I got interested in smells a while ago, because I was trying to re-create one of my favorite colognes from the 1980s (which is no longer made, unfortunately) so I collected a huge selection of essential oils and ingredients for perfume-making. What wonderful fun! But, then, this girl I know complained that she didn't like her shampoo, which dried out her hair - so I whipped up a batch of castille soap-based shampoo with lavender and lilac scent, and it was a big success. And she asked me to make soap. I immediately said "Of Course!" and that's how we get to where we are now.
One of the things I discovered when I tried my first bar of homemade soap is that the commercial soaps we buy at the store are mostly made of the cheapest mineral oils and crap that the manufacturer can buy in bulk. Really, the difference is profound. The stuff I'm making is all fresh olive and almond oil, shea butter, beeswax, and scent. It's creamy, dreamy, and slipperier than an NSA lawyer. I don't think I can go back to the crappy store-bought stuff.
It seems to cost about $0.15 per bar. So it's also pretty cost effective!
If hippies can do it, so can you. Seriously, it's not hard. It's easier than making mashed potatoes.
Lye is not scary stuff. Cadmium bromide (which I work with for my wet plate photography) is scary stuff. Concentrated nitric acid is scary stuff. As long as you are careful not to splash lye around, you'll be fine. The scene in fight club where Durden puts lye on the protagonist's hand and it bubbles and burns - that's movie lye. Real lye wouldn't do that (it'd run off, for starters!) Keep it out of your eyes, which means not pouring it violently and use a stainless steel bowl to mix your lye and water (stainless steel bowls don't occasionally crack and explode from differential heating like glass ones can).
If you are suitably paranoid, have a bottle of white vinegar handy, so if you get lye on yourself or something you can wipe it down with vinegar, which will counteract the mild base with its mild acetic acid.
Be careful and don't be stupid and you're fine. Lye is nowhere near as dangerous as gasoline and a lot of us handle that stuff amazingly casually all the time.
That's it! Shop glasses are maybe not a bad idea.
Work in a ventilated area. Lye releases some vapors when you mix it with water, that aren't particularly pleasant. I mix my lye and water out in the yard.
There is no "hard part"! That's it! All you need is a recipe.
You can scour the internet for recipes, but my guess is not to waste your time. There are some really interesting recipes for other stuff that I've made that you may want to take a look at, I've linked them at the bottom.
But generally, the soap-making process is that you take a bunch of oils and mix them with the right amount of lye dissolved in water, and it cures it into soap ("saponification"). Getting the right amount of lye and water is easy: you use an online calculator!
Each oil has its own properties. Coconut oil sets up thick and makes for blocky soap. Beeswax makes for very hard soap (use ~1%). Almond oil makes for gloriously soft and creamy bubbles. Shea butter is great for your skin, etc. So the way to do this is figure out the properties of the oils that you want, then come up with quantities (I use a percentage, more on that later) then plug it into a calculator and it'll tell you how much lye to dissolve in how much water and then you melt and mix the oils, add the lye/water, stir it up until it starts to get gooey, add your scents, pour it into molds, put a towel under and over it to keep it warm while it finishes reacting, and knock it out of the mold the next day.
This is the calculator I use.
You just tick off the various percentages of the oils you want to use, and the total amount you want to make (600g is a good starter batch, which fills one of those mini soap-bar dishes pretty much exactly) Don't worry about the SAP value or any of that - all that you need is the amount of lye and water for the mix of oils you're using. With the calculator, it'll just tell you how much you need and you're done. Make your percentages add up to 100%.
The different oils have different characteristics, which are explained here.
This is what the calculator gives you:
You can even ask the calculator to print detailed instructions! How sweet is that!? By the way, that recipe above is one of my favorites. It works great.
"Superfatting" and "high water" are controls on the saponification process. Simply: if you have more fats/oils than you have lye to conver them, your soap will be rich with little bits of left over oils and it'll feel great on your skin. Many soap-makers superfat between 3% and 5%. I use 5% and a bit of beeswax to make the soap harder to compensate. High water is a safety margin thing - if your lye/water mix is low when you add it to the oils, you can sometimes get a boil-over situation in which soap climbs out of your pot and foams all over your stove. Just make sure there's the amount of water the calculator tells you and that won't happen.
You can get dyes on amazon and other places, along with essential oils. I avoid dyes except for in my "FIGHT CLUB" soap, which has to be meat pink.
(Fight Club soap mold; original made on a CNC machine in delrin, rubber mold cast in smooth-on Rheoflex 40)
I made this recipe up by fudging a bunch of ingredients and putting in some stuff that I knew I'd like. It is fantastic.
My Head Cleaner 2.0 Recipe
My Seaweed Conditioner 1.0 Recipe
Traditional Soap Making - Includes how to make lye from ash for the compleat do-it-yourselfer. (This link courtesy of a Girl Scout group of soap-makers!)
How to make and easy beeswax lotion - Nice recipe; I add germaben and vitamin E and lanolin and a bit of titanium dioxide to make it whiter.
Equipment and Ingredients for making skin lotion - good explanation of the need for antifungals and whatnot in your lotions and creams.
Make body butter! Awesome recipe! Put a bit of vanilla and coffee essential oils in there to make it smell heavenly.
Make natural liquid soap! Good recipe for basic oil soaps. Why spend $10 on a bottle of Murphy's when you can make a gallon for $1?
Using Germaben and other preservatives in hand creams. As soon as you start putting water + fat together (does not apply in soap because of the lye) you have to worry about bacteria and fungi taking up residence in your hand cream - it is now food. Germaben and suttocide and other preservatives are crucial to keep your healthy skin cream from becoming a chemical weapons experiement. If this concerns you, stick with the body butter recipe above; it has no water in it and won't get rancid. You can get germaben on amazon.
Make your own shampoo! This is great! I put a bit of germaben and some vitamin E oil in it.
Bellwether Farm, Morrisdale Pennsylvania. April 4, 2014