Beginner soap bar recipe

basic soap recipe for beginners-fragrance free-no additivesI don’t know why I was so daunted by the idea of making soap – it’s not as difficult as I’d expected. Yes, it involves more effort than my usual recipes, but this basic soap recipe just requires more time, and a lot of common sense. So if you’ve got time and common sense, you’ve got this (of course you’ll need the ingredients too)! After a bit of practice, I’m sure you will also be whipping up soap in less than half an hour. Here, I share how to make a basic fragrance free soap. You can use this as a base to add your own fragrance and colour as you please. I’ve even included step-by-step photos that’ll guide you to your bubbly bliss.

Before we lather up, let me deal with a few FAQs

Why can’t I just buy natural soap?

Well, of course you can. The only reason to make your own soap is to save cost and customize, especially if you want organic soap (just make sure you use organic oils and additives). Just be cautious and always read the ingredients when you buy, as many retail soaps include unwanted and unnatural additives. This soap recipe only uses what is absolutely required to make soap, nothing added. All the rest is up to you. 

Is lye or caustic soda toxic & dangerous? Why is it in natural soap?

where to find sodium hydroxide for soap in south africaYes, caustic soda / lye is dangerous. By itself, it should never come into contact with skin, eyes or your lungs…nothing besides your kitchen and bathroom drains! This is why you need to be extra careful when working with it in the soap making process. Unfortunately, it is absolutely necessary to make soap. The reaction between lye and oil is what causes saponification (i.e. soap). Most importantly:

Once lye reacts with oil it results in glycerine and soap, which is natural and completely safe.
So the reaction looks something like this:
Oil + Base (lye solution) —–> Glycerol + Salt (soap).

For those of you that don’t know, “lye” is the term referred to when caustic soda is mixed with water (it is a solution).

Safety tips – where you’ll need common sense:
  1. Wear long sleeves to prevent any chemical burns if the mixture splashes.
  2. Do not inhale or let the lye fumes get into your eyes.
  3. If your skin comes into contact with the lye or soap mixture, immediately wash the area thoroughly with cold water and then wipe the area with white vinegar to neutralize the lye.
  4. Have white vinegar around at all times. It will neutralize the lye. Wipe counter tops or whatever the mixture touches with vinegar.
  5. Before washing your utensils with dish washing soap, first rinse them with water and then wipe with a cloth that is soaked in white vinegar, or rinse in a vinegar solution (just fill the sink with water and add about a cup of vinegar – rinse in there). Then wash with dish washing liquid as usual.

SOAP RECIPE: STEP-BY-STEP

This makes about one litre of soap, which is roughly 10 bars. That’s enough to last you six months or more!

You’ll need:
175g     Water
145g     Caustic Soda (you can find this at most hardwares)
1000g   Oils  (I chose to use 40% coconut oil and 60% olive oil combination for a perfectly cleansing and conditioning soap. But I suggest using cheaper oils if this is your first time, as it can be an expensive mistake!).
A cloth soaked in white vinegar for cleaning.

Tools: A glass bowl for the water, large stainless steel pot for oils & water, electric mixer, stainless steel spoon and knife, soap moulds (ice-cream/ margarine containers work really well too) and white vinegar for cleaning any spills.

  1. Measure out your quantities exactly with a scale: This recipe is like chemistry. Unfortunately, there’s no compromise and you have to use a scale, and follow all instructions to a tee. You can use this helpful online calculator to work out the exact quantities of oil, water and caustic soda if you’d like to use different quantities than this recipe, or if you’d like to experiment. This tool also allows you to see what quality of soap you’ll be making based on the oil combinations you choose. You can see the hardness, soapiness and cleaning factor of the soap before you even begin making anything.I like to use a 1.2:1 water:lye ratio, and a 6% super fat. You need at least a 1:1 ratio, but I like to have a little more water to make sure there is enough for all the caustic soda to dissolve.
  2. Make lye solution: Add caustic soda to water in a glass mixing bowl (NOT the other way around). Do this in a well-ventilated area. Outdoors away from any pets is best . Do not inhale any of the fumes from the reaction. The solution will be murky and it will become hot, this is normal. This solution is known as lye.
    how to make soap_lye safety
  3. Start heating your oil:  in a genuine stainless steel pot. Do not let it get to boiling point, this is way too hot. Do this while the lye solution is cooling down and the lye should start looking more clear (less murky) with time. Make sure that all the caustic soda crystals are dissolved by stirring with a stainless steel spoon.how to make soap_heat oils
  4. Combine oil and lye: Once both the oil and lye solution are roughly the same temperature, combine them slowly and start mixing with an electric mixer. Mixing by hand can take hours! Make sure the stove is turned off at this point.  You can check the temperature with a cooking thermometer, or you can do what I do and use your sense of touch. I determine this by seeing when both containers are warm to the touch (i.e. not so hot that I have to move my hand away immediately, but warm enough that I can touch the pot for a few seconds).how to make soap_mix oil with lye
  5. Mix until you reach “trace”: Trace is basically the state when the soap mixture is ready to be transferred into your moulds. You know you’ve reached trace once the mixture has the texture of instant pudding. When drops of the mixture fall back into the pot and show a visible trace of themselves on the surface, this is trace. The droplets shouldn’t sink back in quickly/ disappear immediately. The time it takes to reach trace depends on your oil and the speed of your electric beater. It normally takes me about 15-20 minutes to reach trace with olive/ coconut oil. If my description has just confused you more, I do hope the picture helps! how long until you reach trace in soap making
  6. Add your extras (optional): If you’d like to add scent, herbs or a few drops of food colouring – Now is the time.
  7. Transfer mixture into your mould: I like to use empty ice-cream and margarine containers, because the plastic is thick enough not to melt, yet flexible enough to get the soap out easily once it hardens. Some people use proper wooden soap moulds lined with wax paper, or even silicone baking moulds. Do not use tin foil to line your moulds, and do not use your metal baking tins as moulds – you will destroy both the soap and the tins.what to use as a soap mould
  8. Insulate your mould and store in a warm and dark place overnight: I put the lids on my ice-cream/ margarine tubs, wrap the containers in towels for insulation and store in a cupboard overnight.
  9. Cut soap into bars: Remove from mould and cut soap into bars: Do this after 24-48 hours. Cut your soap with a stainless steel knife. Do not use your soap at this point, it still needs to cure. If you use it, your skin might suffer from a chemical burn. The lye is still reacting with the oil, only once this process is complete (curing), then you can use your soap.how long must soap cure
  10. Let your soap cure: Like good wine, good soap needs a long time to cure. The saponification process is still taking place, and your soap is still not safe to use. Place your bars in a well-ventilated place, away from direct sunlight and allow them to cure for 3-6 months for best results, but a minimum of 1 month until it is safe to use. The longer the cure, the better (but not more than 10 months). Remember to turn them occasionally (every week is good), so that each side gets exposure to the air.
  11. Lather up! You can use this soap as a body wash, shampoo bar or to wash the dishes. You can even grate it up and put about half a cup in the washing machine for laundry. It’s that versatile!

CHALLENGEingredients to make homemade soap

  • The time that soap takes to cure. This recipe uses the room temperature/ cold process method, but if you’d like to cut the curing time substantially, then you may want to consider the hot process method. This method requires you to be much more precise with temperatures, you need a crock pot/ slow cooker and the method is much longer (2 hours to the mould step), but the curing stage is much shorter (2 weeks). Whereas, the cold process method is quick (30 minutes to the mould step), but the curing stage is much longer.

CHERRY ON TOP

  • You can completely customize this soap recipe. You can use any oil, and also add essential oils/ scents, colouring and textures according to your preferences.
  • You can make organic soap in bulk, and save the cost of purchasing it all the time.
  • It has many uses. This castile soap bar can be used as a body wash, shampoo, dish washing soap and laundry soap (just grate it and put half a cup in the washing machine). Read my post on how to make liquid soap from a hard bar of soap.
  • Eco-friendly and only contains what you need – there are no unpronounceable chemical additives.

Let me know how your soap making journey goes in the comments below. I’d also love to know what additives or oils you’ve chosen to use, so please share.

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38 thoughts on “Beginner soap bar recipe

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi William, thank you for your incredibly positive feedback 🙂 I really appreciate it. It is encouraging to hear that it works as well for you, as it does for me.

  1. Mohamed says:

    hi,this is my first leap into the unknown and I intend to start a business soon depending on how I fare out with my experiments and I ‘ll keep you posted. thanks for your help…mohamed.

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Mohamed,
      Thank you for your positive comment. It’s great to hear that you want to start a business – the more natural products out there the better. I hope that my blog will help you with your journey and with all your experiments. Try to have fun with it at the same time! I wish you all the best for your new business venture. Feel free to keep me posted on your success 🙂
      Kind regards,
      Christina

  2. Kat Jones says:

    I started making hot processed soaps about 2 months ago and love using cold processed recipes in them. The first one I made was the coconut oil one which was the easiest one then I did the charcoal and tea tree blend with the coconut oil one as an end additive. I am now trying your one out and hoping I have just as much success. If I want to add lavender flowers when would be the best time as I don’t want them turning brown? What would be the lye mix for a kilo coconut oil? Weighing out 933g every time is very time consuming and would be easier with a kilo at a time

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Kat,

      Thank you for your comment. It’s great to hear that you are enjoying your soap making journey. Charcoal and tea tree – what a splendid idea! I should give that a try. To answer your questions, you would add the lavender flowers right at the end when your hot or cold process step is finished, and just before you add the soap to your moulds. The lye mix for 1kg of coconut oil is 172g of NaOH and 207g water. I use SoapCalc to calculate these – you should try it too. It’s quick and easy to calculate an entire recipe. Good luck with your recipe, and do let me know if my recipe is a success for you. I always appreciate feedback 🙂

      Best regards,
      Christina

  3. Heather says:

    Keen to try this. You mentioned starting with cheaper oils if it’s your first time – which oils would work well? Thanks

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Heather. Thank you for your comment. I would strongly suggest starting with a cheap brand of coconut oil i.e. one that is not cold-pressed, extra-virgin or organic. Dischem sells one-litre batches of coconut oil for around R56, which is the best price I’ve found. Coconut oil is also great for a first attempt, because it will definitely produce a hard bar of soap. Unlike liquid oils like sunflower or canola, which will produce very soft and mushy bars if you don’t mix it with a more solid oil. So coconut oil is perfect for beginners. Let me know how your first attempt goes – good luck 🙂

  4. Sonia Jacka says:

    Hi, love your blog. It will be my first attempt to soapmaking. I’m interested in the hot process method. Do not want to wait so long for curing. Could you give me more info on this method. Thank you very much.
    Sonia

  5. Brenda says:

    Hi Christina.

    I would be interested to see the difference between the recipes for the hot and cold methods. Could you send me the (precise) recipe for the hot method. I am keen to try them both out to make some organic cleaning products.

    Kind regards

    Brenda

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Brenda. Thank you for your comment. Making your own cleaning products is a superb idea! I hope that you do! I personally haven’t tried the hot process method yet, so I don’t have a personal recipe to share, but here is a recipe from another blog which I hope helps you. Have fun 🙂

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Hannelie. You can use any brand of olive oil. So, yes, the oil sold at Dischem and Food Lovers Market is good for soap. However, if this is your first attempt at making soap, I strongly suggest that you buy a cheap brand to begin with – at least until you are confident in soap-making. It can be an expensive mistake if you buy an expensive oil and don’t get it right the first time. Obviously, higher grade oils like those that are organic, cold-pressed or extra-virgin are better quality oils, if you can afford them. But cheaper oils will work. If you are looking for the best quality olive oil, I recommend Crede (certified organic) or Prince Albert (Cold-pressed extra virgin). I hope that helps.

  6. Chikondi - rondavel says:

    Hi, Christina, this is a great guide for newbies who want to get into soap making. Everyone should make at least one batch of soap in their lives!
    One tip: adding vinegar to lye can worsen chemical burns, as their neutralisation reaction is strongly exothermic. It’s a better idea to work near a faucet or other large volume source of water and thoroughly rinse off any lye that gets on the skin, after which the area can be wiped with vinegar.

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Chikondi. Thank you for your positive comment, I appreciate the feedback and the helpful tip. I will update my blog with your insight, and I’m sure my readers will appreciate your advice too. I did not realise that the neutralisation reaction was exothermic. Thank you again. I also see that you are an expert soap-maker of Rondavel Soaps. I may just buy one of your products and write a review…your soaps look divine and sustainable, which is just my kinda thing 😉

  7. nicole says:

    So stunning to read your post. Have been seeing such beautiful soaps online and dying to try it out and this just seems so doable! And love the little receipt which makes things very attainable. Wish I could go to a soap making course! Know of any? Thanks for your knowledge. PS I’m based in joburg re: course.

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hello Nicole. Thank you for your positive comment. Have you attempted to make your own soap yet? I’d love to know how it goes, and if you find my recipe as “do-able” as it seemed when you first read it. I hope so! I’m sorry that I do not know of any soap-making courses based in JHB. I taught myself from reading many other blogs and watching YouTube videos. But you are not the first person to ask me about courses. I’m toying with the idea of holding my own workshop in JHB early next year – If I do, would you like me to let you know about it? Wishing you all the best.

        • Natural Nerd says:

          Hi Chrystal,
          Thank you for expressing your interest. You are not the first person to request this 😛 I will be looking into this for the new year, and if enough people are seriously interested I will host a workshop. So I will keep you in the loop.
          Regards,
          Christina

  8. Lil says:

    Such a great intro to soap making – thank you:)

    About the containers you pour your soap mixture into – are they lined with anything?

    I made my first batch a few days ago and the soap ended up stuck in the plastic container – had to damage the container to get the soap out.

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Lil. Thank you for your feedback – It’s great to hear that you’ve tried the recipe. I’m sorry about your containers though. To answer your question, nope I don’t line them with anything and they come out with no problems. Are you using ice-cream or margarine plastic tubs? That plastic is really flexible and you shouldn’t have to damage the container to get the soap out. Other harder plastic containers may not be flexible enough (like Tupperware etc.). You could also try lining the plastic tubs with a bit of oil, like you do for baking, so that it slips right out. Wax paper hasn’t worked for me (the paper gets stuck to the soap and then I have to try and peel it off). Let me know if that helps?

    • Yaya says:

      Please assist where do you buy your lye…My Dr recommended that i only use dove soap so if i want to make my own soap which ingredients can i use for my soap?

      • Natural Nerd says:

        Hi Yaya. Gosh, if your doctor recommended that you can only use dove soap, then your skin will LOVE you if you start using natural soaps without the additives that are included even in Dove. You can use any natural oil for your homemade soap. For you, I would recommend this exact recipe which uses a combination of coconut oil and olive oil. Don’t add anything else (i.e. fragrances, colourants etc.). Just follow my recipe to the tee. I buy my lye from any hardware – just ask for caustic soda. I hope that helps. Let me know how it goes – and how your skin reacts. If it doesn’t react with Dove, then it surely won’t react with this basic soap recipe. If anything, your skin will feel better. Good luck!

  9. kayshree says:

    Hi, I know this isn’t related to this recipe but I would like to make liquid soap. My question is where can I buy the (KOH flakes) potassium hydroxide flakes from in SA specifically in JHB. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Kayshree

      Thank you for your question. You can buy KOH from an online store called “Fun with soap“. They offer courier delivery and are also based in Kempton Park. I haven’t yet attempted liquid soap (it’s on my to-do-list) and neither have I bought from this store, so I can’t tell you anything about their service etc., but it’s worth a try. Wishing you all the best for your liquid soap.

  10. Rasheeda says:

    Hi there
    Love your blog. I have been making my own soap for almost a year know. Nothing better than good natural soap. I cannot use the commercial soap anymore.
    Thank you.

    Rasheeda

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Rasheeda

      Thank you for your positive comment. I really appreciate it. I’ve also been making my own soap for about two years now, and I completely agree with you. I’ll never go back to buying. It’s so much better. I hope you find other recipes on my blog that you will enjoy.

      Kind regards,
      Christina

  11. Nirvana says:

    Hi. I ran the figures through the MMS Lye Calculator and it recommends a minimum of 250 ml of water but you used 175 ml. I assume that this will make for a shorter drying time (curing time should stay the same) and a harder bar in the long run. How did the soap turn out?

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Nirvana. Thanks for your comment. You are right, the drying time is shorter. I like to just use enough water for the lye, so the MMS Lye Calculator was suggesting a 1.7:1 water to lye ratio, whereas I usually use a 1.2:1 water to lye ratio. The soap is perfect – I’ve had good feedback from people I’ve asked to try it. It is a relatively hard, cleansing bar (not as hard as a pure coconut oil soap). It’s not very conditioning, but it doesn’t dry your skin out. Have a look at the below table for more info on the quality of this bar. null

  12. Yvonne says:

    I love your blog, my mother is busy with a project of making bar soap. she previously had an agent who supplied her with a long white bar soap and she would in turn grate the soap and melt it to add her own oil essentials. Now she have a challenge getting the supplier. Your blog will be so helpful to get her make her own soap from the scratch

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Hi Yvonne. Thank you so much for your comment. It’s wonderful to hear that my blog will help your mom make her own soap from scratch. It’s far better (and cheaper) that way. No need for suppliers. After making my first batch of soap – I’ll never go back to buying it! I hope it goes well for your mother.

    • Natural Nerd says:

      Thank you Colleen. It’s always lovely to hear. I hope you do get round to making your own soap one day. You won’t regret it, it’s so versatile!

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