Soap Making for Beginners: the Ultimate Guide for the Complete Newbie

Ready to dive into soap making for beginners? Let’s walk through the science, safety, ingredients, and process of making soap at home.

5 bars of off white homemade soap

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Soap making science and ingredients for beginners

Soap is the byproduct of a chemical reaction between lye and oil. You can’t have one without the other,, any more than you can have water without hydrogen or salt with sodium. Soap needs oil and it needs lye, or it’s not soap.

When you mix oil and lye (in the correct amounts) they blend together, the molecules go all crazy and they form something new: soap!

The basic process of making soap is:

  1. Mix water and lye, set aside to cool
  2. Melt oils, set aside to cool
  3. Blend lye water and oils to form a soap “batter”
  4. Pour into mold and let harden for a day
  5. Turn out of mold, cut into bars and let cure for 2-3 weeks.

Lye? What’s that? And isn’t it dangerous?

Lye is also known as sodium hydroxide and is a very caustic substance. It was traditionally made from ashes, but now can just be purchased easily. It is used both for soap making and as a drain cleaner, as it will eat away at greasy build up in pipes.

Caustic is the opposite of acidic, but lye is so caustic that it as dangerous as a strong acid. It can eat through skin, leave marks on countertops, and cause blindness if it splashes in your eyes.

But don’t be scared. If you follow soap safety guidelines (more on that later), you’ll be fine.

The role of oils in soap making

So… lye doesn’t sound super appealing. But the oils in soap are going to transform it into something completely different. Picking oils is the most fun part of creating a soap recipe. Each oil will bring its own property to the finished product.

For example:

  • Castor oil creates lots of lather
  • Olive oil is very moisturizing
  • Coconut oil helps harden the bar
  • Shea butter nourishes the skin.

Calculating the right amount of oil and lye

So here’s where it gets a little trickier. We already know that this is a chemical reaction. So it’s not like making a pasta salad where you just throw things in and hope for the best. Everything has to be precise.

The lye is basically going to “gobble up” the oils and saponify them. (This just means it will turn them into soap.). But each oil requires a certain amount of lye to be saponified. It is a chemical property of that oil, known as its “saponification value”, like the freezing point of a liquid. It’s different for each one.

The way we figure this out is to use something called a lye calculator. There are many of them available for free online. My favorite is from Majestic Mountain Sage.

If you have no interest in making up your own recipes, then don’t even worry about this. I just wanted to include it so you understood the basic science behind it all.

This post contains affiliate links, meaning that if you make a purchase after clicking on a link I may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

So what else do you need to make soap at home?

  • Water. You have to mix the lye into water.
  • A digital scale. Remember, this is chemistry and things have to be precise.
  • A stick blender. Mixing by hand doesn’t always work and things might not saponify properly.
  • Old pots and an old spatula for melting oils and blending things.
  • A mold to pour the soap into. This can be as simple as a box lined with freezer paper.
  • Safety gear

Sources for these supplies

I like Amazon for the scale, blender, and safety gear. Brambleberry or Bulk Apothecary are good sources for the oils, fragrance, and lye.

Soap making for beginners: safety

So we’ve established that lye is dangerous. But it really is, and it’s dangerous in different ways at every part of the soap making process. Many people get scared and overwhelmed by the prospect of working with lye, but it doesn’t have to be scary. Yes, it deserves respect and proper gear, but it’s not scary.

To me, one of the most important aspects of working safely is that you need to be able to concentrate. Interruptions will cause you to make mistakes, be careless, knock things over, etc. Make sure little ones are out of the room, and never try to make soap when you’re in a rush.

Safety gear you will need is:

  • Goggles. Lye water can blind you!
  • Long sleeves
  • A mask
  • Gloves

First, be absolutely sure that your lye is stored totally out of the reach of children and pets. It comes in a pellet or flake form that is very concentrated and dangerous.

When you are mixing it with the water, it will shoot way up in temperature and will also release fumes. So you’ll need to be outside or near an open window. And you’ll need gloves and eye protection at this stage as well. The caustic lye solution can blind you if splashed in your eye, or burn your skin.

Now, when you set the lye water aside to cool, you need to be careful. Make it very clear that it’s a dangerous solution. It could be fatal to anyone drinking it.

(Now, to be totally honest with you, I am very bad about soap making safety. I never wear gloves, and I have gotten soap batter on my skin. It burns. I just started wearing goggles. So do as I say, not as I do ????.)

The actual process, step by step

Prepare

First of all, get ready. Have your recipe printed out (you can find my cold process soap recipes here.) Get out your scale, your stick blender, your oils, and your lye. Have your mold ready to go as well.

Mix up the lye water

Everything needs to be measured separately before you begin. The lye and water are measured separately, then you add the lye to water. Don’t do it the other way around. You can remember this with this saying “snow floats on the lake”. Mix the lye and water thoroughly, until the lye dissolves. It will be hot. Set it aside to cool in a safe, well ventilated place.

Mix and melt the oils

Next, measure out your oils, separately. Some people prefer to melt the solid oils first, then add the liquid oils, then heat everything up. Or can just dump into one pot and heat everything up together. Do it right on the stove, on low. You want everything thoroughly melted and 140 degrees.

pot with melted oils

Let the components cool

Now, everything has to cool down, separately. The next step is to blend them together with your stick blender. They can be around 100-110 degrees in temperature, or you can let them cool even more. As long as the oils are still melted and the lye and oils are relatively similar in temperature, it will work fine.

Blend!

Now for the fun part. Pour the lye water into the melted oils and blend with your stick blender. At first, it will just seem very liquid, with droplets of oil floating around. After a minute or so, it will become one consistency, with no oil splotches. Then, the batter will start to slightly thicken.

You can stop blending when your soap batter reaches “trace”. Trace means that when you lift up your blender and soap batter comes off of it, that soap batter will rest on top of the pot, leaving a trail, rather than immediately sinking in.

(At this point, you would add color and fragrance if you were using them, but I wouldn’t recommend either for your first batch.)

pouring lye water in soap oils

Pour and cure

Once you have reached trace, immediately pour the soap batter into the mold. It will start hardening right away, so move quickly.

Pour it right in and smooth out the top with a spatula.

pouring soap batter into mold

As soap cures, it will heat up. Some times it will heat up a lot and go through something called “gel phase”. It gets bright, translucent, and very hot. It’s not a problem, and some people prefer it, because it makes colors brighter.

You can force gel phase by putting the soap in a 120 degree oven for one hour, then turning the oven off and leaving it in there for 24 hours. Or by wrapping it in old blankets.

Or if you don’t want gel phase, you can put the soap in the freezer.

Either way, once it is has cured for 24 hours, it’s time to unmold. It still needs time to finishing drying out so the bar can get harder. You can just leave the bars on an old towel for a few weeks.

cutting loaf of soap into bars

A few notes about cleaning up

There are a few ways to handle this. You can rinse out everything from the pots and tools before it hardens into soap. You’ll need to be careful if you choose this method, because the lye is still very caustic at this stage.

You could also let everything sit and turn into soap and then just wash it out then. That is usually what I do.

Recipes for your first batch of soap

  • Recipes with only a few oils are simplest to measure and not as expensive to buy the supplies for. Try a recipe that’s 30% olive oil, 30% palm oil, 30% coconut oil, and 10% almond oil.
  • Look for a recipe with no strange ingredients, like beeswax or honey (they are lovely in soap but behave a bit differently).
  • Don’t attempt a swirl or fancy design.
  • Try a recipe with very few oils, like homemade bar soap for dishes.

Recipes for the more experienced soap maker

Still scared?

I get it! Soapmaking is not for everyone, and if you can’t have a distraction free work area for a few hours (because of kids, pets, or other reasons), it’s best not to attempt it.

But don’t be discouraged. You can make homemade sugar scrubs, homemade hand cream, and even pumpable body lotion without dealing with the dangers of lye.

Go forth and make soap!

Now of course, reading something is one thing, and doing it is quite another. I encourage you not to get stuck in the research phase, and to move on to actually trying your hand at soap making.

For even more help, you can subscribe to my YouTube channel, where I share new soapmaking tutorials regularly.


Click here to subscribe By on February 7th, 2020

30 thoughts on “Soap Making for Beginners: the Ultimate Guide for the Complete Newbie”

  1. Hi Katie!

    I am a complete beginner in soapmaking, but I am really interested in making dishwasher soap. I’ve watched your YT video and found out that this soap can be drying just like a regular dishwashing liquid, therefore, is there a way where I can incorporate shea butter or an inexpensive type of oil that is very moisturizing or nourishing to the skin? Is it also safe that the castor oil, coconut oil, and the “moisturizing oil” will be mixed together?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • hi karla, you can, but at that point it would become your own recipe. what really makkes it a bit drying to the skin is that the superfat is so low. i’ve played around with increasing the superfat but each time i do, the dishes don’t rinse as clean. so yes, you are welcome to experiment and you would add the moisturizing oils at the heating phase. you’d need to recalculate the lye using a lye calculator, also. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Katie, I want to try some of your recipes but I don’t want to use palm oil. Do you have a substitution. Want to try your mango butter soap.

    Reply
  3. hello.
    i am very interested in making soap but i can’t get the measurements correct.
    i tired my first batch yesterday with frozen aloe and cucumber with olive.palm.castor.coconut oil.
    i am hoping all will b passable tomorrow.
    any ideas for me.
    please and thank you.

    Reply
  4. Thank you for your great ideas, Katie.
    Are you planning any tutorial on liquid dish soap?
    Sorry if this is a duplicate comment, but I can’t find my original post.

    Reply
  5. Hi Katie, I have a question about the gel phase. My oven will not go any lower the 170 degrees. Can I still use this technique? If so how long should I leave the heat on?

    Reply
  6. Hi, This will be my first time making cold process soap. I have a question regarding the liquid and harden oils. When measuring on scale do you measure the harden oils as they are harden or do you melt down separate and then pour to the scale?

    Reply
    • Debbie, I measure them as a solid. there is one exception: palm oil should be thoroughly melted, mixed up, and then measured out. this is because if you just scoop off the top, the top of the oil has different properties than the bottom.

      Reply
  7. My first time with lye. Little nervous lol. What kind of coconut oil do you use 76 or 92 degree? And how many bars will this recipe make? Thank you your recipe is so detailed, that’s what I need ????

    Reply
    • hi debra. don’t be nervous, you can do it! I use 72 degree coconut oil. the # of bars depends on how thick you cut them. I usually get about 12, cut pretty thick. (I know that is not very precise, sorry!)

      Reply
    • hi bisola! laundry soap is tricky- most commercial laundry products are detergents, not soap. if you want to give it a try, you can search my site for homemade cleaning soap. that recipe can be grated and mixed with borax and washing soda to replicate some of the popular online laundry soap recipes. I do not personally like it, but many people do!

      Reply
  8. What wonderful write up. I have learnt a lot from it. I want to go into soap making. Please I need your assistance in the mixture of the chemical to have very smooth soap at the end.

    Reply
  9. If we dont want gel.phrase by putting it in the freezer..then how long does it freeze until we take out of mold and cut? 🙂

    Reply
  10. What is your opinion on using lard as the oil in the soap? Is there a drawback to using it? I’ve been turned on to soap-making after someone encouraged us to use old-fashioned, fragrance-free lye soap to keep mosquitos away. I finally found some at a hardware store (for about $5 per bar!) and we found that it truly does work, as it neutralizes your natural body odors that attract mosquitos. Anyway, the soap we purchased was made with lard, so I was wondering if there was a reason not to use it.
    Thanks! I enjoy your videos!

    Reply
    • hi Megan, lard is a great fat for soap making! (so is tallow!). no drawbacks at all. they are. very eco friendly because they are waste products and usually available locally!

      Reply

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