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9 soap making tips to help you succeed!

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Making soap is not hard. It should be fun and definitely not stressful. The reason I decided to write about this topic this week is because I had several friends message me recently about problems they were having with their soap.

1. Start with easy projects

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Lavender Castile soap

I know it’s tempting to start off with something like the Dancing Funnel Technique but you really want your first soap making experiences to be a success. Start off with a simple soap recipe (like the basic cold process recipe) with a single fragrance or essential oil. Once you have understood and mastered the soap making process itself, you’ll find it easier to start adapting recipes and adding colour and changing the design of the soap.

Here are some other simple recipes to get you started with additives and colours.

And the same goes for more experienced soap makers: do a simple soap every now and then, just for the simplicity and the zen of making soap. I love making a single essential oil Castile soap. Instead of having to worry about intricate colour designs or advanced soap making techniques, I can just relax and enjoy the experience of making pure soap. I do them not only because these make for beautiful soaps, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes simple is enough.

2. Research the ingredients

Especially when using ingredients that you have never used before. Find out how they behave in soap. Will they react or discolour in hot/cold process soap? Are they suitable for melt and pour?

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Soap seizing due to the fragrance

It is important to understand the effect an ingredient can have on the soap making process and in the soap itself. Some fragrances, like those containing vanillin, will change the colour of your soap to a tan or brown colour. Other additives, especially fragrances, will accelerate the chemical reaction, which will make your soap thicken quickly and render it unsuitable for any colour work. Also find out how to use a particular ingredient. Different colourants, for example, will need different preparation before you can add it to your soap. Micas are best diluted in oils, whereas pigments are mixed with water. Other ingredients can change the oil/water ratio of your recipe. Fresh ingredients add additional water to the recipe, clays, on the other hand, absorb water.

Check out the following articles for more information:

3. Preparation, preparation, preparation!

I can’t emphasise this too much. The worst thing that can happen to a soap maker is having to prepare an ingredient while you’re soap is already at trace and thickening. Make sure you have all your ingredients and materials prepared and laid out, ready for use. Prepare your colours. Measure out your fragrances and essential oils. Pre-mix any additives, such as clays, that you will be using. One of my early mistakes was assuming I had enough oils for my soap, only to start measuring out and realising that I had run out of olive oil. Always prepare before you start soaping and don’t forget to have your equipment ready as well!

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Everything laid out and ready for my cupcakes!

4. Tick off all the ingredients as you go

Often I get a help message from a soap maker asking what to do when they have forgotten an ingredient. Fragrances and colourants don’t really matter, they’re just annoying if you left them out. Likewise other additives, such as sodium lactate or forgetting to spray the surface with alcohol, have little impact on your soap. However, forgetting to add one of the oils or fats, or adding them twice, can ruin the whole soap. Even after years of making soap, I will still tick off the ingredients I added as I go. It’s a habit that I follow religiously, because I can be quite scatter-brained and easily distracted. So being able to look at the recipe and see what I have and haven’t yet added helps me keep track and has saved me many, many times from making a bad mistake!

5. Forget temperature

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Adding the lye to the oils when both are roughly at room temperature.

My pet peeve in a lot of soap making literature is temperature. Having made soap for over 20 years and starting off without the cool soap books and websites that are around today, I learned a lot through trial and error. And let me tell you this, temperature was never a huge factor in my soap making. The one lesson I learned early on was to avoid heat! If I soaped too warm, all sorts of funny things would start to happen, which is why I soap at room temperature. So please relax and stop obsessing about temperature. Your lye and your oils don’t have to be at a certain temperature, and you’ll have perfectly good soap without the added stress of trying to get the temperature exactly right. Let both your oils and your lye cool down to approximate room temperature, which is when the outside of the oil and lye container will feel cool to touch or at most lukewarm. Cooler is better, especially when using ingredients such as sugar and milk.

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Goats milk soap

6. Patience!

I’m talking about curing time here. This is the most difficult part for any soap maker, as they will tell you, waiting for the soap to be ready. Unfortunately, soap is not something that will be ready the next day, unless you’re using a melt and pour soap base, or re-batching, but even then it will take a few weeks to be fully ready. The golden rule for hot and cold process soap is “the longer the curing time, the better the soap”. Soaps that haven’t had a full curing time, will still contain a little moisture, and such soaps end up getting mushy in your soap tray. You’ll find soaps that have had the longest time to cure will be the ones that are the hardest and longest lasting and the ones that remain nice in your soap tray. So be patient and leave those soaps to cure for months!

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Margarita soap

Tip: when I give away my soaps, I usually tell my friends to not use them straight away but place them where they keep their towels. That way their towels get to smell lovely and the soap gets additional curing time!

7. Keep a record of your soaps

One of the most annoying things that can happen is when you use one of your soaps, after having cured for half a year or so, and then absolutely loving it, but when you try and remember what you put in it, you find you lost the piece of paper you wrote the recipe on. Particularly, when you start experimenting and creating your own recipes, make sure you write it down. Not just the recipe, but the method (did you use a stick blender), how the soaping process went (did it accelerate or thicken too quickly), how the ingredients behaved (did the fragrance discolour the soap), and how it cured (how long, DOS, any discolouring?). These notes will help you for future recipes and will also be a record of how certain ingredients behaved in soap. Have a separate notebook, just for your soap making. Write down the date and the recipe and then keep adding notes as you check and use the soap.

8. Less but more often

A lot of soap makers don’t have special soap making rooms or areas and just make soap in their kitchen, as do I. And it seems logical to dedicate a whole afternoon or a day to just soap making, like having ‘baking days’ or ‘canning days’. But unlike baking or canning, making soap is actually a quick and easy thing to do. You don’t need an oven or a lot of equipment, there’s not a lot of preparation and apart from the cooling down of the lye and oils, it doesn’t take that much time either. So instead of making a lot of soap in one time, make smaller amounts but more often. I love preparing my lye and oils in the morning after everyone has left the house, and then I’ll do some blogging or writing (or housework), and about 1-2 hours later, I’ll go and make the soap, which should take no more than half an hour.

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My favourite soap mold is this 4-bar square silicon mold from Pure Nature.

Regular practice makes perfect, the saying goes, and by making soap more often but only a batch at a time, means you get more practice. After a long break from soap making, like my annual summer break, I always find I need a few batches to get back into it. Making a simple soap at least a couple of times during my break, keeps me from getting too ‘rusty’!

9. Don’t get discouraged

Thomas Edison never gave up. The story goes it took him over 10000 tries to invent the light bulb and when asked why he never gave up, he replied: “I didn’t fail. I just found 10000 ways that didn’t work.” I love reminding myself of this, when a soap doesn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.

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Don’t be afraid to try new techniques, experiment with new ingredients or play with a new idea. It might not turn out the first time, or even the second time, but you will learn from those experiences. Get up, brush off the disappointment and try again. Find out what went wrong and how you can improve it or avoid it. My biggest lessons in my soap making journey came from my failures, and I am willing to bet that every other soap maker will tell you exactly the same thing. So don’t get discouraged and don’t be afraid to fail. It’s all about the journey. Making soap should be an enjoyable, fun experience, regardless if you are making one small batch or hundred bars of soap at a time.

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Aargh, the dreaded soap ash!

And lastly, we are usually our worst critics. The soda ash on your soap? The glycerin rivers? Not quite the colours you were aiming for? What you see as a mistake, others won’t notice and they will love your soap! Trust me!

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DIY Lipstick

Difficulty: Intermediate
Time: 30 minutes
Yields: 10 lipsticks

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Making your own lipstick can seem daunting at first, but once you’ve made your first lipstick, you’ll want to keep making more! Not only can you make sure you only use natural ingredients, you also get to do the fun part of playing with colours. For extra fun, why not make it a girls night in and turn it into a crafty lipstick party?

PS For a lipstick party, just make double or triple the amount of lipstick base, separate into different containers, and each person gets to colour one of the containers. Fill the tubes and share the colours!

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ONE: Measure out all the oils and waxes into a small pot. I’m using a blend of white beeswax and candelilla wax that will give you a solid, yet still spreadable and smooth texture. Both candelilla wax and the castor oil will bring gloss and shine to the lipstick. As will the jojoba oil with the extra benefit that it will condition and soften your lips. Shea butter will also add moisture and protect your lips.

For a vegan option, replace the white beeswax with half the amount of carnauba wax.

TWO: Place the pot on the stove and on a low-medium setting, warm the ingredients until they are completely melted. Don’t walk away, because it will only take a few minutes at the most. You do not want to bring the ingredients to boil!

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Take the pot off the stove and set it aside. Don’t worry, it will stay liquid, while you mix the colour.

THREE: In a small bowl combine 1-3 tablespoons of lip-safe mica and 1-2 teaspoons of jojoba oil, and stir to a smooth paste. If you want a sheer colour, like I did, use only 1 tablespoon of mica in 1 teaspoon of jojoba oil. For a more richer colour add 2  tablespoons of mica to 2 teaspoons of jojoba oil.

For a more opaque colour, add 1/4 teaspoon of micronised titanium dioxide to the paste. The titanium dioxide will add opacity to your lipstick (make it less sheer and more like a colour), with the added bonus of providing natural UVA and UVB protection.

FOUR: Add the mica paste to the liquid oils in the pot and stir briskly until all the colour is evenly dispersed throughout.

FIVE: Carefully pour the mixture in the lipstick tubes. Unless you have one of those handy lip balm pouring trays (and I don’t) or a very steady hand (and I don’t have that either), this will be a very messy part. The best way is to tie a rubber band around all the lipstick tubes to hold them together. If you can’t find a rubber band, you can place the tubes into a little cup to keep them from falling over. Either way, it will become a bit messy!

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Leave the lipstick to harden and cool down completely before putting the lids on.

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DIY Lipstick

  • Difficulty: intermediate
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Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon white beeswax
  • 2 tablespoons candelilla wax
  • 1 tablespoon shea butter
  • 2 tablespoons castor oil
  • 2 tablespoons jojoba oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons lip-safe mica
  • 1/4 teaspoon micronised titanium dioxide (optional)
  • 10 lipstick tubes

Directions

  1. Measure out all the oils and waxes in a small pot.
  2. Place the pot on the stove and on a low-medium setting, warm the ingredients until they are completely melted, BUT DO NOT BRING TO BOIL! Note: this will only take a few minutes at the most!
  3. Take the pot off the stove. In a small bowl combine 1-2 tablespoons of lip-safe mica and 1 teaspoon of jojoba oil, and stir to a smooth paste.
  4. Add the mica paste to the liquid oils in the pot and stir briskly until all the colour is evenly dispersed throughout.
  5. Carefully pour the mixture in the lipstick tubes and leave to harden and cool down completely before putting the lids on.

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Basic bath bomb tutorial

Difficulty: Beginner
Time: 30 minutes
Yields: 6 large or 12 small bath bombs

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Bath bombs are pure balls of fizzy fun at bath time. Not only that, bath bombs can have  positive effects on your skin, body and mood. Depending on what ingredients you add, they can either be skin soothing, relaxing, invigorating or detoxifying. Here is a simple basic bath bomb tutorial for you to try.

There are two main ingredients in bath bombs that are responsible for the fizzy reaction that you see when the bath bomb comes in contact with water. The first is baking soda, also called sodium bicarbonate, which is commonly used in baking. In bath bombs, this naturally occurring salt has a soothing effect on the skin due to its anti-inflammatory and acid-neutralising properties, and it is often used to relieve itchy skin. Citric acid is the other ingredient necessary in bath bombs. It is a naturally occurring acid found in fruits and vegetables, and it is often used as a natural preservative in the food and cosmetic industry. When we combine baking soda with citric acid and add this to water, it produces a chemical reaction which creates the fun fizzy effect of bath bombs. Both ingredients can be found in the baking aisle of your supermarket.

ONE: The basic bath bomb has a ratio of 2 parts of baking soda to 1 part of citric acid. Combine 2 cups baking soda to 1 cup citric acid in a large bowl and mix thoroughly. I like to use my hands to mix and break up any clumps, which is why I recommend wearing disposable gloves.

TWO: Next, add the oils or butters to the bath bomb mixture. This will help improve the skin conditioning and moisturising qualities of the bath bomb. You can use any vegetable oil or butter. For example shea butter is especially conditioning to your skin, coconut oil moisturises and sunflower oil is full of vitamin E, essential for healthy skin. I’m using coconut oil here (1 tablespoon).

THREE: Once the oil is completely incorporated into the mixture, you can add your essential oil or fragrance. Make sure that you use skin-safe essential oils and fragrances, because some  can be irritating to your skin, especially if you have sensitive skin. As a rule of thumb, I use 3 ml of essential oil to every 1 cup baking soda/1/2 cup citric acid mixture. For this particular recipe, I’m using 3 ml of lemon essential oil. Again, mix well with your hands to distribute the oils throughout the mixture.

You have the option to leave your bath bombs white, or you can use micas and dyes to colour them. There are special bath bomb colourants that you can buy, but you can also use simple food colouring like I am doing here.

FOUR: This is the part where you will be very glad that you are wearing gloves! Add the food colouring. Start with a couple of drops and mix. If you feel it needs more colour, you can add a few more drops. Keep mixing and adding until you reach the shade of colour you like and the colour is evenly dispersed. As you can see in the photograph the food colouring will make the bath bomb mixture fizz. This is because food colouring is water-based, so you will need to work quickly. To get this shade of pastel yellow, I’ve added 4 drops of yellow food colouring.

FIVE: The consistency of the bath bomb mixture should be so that when you squeeze the mixture in your fist it holds its shape when you open your hand. If necessary spritz some water on it and work the moisture into the mixture with your hands. You want the mixture to be wet enough so that the mixture sticks together and doesn’t crumble apart, but be careful  if you spritz too much, the mixture will begin to fizz prematurely and ruin your bath bombs!

SIX: Once you have the right consistency,  scoop the bath bomb mixture into the muffin tray and press firmly to produce a smooth flat top.

SEVEN: Then carefully remove the bath bombs from the muffin tray and place them on a sheet of baking paper. Allow them to fully dry out overnight.

EIGHT: The following day, wrap them in glad wrap or package them in cellophane bags. Keep them wrapped as the humid climate of New Zealand will make your bath bombs quickly lose their fizziness.

Here are some alligator bath bombs I made with the left over mixture:

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Basic Bath Bomb

  • Difficulty: beginners
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Ingredients

  • 2 cups baking soda
  • 1 cup citric acid
  • 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil (coconut oil, rice bran oil, etc)
  • food colouring of your choice
  • 3 ml essential oil
  • spray bottle with water
  • disposable gloves
  • muffin tray (or other mold)

Directions

  1. Add baking soda and citric acid in a large bowl and mix to combine. Wearing gloves, use your fingers to break up any clumps.
  2. Now add the oil and stir it into the dry ingredients.
  3. Once the oil is completely incorporated, you can mix in the essential oil of your choice.
  4. Next, add 3-4 drops of food colouring. Again, use your hands to break up the drops of color. (This is the point when you are glad you are wearing gloves!) Mix well so that all the colour and fragrance is dispersed throughout the mixture.
  5. If necessary, spritz the bath bombs with a little water. The bath bomb mixture should be wet enough so that when you squeeze the mixture in your fist it holds its shape when you open your hand. You want to spray enough so that the mixture sticks together and doesn’t crumble apart, but  if you spray too much, the mixture will begin to fizz prematurely and ruin your bath bombs!
  6. Once you have the right consistency,  scoop the bath bomb mixture into the muffin tray and press carefully to produce a smooth flat top.
  7. Carefully remove the bath bombs from the muffin tray and place them on a sheet of baking paper. Allow them to fully dry out overnight.
  8. The following day, wrap them in glad wrap or package them in cellophane bags. Keep them wrapped as the humid climate of New Zealand will make your bath bombs quickly lose their fizziness.

Where you can get your supplies from

  • baking soda: supermarket, bulk foods store
  • citric acid: supermarket, bulk foods store
  • food colouring: supermarket
  • vegetable oil: supermarket
  • essential oil: Pure Nature, Go Native
  • muffin tray: the Warehouse, supermarket
  • spray bottle: the Warehouse, supermarket, plastic stores
  • disposable gloves: supermarket
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How to infuse oils with herbs and flowers

Difficulty: Beginner
Time: 10 minutes
Yields: 1 jar

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Chamomile infused oil

Infused oils are very versatile and useful. Depending on the herbs and flowers you have used, you can use them in your cooking, as a skin oil, for massage or you can add them to
your balms and lotions. Some of my favourite infused oils are rosemary and garlic infused olive oil, which I use for everything from cooking steak to adding to roast vegetables; calendula and chamomile infused oils to use in balms and lotions (excellent for sensitive skin or baby skin); rose oil made from the petals collected from my own rose bushes (I usually leave some petals in the oil for decoration); and lavender oil as a massage oil or for use in solid lotion bars.

What I do recommend is to use only dried herbs and flowers. Fresh flowers and herbs can cause mould to grow in your oil and it’s easy to prevent that from happening by using dried herbs and flowers. So why risk it?

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Fill a clean, dry jar with dried herbs and/or flowers. Make sure the jar is completely dry, you don’t want mould growing! Fill the jar with oil to completely cover the herbs. My favourite oils to use are sunflower for my balms and lotions, and olive oil for my kitchen oil, but any kind of vegetable oil will work.


Tap the jar gently on the kitchen bench a couple of times to get rid of any air pockets. Then put the lid back on the jar and keep it in a sunny place for a couple of weeks or more. I have my jars on my windowsill where the morning sun can gently warm them up each day. Give the jar a little shake every other day or so.


After 2-4 weeks it’s time to strain the oil. Place a coffee filter in a funnel on top of a bowl or jug. Carefully pour the oil and herbs concoction into the filter. Make sure it’s in a stable set up, you don’t want it to tilt or fall over when it’s filled with oil. If you don’t have a coffee filter, you can also use a cheese cloth or muslin cloth.

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Once you’ve strained the oil, it is ready for use. It will keep for up to 6 months, if stored in a dark coloured bottle out of direct sunlight.

Herb or Flower Infused Oil

  • Difficulty: beginners
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Ingredients

  • dried flowers or herbs of your choice
  • 1 jar with lid
  • vegetable oil (enough to fill the jar)

Directions

  1. Fill a clean, dry jar with dried herbs and/or flowers.
  2. Pour the oil in the jar until it completely covers the herbs or flowers.
  3. Tap the jar gently on the bench a few times to get rid of any air pockets.
  4. Place the lid on the jar and keep it in a sunny place for 2-4 weeks.
  5. Strain the oil through a coffee filter, cheese cloth or muslin cloth.
  6. Pour the oil in a dark, coloured bottle. It will keep for up to 6 months.

Where you can get your supplies from

  • dried herbs and flowers: garden, Pure Nature
  • vegetable oils: supermarket
  • jars: supermarket, Warehouse
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Basic 1,2,3 lip balm tutorial

Difficulty: Beginner
Time: 30 minutes
Yields: 6 pots (15 ml each)

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Beach lip balm

Lip balms are fun and easy to make. You only need a few ingredients: a liquid vegetable oil, such as sunflower oil or sweet almond oil; a vegetable butter, like shea butter or cocoa butter; and a wax, which is usually beeswax or candelilla wax for a vegan option. Those are the key ingredients to make a soothing, conditioning balm for your lips. You can leave it unflavoured, or you can add flavour using lip-safe flavour oils or essential oils. If you wish, you can even sweeten your balm with a few drops of stevia. And if you want to add a bit of colour to your lips, you can use lip-safe micas or colourants. Don’t use food colouring!

Here is a quick and easy recipe that I that I often use as my base. It uses 1 part beeswax, 2 parts butter and 3 parts oil. It’s an easy formula to remember: 1, 2, 3!

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ONE: Add the oil and beeswax into a heat proof glass jug, such as Pyrex (available at your supermarket, Briscoes or the Warehouse), and melt it on high in the microwave for 2 minutes. Depending on the microwave, you might have to leave it in for longer or shorter to melt the beeswax. You can substitute the beeswax for candelilla wax if you want a vegan option, just remember to only use half the amount of candelilla wax. For this recipe, this would be 1/2 tablespoon candelilla wax.

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TWO: Add the butter that you are using, I’m using cocoa butter here. If the butter isn’t melting completely, or if you notice the mixture starting to cool down and solidify, just pop it back into the microwave again for another 20 seconds.

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THREE: Next stir in your flavour oil or essential oil of your choice. Make sure these oils are lip-safe! Not all fragrances are approved for use on lips! Check with the supplier if you are not sure. The most common essential oils that are safe for lips are: peppermint, spearmint, anise, sweet orange, rose, lavender, vanilla absolute, rosemary and tea tree.

Most citrus oils are considered photosensitising and should not be used in lip balms, especially here in New Zealand where the sun’s rays are stronger than in the Northern Hemisphere. There are exceptions, however, grapefruit and lemon essential oils can be used in very low doses (max 6 drops in one tablespoon of oil), and sweet orange essential oil is considered a safe oil and can be used in lip balm.

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FOUR: Pour the mixture carefully into your lip balm pots and leave them to cool down and harden completely before putting the lids on. If you put on the lids while balms are still warm, you risk getting condensation on the inside of the lids.

Basic Lip Balm

  • Difficulty: beginners
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Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (i.e. olive oil, sunflower oil)
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable butter (i.e. shea butter, cocoa butter)
  • 1 tablespoon beeswax (or use 1/2 tablespoon candelilla wax for a vegan option)
  • 2 ml lip-safe flavour oil or essential oil
  • optional: 1/2 – 1 teaspoon of lip-safe mica or colourant
  • 6 lip balm pots (15 ml)

Directions

  1. Add the oil and beeswax in a heat proof glass jug (i.e. Pyrex) and microwave for 2 minutes.
  2. Once the beeswax has melted, stir in the shea butter. If the mixture starts to solidify, pop it back into the microwave for another 20 seconds.
  3. Stir in your choice of flavour oil or essential oil. If you are planning on adding colour to your lip balm, add this as well and give it a good stir. Make sure your mixture is completely liquid before you pour it.
  4. Carefully pour the mixture in container and leave to harden and cool down completely before putting the lids on.

Where to get your ingredients from