If you’re a DIYer who enjoys crafting or making your own cosmetics, like hair masks or body scrub, you might be tempted to try your hand at making hand, bath, or decorative soap, especially if your favorite bars are currently sold out or hard to come by. The soap you make won't kill germs, but it will certainly wash them away as well as any other bar soap you might buy. And while it seems simple enough, according to the experts in our Good Housekeeping Institute Health, Beauty, and Environmental Sciences Lab, making soap from scratch is a serious endeavor that requires more than just a few kitchen tools and some basic skills.
Making soap at home requires two types of ingredients — an acid and a base. These chemically react together in what is called “saponification” and produce the soap along with glycerin as a byproduct. No commercial or homemade soap can be made without these two ingredients.
Should you use lye to make soap at home?
Many DIY soap recipes call for using lye (the common name for sodium hydroxide) as the base. But lye can be hazardous to work with at home. “Lye is caustic not only when it touches skin, but the fumes it generates when mixed with water are caustic to your eyes and mucous membranes. So, you’ll need to work in a very well ventilated area,” says Charmaine Rodriques, a former chemist in the GH Beauty Lab, mother of a 7-year-old son, and founder of The Sud Bar, a soap and body care products company.
If you do choose to make soap with lye, Rodriques, who has been making and perfecting her homemade soap for 15 years, says this is what to watch out for:
Appropriate ventilation is the most important thing to have before embarking on making soap from scratch.
Personal protection gear, such as goggles, a mask and heat-resistant gloves are also “musts” according to Rodriques.
Rodriques keeps raw materials in a locked cabinet in her basement, which also doubles as her soap-making laboratory.
How to make soap without lye:
We’ve come up with a simpler and safer method for making your own hand or bath soap at home without lye. For safety reasons, our Institute experts recommend following “melt and pour” soap making recipes from reputable retailers. These recipes are easy and fun to make at home — even with kids — and you won’t have to deal with the potential dangers of working with lye or learn the chemistry of the saponification process.
Here’s how make a perfect melt-and-pour soap at home:
1. Choose a recipe and fragrance
If you are a beginner, the simplest way to start is to purchase a soap base — a pre-mixed combination of the soap, glycerin, and a few add-ins like plant butters and extracts for skin benefits, along with additives for transparency or fillers for making opaque bars. We recommend buying from a reputable website, like Brambleberry Handcraft Provisions, that offers a variety of supplies and has multiple recipes for making different kinds of soaps.
Brambleberry's beginner’s guide to the melt and pour process walks you through the steps one-by-one and provides complete recipes for beginner, intermediate, and advanced soap making. If that’s still a little too ambitious for you, start with Brambleberry’s simple translucent base. All you do is melt it, mix in your favorite fragrance oil, and mold it.
And when buying a fragrance oil online, make sure it is cosmetic grade (or use one of your own favorite fragrances if it can be easily poured out of its container). We like the Made Safe certified essential oils by Radiance.
2. Gather your tools
All you really need is:
A heat-safe container to melt the base — Depending on the size of the soap you are making, even a 1- or 2-quart Pyrex measuring cup works well. It’s microwave-safe and heat resistant. Just remember not use it again for food prep to prevent cross-contamination.
A stainless steel wire whisk to stir in your fragrance.
Any old pots or pans that are ready to be retired make the perfect vessels for crafting soap.
A mixer (only necessary if you are adding extras, like colorants, exfoliant powders, and glitter).
Silicone molds. A star-shaped one works well for making guest-sized soaps. Consider a heart-shaped one for bridal shower party favors or Valentine’s day gifts. Set out your molds before you begin melting, so they are ready when you need them.
3. Melt the base
Most ready-made melt and pour recipes can be done either in the microwave or on a stove top in a double boiler over low heat. Both techniques work well, but doing it on the stove top can give you more control and allows you to better see when the base starts melting. It also prevents hot spots or over-heating that can happen when melting in the microwave oven. Have pot holders or heat resistant gloves or mitts handy when handling these hot implements. Here's how:
If using a double-boiler, place the soap base into vessel, set in on the stovetop over medium-low heat until the water gently boils and the soap base begins melting.
If using a microwave, place the base in a microwave-safe container and heat it on high for one minute. Check to see if the base is completely melted. If not, continue heating it in short bursts of 20 to 30 seconds or so until it is fully melted. Microwave ovens vary so you'll have to watch it carefully.
Pro tip: Avoid stirring the base while it’s melting as this can trap air bubbles. Instead, let the chunks melt on their own or move any solid pieces gently around in the container.
4. Mix in the fragrance
If you are not following an exact recipe, it might take a little trial and error to figure out how much fragrance to add to your soap. A general rule of thumb is to add about 1 teaspoon of fragrance per pound of soap.
The key to success in this step is to get the base to a high enough temperature so it’s molten and easy to mix, but low enough so the volatile compounds and scent notes in the fragrance don’t evaporate. Here's how:
Once the base is molten, remove your pot or container from the stove or microwave and place on a heat resistant surface or trivet.
With a wire whisk, quickly — but gently — blend in the fragrance.
Make sure to distribute the fragrance evenly into the base but try no to mix in any air bubbles as you whisk in the fragrance.
Pro tip: The base will cool down and start to solidify within minutes. Re-melt it by returning the container back to the microwave or stove top over very low heat for a few seconds and give it a quick gentle stir.
5. Fill the mold
Carefully — but quickly — pour the molten base and fragrance mixture into your mold.
Pro tip: Fill the molds as close to the top as possible. The soap won’t rise or expand upon cooling.
6. Cool and unmold it
Let your soap-filled mold cool at room temperature on a flat surface. Avoid touching or disturbing it until it is fully solidified.
When it’s hardened, simply pop it out of the mold and enjoy!
Pro tip: Depending on your mold's size and shape and your room temperature, soap will take at least an hour to harden. It can take up to 24 hours for large molds to fully solidify.
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