Sunday, November 1, 2009

How to make vegan soap

Back in the day when I first became vegan, there were a few vegan soaps out there. Kiss My Face made a good vegan soap, there were specialty shops like Lush where you could buy it, and there were a few people selling handmade soap in local farmers' markets. The thing was, these soaps were so expensive, and in the commercial soap world ingredients don't have to be disclosed, so it was nearly impossible to find out exactly what was in them—for all I know many of them are/were vegan, though I suspect that animal fat is cheaper for the manufacturers to buy than vegetable oils, and since the quality of the soap is the same…anyway, I let myself feel uneasy about this issue for a while, then decided to do something.

What I did was take a half-day course on soapmaking. If you're considering making your own soap, there's no better way to start than this, or at least making it the first time with someone with experience who can show you the ropes. It's not hard, but soapmaking is all chemical reactions and therefore can be tricky for the uninstructed. The two ladies who taught our course gave us a handout with different recipes, very detailed step by step instructions, and some science. It's their copyrighted property, and while my sister and I have used it ever since, I can't actually give it out. This isn't something you can really wing, anyway; you should know what you're doing but once you do you can get quite relaxed. So take a little course of your own, but here are the illustrated basics.

Let me say first that the quality of the finished soap is equal or superior to anything you can buy anywhere. This is soap, and soap is just soap; the basic definition of soap is that it's made from oils/fats, lye, and water. If it's not made from these ingredients, by law manufacturers, at least in North America, aren't allowed to call it "soap"--they have to make up some euphemism like "cleansing bar." Our soap foams, it gets you clean, and furthermore contains the colors, additives, scents (or lack thereof) that you like. You can do all kinds of experiments with this part of it, and I have made Christmas-themed soaps with frankincense and myrrh, my sister had a pretty successful (in the opinion of the Aveda connoisseurs she knows) specialty for a while of replicating Aveda scents, and so on. She is in sales, and while she's not vegan, she makes soap because she likes the quality, and also likes to give prettily-wrapped packages of soap to her clients and co-workers each year.

The basic ingredients we use for our soap are in the above picture: coconut oil, canola oil, vegetable shortening, lye (and water), along with a token bottle of lavender essential oil to represent the additives.

To start, you need to measure out your oils and slowly melt them. I did an experiment this time—well, okay, I was forced to since we made a mistake and bought one box of "golden" vegetable shortening. Man, it was so golden it was almost fluorescent; it's hard to imagine actually cooking with the stuff, though it was rather pretty in the pot.

Now, wearing rubber gloves, measure out cold water and lye (lye is caustic and can burn you if you touch it with bare skin or breathe in the fumes), and—outside, always outside, for your own safety—slowly pour the lye into the water and stir until dissolved. The lye and water have a chemical reaction and the temperature of the mixture will shoot up to around 160F—that's hot, but not boiling hot. Now you need to wait for it to cool down to 100F; this takes a while, around an hour, depending on various factors including the ambient temperature, which is why we usually make soap in the fall or the spring, when it's cool outside.

So you have your oils very slowly melting, and your lye-and-water slowly cooling. Time to line your molds. My sister uses professionally-made wooden molds that will give uniform bars of soap. I prefer larger, more freestyle bars, so I just use cardboard boxes. Line the molds with plastic wrap or parchment paper for easy soap-removal. Molds shown here with the adorable Christmas Books Diane purchased for herself, our mom, and me, to write down and coordinate our Christmas Festivities plans in (and we did do some coordinatin' throughout the day; for our family, the secret to a successful and low-stress Christmas holiday season is advance planning).

When the oils and the lye-and-water mixture have both attained a temperature within a few degrees of 100F, they get mixed together. It's okay if there are still a few soft lumps of vegetable shortening in the oil. The commonest mistake novices make is to heat the oil too fast, so that it gets overheated and has to be cooled off to time right with the cooling lye. Pour the lye mixture carefully into the oils, stirring the while. The clear oils and clear lye mixture will turn cloudy together, then milky.

Now start blending with a stick blender. This will save you hours and hours of stirring, so it's worth buying a stick blender to use just for this purpose. Diane and I have old stick blenders, pots, spoons, and containers dedicated just to soapmaking—a lot of this stuff came right from Value Village or other cheap to free sources so it didn't cost much but it just makes things easier to have a kit, and sometimes, for instance, you can't be certain that you've got all the soap out of your stick blender, and for sure lye and/or soap isn't something you want to be blending into soups.

After a few minutes of blending, the soap will have the texture of a creamy, thick béchamel and will attain "trace." You know it's "at trace" when if you drag a spoon or the stick blender over the soap, the drippings lie on top of the soap and don't sink right back in.

Add your colours, scents, and other additives now, if using. My clever sibling mixed up some purple dye to make swirls. I like my soap very plain, so I added nothing this time.

Pour the soap into the prepared molds. Now wrap the molds up tight with blankets and towels because the chemical reaction has to continue for up to 24 hours. The soap will stay warm all that time, and can't be allowed to cool off too fast. Make sure you top the molds with something solid and stable, like a cookie sheet, because cats love to sleep up there. Cleanup is relatively easy if you have a dishwasher but if (like me) you don't, reconcile yourself to washing everything at least twice in water as hot as you can stand, remembering to wear your rubber gloves because the raw soap, even diluted by water, is still very sting-y.

After about 24 hours, the soap is ready to be unmolded and cut into bars. Even though you were careful to smooth the top of the soap completely, there will often be little squiggles and other textural markings on the top of the pan. I like them, but if you don't, you can trim them off the finished bars, or do what Diane does and cover the top of the wet soap with a sheet of plastic wrap.

If you do trim, provided the soap is still soft enough, you can squeeze the trimmings into little bars themselves (the soap is okay to touch with your naked hands at this point).

Set the cut bars on cardboard (not metal, which will stain the soap, and not marble, which the soap will dissolve, as we have learned to our grief), not touching, and put them away in a safe, airy place like a high shelf in the basement for a month. Yes, a month, so the chemical reaction can play itself out entirely, and the soap can cool and harden.

The soap only continues to improve with time. I have soap that's five or six years old, and it's better (harder, lasts longer, more foamy) than new soap. But soap that's a month old is still very usable.

Store the completed homemade soap in cardboard boxes or some other similar kind of container that's pervious to air. Commercial soaps are usually sold wrapped in cardboard or paper, and the reason is because the soap likes it that way.

So what about that "golden" vegetable shortening? Well, here you see, from left to right, a fresh bar made with only white shortening, a fresh bar made with two pounds of white shortening and one "golden," and a bar from last year made from only white shortening. The "golden" bar had no buttery smell. I think I like it! The bars do darken and turn slightly translucent as they age.

This is an afternoon well spent for what can amount to years of clean soapy fun, cool personalized gifts, a science experiment, a peep into housewifery techniques of the past, oh, so many things.


  1. thank you for this post! will come in handy!

  2. Thanks for the tutorial. I've always wanted to try making all my own hygiene products; lotions, shampoos, but I never knew how to get started...for now, we use Dr. Bronner's for just about everything.

    I really must look around and see whether I can find a class to take. Your soaps look great.