Moth and Toad Apothecary

Herbalism, self-sufficiency, and low-waste living

Cold Process Soapmaking for Beginners | What You Need to Get Started

Soapmaking is a beautiful skill anyone can learn. With the right tools, you can create luxurious bars of soap for years to come! Whether you plan on gifting them, selling them, or enjoying them yourself, there are a few things you’ll need to get started. Don’t worry; I’ve put together a list of recommended supplies and where you can find them! 

Personal Protective Equipment

Soaping comes with a few hazards; lye is caustic, its fumes can be dangerous, and soap batter is hot. By wearing PPE, you can prevent issues when making artisanal bars! I recommend getting some reusable rubber gloves, goggles and a mask (I prefer to keep my windows open and fan on instead), and a long-sleeved shirt

To protect your counter from the caustic lye and unsaponified soap batter, put down an old towel or a tarp like this one. I left a bit of soap batter on my mom’s counter at the beginning of my journey, and it unfortunately left a spot behind. No scrubbing can fix where lye has eroded a counter. Learn from my mistake, and use something to protect your tabletops! Or, at least keep a few towels handy in case of small spills.    

Electronics and Appliances

There isn’t a lot of tech involved with soap making, but having a few things on hand will make your life easier. 

A simple digital scale that measures in grams and/or ounces is a must have if you don’t own one already. I got this one two years ago and haven’t had to replace the battery. It works wonderfully for me. 

An immersion blender is essentially a blender blade on a stick. It makes getting your soap mixture fully emulsified a breeze. I got mine off of mercari two years ago, but here’s a good option from amazon if second-hand shopping isn’t your thing. You may be able to find one in-person at stores like Walmart, Goodwill, or Target, too.

I used a thermometer much more regularly in the beginning of my soap making journey. I used it to ensure I wasn’t soaping too hot, which can lead to soap volcanoes and cracking. Now that I use the heat transfer method and have more experience, I don’t use a thermometer often, if at all. However, I do recommend investing in one at first. This is similar to the one I bought and used! 

Bowls, Measuring Cups, and Spatulas  

When measuring your oils, lye, fragrance, and additives, you want to do so in separate containers. You don’t want to overpour olive oil after you have just added the perfect amount of castor oil in the same container. I like to have at least 4 or 5 measuring cups like this set, along with a big bowl like this at the ready (for when I want to mix colours together for an in-the-pot swirl or I only plan on using one colour).

When I use fragrance oil, I usually anchor them with a bit of kaolin clay mixed with oil. This helps it stay potent in the soap longer. Sometimes I pre-mix my pigments as well, using a bit of oil to help them incorporate into the soap batter more easily. I’ve met several soapers who use glycerin for this, too! If you plan to do either of these things, consider getting a cheap set of shot glasses to use. 

I use rubber spatulas to dole out my batter, mix up colours, and smooth the tops of loaves. They’re perfect for scraping out any extra batter to be used for samples, and for ensuring the layers in my soap are straight and bubble free! You can get a set like this one to use for your soap making and easily clean them between batches. 

I also recommend keeping a few regular metal spoons handy for scooping butters and waxes into your bowls! You can use ones you have in your kitchen drawer if you have them; they can be washed free of any soap and used later. 

Ingredients

Once you find a recipe you want to try, you’ll need to stock up on ingredients. For your first try at handmade soap, you may want to start small; try to source ingredients locally or in small quantities in case you decide soaping isn’t for you! Coconut oil, olive oil, grapeseed oil, and many other ingredients can be found at most supermarkets and grocery stores. Lye can be found in the cleaning or plumbing aisle of these stores, too, marketed as drain cleaner. Look for a bottle of lye flakes. The ingredients label should be almost exclusively Sodium hydroxide, at about 90% purity or more. Don’t forget to pick up a gallon of distilled water! This purified water reduces the chance of a reaction that can happen with minerals found in tap water, which can sometimes reduce the shelf life of your soap. 

If you’d rather source your ingredients online, or have trouble finding what you need locally, Amazon has everything you could ever want for soapmaking. I have heard from other soapmakers that mica pigments from amazon aren’t great, though, but we’ll get to better options in the next section. 

After making a batch or two, you may decide you want to buy some ingredients in bulk! There are some great sites for soapmakers to use. I have used and enjoyed Bulk Apothecary and Wholesale Supplies Plus! You can get some bulk ingredients from Amazon, too, but I tend to find better deals on these sites. 

Pigments 

You have a few options for colouring your soaps. For consistent, bright soaps, most soapers prefer micas! These micas, while naturally occurring in nature, are usually synthesized to avoid contamination with toxic compounds like asbestos and lead. I enjoy using micas from Mad Micas, but have recently begun shifting towards a more natural set of pigments. 

If you prefer using natural or food-based pigments, I recommend looking for colour charts and tests like this one. Every set of soap made with a natural powder pigment will be different, so keep that in mind. Some blend evenly into soap and create smooth, unblemished bars, while others provide a rustic, spotty look. Both are beautiful, and have wonderful potential. You can use calendula powder for a yellow, activated charcoal for black and grey, woad for blue, cocoa powder for a rosy brown, and alkanet for a reddish purple. The options are as endless as your access to powdered organic materials. Be sure to research every powder’s safety on skin before using it to make soap. 

If you want to experiment with natural pigment powders, try a bundle of colours from etsy like this one

You also have a liquid option for natural pigmentation; by using purees of fruits or vegetables in place of the water in your recipe, you can include their colours and (in some cases) their benefits. Check out this rhubarb soap, for example, or this carrot soap

Keep in mind that some natural pigments may fade over time, or change as your bar cures. It’s best to test them over the course of several months to get an idea of how they may change. 

Fragrance Oil 

Fragrance oil is a concentration of aromatic compounds. As the name suggests, it comes as an oil, and is added to your batch of soap after everything is melted and combined. It’s best to add your fragrance after emulsifying your oils and lye together. This prevents the heat of the lye mixture from degrading the fragrance and “burning” it up. 

To anchor your fragrance and keep it from dissipating while your bar cures, you can mix the fragrance oil with kaolin clay before adding it to your batch. The clay adds a silky, smooth element to your bar, too! 

Keep in mind that fragrance oil can also affect a bar’s end colour; for example, vanillin is infamous for transforming soaps from a variety of beautiful colours into dark brown over time. It doesn’t affect the soap or its shelf life, but it may not be the design choice you are expecting! Most fragrance oil sellers show an example of what colour a white bar of cold process soap will turn into after being cured. Not all fragrances will discolour your soap, but it’s always worth investigating before purchasing a fragrance. 

I get my fragrance oils from Nature’s Garden and Brambleberry! Most fragrance oils can be used for candles and soap interchangeably, so many sellers will advertise them as such. Keep an eye out for versatile blends like these! You can find out if a fragrance is safe for soap by reading their data sheet or description on a website. Many bulk supplies stores also sell fragrance oils, including Bulk Apothecary

Essential oils are often thought to be perfect for soap making, especially by beginners! While essential oils are indeed aromatic and concentrated, they tend to dissipate very quickly in soaps. They’re also incredibly expensive. Some essential oils are also phototoxic, meaning they make skin more susceptible to the sun. This phototoxicity can lead to severe burns. While unlikely to be phototoxic in a rinse-off product, it isn’t unheard of. 

Additives 

While mixing botanicals into soap can be beautiful at first, they often end up rotting inside the soap. Using soap with rotting botanicals can cause reactions and infections of the skin. It’s recommended not to use most botanicals within soap, although sprinkling them on top where they can stay dry is okay! Some botanicals, like dried calendula and cornflower, are fine to be coarsely chopped or powdered and added to soap. If you want to use a botanical in your soap, research its use in cold process recipes beforehand. 

You can replace the water in your recipe with liquids like goat’s milk, whole milk, juices, beer, and more. You can also do partial water replacements. When first starting, I suggest sticking to either water or milk to get used to your recipe, and then switching it up! 

Other additives can be used to improve the lather, hardness, and benefits of your soap. I like powders such as clays, colloidal oat powder, and whole milk powder. Sodium lactate, a liquid extract from lactic acid, is both a humectant and a bar hardener. It speeds up the process of hardening, making it easier to unmold a soap in a shorter time frame.  

You can buy additives in small amounts or in bulk. Start small and discover what you like best before investing in large amounts of any additive! Check etsy for bundles of soap additives to test out. 

Molds and Soap Cutters

When first beginning, I suggest you buy one or two molds with simple shapes. You can get a mold like this one that creates individual bars, or opt for a loaf style that you can cut after it hardens. Or, if you want a little variety and some different shapes, consider getting something like this

To create embeds, you can either pour soap into small molds (try using fun silicone ice cube trays) and place them in/on your soap, or you can make soap dough and press them or mold them into whatever design you’d like. Another option is to use a column mold that you can prepare ahead of time, and then insert into your loaf mold with fresh batter (check out this cloud mold on amazon). 

If you’d rather make your own molds, try lining boxes with a few layers of parchment paper. You can also use milk cartons cut and half, or even parchment lined pringles cans!

Making soap can be a bit of an investment at first, but I hope my tips and recommendations make it less difficult to navigate. Let me know if you have any tips of your onw, or any questions! Remember to like and comment on this post to let me know you like this content. Feel free to share it with friends or on pinterest, too!

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