Craft your Own Soap
Kids often grumble and protest when they’re told to wash their hands or take a bath. But if they’re using soaps they’ve made themselves, bath time turns from a struggle to a treat. They may even look forward to their daily bath.
Displaying and using soaps you’ve made yourself adds a personal touch to your home. Luckily, the melt-and-pour method is easy, and it’s safe enough to do with children. Melting down glycerin — the main ingredient for this method — involves no chemical changes, so you won’t need any special safety equipment beyond some adult supervision for the kids when working around the stove.
Though glycerin is the base for this method, it’s the rest of the ingredients that make the soap unique; different colors, herbs, scents, and other additives personalizes your soaps. Once you’ve experimented a bit with soap making, you’ll likely build up a list of favorites to work with. Personally, I love using mint, because it’s especially refreshing on my hands and feet, and it helps stimulate my skin. You can even try your hand at swirled-color soaps, which make stylish gifts for a housewarming, bridal shower, or birthday. The possibilities are endless.
Most of the ingredients needed for this recipe can be found either at a craft store, kitchen store, or online.
If you put in the time and effort to make your own soap, you’ll want to make sure the final product is the best match for your skin. You’ll also want your ingredients to mix well to result in a satisfying batch of soaps. Consult the following list of ingredients when first making melt-and-pour soaps.
Glycerin is the base of melt-and-pour soap. It’s a natural moisturizer, drawing water from the air and attracting it to your skin. Manufacturers add many different skin conditioners to glycerin, such as goat’s milk, avocado, shea butter, cucumber, or olive oil; any of these options work for this recipe. Glycerin can be found at most craft stores and is usually sold in either 2-pound bricks or 10-pound buckets.
Rubbing alcohol adheres the soap layers together. Use at least 70 percent isopropyl alcohol. The higher the percentage, the more effective the ingredient, so you should aim for 99 percent isopropyl alcohol. Fill an empty spray bottle with the rubbing alcohol before starting your soap. Using a spray bottle gives you even coverage over each of the layers, without running the risk of disrupting the soap as it’s setting in the mold.
Color drops or colored powders dissolve evenly into melted glycerin. If using powders, do a bit of research before buying; some claim to work, but leave you with a huge mess in the end. Depending on the brand, melted crayon shavings can also add a boost of color. Don’t use food coloring because it doesn’t blend well with glycerin. If you’re unsure about using a specific ingredient to color your soap, I recommend first testing a small bit beforehand to see how well the ingredients meld together.
Fragrance oils are one of the best ways to add scent to homemade soaps. These alcohol-based scents dissolve easily into melt-and-pour soap. When purchasing fragrance oils, verify on the packaging that they’re designed to be safe for the skin; it’s easy to get oils for soaps and candles confused.
Some people prefer using essential oils rather than fragrance oils. Be aware, though, that oil-based fragrances may not blend well into the glycerin, or they might add a slight yellow tint to the final product. Test your preferred essential oil on a small batch first to see how it performs before incorporating it into a full batch.
Herbs will fully personalize your soaps and take them to the next level. You can use almost any herb that’s safe on skin, but do a small test before making a full batch to be sure it combines well with the other ingredients. If you don’t grow your own herbs, check your local grocery store or farmers market, or ask a gardening friend. Allow the herbs to dry thoroughly before using them in soaps, as fresh herbs in soap will rot and invite mold.
If you’re using an herb that’s been dried and stored for a long period of time, run it through an electric grinder to rejuvenate the herb and break it apart. You can also use a mortar and pestle if you have one on hand. These methods will work for any herb you decide to include in your soap recipes. My personal favorite is mint, as it grows abundantly and smells delightful.
NOTE: Because your mixture will be thinly spread onto a shallow cookie sheet, it won’t be noticeable if the herbs sink to the bottom.
I like to think of making soap as a careful balance of art and science. Much like baking, you can creatively adjust some variables in a recipe, but you must be careful to maintain the integrity of the mixture. Small trial batches are key when you’re using untested ingredients, and be sure to adjust only one variable at a time, so you know what works and what doesn’t.
If you’re planning to substitute different additives, do some research before adding them. For example, say you wanted to replace an herb with coffee grounds. Coffee is a wonderful exfoliator for skin, and is nonirritating if you use it about once a week to slough away dead skin cells, so you’d assume it would be a perfect addition to soap. However, if you add coffee to glycerin, the grounds will heat up and coffee will leach into the soap, leaving you with a big mess. Adding tea leaves has a similar effect. If you’d like to substitute coffee grounds, tea leaves, or something comparable, brew them first and then dry them completely before adding them to glycerin.
Ingredients & Equipment
- 2 pounds clear glycerin, cut into 1-inch cubes
- Color drops of choice
- 4 tablespoons dried, crushed herbs
- 2 pounds white glycerin, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 tablespoon fragrance oil or essential oil
- Rubbing alcohol (poured into a spray bottle)
- Standard-sized cookie sheet with raised edges
- Wax paper
- Double boiler
- Rubber spatula
- Nonserrated knife
- Raffia or ribbon for decorating, optional
Step 1: Before you begin making the soap, fully line the cookie sheet with wax paper by laying pieces of paper both vertically and horizontally across the pan. Use enough paper to spill over the sides onto the surface underneath. Run a fingernail into the creases of the sheet to make straight edges along the sides and bottom.
Step 2: Fill the bottom of the double boiler halfway with water. Set it on the stove over high heat. Add the top pot, and bring the water in the bottom pot to a boil. If any water spits, let the steam vent from the sides, and reduce the heat.
Step 3: Place the clear glycerin cubes in the top pot, and stir slowly with the spatula until there are no lumps and no skin on the surface. Don’t stir too fast, or it’ll cause bubbles.
Step 4: Add color drops, one at a time, until desired color is achieved. Stir slowly after each addition. Stir in herbs, and pop any bubbles that form.
Step 5: Lift the top pot of the double boiler and carefully wipe away any condensation from the bottom with a towel. You don’t want any water added to the glycerin. Pour the mixture evenly into the prepared cookie sheet, and let it cool for 15 minutes, tapping the center after 5 minutes to make sure the soap is starting to set. (If you’re making soap in an unheated area, such as a garage or shed, it sets faster.)
Step 6: Rinse the double boiler and spatula. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 using the white glycerin.
Step 7: Add the fragrance oil to the white glycerin, and stir, popping any bubbles you see.
Step 8: Lift the top of the double boiler and carefully wipe away condensation from the bottom with a towel. Holding the top of the double boiler in one hand, use the other hand to spray a light mist of rubbing alcohol onto the clear glycerin layer on the cookie sheet. Evenly pour the white glycerin mixture on top of the clear glycerin layer. Make sure not to pour too much in one area, or hot spots will form.
Step 9: Cool for 5 to 15 minutes. The layers should be slightly warm and firm, but not fully set; they need to be pliable enough to roll.
Step 10: Spray a light mist of alcohol over the top layer, and then use the wax paper to lift the soap out of the cookie sheet. Peel away the wax paper from the sides of the soap, but leave it in place on the bottom.
Step 11: Roll up the soap slab as tightly as possible, to avoid spaces and gaps. Working from the center outward to the edges, squeeze and roll the soap against the wax paper to help the layers stick together. When nearing the end of the sheet, trim away any excess on the white glycerin layer and tuck it under the herbal layer, so it’s not visible from the outside seam.
Step 12: Wrap the soap tightly in the wax paper from the tray, and then twist it up in a clean, dry towel to reinforce the shape. Let it set overnight.
Step 13: Remove the soap roll from the towel and wax paper, and trim the edges. Cut the rolled soap into slices at least 1 inch thick. (Slices less than 1 inch thick tend to crack and/or separate.)
Step 14: Store the soap in a cool, dry place in breathable material, such as a cardboard box, a lined basket, or a paper bag. Don’t use plastic wrap, as condensation can form on the soap.
Gina Napoli is a writer and soap artisan. She lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Visit her at www.GinaNapoli.com.
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