18 October 2021 / Caitlin Devlin
A beginner's guide to making soap using essential oils
Everything you need to know about soap-making with your favourite scents.
Discover your new favourite hobby with this comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide to the world of soap making.
When it comes to essential oils with powerful cleansing properties, there’s a long list to choose from. One of the best ways to experience the benefits of these oils is by using them to naturally fragrance soap and enhance its cleaning power. However, these natural products are often very potent, and need to be used with care and precision. In this guide to soap making for beginners we are going to look at the full set-up and method for making cold process soap with essential oils, as well as common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
This is a very basic recipe, designed to be fully customisable so that you can swap in your favourite essential oils. It’s important to remember when doing so, however, that different oils may behave in different ways during the soap-making process, and it may take some trial and error to get the results you want. That’s why we’d recommend practicing in small batches with cheaper ingredients.
Soap-making is a great hobby, and there’s no limit to the colours, scents and designs that you can play around with. Our beginner’s guide is here to get you started, and give you everything you need to grow your confidence and unleash your creativity.
- Gloves and goggles – When working with sodium hydroxide lye crystals, it pays to be as cautious as possible. Choose long sleeves, covered legs and closed-toe shoes, and make sure to wear gloves and eye goggles to avoid coming into contact with the lye. Lye also gives off vapours which should not be inhaled, so you may also want to wear a mask over your nose and mouth.
- Stick blender – A hand-held stick blender can spread up your soap-making process by a considerable amount, and save you hours of mixing by hand.
- Heat-safe containers – Glass, plastic and stainless-steel containers will make your life much easier. Avoid aluminium containers.
- Silicone or wood moulds – More experienced soapers tend to gravitate towards lined wood moulds. However, easy-to-use silicone moulds are probably the best place to start.
- Silicone spatula and whisk – Standard baking varieties will do.
- Infrared thermometer – Keeping the temperature of your ingredients stable is really important, so it’s worth investing in a good thermometer.
- Easy-pour containers – Since you will be dealing with hot and potentially irritating ingredients, it may help you to use containers with a long spout for precise pouring.
Once you have assembled your equipment, you’ll need to practice using it with some simple recipes. The recipe below makes eight bars of soap, but you can halve or even quarter this for small batch practice.
- 63g sodium hydroxide lye crystals
- 113g distilled water
- 114g coconut oil (refine)
- 91g shea butter
- 227g olive oil (light coloured)
- 23g castor oil
Adding essential oils:
Depending on what oil you are using, your essential oils should constitute between 1-3% of the overall recipe.
- If we were going to add a gentle oil to this recipe – such as mandarin – we should use no more than 20g. This is roughly 3%.
- If we were going to add a more potent oil – such as cinnamon – we might want to cap our use at 1%, which works out to just under 7g.
- If we were going to create a blend of cinnamon and mandarin, we might combine 13g of mandarin with 7g of cinnamon oil.
It may take a few goes to get the balance exactly right, and you may find that you need even less than what it is outlined here. This is matter of both the oil’s behaviour and your personal taste.
- Dissolve the sodium hydroxide crystals in water. It’s very important to always pour the lye crystals into the water, not the other way around. Pouring water into the lye crystals can cause an adverse reaction. Once dissolved, set the lye water aside.
- Melt the coconut oil and shea butter in a pan on a very low heat. When both have melted, remove the pan from the heat and set down on a heat-proof surface.
- Combine the olive oil, castor oil and essential oils in a separate container. Mix them together before pouring them into the pan with the melted coconut oil and shea butter.
- Measure the temperature of the oil mixture and allow it to cool to approximately 35-38 degrees. Your lye water should be around the same temperature.
- Pour the lye water through a sieve into the pan of oils.
- Stir the solution together. Then hold the stick blender to the bottom of the pan and blitz for a couple of seconds. Turn off, stir, and repeat until the mixture thickens to ‘trace’. At this stage it should have a thin, custard-like consistency.
- Working quickly, pour the mixture into your mould and tap to settle it.
- For fast results, put the mixture in the fridge overnight and take it out the next day. After 48 hours, take the soap out of the mould and cut it into bar.
- Technically the soap is now ready to use. However, curing the soap for 28 days will give you better-quality, longer-lasting bars. During the curing process, the soap should be stored in a cool, dry place accessible to airflow.
You can also try making soap via hot process.
At Step 6, combine the mixture in a crock pot and put it over a medium high heat. Let the edges start to bubble, and stir the mixture, scraping a spatula down the sides. In half an hour to an hour, the mixture will start to look like Vaseline. Once this happens, place your mixture into the moulds as normal, working quickly.
Switching to hot process halfway can sometimes be a way of saving soap if things start to go wrong. Here are some of the common problems soapers can experience.
Acceleration occurs when the soap mixture thickens too quickly and starts to stick to the bowl. If this happens, lay down the stick blender and start whisking instead. Acceleration doesn’t necessarily mean that batch is ruined, but the thicker mixture may make it more difficult to create intricate designs, so be prepared to be flexible.
Tapping the pot on the counter can help to get rid of bubbles in a whisked mixture.
If acceleration happens too rapidly then the mixture may seize, which causes it to get very thick and become very hard to work with. Some fragrance oils have been reported to cause this, and it has also found to have a higher risk of occurring with floral and spicy oils.
Try pouring the soap into a pan three times bigger than your batch. The mixture will expand. Stir it over a medium heat until it starts to liquify. If needed, turn down the heat to avoid the mixture splattering, and then raise it again once it is back under control.
Certain fragrances can cause the mixture to heat up, which in turn can cause the soap to bubble out of the mould. If your mixture is getting too hot, you should be prepared to work quickly in order to save it. One possible way to save the mixture is by forcing gel phase – more on this later. It may also help to put it in the freezer for 24 hours before resuming the process.
When an ingredient in the fragrance binds with some of the harder oil components in the recipe, ricing can occur. This process is characterised by hard, rice-shaped bumps appearing in the oil. Usually you can blend the ricing back in using a stick blender. However, this can make the mixture quite thick, so prepare to rethink your design.
Separation occurs when a fragrance prevents emulsification and the oil pools on top of the mixture. This can occasionally be fixed by stick blending, but caution should be used here as this can cause the mixture to seize. This is where it might be useful to switch to hot process.
Discolouration of soap is commonly associated with vanilla pods but can also be caused by other ingredients. It usually involves the soap turning brown. Titanium dioxide pigment can help to lighten this discolouration.
Soda ash forms when lye reacts with carbon dioxide in the air and leaves a layer of powdery whiteness on the soap. This reaction doesn’t affect the quality of the soap, but it can affect the look and structural integrity of bars, making them crumbly. Adding in 0.5% melted beeswax can help, as can bringing the mixture to the gel phase.
Now and then you may notice your soap beginning to appear gelatinous in the mould. This means that it’s going through gel phase. This process doesn’t affect the quality of the bars, but it does affect their appearance, and some people prefer the way in which the gel phase makes colours pop. It’s also useful if you’re in a hurry (although if you want to cure your soap you should still take 28 days to do that). Try covering your mould with a chopping board and draping a blanket over it to trap the heat in, or placing the mould on a heating pad. Check it after half an hour to make sure it isn’t overheating.
Creating with essential oils is a fantastic way to not only get quality use out of them, but also to learn more about how they work. Think of this template as your blank canvas and apply it to your favourite blend recipe – or better yet, experiment with brand new combinations.
Shop our essential oil range here.