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The soap that started it all

Posted by Tanya Barber on

My first foray into soapmaking was a messy one. I'd been in the process of switching over to more handmade skin products for a while and soap was on my list of things to try. I had a Pinterest board with a couple of soap recipes pinned but needed some moral support to be brave enough to dig the lye out. A surprise party for a friend provided the perfect excuse, with a morning of soapmaking planned as the cover activity to get the guest of honor to my house and keep her distracted while we sneakily set out the party things. We did a fair amount of research ahead of time, chose a very simple (single oil, hot process) recipe and prepared the equipment. Ever the safety-conscious one, I set everything up in my well ventilated carport and instructed everyone to wear long sleeves and closed toe shoes. We had multiple pairs of elbow length rubber gloves and I even dug out my trusty goggles from Chem 101 lab days. I probably double checked the rule for combining the lye and water a dozen times (add the lye to the water, NOT the water to the lye). No one was going to get a chemical burn on my watch!

When the moment of truth arrived we donned our PPE, measured out the ingredients and started our water and lye reaction. The mixture became cloudy and hot, and noxious vapors started to rise from the container. IT WAS HAPPENING! After the appropriate amount of time we carefully added the lye solution to our oil and began to mix. We mixed, and mixed and mixed, waiting for trace, the point at which the oil and lye solution emulsifies. IT WAS NOT HAPPENING! I'm not sure how long it finally took, but Iet's just say we had plenty of time to take turns sneaking inside the house to set out party food and decorations. By the time we were finally ready to let the soap cook the party was in full swing around back on the patio. Perfect timing! This is the part where nothing happens, right? WRONG! In our abundant research we missed the warnings that it might be a mistake to leave soap unattended while it cooks...that cooking soap expands, especially if your oils start out too hot...that after all your hard work you might end up losing half your batch to a SOAPCANO.

crockpot with lid lifted up by overflowing soap and surrounded by pool of soap

We salvaged what we could, let the soap finish cooking and got it messily into the molds we had selected. It was soap, but it wasn't pretty. It was flaky, crumbly and had black specks in it. But nobody died or even got burned and we had fun, so in the grand scheme of things it was a win. And it sparked an interest in soapmaking that brought me here, offering that same, very simple recipe to the wide world. I named it Just Plain Good because that's what it is; not fancy, but MUCH better than that first batch and it gets the job done in a big way. Lather for days without being harsh. I love it for shaving but it's an all around good shower bar.

photo of two bars of soap with ingredients list and description

I wish I could say I never experienced another soapcano, but I guess I'm a slow learner in some ways. Here are some take-aways if you want to jump into the adventure of soapmaking.

  • DO wear the PPE (at the least, gloves, long sleeves and eye protection). I've gotten one tiny lye burn from a little splash on my arm where the glove didn't quite reach my sleeve. It was uncomfortable enough for me to make sure it won't happen again.
  • DO used distilled water (yet another guideline we missed in our original research and probably the reason we had issues with our mixture coming to trace and those mysterious black specks)
  • DON'T leave your cooking soap unattended. You might be thinking, "it's soap, how hard can it be to clean up?" Hard enough.
  • DON'T let fear stop you from trying soapmaking. Do your research, start simple, consult a reliable soap calculator, take the safety precautions and go for it!

Are you excited to try making your own soap? I love it! When a batch of soap comes to trace it's seriously one of my favorite things. Or if DIY isn't your jam you can head over to my shop and pick up a bar of the soap that started it all.

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