I’ve spent the last few weeks investigating techniques for making my own soap at home. I had a simple project in mind: I just wanted to make a lightly fragranced, gentle liquid hand soap.
But cheap commercial hand soaps are harsh, laden with antibacterial ingredients that we don’t need to use on a daily basis, and most are too perfume-y for my liking.
The higher-priced liquid soaps (I love Caldrea hand soaps, for example) smell better and feel nicer on the skin, but oh boy, are they expensive!
Initially, I was discouraged to find that almost all soap recipes start from scratch, using raw lye. Yikes!
I didn’t want to make the sort of equipment investment that working with lye requires – like goggles! Dedicated pots, pans & measuring cups! Long sleeves! Stand-by vinegar bottle for first aid!
Nope, not for me.
So I veered off into less-respectable, less-documented soap making methods. If you don’t want to handle lye, that means either rebatching or melt-and-pour.
Using either of these methods, you start with pre-made soap. It still has lye (all soap is made with lye), but the lye in this case is “saponified”: that is, chemically changed into a non-caustic substance.
Authentic soap makers will certainly scoff at this approach, but these methods let you make soap in your kitchen without needing a biohazard suit. Or while working with pets and/or children underfoot!
Even though I started with the supposedly foolproof “melt & pour” technique, my, um, creative modifications to the process made that first project almost a complete disaster. I even hatched a Krakatoa-level eruption in the microwave!
But my second attempt yielded exactly what I wanted: a small batch of gentle, good-smelling, liquid hand soap.
I’ll document this more successful version, and share what I learned from the first failure.
How to Make Simple, Small Batch Liquid Soap
- ¼ pound "Melt & Pour" Soap Base
- 2 cups Distilled Water
- Soap Coloring (if desired)
- Soap Fragrance or Essential Oil (if desired)
- 4-cup Microwave-able Measuring Cup
- Stick Blender (or whisk)
- Recycled pump-style soap dispenser, or other container for your finished product
1. Purchase “melt and pour” soap base.
For your first attempt, you might as well buy a small quantity at your local hobby store. Later, if you find you like making your own soap, you can scout for higher quality formulations, better prices & larger quantities on the Internet.
For my first experiment, I used a translucent glycerine soap base, which I found too drying even though it's labeled "moisturizing,” and it had a slimy feel I didn’t like at all.
On my second attempt, I used an opaque white shea butter soap base that I liked much better.
Both came from Hobby Lobby, in 2-pound blocks like the one shown here.
2. Next, cut up the soap base.
Because I wanted to make a very small batch, I used only one-fourth of a pound of the soap base.
I cut away the quarter pound from the 2-lb block I’d bought, following the convenient cut lines, and sliced it thinly into a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup (microwave safe).
- TIP: In my previous experiment, I actually grated the soap, which was messy and time-consuming. I found that melt & pour soap base melts so easily that grating is not necessary, slicing works just fine.
3. Now melt the soap base.
The soap package instructions suggested heating it in the microwave for 40 seconds on High, which worked for me.
Then I stirred the melted soap to make sure all the slices were completely melted down … you don’t want any un-melted chunks in there.
4. Next, add water to thin the soap so that it will dispense through a pump.
You’re supposed to use distilled water for soap making, but I confess I used bottled water because that’s what I had on hand. After experimenting, I found that 2 cups of water was just right for my blend.
- TIP: Bear in mind, I’m working at 7,000 feet elevation in a very dry climate; at sea level in high humidity, for example, you might need less water. Start with less, say 1-1/2 cups. Mix it in, let it sit, see if you like the consistency, then add more water if needed. (You’re working right in the measuring cup, so you can always stick it back into the microwave to re-melt if it sets up on you.)
You could probably use a wire whisk, vigorously, but the stick blender is really fast and effective ... and besides I love kitchen gadgets.
I got my stick blender at a yard sale for $1.00, but you can also get one on Amazon.com (Rival makes a good inexpensive one).
- TIP: I used a spoon to mix my first batch, and had problems with the soap and water separating later. But the soap base I used for the second batch is supposed to hold “inclusions” in suspension better, so I don’t know for sure if the better blending in Batch #2 was due to the stick blender or the different soap base.
6. Optionally, mix in color and/or fragrance.
Allow the soap and water mixture to cool a bit in the measuring cup. There are two reasons for this: one, you want to be sure you’ve added enough water so that the soap doesn’t “set up” too thick to dispense, and two, your fragrance oils are heat-sensitive, and will stay more fragrant when added to a lukewarm, rather than hot, mix.
When the soap mixture has cooled a little, you’re ready to add color and fragrance, if you like. These are completely optional, of course.
While most soap makers measure by weight, in a small batch like this one you’ll measure by volume.
I added 6 drops of green soap colorant (also called soap dye, but not food coloring!) to my white base and got a very pale green tint that I liked.
For fragrance, I concocted a mix I christened “Cedar Berry”, measuring the essential oils by droplet directly into the soap mix:
- 12 drops Bergamot essential oil (a “top note”)
- 8 drops Bayberry essential oil (a “middle note”)
- 4 drops Atlas Cedar essential oil (a “base note”)
Notice that this formulation is three parts top note, two parts middle note, and one part base note. I got this approach to fragrance-mixing from one of the dozens of traditional soap-making books I read, but I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember which one.
- And here’s another tip: you can economize on a lot of things, but not your essential oils. I used a really cheap “lime” essential oil for the first batch, and it smelled like a blend of lime Koolaid and industrial cleaner. Yuck.
7. After adding color and/or fragrance, blend again, thoroughly!
I used the stick blender again to completely mix the color and fragrance into the soap base. One bonus to adding color is that you can easily see when your soap mixture is thoroughly blended.
8. Pour liquid soap into new, or recycled, dispensers.
Using a funnel, I then poured my product into two pump-dispenser soap bottles that I’d rinsed out and saved for this purpose … and ta-daa! Custom liquid hand soap.
Notes for Next Time:
As I empty more commercial soap bottles, I’ll try different fragrances and formulations. That’s the beauty of working in such small batches: experimentation is cheap!
I’d like to try adding emollient oils to enrich this basic mix – like olive oil, since I already have it in the pantry – and maybe Vitamin E or coconut oil, too. I may need to add an emulsifier as well to make the oils mix properly. Or, instead, I might try the other melt & pour soap bases available with the emollients included.
I’ll try different fragrance oils, maybe even purchase a pre-mixed scent instead of combining my own. Turns out, I’m not very good at perfume making, and if each scent I mix requires 3 different essential oils, then it's not economical, either.
And some day, when I run out of melt and pour soap base, I’ll try purchasing cold-process soap base to work with, using the rebatch method.
So stay tuned!