Soap making: what I’ve learned

I have long foregone commercially made soap, opting instead for the handmade option – although not always handmade by me, as I’ve only been making it for a while. I have made quite a bit though and wasn’t going to do a blog post as lots of people have done them, but when I was asked to do one by several followers recently I thought I would as I do have some tips for new players, and Bridgette needed to make some soap to give as Christmas gifts, so it was an opportunity to document the steps.

Before I begin with how I make soap I thought I might talk about why we should use homemade soap. Here is a list of ingredients in the Dove brand soap, which describes itself as a “beauty bar” with 1/4 moisturising cream (a quarter of what I need to ask). Search as I might I can’t find a single moisturiser in this list:

  • sodium cocoyl isethionate (synthetic detergent)
  • stearic acid (hardener)
  • sodium tallowate (sodium salt of cow fat)
  • water sodium isethionate (detergent/emulsifying agent)
  • coconut acid (the sodium salt of coconut oil)
  • sodium stearate (emulsifier, also used as a cheap stabilizer in plastics)
  • sodium dodecylbenzonesulfonate (synthetic detergent, skin irritant) sodium cocoate or sodium palm kernalate (sodium salts of coconut or palm kernel oils)
  • fragrance (synthetic scent, potential allergen, common skin irritant) sodium chloride (table salt used as a thickener)
  • titanium dioxide (whitener, also used in house paint)
  • trisodium EDTA (stabilizer, used in industrial cleaning products to decrease hard water, skin irritant)
  • trisodium etidronate (preservative, a chemical that is used in soaps to prevent soap scum)
  • BHT (preservative, common skin irritant)

Thanks to Chagrin Valley Soap and Salve for this breakdown of ingredients, and I think most of you will agree that it’s pretty horrific.  I went down the path of making my own soap when I wanted to eliminate my use of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and then began looking at other ingredients and trying to identify their base chemistry.

Both my mother and mother-in-law loved Imperial Leather and here are the ingredients from that soap as taken from the Woolworths website (including some errors I think): Sodium Palmate, Aqua, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Talc, Glycerin, Parfum, Sodium Chloride, Sodium Carbonate,Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Tetrasodium [DTA, Ettdronic Acid, Coumarin, Eugenol, Dnaloot, Benzyl Benzoate, Geraniol, (Wane;loll Alpha-lsomethyl lonone, CI 77891, CI 77220, CI 11680, CI 71105, CI 74260, CI 12490. You can get a breakdown of these ingredients and their effects here.

OK, if you’re not convinced by the chemicals you are putting on your largest organ (your skin), you might just enjoy making your own soap! I began my soap making adventures when I found this book at an op shop. It was published in 1975 and is really interesting. It even tells the reader how to render tallow! It has quite a few recipes, and a section on the history of soap (which I love). It really got me hooked on the idea of soap making.


Then I found this book, also in an op shop and it cost me the princely sum of $4, but it was brand new, so I coughed up and it was worth every cent. It’s still in print, and I would recommend it as it is full of recipes, all based on olive oil, so there is no need to use soap calculators to determine quantities.


I have made many of the soaps from this book, but my absolute favourite (so far) is the lavender which has a calming effect on the body and allegedly helps reduce stress, depression and anxiety. Lavender oil helps to treat acne and other skin infections, and this is the soap that Bridgette chose for her gifts. Before I give the recipe, here are a few things to know and do:

Nearly all soap recipes made with oil call for lye or caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) which creates a chemical reaction called saponification when the lye and oil molecules have combined and chemically changed into soap and glycerin.  I was using the Glitz caustic soda from Bunnings which says on the label that it’s perfect for soap making, however, it is not 100% caustic soda which means that it has additives and I’ve not been able to find out what those additives are. I now have 100% caustic soda bought from Aussie Soap Supplies. They won’t put the caustic soda through the post as it is an ingredient in illegal drugs and therefore a form has to be filled out and photographic ID provided upon pickup – I did find this strange as I didn’t have to do this at Bunnings…

This recipe uses extra virgin olive oil. Buy the freshest and the best you can. Do not be tempted to use any old stuff you happen to have in the cupboard, your soap won’t be as good and it won’t lather as well as it should (ask me how I know), and in fact, this is a rule that should be applied to all your soap making ingredients. I have noticed that if you use a green or really fruity olive oil your soap will be yellower. If you want lighter soap, use a lighter olive oil.

You will need a lavender infusion made by pouring boiling water over 30g of fresh or dried lavender, use either rainwater (which is what I do), distilled water or tap water that has stood overnight so that any impurities, such as fluoride evaporate off . Let it stand, covered, for 5 minutes. If using fresh stuff, I tend to give my lavender a gentle muddle (as you would for a cocktail) before pouring over the water. Use about 200ml of boiling water as you want a strong solution, and then top up to 213ml. I put my lavender in an old stocking so that it’s easy to remove from the infusion.

I use lavender that I have picked myself (some of it I even grew!)  and dried for inclusion in the soap. Some recipes use fresh lavender but it can go mouldy in the soap. I notice that lavender heads have some spiny, prickly bits when dried, so I check it and pick out anything prickly.  I am looking for lavender that is completely dry and prickle free when I run it through my hands. It is worth taking a lot of time on this step as you don’t want prickles in your soap! If you can’t be bothered/don’t have time to do this, dried lavender can be purchased some health shops and in Perth, Kakoulas sell imported stuff. I have previously bought some from the Nannup lavender farm as that is close to our holiday place.

I also pick off any flowers and dry them between paper towels under weights, so that I can use them to decorate the soap.  I have gone out of my way to find the prettiest pink flowered lavender, but the flowers dry brown whereas the common lavender coloured flowers retain their colour when dry. This photo shows the difference between the two.


Make sure you wear safety glasses (purchased at any hardware store) and latex gloves for the whole process as caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) is extremely corrosive and can really sting if you get it on your skin, and we won’t discuss what it would be like if it splashed in your eyes. All the lye is used up in the saponification process when the oil is turned into soap, so once the soap is made there is no longer any danger.

You will need a thermometer that you can dedicate to your soap making. I bought a digital one to simplify matters. I use silicone moulds that I find in op shops. Muffin pans and loaf pans are great. I also have some Christmas moulds bought from a local kitchenware shop. You can even use a cardboard box lined with plastic if you have nothing else.


Have all your ingredients measured out ready to go. Have two pots, the thermometer and a heating element of some description. A metal spoon is necessary and a stick blender if you have one will save you time and energy.  I make soap outside so no fumes permeate my kitchen. I use really good scales as accurate measurements are imperative. I note that my phone tripod has made it into the photo, which is not a necessary piece of equipment for soap making!

One thing I have noticed is that not all lavender essential oil is the same. Again, do not use old stuff that you have hanging round the house as it goes off. There are different varieties of lavender oil and you should find one that you really like. The lavender oil that Bridgette bought is absolutely divine.

With all that in mind, here is the recipe I use:

213ml of lavender infusion as made above
85g caustic soda (lye)
682ml extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon dried lavender
10g lavender essential oil

  • Pour the lavender infusion into a large saucepan and gently add the caustic soda, stirring until it’s completely dissolved. The solution will heat up on its own and will probably need to sit to cool down a bit.
  • Monitor the temperature of the caustic soda mixture until it’s between 49°C and 60°C.
  • In a separate saucepan/pot heat the olive oil to between 49°C and 60°C and remove from heat – the oil will heat very fast so only give it a minute or two before you test the temperature.
  • Once you have the temperatures within range add the caustic soda mixture slowly stirring all the time. Be careful not to splash it. I have read that the mixture can separate so ensure that your temperatures are within the range.
  • Now stir thoroughly every few minutes until the mixture thickens. I stir mine several times really well and then use a stick blender to bring it to the consistency of light mayonnaise, as Bridgette is doing here.IMG_9625
  • If you can draw a pattern on the surface, you have mixed it enough.IMG_9626
  • Do not overdo this stage – it should be a pouring consistency. I got a bit overenthusiastic and made one of my batches a bit thick. I should have known when I had to spoon the mixture into the moulds, and the resulting soaps are rather lumpy and misshapen, still usable but they can’t be given away – so ugly!
  • Stir in the lavender and essential oil, stirring with a spoon. Do not create foam – you do not want air bubbles in your soap (the photo above shows where air bubbles have formed and popped leaving holes). Stir for at least a minute so that it’s well distributed.
  • Pour into mould/s gently tapping it to get rid of any air bubbles – Tom came and helped us here. IMG_9627
  • cover with a piece of cardboard or towel and let it stand for a couple of days. I tend to put a frame of some description over the top (like a rack) so that the towel doesn’t drape into my wet soap. Bridgette decorated the bottoms of the soap with lavender heads and flowers. We decided that the flowers are the ideal decoration, but they might make a mess in the shower!IMG_9632
  • Unmould the soap, and then wait another day to cut if using a loaf pan. I put my soap on brown paper or cardboard which can absorb any excess oil.
  • Dry the soaps for a month, turning every few days so that they dry evenly. The longer you leave them drying, the better they will be. I dry mine in a cool, dark place. Do not put them in a cupboard.

Here are the results of two lots of soap mixture that Bridgette made. Note how much oil has already leached into the brown paper possibly from where we oiled the moulds. You can also see that some of the soaps are lighter than others – this was the second batch where I added some of my lighter olive oil to supplement Bridgette’s really high quality but quite green oil. It was this soap that alerted me to the differences in olive oil.


This basic recipe can be used for other “flavours”. I’ve made lemon, orange, and rosemary – I use rosemary I’ve dried myself and pulverised in the mortar and pestle, cut down the rosemary oil to 4g, and women in the first trimester of pregnancy shouldn’t use this soap apparently. These soaps are all based on this recipe. The book has many other recipes using beeswax (honey and bee pollen is wonderful) and I can thoroughly recommend it.

There are lots of ways to present the soaps as gifts; Bridgette is putting her soaps into little bags decorated with a sprig of lavender.

I’m making organic shampoo this weekend so I’m quite excited to see how that goes!








26 thoughts on “Soap making: what I’ve learned

  1. What a well-written informative and interesting post Sue!! I’ve saved it for future reference as one day I’d like to try this too. 🙂

  2. That looks wonderful – and the time and effort involved shows why good hand made soaps are more expensive. Your ingredients break down also shoes why commercial soaps aren’t ideal 😱

    1. It is probably time consuming to produce commercially but it’s quick as anything to make a few bars for yourself and it’s even fun to check it every couple of days to turn it over. We have soap coming out of our ears!

  3. This is such a useful post Sue, I feel quite inspired to try. I cut out all the liquid hand soap to reduce plastic, but when I saw the list of ingredients in commercial soaps I was shocked. At least olive oil is plentiful here. Thanks for sharing. xx

    1. Oh you should give it a go Suzy, as it’s such fun. I’m going to do a tutorial on liquid soap, as we reuse the plastic bottles. Not sure if that helps. xx

  4. This is great Sue, thanks for sharing! I am trying very hard to cut out plastic in my bathroom, so we moved to solid soap. Btw, do you happen to know a recipe for shower oil, that’s my absolute biggest love and obviously it comes in plastic bottles? However, the problem with handmade soap is that it dries my skin no end, even when just using for hands, I need to use hand cream right away. We use Dove, and my skin is happy with it, not dry at all, but you just blew that one off the list with this post. Any thoughts on a soap free soap? Thank you!!

    1. It’s funny that I haven’t bought soap in so long I had forgotten about the packaging! I’m going to do a quick tutorial on liquid soap – is that shower oil? Have you tried olive oil soap? anything with coconut will dry your skin. Have a look at this website: I think you can also make glycerin based soap (which doesn’t use lye), and I add glycerin to my liquid soap, but it’s basically olive oil based. It’s worth investigating and I’ll have a look.

  5. Thank you so much for your detailed instructions on soap making. It is something I have wanted to try and now I am going to give it a go once I get the ingredients. I have some lovely lavender in the garden so no need for me to find that ingredient. I will start with the Glitz caustic soda from Bunnings for my first try.

    1. Yes, the Glitz stuff is fine, it’s just that once I started reading about additives I wanted pure stuff. There is no substitute for growing your own lavender. I have added a bit about water – I always forget something – so make sure you use nice water too.

  6. Thanks for sharing Sue! I shall try soap-making soon as your description of commercial soap bars is clearly horrifying. About five years ago, I gave up facial cleansers as I was allergic to every product and my skin was prone to rosacea. I then started using a simple mixture of pure honey, olive oil, lavender essential oil and fine ground almonds. I prepare a week or month supply of this cleanser and emulsify it with lukewarm water before patting it on my skin very gently. It’s incredibly effective, cleansing, exfoliating and hydrating altogether.

  7. Do you have to reserve the equipment you use – pots, stick blender – just for soap making use? Or can they remain in regular kitchen use?

  8. What an amazing post! I really enjoyed reading this… I can’t imagine making soap in my tiny flat, but one day! Hopefully you’ll post about your liquid soap and shampoo sometime too? – It’s a funny thing, but would you believe, I’m really allergic to lavender?!? Of all things!!

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