Sunday, May 13, 2012

I was never good at Chemistry (a.k.a. the soap making experiment)

I have wanted to make soap for a while now. At first it was a fleeting hobby-ish thing like candle making. I went to Michael's and was not satisfied with the melt and pour supplies there. I am smart enough to understand that making soap and melt-and-pour are not the same. Then this Christmas, I was gifted a wonderful bar of soap made locally by Smells Like A Monkey. It was delightful and after several weeks of using it, I had the best skin of my life. I've always had sensitive skin and just chalked it up to hard well water, and chemical laced municipal water, and too much sunscreen, or not enough exfoliation. Until this soap, it never occurred to me that my issue was chemical laced soaps and body washes. In case I wasn't already sold on the homemade soap, I went back to the old faithful commercial soap and within days I was so broken out all over my whole body I was going mad. Back to the store for more monkey soap... for $7 a bar. Ouch. Thus, Amanda the soap maker was born.

For starters, I want to thank Rachel at Small Notebook for the best basic tutorial. This really helped me commit to the idea and see how plain and easy it is. I purchased coconut, palm and olive oils for the job, and found the lye as "drain opener" at my local Tractor Supply Company. (Though if you call and ask if they have lye, they will say "no.")

I attempted to infuse natural fragrance into the soap by heating the oils with a big pile o' lemon zest. It made amazing smelling oil but didn't make it through the chemical reaction of the lye. I used the MMS Lye Calculator, a wonderful tool for non-chemistry folks like me.

The lye process was not as scary as I thought it may be, though extreme caution should always be used. I was fortunate to have a spare 1000mL borosilicate glass flask laying around the house as my non-reactive vessel.
I did everything just as I was instructed, EXCEPT being rather frugal and skeptical at the same time, I wasn't keen to put my regular stick blender in a toxic lye sludge and I was too cheap to buy a new stick blender for something I wasn't 100% sure was going to work. And because of my doubts... it didn't work. The soap developed a "false trace".
I could tell that something was wrong but wasn't sure what. I let it sit for a few days, then googled to find an answer when it was apparent that nothing was changing. You can sort of see in the picture above that it has the consistency of greasy pie pastry. I was very happy to find a perfect soap making troubleshooter. I looked up 'crumbly but soft and greasy soap' and learned about false trace and that I could save my soap by remelting. So, I remelted in the crock pot (which made my previously "cold process soap" into "hot process soap"), adding a teensy bit of water to the mix. It took a few hours and a lot of stirring. The texture is not the same as cold process soap but as soon as this cooled and hardened it was usable soap, bubbly and soft, without the 4 weeks of cure time. Ugly, but soap.
I was very encouraged because my mistake turned out for the best, giving me good soap to use while my next batch of cold process soap is curing. Did I mention I went out last night and bought a stick blender?

This post was linked up to the Homestead Barn Hop #62 :


  1. Does it do as well for your skin? I am totally impressed.

  2. Only time will tell... so far so good though. :)

  3. Yes, the stick blender is essential!!

  4. The beauty of hot process is that you can cook your soap in an evening, and then add your lovely lemon scent after the reaction, so that it doesn't have to try and survive the lye. :) Just warm the lemon zest with an extra (in addition to whatever your recipe requires) bit of oil, then add it after the cook and before you mold your soap. Me, I'd leave the lemon zest in the bars too, for texture and added scent. :)

    1. I will have to try that. It sounds great. Any pre-treating to prevent turning/spoiling since it is a botanical & not dried first?

  5. Please come link up at my new DIYLinky at

    We had a hot process flop too. I think it's in the flops section on the site.

  6. Do not feel bad. My 1st attempt was by hand...4 hours & 20 minutes later, I had my first soap. The next time I did it, I had the stick blender in hand...20 minutes later I had true trace! My next plan is to try liquid soap with Potash.
    Yeah, I have seen the looks on people's faces when I ask for lye..they are wondering if I am one of those crystal meth cookers. I have even had to go into the recipe process to get them to relax.
    I previously used my shavings & left-overs of bar soap as re-melts into shampoo & body wash, but it gets a bit slimy since it was diluted later. It still works like a dream though, but I want to do the entire liquid process from scratch next time.
    I will photo & blog it, partly for fun & partly for "accident" documentation. Just in case there is a bang & a shake in my neighborhood:) I do tend to be a bit light on the fragrance. It smells good at mixing, but fades after curing. I have got to learn to just let it go & buy in larger quantities. I am cheap & fragrance is expensive.

  7. Thanks for the post today is the day for my first Cp adventure. Lol on the lye .. I never thought of why people look like that when you ask for Lye..