How to Make Homemade Soap
Confused about the whole soap process? So was I, at first. You hear people talking about cold process, hot process, rebatching, melt and pour, and possibly advising you to get a soap-making kit. No matter what they're describing, they always tell you it's the absolute best and easiest way to get started!
Part of the confusion is that "making soap" means different things to different people. To serious soap-makers, "making soap" refers to the actual creation of new soap - you start with ingredients that are not soap (oils and lye), combine them, and end up with soap that didn't exist before.
Some folks just aren't that interested in cooking up soap in their kitchen. For them, the fun part is the art of decorating soap (rather than the chemistry!). They want to focus on the colors, swirls, appearance, and scents - rather than that initial stage of creating a basic soap to work with. When they talk about making soap, they often talk about "rebatching" and "melt and pour". In these methods, you don't "make" soap from scratch - you start with soap that has already been created, melt it down, smooth it out, and move on to the decorating.
Here's a quick rundown of the different ways to make soap:
Soap From Scratch:
Hot and Cold Process Soap-Making
There are two way to actually create soap from raw ingredients: hot process and cold process.
Hot process soap making has been used for thousands of years. (Archeologists have found soap recipes carved into pots that are over 4000 years old!) Using heat (thus "hot" process!) speeds up the chemical reaction that makes soap. You literally "cook up" a batch of soap.
In hot process soap-making, everything happens faster, because of the heat. This means if something goes wrong, you've got to react immediately! This is why new soap-makers are often advised to start with cold-process, it gives you more time to notice and react if your soap begins to act odd!
Benefits of Hot Process:
- Soap is ready much more quickly (days, instead of weeks)
- You do not need to know the precise concentration of lye.
Great news if you make your own lye.
Cold process soap making is more popular these days. Cold process soap making is fairly simple and safe, as long as you have the patience to wait 6 weeks or so for your soap to fully cure! During those long weeks, the soap continues to saponify - turning lye and oils into soap - so you don't want to try to use it early. Lye burns, and soap that hasn't fully saponified risks having bits of lye remaining, which can burn you when you try to use the soap. Cold process soap making is a slower process, giving you more time to react to any surprises that come up, with lots of documentation (and recipes!) available.
Easier Ways to Make Soap (sort of...)
If you want to "make soap" without actually going through the chemical process of creating it from scratch with lye and oils, you can use rebatching, hand milling, or melt and pour.
For these methods, you'll start out with pre-made soap (a bar of soap you've made or bought, or a "soap base" that you purchase). After melting your soap down, you can add in whatever colors, scents, or other additives you choose to "personalize" your soap, then let it harden. Suddenly, you've got your own unique soap!
These methods give you much less control over the final product (you can't decide what types of oils you want to base the original soap on, for example) but also require much less responsibility. You won't be working with lye, and won't need to oversee the delicate saponification process.
Beginners are often drawn to these "easy" methods, but they don't always turn out exactly as we plan! Rebatched soap can still run amuck and produce unexpected results. Some experienced soapers even suggest that making their own soap from scratch is easier than doing a good rebatching, and that the process of melting and reforming the soap can change the consistency, making it less smooth. Not only that, but one of the great benefits of making your own soap is creating something that is gentle and moisturizing (compared to the harsh detergent-soaps that you purchase from the grocery store). If you're using pre-made soap and just adding colors and scents, you may be missing the best part of homemade soap!
Given that, I suggest that you jump right in with cold process soap making! There's a ton of great advice and recipes available, you can control the quality of your ingredients, and you'll get a rush when you produce an actual, real bar of shower-worthy soap, all on your own, from nothing but a bunch of chemicals. (And, did I mention, the soap is so much better than the stuff you get at the store, you'll wonder how you went so long without it!)