, pour the liquid oils in, too.
  4. When both the pot of oils and the lye solution are about 100°F (38°C), gently pour the lye solution into the oils.
  5. Using a stick blender held under the liquid’s surface, alternate stirring and pulsing the liquid. When stirring, the stick blender should be off. You want to avoid splattering the mixture or introducing air bubbles at this stage.
  6. The soap batter will begin to thicken slightly as it emulsifies. Thin trails of soap batter will be visible on the surface if you drizzle a bit off the stick blender. This stage is called trace and is typically when many additives, such as soap colorants and essential oils, are stirred in.
  7. When all of the ingredients have been added, pour the soap mixture into your preferred soap mold and leave it to harden. My favorite type of mold is silicone molds, but handmade wooden soap molds are great, too.
  8. If you use a loaf mold, you pop the soap block out one to two days after making it and cut it into individual bars. Soap made in cavity molds pops out in its finished form.
  9. Cure the bars in a dim but airy place for four to six weeks before using. The finished product will be dry, hard, and lather easily in warm water.
  10. For more details and photos, see how to make cold-process soap.
A plastic jug of white lye crystals next to a plastic jug filled shallowly with water.
Lye comes as a solid and needs to be dissolved in water to make the lye solution.

Using Lye

I know that using lye gives some people anxiety, and it can be confusing how it can create a skincare product. However, please rest assured that the soap it creates is gentle and natural and that no lye is left in the bars. In fact, the majority of saponification is complete about forty-eight hours after you pour soap into the molds. Meaning that after that time, there’s almost none left. At the end of the curing period, all of the lye used in the recipe will have become soap. If you’d like more details, I will go over the topic of using lye in soap recipes in another piece. The main takeaway is that we always make natural soap with lye. But that lye is not present in its original form in handmade soap.

More FAQs

I’ve received a fair few questions from beginners over the years. Let me share some of the more frequent and useful for those starting out making their first batches of soap.

  1. What temperature should you make soap? Generally, you make soap between about 95-120°F (35-49°C). The hotter the temperature, the quicker the ingredients will trace and the more likely the soap will gel. Some soap recipes use cooler temperatures, and some are hotter depending on specific formulas and ingredients, but a good general temperature is 100°F (38°C)
  2. Do I need to insulate my soap? Insulating the soap batter with a towel after you’ve poured it into molds (or oven processing) is a technique used to encourage it to gel. It is an optional step that helps the color become darker and more vivid but does not affect its cleaning properties.
  3. Your recipes have less water than others – why? The water amount is variable in soap recipes, and in the cold process, a good amount is about 2x the amount of lye required. This creates a batter that doesn’t firm up too quickly but doesn’t take ages to come to trace. Using less water speeds up trace, and using more slows it down. The water amount is also responsible for encouraging gelling and for problems such as glycerine rivers.
  4. Can I make cold process recipes using the hot process method? Yes! And vice versa. The only main difference is that you need more water in hot process. Usually, about 3x the amount of lye. That’s because the hot process involves cooking the soap in a crock pot, and water is lost through evaporation.
Learn to make handmade soap in the Lovely Greens Natural Soap Making for Beginners Online Course.

Natural Soapmaking Course

I hope this has cleared up any questions you might have! Now, if you’re ready to jump in, I offer an online soapmaking course and ebook. The course has lifetime access and includes sixteen videos that show you everything that I’ve discussed above – the ingredients, equipment, and step-by-step recipes. You’ll see every step and understand more difficult concepts, such as what soap looks like when it comes to “trace.” The ebook is a detailed guide that can supplement the course or be a standalone resource. It includes everything covered in the course, with recipes to use at the end. You can also explore this free soapmaking series to learn more and get more inspiration!

The Natural Soapmaking for Beginners Series

  1. Introduction
  2. Natural Soap Ingredients
  3. Equipment & Safety
  4. Easy Soap Recipes
  5. How to Make Cold Process Soap

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