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
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?
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:
- Vanillin discolouration
- How to use soap pigments
- Using micas in cold process soap
- Using clays in soap
- Adding fresh ingredients to soap
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!
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!