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Homemade Soap is Easy - No "Lye"!

The first time I made soap, I was spending two weeks at my great-grandmother’s house in Bakersville, N.C. All of eight years old, I stood on the back porch of her house surrounded by my siblings and cousins, and supervised by my grandma.

I stood there, swallowed in one of my grandma’s old night shirts, hands stuffed in over-sized winter gloves, and neon yellow swimming goggles strapped too tightly onto my face. I held in my hands a long wooden spoon that, at my unimpressive height, might have doubled as a staff. It was a tacky choice of clothing, to be sure, but only what was necessary when working with lye .

Since then, I haven’t touched the stuff (lye, I mean, not soap. I wouldn’t admit to that even if it were true!) That experience taught me a healthy caution when it came to handling and working with lye, and it all came rushing back to me when I decided this past weekend to attempt soap once more – and, yes, this time I was fortunate to have an improved fashion sense.

Though it all seemed a little overwhelming before I began, the entire process only took me a few hours to complete, and was actually very straightforward. I began with equal parts olive oil and coconut oil. These give the soap the thickness and volume it required. In addition, they serve to moisturize and soften the skin. As these heated in a slow cooker, I began mixing the lye and water together.

Coconut oil soothes and softens the hands

Again, this is a delicate process, and requires a great deal of caution. Lye – also known as sodium hydroxide – is a very dangerous compound and can cause severe burns when it comes into contact with the skin. When it is mixed with water, an exothermic chemical reaction takes place, meaning that the resulting solution gives off heat. It can each up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, so this is another solution that you want to keep away from your bare skin.

It should also be noted that you should always pour lye into water. Never pour water into lye! Without delving too deeply into the chemistry behind it, the chemical reaction here is so strong that a sort of lye volcano would be made – remember your 6th grade science fair project? Similar to that -- except deadly and not nearly as fun!

So, I dressed up in my gloves and goggles (I didn’t have one, but a respirator mask certainly wouldn’t hurt here), and began slowly pouring the lye pellets into the water. After I had stirred it to the point of dissolution, I left it to cool down for about 20 minutes. By that point, the lye mixture and the oils in the slow cooker had reached about the same temperature. I then added the lye water to the oils and thoroughly mixed them together with my handy dandy immersion blender.

I left the concoction to simmer on low heat until it turned into a foamy, bubbling substance. My sister noted that it ended up looking more like mashed potatoes than soap, and I have to agree with her. By the time, I had added some fresh lemon balm and lavender from my garden, the soap looked more like something that I would eat for supper than something I would use to wash my hands.

Lavender calms the senses - perfect for a nice bar of soap

Freshly picked lemon balm went into this soap

Fortunately, the aroma was spectacular, and not at all like potatoes. The smell of fresh lavender warming in the kitchen made it an all-around delightful experience. Still, this was not something we could eat. Do not eat your soap, no matter how delicious it might look.

As for the mold, I had to make do with what I had available. I found a spare box sitting in the garage and lined it with wax paper so that the soap wouldn’t stick. I poured it into the makeshift mold and sprinkled fresh lavender blossoms from my garden over top of it.

The lavender looks and smells amazing on top of this soap

After giving myself a well-earned pat on the back, I covered it with a towel and sat in a cool place in my house where it wouldn’t be disturbed. The soap solidifies in 24 hours, and can then be used. I recommend leaving it to cure for about 4 days, though. This will allow any excess moisture to find its way out of your soap and will actually makes your soap last longer, and, of course, we want this lovely lavender scent to stick around for as long as possible.

On Sunday night, my soap was finally ready to be scored, cut, and used. I must say, I was very pleased with the final result. It lathered like store-bought, smelled even better, and – what’s more – I know where all the ingredients. I grew half of them myself!

The final result: Lavender and Lemon Balm Soap!

Making soap intrigued me as a child and I’m pleased to say that it has done so once more. It is easy once you learn what you’re doing and understand how all the steps fit together. What makes it even more fun is that, despite some of the caution you must take, there is a lot of freedom involved. You essentially have free reign in choosing the specific ingredients and designs for your soap.

I plan to continue making soap and experimenting with new and unique kinds. I am very much looking forward to what will happen next, and I encourage you to make suggestions in the comments below. What kinds of soap would you like to see me make next? Are there any specific methods I should try out, or any scents that would be fun to use?

I’ll be on the lookout this week for an interesting topic for next week’s post. Keep connected with us and stay Greene!

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