Monday, 7 October 2013

today is the day

I finally tested my homemade soap today! I have been anticipating this day for a three weeks now, patiently walking past the cooling rack with my delicately cream coloured juice carton diameter sized slices of soap, picking one up every now and then, inhaling the aloe vera fragrance I added. What can I say? It is quite divine to use and I am really happy (it doesn't take much to make me happy..). When wet and rubbed into the hands, it develops a beautiful lather. It rinses off easily and completely but leaves behind a lightly moisturised hand.

I don't know why but I had the urge to make soap for a long while now. Of course soap is cheap to buy and easily available but a handmade soap is just different. I have spoken to various soap makers at farmers markets over the years and I was left with the impression that making soap was really difficult and quite possibly dangerous. Browsing the web has reinforced this belief. Until I discovered this book that is: Smart Soapmaking by Anne L.Watson. It is a no nonsense little book, no fancy photos, just a few basic recipes with ingredients that can be sourced easily and a step by step guide to your first batch of soap, a smallish amount, too. Most other recipes seem to make litres of the stuff.

I used shea butter, coconut oil (which is solid) and cheap olive oil for my first batch of soap. I ordered some of the ingredients at the Soap Kitchen and others I bought in the supermarket. Below is are the solid fats in my mixing bowl. These were microwaved until liquid and poured into a saucepan in the kitchen sink, together with the olive oil.

Whilst the fats were cooling down to the required temperature (around 40 degrees centigrade), I added the sodium hydroxide to the water in another saucepan. There was quite a bit of heat produced in the process and I placed the pan in a ice bath to cool down to the same temperature as the fats. This step is one of the steps described in many books and on many websites as "dangerous" and "difficult". I have worked in a lab for many years and a bit of sodium hydroxide didn't worry me overly though. Don't get me wrong, I did wear gloves, old clothes and I even dug out the safety goggles that came with a kids crystal making kit years ago but really, there is no need to worry, all that happens is that the solution gets warm as the sodium hydroxide dissolves in the water as it is an exothermic reaction. No smoke, no explosions, nothing. The lye can damage your clothes and should definitely not come in contact with the skin. Anne Watson suggests to treat it with respect but not with fear!

Once both fats and lye solution were around 40 degrees centigrade I poured the lye into the fats and started mixing with my handheld blender. This was the step I worried about most, how would I know when the soap was mixed enough? Many books describe this step as long and tedious and that the soap needed to be "mixed to trace", which is a sign for the saponification reaction to be under way. However, Anne Watson describes this as unnecessary as there is a better sign for the saponification process to be well under way: the temperature rises once more. Easy. I was a bit suspicious of course since so much time and space is dedicated to the "mix to trace" part of soap making that surely there must be something to it? 

I did mix for a few minutes, maybe 5, but not much (the blender didn't heat up). The mixture started to warm up, and looked creamy (and quite delicious really) and felt quite thick. At this point I poured it into the juice carton.

The poured soap solidified quite quickly and stayed warm for many hours (heat continuous to get produced by the saponification reaction). 

I checked the pH the next day using some pH strips my husband brought home from work, but these can be easily bought if you don't have a husband with a well equipped laboratory. Once the soap was cool to the touch, I removed the carton and cut the block into slices. These were resting on the cooling rack to dry them out a bit, dried soap lasts longer.

Maybe this success was beginners luck, or facilitated by my experience working in a lab? There is only one way to find out! I am planning to make some soap for Christmas presents, with a lovely festive smell, cinnamon and cloves maybe? Or citrus? Maybe I'll use a colourant, too. Can't wait. In my mind I see rows and rows of beautiful soaps, with different colours and fragrances, some opaque, some transparent....

The recipe I used was the one suggested by Anne Watson, she says it is ideal for beginner soap makers in her little book.

Have a great week! Cx


  1. Your soap looks fab.i think the time in the lab can only help with this kind of project. As a bench scientist (in a previous life- now I'm all qualitative social science) you've got me thinking about having a go myself. I find that many commercial soaps can leave my hands exceedingly dry and sore...years in the lab and now copious hand washing with two small children exacerbate this. Maybe this is the way forward?
    Thank so much for your comments on my blog...I'm a complete novice at this (although I've lurked in the background for ages) and really appreciate your wide words. Looking forward to reading more from you!

  2. Funny, I am a former bench scientist, now University Teacher but moving towards social science, just embarking on my first qualitative educational research project.
    I have started writing comments only recently when I started blogging myself, realising that it is really nice to have some feedback. I am still lurking in the background with many blogs, feeling awkward to comment...