I’m here to tell you that creating the best handmade soap suited specifically to your needs or those of the people you love is entirely within your power.
But first I’m going to tell you how I failed to accomplish this for many years.
One November ages ago, I rode my bike down Queen Street and saw a sign in a cute indie fashion shop that said “Soapmaking Workshop”. And although it’s hard for me to imagine doing this for any other type of workshop, I got off my bike and without thinking about it laid my money down.
The workshop was held in the kind of creepy basement of this shop, and about 10 of us squished in there. The facilitator was knowledgeable and methodical, and had the credibility that comes with having your soap being carried in various shops around the city. I left with my bars of soap and then proceeded to not make any for six years.
One word: lye. And maybe two more: sourcing ingredients.
These two things, but especially the first, means that making soap isn’t really beginner DIY bodycare. Making soap depends upon a chemical reaction called saponification, and uses lye to get there. Lye is a caustic alkali that reacts strongly with other materials, including skin – carelessness with lye can cause serious burns and other injuries. It scared me, and it scared me off for a good while.
But then I recently opened a store that was all about handmaking things (and, because the world spins fast, I’m actually not involved in it anymore – more on this another time) and I decided to make soap already. I gathered my materials (not much, really), bought the few inexpensive things I didn’t have from the dollar store (like safety goggles and rubber gloves), and then I researched it thoroughly online and in books, and researched it some more, until I had basically memorized the entire process.
I am a beginner soapmaker and would not dream of telling you how to do it – there are many sites and books that do it far better than I could. I have The Soapmaker’s Companion by my bedside, and the resource that gets recommended, all the time, for being both instructive and encouraging and down-to-earth about lye, is Anne Watson’s Smart Soapmaking. It’s making its way to me in the mail.)
What I can tell you as a beginner soapmaker is that if you are determined to avoid regular soap (check safety ratings of your products on the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep website) or relish the loveliness of artisanal handmade soap, or both – you can do it! Especially if you like cooking, this will be a fun and easy extension of what you already do in your kitchen. Don’t be cocky around the lye, but don’t let it boss you around either – a good respect for it will do. Educate yourself and then enjoy how widely it’s available now – several of my local hardware stores carry it. As for the other ingredients, you can make very good soap (and better than almost everything at the store) from oils in your pantry. If you want to get some extra nice carrier oils and essential oils, go to your local natural health food store or buy them conveniently (and often less expensively) online (here and here if you’re in Canada; if in the U.S., this company sounds quite amazing).
Then there’s a whole world of soapmaking to discover. Read and watch how much fun soapmakers are having and the gorgeous soaps they’re making. Learn about the oils you’re using, as they have unique cleansing and healing properties, especially if you have sensitive skin. Look into the controversy around palm oil (more sustainable options are readily available). Inquire into whether you would consider using animal fats in your soap, as this post by a vegetarian is making me do. Think of who you’ll gift it to (I’m doing this to distraction, I’m afraid.) Making soap at home offers a lot of creative license, and you can make anything from shampoo bars to shaving bars with minor adjustments.
I’ve only made two batches (more on the way), but they turned out perfectly. I don’t know what kind of DIYer you are, but the one writing this post can’t often boast of perfect outcome on a first try. Once informed, it’s really not that hard.
For the record, the soap I photographed for this post is Calendula Soap. I already have several other recipes in line. Not everyone gets excited about handmade soap, but I do! I love this soap and have been using it exclusively for years, but it’s expensive (and I’ve got three boys to wash!). Making it at home means I can use high quality and organic ingredients for a small fraction of the cost, and I have the pleasure of creating something I think is really nice, and which I hope will be received well as gifts.
Want to try?