As promised, here is an Easy Soap Recipe. It is the one I made first. This soap made me realise that making soap was so much easier (and quicker) than I thought it was going to be. Olive Oil Soap with Shea Butter.
I have made lots of homemade soap over the past 18 months, but this is the easy soap recipe I return to often. We like mild soaps, so I just add a few drops of essential oil at the final mixing point which gives the soap a hint of fragrance.
If you want more fragrance then you’ll need to add more essential oil. Bear in mind that the curing process reduces the fragrance quite a bit. So if you like a strong fragrance, you might want to add more than you usually would. Even if the fragrance is strong when your soap is cured, it will fade over time.
I talked about the basic equipment needed for soap making at home here, so please refer back to that post before you start. The important bit to bear in mind is that you must treat the lye with respect, and work safely with covered skin, gloves and goggles. Working with lye is what put me off making soap for over a year, but I think I was over-complicating it a bit in my head. You must of course work carefully, safely and treat lye with respect, but don’t let it put you off like it did me. It really is fine if you are sensible.
Where did all the soap bars go?
I started to make soap because I’d always fancied having a go. But there was another reason too. I was struggling to find a decent range of basic bars of soap. They really aren’t as widely available as they used to be. It was either a limited choice of Imperial Leather and/or the other usual suspects in the supermarket. Or buy from a gift shop or some other independent producer. Which is lovely, but can be expensive.
When I started looking into this, I discovered that the majority of the soaps you find in the supermarket are not, in fact, true soap. When you look closely at the packaging, many of them are called ‘moisturising bars’ or ‘beauty bars’. I had assumed this was marketing spin. But they are called these things because the product is not technically a soap at all, so it can’t be called soap.
These non-soaps became popular because they often foam more than soap, or they don’t leave scum in the bath like true soap does. However the consumer is becoming wise to this. And through a combination of wanting to reduce plastic packaging and becoming tired of having to wash with synthetic detergents they can’t pronounce, barred soap is making a comeback in Britain.
In short: by making soap, you will be all the rage. But you already knew that.
True soap can only be made one way: through mixing oils and lye (aka caustic soda or sodium hydroxide). This creates a chemical reaction. Potassium hydroxide can also be used rather than sodium hydroxide, though this is harder to find. Sodium hydroxide is what I always use.
The reaction is known as saponification. Once the process has finished and your soap is fully cured, no sodium hydroxide remains in it. Your soap is, in effect, the neutral by-product of mixing acid and alkali.
There are bazillions of soap recipes to choose from. This one uses 4 oils, water and lye. Some of the oils you may already have in your kitchen. The fats and oils bring different properties to your soap, and this is a lovely blend which showcases the best of all of them.
Incidentally, don’t be tempted to fiddle with this recipe, or any soap recipe you find for soap. Creating new soap recipes is a tricky business unless you use a soap calculator to ensure you’re adding the right quantities of everything so it works. I’ll cover that another time. But for now just take my word for it. Don’t fiddle with a tried and tested recipe because it won’t work.
Ingredients for Olive Oil Soap with Shea Butter
Olive Oil. You can use Organic Olive Oil produced specifically for making bodycare products, or a simple bottle of olive oil from the supermarket. Olive oil makes a soap with good cleansing properties, with very few bubbles in the lather.
Coconut Oil. Again you can use Coconut Oil made for use in beauty products, or the coconut oil in jars you find in the supermarket aisle. Coconut oil makes a soap with a fluffy lather, but it can dry the skin if used in large amounts in your soap. Which is odd, because it feels so beautiful and moisturising on your hands before it goes into the soap.
Shea Butter is widely available. It is fat that has been extracted from the nuts of the shea tree. Shea butter is solid at room temperature. It brings conditioning and moisturising qualities to your soap.
Castor Oil is also widely available. It brings mild, conditioning qualities to your soap with a thick, lasting and fluffy lather.
Water. I like to use distilled water or, better still, rain water. Because I like to list ‘Horam Rain Water’ on my labels when I gift my soap. For I am a weirdo. But tap water is absolutely fine. When you mix lye and water together they create heat. To ensure a calmer reaction with less risk of the liquid rising in the jug when lye is added, I add ice cubes. So I measure the water and then freeze some of it ahead of time in an ice cube tray. This is an optional step but I’ve always done it and it works well for me.
Sodium Hydroxide, aka caustic soda, aka lye. I’ve done the ‘caution’ bit to pieces I think so I won’t bang on about it. But please treat this stuff with respect. Keep animals and children well away when you’re working with it.
Lavender Essential Oil, or the essential oil(s) of your choice.
Method – step by step
If you’re reading this for the first time, you may think ‘that’s a lot of work’. In reality it isn’t. Once you’ve done it a couple of times, it will take you under an hour from start to finish. Plus much of that time is waiting for the oils and lye solution to cool. The first time take your time.
- Weigh out all your ingredients except the lye.
- Optional: pour some of the water you plan to use into an ice cube tray. I freeze about 4 cubes and keep the rest as water. You’re ready to start when they are frozen.
- Add your 4 oils/fats into the stainless steel bowl, put water in your saucepan. Pop the bowl of oils on top of the pan of water and heat the water gently. As soon as the fats in the bowl have melted, remove the bowl from the heat and put it to one side to cool.
- As the fats are cooling, put the water (and ice cubes if using) in a non corrosive jug (I use glass). Ensure your sleeves cover all the skin on your arms, put on your rubber gloves and goggles. Weigh out the lye into another non corrosive jug.
- I always, without fail, do the next step outside out of the way of everyone. It also keeps the unpleasant fumes outside and, if you spill anything, your counter top isn’t trashed. If you don’t have easy access outside then you may choose to do this in the kitchen. Wherever you do it, please be careful. Add the contents of the lye jug to the water jug, NEVER THE OTHER WAY AROUND. This avoids the lye ‘erupting’ as the water hits it. “Add water to lye and you may die” is a bit of an extreme way of remembering, but it works.
- Stir the lye into the water slowly and gently with a spatula, being careful not to splash. Ensure the lye dissolves fully in the water. If you don’t, you may end up with a layer of lye at the bottom of the jug that you’ll need to break up later. Which is not advisable at all. Don’t ask me how I know this.
- Once the lye has dissolved, leave the jug of lye solution outside to cool.
- Wait until both the oils in the bowl and the lye solution have cooled to a temperature between 90 and 110 degrees F (32-43 degrees C). They don’t have to be the same temperature, but they do both need to be within that range.
- Once the oils and lye solution have both cooled to within the temperature range, put on your goggles and gloves. Pour the lye solution into the bowl of oils, stir gently with a spatula to start mixing. Make a note of the temperature at this point.
- Plug in the hand blender and submerge it below the liquid’s surface so it doesn’t splash. Turn on the blender and blend the mixture until it starts to thicken. This can be anything from 30 seconds to a couple of minutes, depending on the recipe. You are aiming to reach the point of ‘trace’, where your soap mixture leaves a trail on the surface when you drizzle it over. Another way to know you’ve reached trace is if the temperature of your soap has increased a few degrees from when you took the temperature in step 9. Don’t be tempted to overblend. If you do, your soap will thicken too much and you won’t be able to pour into into the mould.
- Add a teaspoon or so of your essential oil. Mix with the spatula until combined.
- Pour the soap into the mould, tap on a hard surface gently to level off or do it with the spatula. Then cover the mould with a layer of cling film. Wrap the whole thing in a clean tea towel.
- With your goggles and gloves on, immediately wash up everything else you’ve used as it’s easier to do it now than when the soap has solidified later. I usually wash everything twice.
- Leave the mould wrapped in the tea towel undisturbed for about 24 hours. The soap will generate heat as the saponification takes place, so if you feel the mould occasionally you’ll notice it’s warm. After 24 hours, the mould will be at room temperature again.
- Wearing gloves again just in case the soap is still a bit acidic, turn out your soap onto a board. Cut it into slabs.
- Leave the bars of soap to dry and ‘cure’ for at least a month.
Easy Olive Oil Soap with Shea Butter
- 450 g Olive Oil any olive oil is fine
- 180 g Coconut Oil
- 180 g Shea Butter
- 90 g Castor Oil
- 315 g Water Tap, Distilled or Rainwater
- 122 g Lye aka Caustic Soda or Sodium Hydroxide
- 1 tsp Lavender Oil vary quantity and type of oil to taste
- Melt the measured fats and oils in a stainless steel bowl over a pan of hot water. Remove the bowl from over the pan and allow to cool to between 90 and 110 degrees F (32-43 degrees C).
- Wearing goggles and gloves, add the measured lye to the water (NEVER THE OTHER WAY ROUND) in a well ventilated area. Stir gently to avoid splashing until the lye is dissolved. Leave to cool to between 90 and 110 degrees F (32-43 degrees C).
- When both the oils and lye solution are between 90 and 110 degrees F (32-43 degrees C), add the lye solution to the fats and oils. Stir gently with a spatula, make a note of the temperature.
- Mix with a stick blender until trace is reached. You will know it has been reached either because drizzling the soap over the surface leaves a 'trace' and/or because the temperature of the soap has gone up by a couple of degrees. Quickly stir in the essential oil(s).
- Pour the soap into the mould, tap to level it off. Wrap in cling film and then a clean tea towel, leave for 24 hours.
- Turn out the soap, cut into bars. Leave in a well ventilated area for 1-2 months to cure.
Curing your Soap
By leaving your soap for at least a month, you allow the soap to dry out and ‘cure’. I leave mine for a minimum of two months because the soap is milder and harder the longer you leave it. So then it lathers up beautifully, and it lasts longer. If you use your soap for the first time and is too soft and gungy (as mine was because I couldn’t wait to try it), it needs longer to cure. It won’t kill you, it just won’t feel nice to use and most of it will probably end up washing away.
If you’ve left your soap for a month or two and it still doesn’t seem right, that could be because your bars are thicker than mine. Or it could be that your atmosphere isn’t as dry as mine, or something else. So just put the soap back to dry some more.
Let your soap cure in a well ventilated area, on some kind of rack if you have one.
Here’s my very expensive soap rack. Ok so it isn’t actually a soap rack at all. It’s an old vegetable rack rescued from the dump which fits handily into a corner on the landing. When you cure your soap around the house you get the added bonus of a clean smelling house.
At some point I’ll share some of my other favourite recipes. But for now I hope you enjoy making this one.
We haven’t bought a bar of soap since the day our first bar was properly cured, and we never will again.
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