The ancient Romans knew the value of a good bath. Inveterate soakers, they are credited with the invention of soap and understood not only the importance of a cleansing soap, but likely, the refreshing scents accompanying it as well. You too can live in the lap of luxury and experience a refreshing, herbal treatment for your skin made with your favorite scents every time you wash. By making your own herbal soaps, you can ensure you’re washing with the right oils to gently moisturize your skin.
Plastic drop cloths (enough to cover floors and
Semi-hard plastic container (9-by-9-inch or loaf-shaped), for a mold
2 small blankets or large towels
Large stainless steel or enamel stock pot
Large wooden spoon
2-cup glass measuring cup
4-cup glass measuring cup
Large wire whisk
Stainless-steel laboratory thermometer, available at most kitchen equipment stores
Cardboard (cut slightly larger than the top of your plastic container)
Note: Ideally, you should have a set of measuring and mixing supplies (pot, measuring cups, whisk, spoon, etc.) reserved exclusively for soap making so no soap residue is transferred to your cooking.
6 ounces lye
16 ounces cold spring or rain water (never use tap water as the minerals will curdle the soap)
12 ounces coconut oil
19 ounces vegetable shortening
10 ounces olive oil
1 ounce jojoba oil
1 ounce avocado oil
1/2 cup fresh herbs (loose, not packed), such as those suggested on Page 34
1 ounce essential oil (see suggested combinations at right)
Please read instructions completely before beginning so you will better understand what’s required for each step of the soap-making process. Some of the materials involved require special handling or may need to be ordered ahead of time (see Soap-makers Resources on Page 38).
Begin by covering all the counters and floors with plastic. Lye is caustic and can damage countertops and burn your skin. Never handle lye without protective glasses and rubber gloves. I also wear an old long-sleeved shirt to protect my arms.
Grease your plastic container with vegetable shortening — just as you would a cake pan. This will be the mold you pour the soap in to harden. Set aside.
Place a towel folded flat in the bottom of the ice chest. Then place the other towel within easy reach. Have a piece of cardboard handy that will more than cover the top of the mold when you set it inside the ice chest. This will keep the towel you put on top from falling into the soap.
Decide on the herbs you wish to use. These can be used whole or chopped, or dried and ground. If you leave them whole, your soap will have a “scrub” effect. Grinding the herbs to a powder will make your soap silky smooth. Whole oats make a great scrub.
Combine your herbs and other ingredients, and keep them within easy reach. If using an essential oil, keep it within reach as well.
1. Measure all ingredients. Remember to wear rubber gloves and goggles when you measure the lye. Go outside to do this first step. There will be fumes, so avert your face and try to avoid breathing them, or wear a mask. Now, pour the lye into the cold spring water. Stir until the white granules are dissolved. Use only cold water. The lye and water mixture will heat up when combining and can boil over, so never use warm or hot water. Set this mixture aside in a safe place to cool.
Enjoy a bath with your favorite scented herbs.
2. Put the vegetable shortening and coconut oil into the large pot. Place it on the stove to melt over low heat. Stir occasionally while the oils melt and mix. When completely melted, remove from heat and stir in the olive, jojoba and avocado oils. Set this aside to cool.
3. The trick now is to cool the lye and oil mixtures both to precisely 98 degrees. I find that if you leave them for a few hours, they will cool to this temperature at about the same time. Take their temperature periodically with a lab or candy thermometer. Stir each mixture before taking its temperature. If the oils get too cool, heat slightly on the stove. Oil will continue to warm up after it’s removed from heat, so remove it just before it reaches 98 degrees. If the lye mixture gets too cool, heat it in the microwave at 20-second intervals. Variances of more than 2 degrees will not work. Each must be between 97 and 99 degrees for this to work.
If one mixture is warmer than the other, place that container in the sink filled with a couple of inches of ice water for a cold bath, careful not to get any water inside the container. This will lower the temperature quickly.
4. Once you have both mixtures at 98 degrees, pour the lye mixture into the oils. Wearing your rubber gloves and goggles, stir with a wooden spoon while you pour, careful of any splattering. Stir for 10 minutes. You will notice the mixture becoming creamy and smooth. After 10 minutes, lay the spoon aside and whisk the mixture rapidly for about 30 seconds. Stir again with the large spoon for another 10 minutes. Then whisk again. Don’t stop stirring until the mixture begins to show a trace of the path the spoon leaves behind. This could take anywhere from 20 minutes to 1 hour. The trace stage is notable when you raise the spoon out of the soap mixture, and can drizzle a pattern on the top, which will look like a long welt on the surface of the soap mixture.
5. Now you must work fast. Whisk in the herbs until evenly mixed. Then add the essential oil, if you are using it. Don’t take too long or the soap mixture will seize and you won’t be able to pour it into the mold. Pour it into your prepared mold. The whole herbs will sink to the bottom of the mold, creating a beautiful pattern on the top of each soap bar when cut. Set the filled mold into the ice chest. Make sure it’s sitting level or it will harden lopsided. Lay the cardboard over the soap-filled mold and cover with your second towel. Close the ice chest. Let it set in the ice chest for 24 hours without opening the chest.
While the soap is still slightly soft, decorate each bar with pressed flowers.
Use a hair dryer to loosen and release soap from the mold.
6. After 24 hours, remove from the ice chest and let set in a dry, warm area for 3 days to 2 weeks. The longer you leave it, the easer it is to remove from the mold.
7. When you’re ready to pop the soap out, turn the mold upside down on a towel-covered surface. Use a hair dryer to warm the bottom and sides of the mold until you can push on the bottom of the mold and release the soap. Push on all sides until the soap slowly slides out. Once removed, the soap should cure for 3 weeks. Curing means allowing the soap to set open to the air so the lye can completely evaporate. Note: Soap shouldn’t be used before it’s completely cured or it can burn the skin.
8. When ready, cut soap into bars or blocks with a knife or spackling blade, and it’s ready to use. Decorate each bar with pressed flowers if you wish. This must be done while the soap is still slightly soft. Just press the flowers into the top or sides of a whole loaf or each individual bar.
Marguerite King is an herbalist specializing in herbal skin care. She owns and operates The Herb Patch Nursery and Soapworks in Pocatello, Idaho.