People have been making soaps for centuries. Before soaps were widely available commercially, lye soap was the order of the day for most people, especially those living in rural areas without easy access to stores and markets. Over time, the varieties and brands of commercially available soaps have become endless. They range from bland, colorless rectangles, to soft, colorful ovals adorned with logos and designs. Some are quite fragrant, others smell like chemicals, and there are even some that have no smell at all. But despite the wide variety of manufactured soaps you can buy at the store, there is nothing quite like a bar of hand-made soap―especially one that you've made yourself.
Soap is nothing more than a chemical reaction created by mixing oils with lye. The only difference between the harsh lye soap our ancestors used and today's luxurious soap made by hand is the choice of ingredients. The distinction is similar to cooking. You can make baked chicken by putting salt and pepper on chicken and sticking it in the oven, or you can buy free-range chicken, rub it with olive oil, coat it with a mixture of salt, pepper, garlic, and fresh herbs, surround it with fresh vegetables, and bake it slowly to make a culinary delight. The same concept applies to soap. If you've never used a bar of hand-made soap, you should. If you have, and have always wanted to try your hand at making your own variety, then you're in for a treat. Making your own soap is not as hard as you may think.
There are a few basic ways to make soap at home: melting blocks of pre-manufactured soap base and adding your own customized ingredients; grinding up bars of soap and then re-blending them; and making soap from scratch using lye and oils. Each method has its own pros and cons, and can be varied according to your own tastes and preferences. No matter which method you choose, you'll need a flat, uncluttered area to work in, a pot to mix the soap in, molds to pour the soap in, and a cool, dry place for it to harden and cure.
Melting and Pouring
Melting and pouring using a pre-made soap base is similar to making muffins with a mix. Although you don't have as much control over the basic ingredients, this method is safe, easy, and convenient. You can buy pre-made chunks of unscented, uncolored soap base from a soap supplier or craft store. Simply melt the base in a double boiler or even in the microwave, and then add color, fragrance, and any other additives you want. Pour the melted soap into molds, and as soon as it hardens, the soap is finished and ready to use. Using the melt and pour approach gives you an easy and inexpensive way to learn about making soap, and you don't need to deal with a lot of ingredients or dangerous chemicals such as lye, and your soap will be ready to use as soon as it gets hard. However, this technique isn't as 'natural' as other methods because manufacturers may add chemicals that make the soap base easier to melt, or increase its lather. This method can yield great results, but the bottom line is that the final product will be only as good as the quality of the base you buy.
Making Soap from Scratch
This method gives you better control over the ingredients and the end result. You can put whatever you want to in the pot, and you can make the soap as 'natural' as you desire. However, the setup for this method is more complicated and there are a few specific techniques you'll need to learn. You'll need to heat oils on the stove, slowly add a mixture of lye and water, and blend together until the mixture thickens. Then you add fragrance or essential oils, coloring, and any additives you wish, and pour the soap into molds. The soap will harden within about 24 hours, but you'll need to cure it for about four weeks before using it. This technique gives you total control over your ingredients and you can tailor the soap recipe into endless variations. But you'll need to learn how to work with lye, which can be dangerous, you'll need to assemble more ingredients, the soap making process takes longer, and the cleanup is more involved. But your soap will truly be 'made from scratch'.
There are plenty of resources both online and in bookstores to learn more about making soap. Be patient and follow the instructions closely when you first begin. After you become familiar with the basic processes, you can then expand your creativity and make all types of fantastic, luxurious soapy delights to use, share, give as gifts, and even sell.