I decided to have a go at making my own soap before Christmas, both as festive gifts for friends and family, and so that I had a sexy stash of vegetable-based, palm oil-free sudsy chunks to last me a nuclear winter. I know, you're probably thinking I'm like Martha Stewart in vegan clothing. And I certainly do enjoy getting a bit 'home-crafty' now and then, so it was inevitable that soap-making would get a look in.
I had seen various 'recipes' on the internet for soap, and after discovering that a lot of vegan soaps actually contain palm oil, I wanted to have a supply that didn't, without thinning down my meagre bank balance too much. So why not try it out myself, I thought, then I know my soap does not contain anything I don't want it to contain. Plus I quite fancied the idea of making Lush-style soap without having to shop at Lush.
I have to say, it all turned out pretty good in the end. I didn't burn my fingers off (the active ingredient in soap, sodium hydroxide - which forms the basis chemical of drain cleaner - is very nasty if it touches the skin) but I did get several batches of nicely lathering soap. And I even stretched to making two different batches - a more economical 'every day' batch - mainly using olive oil - and a more expensive 'luxury' batch - which also contained coconut oil, and that doesn't come cheap.
Batch One - Olive Oil & Sunflower Oil Soap
This was the first soap I made. The original recipe that I used contains almost 3 litres of olive oil, but I decided to save a little money by switching one litre of olive oil to one litre sunflower oil. I had done this before finding out that if you change the oil type, you apparently should re-calculate the amount of 'lye' (sodium hydroxide) that needs to be used. Hey ho - I didn't and for this recipe, it turned out fine!
To this soap, I also added several drops of rose geranium essential oil. I can't remember how much. I put the essential oil in at the end of the process, while the liquid soap was still in the bucket, but before transferring to my containers. I think it was about a quarter of a small essential oil bottle, and the scent of the finished soap is really nice - not too overpowering, not too light.
Everything seemed to go according to plan with the making of this soap. The soap reached 'trace' fine in the 20 minutes I was expecting it to, using a hand-blender. 'Trace' is the moment the fat and the lye emulsify - so where they bond, basically, and the texture of the mixture changes, and then it started to harden quite quickly once it was in its moulds. In my case, the moulds were mostly washed-out soya milk cartons - just doing my bit for recycling!
As well, with this soap it speedily went through the saponification process, and I was able to cut it into blocks after just a few days, before storing it away in a warm place - in my case, the cupboard which houses my boiler. The soap needs about 6 weeks to 'cure' - this is to make the bar harder and better to use. I was so excited for that 6 weeks to be up though!
And I'm glad to say, my first attempt at making soap went well, with some nice, sudsy bars of lovely white soap to both give out to friends, and keep for my own use.
The full link for my first recipe used is here:
Although as I say, I substituted a full litre of olive oil for sunflower oil, and also converted all the ingredients into exact UK measurements first (so you'll find the recipe uses almost 3 litres of oil, but not quite).
Batch Two - Olive Oil & Coconut Oil Soap
I followed a different recipe for my more 'luxurious' soap, which was the one I wanted for gifts (though as it happens, the other turned out so nice that it made lovely presents as well). This batch used olive oil, sunflower oil and coconut oil, and the final versions had different essential oils as well as oatmeal, and I also experimented with adding rose petals - mistake! I split the soap mixture into separate containers to get three different types of soaps - I got brave!
The different soap types I made from the olive oil/coconut oil batch were:
Soap with Roman Chamomile essential oil added
Soap with Ylang-Ylang essential oil and rose petals added
Soap with oatmeal and Roman Chamomile essential oil added
But making this soap, a few things went wrong and had me in a minor panic, thinking I would waste all my beautiful and expensive coconut oil:
1. The hand-blender I was using, even though it was only the second time of use (as I had bought it especially for soap-making) broke about a minute into trying to reach trace! I ended up stirring by hand (bloody hard work!) for about an hour, and not knowing if I had reached trace or not.
2. After a several hours, once the soap had gone in the moulds, it appeared the oil had started to separate from my mixture, and form a layer on the top of the liquid soap in the moulds. I mixed with a stick, but it just kept on getting oily, and there appeared little chance of this soap getting hard. After some words of wisdom from vegan soap-maker, Kayleigh Rushton (of All Things Nice), I reblended the soap in the containers (I had taken my immersion blender and exchanged for another) - and then just played the 6-week waiting game and yay, the oil layer did not reappear!
Also - this re-blending process actually worked quite well for the oatmeal batch of soaps, as the otameal had started to sink in a heavy lump at the bottom of the mould, but the re-blend whizzed it into the soap and made it much better in the end.
3. I experimented with adding dried rose petals to the top layer of one of these batches of soaps. I noticed after a couple of weeks the petals had started turning brown, and the soap had started discolouring. Ho hum. I knew this particular soap would be no good for giving as gifts (though it seems it is perfectly fine for home use, as it turns out, if a little dirty-looking!).
I did read on the interet though, that there are often ways to salvage 'botched batches' of soap. Not everything will work, but if you give it a go yourself, and something goes wrong, don't panic. Do some research and see if you can find a way to resolve the problem or reclaim some of the soap.
Still, the end result of these soaps from the coconut oil batch make for a very gorgeous stash. They lather up really well and are extremely creamy, moisurising, in fact. Even the discoloured rose petals don't look that bad once the soap is in use.
The full link for my second recipe used is here:
Of course, once my soaps were ready, I made sure to do pretty packaging of the ones that I would be giving as gifts. And all in all - I was very impressed with how easy and inexpensive it actually is to make soap, once I got into the swing of things.
Now I know what the process is, I will continue making my own whenever I need to. There seems to be little point in buying the stuff anymore now I've seen how straightforward it is, although I will just have to be prepared for that 6-week waiting period and keep enough supply in to cover that.
There are hundreds of pages of soap-making instructions on the internet, so I am not going to go into it step by step. I'm not experienced enough, also, and would hate to give bad advice or lead someone to injuring themselves - yes soap-making is easy, but it can be dangerous if you don't take good care and make sure you are properly equipped.
As a first-timer, I guess my first-timer tip is to make sure you're prepared. Have everything measured out and 'ready to go', ensure you follow strict safety precautions (both the recipe links I include lead you to information on this) and have your work surfaces covered, and make sure you follow the recipe (says she of the sunflower oil swap!) and read instructions carefully before you begin.
And to give you an idea that it's not altogether that complicated, once you understand the process, here's a list to show you basic things you need to start making soap:
Beginner's Soap Kit
Your chosen oils (olive oil and sunflower oil makes a good start, as I mention!)
Sodium hydroxide (which is what is in caustic soda. After much research on forums and reading about other people's successes, I used B&Q Concentrated Caustic Soda, and B&Q told me it had no other ingredients than sodium hydroxide)
A large plastic bucket
A hand-blender (believe me, it is MUCH easier - I bought a Smart Price for less than £5 from Asda)
Safety goggles, gloves and apron (and clothes that cover all your skin)
Scales to measure
Thick towels or protection for your work surfaces
Moulds (I used washed out juice and soya milk cartons, mainly - and used about 4 per batch)
Essential oil for scent (if you want it to smell nice - though some oils react so research!)
A recipe followed strictly - you can try the ones I've used for starters?
If you can't be bothered making your own palm-oil free, animal-fat free vegan soap, you can always just buy some from All Things Nice :)