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5 Myths That Have Kept You From Making Your Own Soap (But Shouldn’t!)

on | in DIY Beauty | by | with 24 Comments

Natural Handmade Soap With Herbs. Spa

“Okay, so I heat the oils to match the temperature of the lye solution, sprinkle in a little fairy dust, hop up and down three times and bark like a seal?”

The first time I stood in my kitchen and tried to make soap, I’m pretty sure that’s what my instructions said. Soap making seemed just slightly less difficult than building a functional car out of raisins, and I wasn’t sure my trusty crockpot and I were up for the challenge.

There are so many myths about soap making, like whether or not the mixture needs to reach “gel stage” and how long bars of freshly made soap need to cure. But, really, the biggest myth of all is . . .

Myth #1: Making Soap Is Difficult

According to Anne Watson, author of Smart Soapmaking, the extensive details given in soap making instructions are there so you won’t be left wondering about anything. She writes that “If you were describing how to make pancakes, you could write pages of details. That doesn’t mean it’s hard to make pancakes.” And she’s right. My trusty crockpot and I made it through just fine, and chances are yours is up for the task as well.

Of course, sometimes instructions include myths that do make soap making seem difficult. Anne covers a lot of them in her book, which I highly recommend. Here are a few of the most common ones:

Natural Handmade Soap With Herbs. Spa

Myth #2: You Can Make Soap Without Lye

So here’s the skinny on fats and lye: Both are needed to cause a chemical reaction called saponification – aka making soap. As Marie of Humblebee & Me put it, making soap without lye “is like trying to make a baking soda and vinegar volcano without the vinegar. No vinegar and you’ve just got a pile of baking soda. No lye, and you’ve just got a bucket of fat.”

Unlike modern chemicals, lye is a naturally occurring substance that has been used for thousands of years. (source) When our great-grandmothers made soap, they got their lye by burning hardwood ashes. Unfortunately each batch was a little different, so it was hard to know exactly how much to mix into a recipe. If too much lye is used, some would be left over in the final product, which could burn skin. If too little lye is used the “soap” would be mostly oil.

These days soapmakers buy lye from the store, which is exactly the same each time. Using store bought lye ensures that recipes work out right.

Myth #3: Soap Making Is Dangerous

Whenever I share a soap recipe, I always get a few comments from people who don’t want to “mess around with lye.” Apparently Anne does, too, because here’s what she had to say:

“I don’t know why, but nearly everyone says ‘mess around with lye,’ as if soapmaking involved slinging the stuff all over the place. I assure you, it doesn’t. You stir some lye into water, and mix the lye solution with fat. I have yet to make a mess doing that. And I have yet to get burned.

Of course, you can. If you’re careless with lye, you may well get hurt. If you’re careless riding a bicycle, you may get hurt, too. This doesn’t keep many people from riding bicycles. It just makes them take reasonable care when they ride. They wear protective gear and pay attention to what they’re doing.”

I treat lye like I would undiluted bleach (if we used it). I wear long sleeves, gloves and protective eye gear. I store it out of reach of children and pets, and do not leave it unattended when I’m making soap. I also make sure I can devote my full attention to what I’m doing, so I wait until the potami are napping or spending time with my husband.

Myth #4: You Need Lots Of Special Equipment To Make Soap

“Aside from a couple of special items, soapmaking uses more or less the same tools that cooking does. Many soapmakers use their regular kitchen equipment, and do it safely. Yes, you’re using lye, but lye isn’t plutonium. It’s easily neutralized, diluted, and removed. If you wash your equipment carefully, there’s no reason not to use your kitchenware. ‘Carefully’ is the key word here – you don’t want soap in the soup, or soup in the soap.” (Source: Smart Soapmaking)

So what is a careful approach? Here’s what Anne recommends:

1. Leave your protective clothing/glasses on while you wash your utensils by hand before loading them into the dishwasher. Don’t skip the initial rinse unless you want to turn your floor into a sudsy slip-n-slide. (Which, to be fair, is seriously fun. Ask me how I know.) If you’re not using a dishwasher, wash everything twice, making sure to thoroughly rinse any pot handles and rims.

2. Wipe down your work area with vinegar and a paper towel.

3. Wash your hands thoroughly with your gloves still on, then remove them along with your goggles.

Myth#5: You Need Lots Of Exotic Ingredients To Make Soap

Totally not true. My coconut oil soap recipe calls for just three ingredients, and most of the other recipes I use aren’t fancy either.

Bonus Myth: You Don’t Need To Make Soap

Okay, yeah, you can technically buy it at the store. But seriously, you need to do this at least once. If not because handmade soap is oh-so-much better, then at least because when you give some away as a gift people will look at you like you built a car out of a box of raisins. Here’s a link to my post on how to make coconut oil soap.

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24 Responses to 5 Myths That Have Kept You From Making Your Own Soap (But Shouldn’t!)

  1. Leah G says:

    Amen! Your coconut soap was actually my first because I had spent years believing it was a mythical talent. Not anymore. The cool thing is when we butcher a cow I get all the suet back to make tallow. I put aside several quarts for soap and that soap lasts all year with three kids on our mini farm so you know the kind of dirt I am talking. plus lately they have. taken to slathering mud from head to toe after seeing a special on the Dead Sea.

  2. Caroline says:

    Funny, I just made some soap the other day! Honey Oatmeal Goatmilk soap, smelled yummy. I read one horror story about a woman who, on her upteenth batch, got distracted and her toddler spilled the lye solution down his front and into his diaper. She had vinegar handy and he was fine after a few months, but I learned you don’t get complacent with the stuff. Didn’t scare me away from making soap, I just always make my soap when kids are asleep and I allow no distractions. And I obsessively douse everything with vinegar when done!

  3. Mary Himmer says:

    Great timing as I am planning to make some when we return from vacation. I remember making it with my mother when I was about 3 or 5, and that was with homemade lye, so this should be easier. I have the lye but need the googles. I learned from your article that you can use the same equipment you use in the kitchen, but just to hand wash it twice with vinegar. (I think that is what you wrote anyway.) I will re-read your article before doing it. Does anyone have experience with making honey soap?

    • Pat says:

      Yes, I made a nice honey, oatmeal soap. I learned not to put the honey in with the lye mixture, save it until later as honey will burn and turn into black clumps (not pretty). I used some of the liquid (I was using goat milk but discounted it and used water with the honey) to thin down the honey and added it at trace. Happy soap making!

  4. Becky says:

    Not going to lie (or should I say lye ;)), I was petrified of making soap because of the lye. I had this vision that if it spilled, then my skin would melt off. It wasn’t until someone describe that it’s like a mild rash that can be neutralized with vinegar. Then I thought, “Oh, that’s not so bad. I’m going to try it!” Now it’s my livelihood! :) The unknown is what’s scary.

  5. jen says:

    I use to make soap for a living. The worse was dealing with the folks who insisted thst melt & pour soap was made without lye and therefor safer. For the record the base is made with lye, it’s already gone through the chemical process so you are not dealing with lye in raw form. I know more people burnt by the melt & pour then by lye. I still make soap occasionally and teach soap making. I am looking forward to teaching my kids.

  6. Thanks for this post! I was totally intrigued by your soap-making recipes, and as soon as I saw they needed protective gear and lye, I thought, nope! ;) So clearly this post was for me. I’ll have to give it a whirl one of these days. I love the homemade soap a friend gave me.

  7. Ana Lara says:

    Love your blog! You post interesting topics. I am going to try making my own soap with your recipe, thank you!!

  8. Laura says:

    Nr 1 and 2 have been keeping me from it.. But now I have a little box of lye waiting for the right time:)

  9. Canuckette says:

    Hi. After reading your post, it got me to thinking about the soap I buy from a small Canadian company. I went to their website to check their ingredients, and no, they don’t list lye. Does lye go into the actual soap, or is it simply used in the process? http://puresoapworks.com/bar_soap.htm

  10. Canuckette says:

    Hi. After reading your post, it got me to thinking about the soap I buy from a small Canadian company. I went to their website to check their ingredients, and no, they don’t list lye. Does lye go into the actual soap, or is it simply used in the process? That would explain why it’s not listed. http://puresoapworks.com/bar_soap.htm

    • Heather says:

      It’s not listed as an ingredient because none remains in the final product. If the recipe is correct the lye is all used up when it converts the fats to soap :)

  11. Canuckette says:

    Oops!

  12. Rachel C says:

    The first time I made soap was using the recipe for your coconut laundry soap. You made it sound so simple and it absolutely was.

  13. LeAnn says:

    THANK YOU for this post! I was one of the wary people when it came to making my own soap until I read this article. I also laughed all the way through it while enjoying my coffee this Saturday morning. I am off to read about the coconut oil recipe. Seems that would be a good place to start. Great blog and valuable information.

    LeAnn

  14. AshleyB says:

    I was SOO scared to make soap the first time! I’ve done it with a friend a couple of times now, and homemade is so much better!! And it’s fun :)

  15. liddlem says:

    Just a note – vinegar, while it neutralizes the lye, is actually not something you want to use to treat lye on skin. This is because vinegar + lye causes a chemical reaction that creates a lot of heat and can cause further burns. This is why the MSDS on sodium hydroxide (lye) recommends using water to dilute, rather than vinegar to neutralize.

  16. Cate says:

    You are so funny! :D Thank you for sharing all those myths!! I have wanted to make soap from scratch for so long and you guessed it, using lye sounded too scary… Now I feel I can tackle it…

  17. Gudrun B says:

    So cool! The lye was what has always scared me away too :) i think i will give it a try though -partly because i have more beef fat than we will eat in one year! Tallow galore and no where to go with – until now i guess .
    I like every thing home made any way – from bread to jam to pickles and then some! What else would i do with my time? :D
    Need to stick my nose into the recipes now and gather my needed utensils and give it a try
    Thanks! to all the commenters too!

    • Alison says:

      Is there any way you’d consider selling some of that tallow you have galore? I am having no luck finding it. I’ve checked butchers, supermarkets, local farms and online. I’m not so sure i’d trust getting it from amazon and other online places seem so expensive. I’m desperate!

  18. Carrie says:

    THANK YOU for explaining the whole, “You have to use separate equipment to make soap!” I’ve wanted to start making my own, due to allergies, but don’t have the space to store ‘special’ equipment and curing soap for long periods of time. All the soap making blogs were very insistent on that fact but never gave an intelligent reason for their firm stance. I LOVE the way you break it down. :)

  19. amy says:

    So if I wash any pans or utensils they can later on be used to cook FOOD with?

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