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The Basics of Herbal Soap Making

Click here for information about our soap making classes.
Most of this website is devoted to the medicinal properties of herbs.  But there are lots of fun things to do with herbs, and soap making is one of them.  Soap making is a little bit more of an art than a science, although precise measurements are imperative. These web pages are devoted to herbal soap making using vegetable based ingredients.  The process used in called "Cold Method" soap making and requires the use of lye (sodium hydroxide) as an ingredient.  The "Cold Method" is a chemical reaction between oils and lye, called saponification.  The resulting reaction produces soap.  This is a centuries old traditional method of soap making.  It is not the same process as  "melt and pour" glycerin soap.  Because lye is so caustic, it can cause call chemical burns.  Safety precautions, including plastic aprons, rubber gloves and protective safety glasses should be used when handling the lye. Please read all the instructions, hints, and rules before you start making soap!

Equipment and Supplies:

Below is a list of supplies to have before you start the soap making process. Most items are commonly found in the kitchen.  Specialized items which you may not readily have links provided so that you may purchase them if necessary.

  • One 14-16 quart stainless steel pot (the soap making pot)
  • One good quality scale that can measure in ounces
  • One pyrex (or heat resistant) glass measuring cup with cover  large enough to hold the lye and water mixture
  • Safety glasses or goggles
  • Rubber gloves
  • Plastic Apron
  • 2 - 3 silicone spatulas
  • Soap mold (wooden box or dishwasher safe plastic container)
  • Heavy Duty freezer paper (if using a wooded mold)
  • Stainless steel wire whisk
  • Hand- held immersion blender
  • 2 good instant read thermometers which can read between 70 - 250° F
  • Cover for soap mold and blankets to insulate

Equipment Materials to Avoid

  • Do not use anything made of aluminum, tin, iron or Teflon (lye will corrode these materials.
  • Do not use plastic spoons or bowls  - the heat will destroy the plastic
  • Wood utensils are corroded by the lye over time

Soap Making Rules to Obey

  • Do not have any distractions during the soap making process.  This is when an accident can happen.  Remove pets and small children from the area.  Let that darn phone ring!
  • Multitasking is not appropriate for soap making.
  • Handle the lye with great care.  Lye is extremely corrosive to your skin, eyes and other materials.  It will stain wood counters. Spills feel slippery.  Have vinegar and running water available to neutralize any spill and flush the area.
  • If a spill happens,  take care or your skin first.  Rinse the area with cool water for no less than 5 continuous minutes.  Then apply vinegar to the area and rinse again.
  • There should never be any splashes into your eyes because you were wearing your eye protection!  Lye splashing into your eye is very very serious - you could be blinded.  Rinse the area continuously with water for 10-15 minutes.  If the burn is severe, call for emergency medical help and continue rinsing until help arrives.  Do not attempt to pour vinegar into your eye to neutralize it.  Even if the eye feels okay - continue rinsing.  Seek medical attention for any lye spill that had entered your eye.
  • Don't forget that at the early stages of the soap making process, the oils and lye have not completely reacted.  Treat any soap splash the same as a lye spill and follow the same precautions.
  • Always add lye crystals to cold water. NEVER add water to the lye!!!!!!!!  The mixture of lye and water is an exothermic reaction (it produces heat).  Adding water to lye crystals could cause an explosion or cause the container to burst.
  • When lye is added to water the mixture will heat up to about 150-200°F. Always work on a heat proof surface.
  • When making your lye solution the mixture will fume for several minutes.  Work in a well ventilated area and avoid breathing the fumes.
  • Always measure all ingredients by weight.  Ounces in the following soap recipes are in weight (not fluid ounces).
  • Take your time measuring all ingredients before you start.  This is the biggest mistake beginners make.  Accuracy counts.  Do not rush.
  • Prepare all your ingredients and equipment before you start mixing.

The Soap Making Procedure

  1. If you are using wooden molds, line them with freezer paper.  If you are using plastic you may spray the mold with Pam or some other oil based non-stick spray.
  2. Fill the sink or some other tub container with ice. Add some water to create an ice bath.
  3. Weigh out all the solid oils.
  4. Weigh out all the liquid oils.
  5. If you are planning to super-fat your soap, weigh out this fat and set aside.
  6. Weigh out your essential oils/botanicals or additives and set aside.
  7. Weigh out your water into a heat proof container (like a Pyrex container)
  8. Heat your solid fats until complexly melted, then remove from the heat and add liquid oils.
  9. Put on your safety equipment (rubber gloves, safety goggles, apron).  Do not remove you safety equipment until the soap making procedure is completely finished and the soap making equipment has been cleaned.
  10. Remove all distractions, including pets and small children from the area.
  11. Weigh out your lye crystals in a glass jar and set them aside in a safe spill-proof place.
  12. Weigh water and place into heat-proof glass container (preferably with a cover)
  13. Place the weight water (in its heat-proof container) into the ice bath and slowly add the lye until all the lye is completely added.
  14. Stir the lye carefully until the lye solution temperature reduces to approximately 95°F.
  15. Stir the oil mixture and the lye solution separately until each is about 80°F. Heat the oils if necessary.  Use gentle warm water baths to control temperatures if necessary. Use separate stirrers.
  16. When both the oil and lye are the correct temperatures, start pouring the lye into oil.  Add the lye slowly and carefully into the oil,  avoid splashing. Stir the lye into the oil gently until incorporated.  Once this is done you may use your immersion blender.
  17. If you are using a blender your soap will trace within 5-10 minutes. If you are stirring by hand, it may take 15-60 minutes to trace.
  18. Once a light trace takes place, add you essential oils, botanicals, super fatting oils and additives.
  19. Continue blending until a hard trace takes place.
  20. Pour into mold and then cover and insulate with a blanket. Place in a warm area.  Remove your safety equipment. Do not disturb the soap for 24 hours.
  21. After 24 hours, uncover and let sit another 24 hours, then turn out onto a surface protected by brown paper bags.  Let air dry 4-6 weeks.

The Soap Recipes

Basic Soap #1 (unscented)

6 oz sodium hydroxide (lye)
16 oz distilled water
12 oz coconut oil
12 oz olive oil
19 oz vegetable shortening (Crisco) 

Basic Soap #2 (unscented)

6 oz sodium hydroxide (lye)
14 oz distilled water
12 oz coconut oil
16 oz palm oil
20 oz olive oil 

Soap Variations

Lavender Soap

1 basic unscented soap recipe
½ dried lavender flowers
1 ox lavender essential oil 

Wake Me Up Soap

1 basic unscented soap recipe
½ cup dried and crushed peppermint leaves
2 oz peppermint essential oil

Goat’s Milk Soap

In any basic unscented soap recipe, replace the water with semi-frozen goat’s milk. Add the lye slowly.  Mixture will turn orange, but will not curdle. Proceed with the recipe as normal.

Product Links at

Hand Blenders:

Soap Making Books:

Oils and Other Supplies: