Make Modern Soap with Herbs, Beeswax and Vegetable Oils

Make Modern Soap with Herbs, Beeswax and Vegetable Oils

So, you want to make soap? Good! I’ll try my best to tell you how. I’m Elaine White, author of ‘Soap Recipes: Seventy tried-and-true ways to make modern soap with herbs, beeswax and vegetable oils.’

These instructions are very condensed and cannot possibly contain the details included in my ‘Soap Recipes’ book. Nonetheless, I believe you will have a good overview after you read these instructions.

The outline for these instructions is:

  • Locating lye and safety precautions
  • The equipment list
  • The ten-step procedure
  • Herbal soap
  • Superfatting soap
  • Soap recipes

Locating lye and safety precautions

The following may frighten you, but I promise that thousands of people make soap everyday without mishap.

You need to know all the dangers present in order to avoid trouble. If you can get past the following warnings–you are destined to make soap!

Look where drain cleaners are sold and buy 100% lye (Red Devil is one brand). Don’t bother looking at liquid drain cleaners and don’t try Draino (it contains metal). If you aren’t sure the product is 100% lye, then order lye from a soapmaking or chemical supplier.

Of all soapmaking supplies, it seems that lye is the most unfamiliar to new soapmakers and they don’t know where to buy it. New soapmakers are also afraid they will buy the “wrong kind of lye.”

I highly recommend the following company for lye, accurate scales and pH test strips. ChemLab ships within the United States.
Ask for lye as “sodium hydroxide technical grade” granular or flake form.

Chem Lab Supplies
1060 Ortega Way, Unit C
Placentia CA 92670
Telephone 714-630-7902
Fax 714-630-3553

Most good soap recipes list lye by weight for accuracy. Lye in granular form (drain cleaner) measures differently than lye in flake form (the form of lye from laboratory chemical suppliers, pool chemical suppliers, etc).

Scales are a necessary part of successful soapmaking and allows you to use any type of lye. Lye can be nasty if handled improperly. Lye (sodium hydroxide) is also known as caustic soda.

Keep lye tightly capped.

Upon opening a container of lye, the lye crystals absorb water from the air, which can weaken the strength of the lye and cause it to form a solid lump. When not in use, keep lye closely capped.

Lye reacts with some metals: aluminum, zinc, and tin. Safe containers include heatproof stoneware, glass, enamel, stainless steel and plastic.

Lye can remove paint. If lye, lye/water or freshly-made soap splatters onto a painted surface, wipe it off immediately. Wash the area with water and detergent; wash it with clear water, then wipe it dry. Use old rags, because lye weakens cloth fiber.

Lye, lye/water and freshly-made soap can burn and irritate skin. You’ll notice itching before burning. Lye/water on skin is first noticed by a slippery feeling. Rinse your hands with vinegar and immediately rinse them with running water.

Since lye can burn skin, you can imagine what it does to eyes! Always wear eye protection! Wear sunglasses if you have to!

Lye can be fatal if swallowed. If you have small children, keep lye (and essential oils) in a locked cabinet. Lye/water sitting at the edge of a counter can easily be reached by children and even swallowed. Drinking lye/water is like drinking liquid fire. If someone ingests lye/water, do not induce vomiting or otherwise try to treat them. Take them to an emergency room immediately.

Fumes from lye/water. Some people are extremely sensitive to fumes that come from the lye/water. Fumes also come from the stirring container. Fumes from small batches (1 pound) usually isn’t enough to cause a problem.

Be aware than larger amounts of lye (larger batches of soap) create more fumes. With prolonged contact, fumes can burn the eyes and skin of sensitive people. If you make soap in large amounts and afterward feel as if your face is “sun burned,” chances are it was caused by fumes.

Thousands of people make soap without mishap. In order to do so, you must be aware of all safety hazards. Children, pets and feeble-minded people should not be in the soapmaking area or have access to stored soapmaking ingredients, especially lye and essential oil.

These instructions are very condensed and cannot possibly contain the details included in my ‘Soap Recipes’ book. Nonetheless, I believe you will have a good overview after you read these instructions.

The equipment list:

  • one 4-to-6 cup mixing container made of lye-resistant material (I use a stainless steel mixing bowl)
  • one heatproof container that holds at least 2 cups (I use a Pyrex measuring cup)
  • stainess steel, plastic, wooden spoon or a rubber spatula
  • two thermometers made of glass or stainless steel (candy and meat thermometers work well)
  • eye protection (wear sunglasses if you have to!)
  • rubber gloves (optional)
  • accurate scale to weight the fats and lye
  • soap molds (any flexible plastic container works well)
  • a clock with a second hand or other type timer
  • wire whisk (optional)
  • pot holders or oven mitts
  • measuring spoons

The Ten-step Procedure

1) Heat the fat. Put the fats in a lye-resistant container and place a glass or stainless steel thermometer into the fats. Be sure the thermometer doesn’t touch the bottom of the container and give a false reading. Heat the fats and optional ingredients to the temperature specified in the recipe.

2) Put on eye protection and rubber gloves.

3) Use a heat-proof container to measure the amount of cold water (70 to 75 degrees F) specified in the recipe. Cold water is important. If you add lye to hot or boiling water, the water could “boil-up” out of the container.

If you add lye to *really* cold water, the lye/water might not reach the high temperatures required to make some recipes.

Stir the water and slowly add the lye. The water will get hot and turn cloudy. Continue to stir until the lye dissolves. Don’t breathe or intentionally smell the fumes coming from the cup because they are quite “chokey.” If you wait too long to stir the water, the lye could harden in the bottom of the container. This is not a problem. You can still sitr it, but it will be more difficult. Add a glass or stainless steel thermometer to the lye/water and wait until it reaches the temperature specified in the recipe.

4) When both the fat and the lye/water reach the temperature specified in the recipe, add the lye/water to the fat. It’s sometimes a balancing act to get the fat mixture and the lye/water mxiture to specific temperatures at the same time. Never place lye/water in a microwave (the cup could break).

It takes lye/water longer to cool than it takes fat to heat. Most soapmakers wait for the lye/water to cool to about five degrees above the desired temperature, then heat the fat. When both the lye/water and the fat are within five degrees of the temperatures specified in the recipe. Use a pot holder and move the bowl to a sink (to contain splatters). Slowly pour the lye/water into the fats while stirring.
Temperatures for small one-pound batches of soap poured into individual molds aren’t critical. As long as the lye/water and fats are between 120 and 140 degrees F you will have good success. Larger batches or batches poured into a single mold, require lower temperatures.

5) Stir the soap until it “traces.”

When lye, water and fat first combine, the mixture is thin and watery. Gradually, as the lye and fat react chemically to form soap, the mixture thickens and turns opaque.

“Tracing” is a term to describe the consistency (thickness) of soap when it’s ready to pour into molds.

To test for tracing:

a. Drip some soap onto the surface of the soap in the stirring bowl. It should leave a “trace” or small mound.
b. Draw a line in the soap with a spoon or rubber spatula. If a “trace” of the line remains for a few seconds, the soap has traced.

Tracing is easy to recognize, yet it causes new soapmakers a lot of worry. Relax and know that the soap will trace eventually. Just stir the soap constantly for the first 15 minutes or so, then stir the soap every fifteen minutes until it thickens and traces, no matter how long it takes.

6) After the soap traces, add up to one tablespoon essential oil (if desired) and stir a few minutes longer to incorporate the oil. About the only soap that remains totally scent-free is the Pure Soap Recipe that follows. Other fats result in soap that has a “fatty lye” smell. Essentials oils are necessary for a pleasant-smelling product.

7) Pour the soap into molds and wait for it to harden. The recipes states this length of time as ‘time in mold.’

8) Unmold the soap.

Soap is still harsh when it’s time to remove it from the molds. Put on rubber gloves and press the back of each mold compartment to release the soap. It’s a lot like removing ice cubes from a tray. Sometimes the soap doesn’t release easily from the mold. To overcome this problem, leave the soap in a freezer for a few hours. Freezing soap causes it to contract slightly, become hard and release from the plastic mold.

9) Wait the time specified in a recipe for the soap to”age” (usually 3 weeks). During the aging time the pH of the soap decreased (the soap becomes mild) and the bars harden. It’s a good idea to write the following information on a piece of paper and place it with the soap: the date you made the soap, the date the aging time is over, and recipe.

10) Step 10 is *enjoy your soap!*

As soap ages, a fine, white powder may appear on the surface. This is soda ash (sodium carbonate) formed by a reaction of lye with carbon dioxide in air. This white powder is mostly on the surface exposed to air while the soap was in the molds. Soap that contains wax develops little or no soda ash.

There are three ways to deal with soda ash:

Try to prevent it.

Immediately after pouring soap into molds, cover the soap with plastic wrap or waxed paper. Press the wrap or paper onto the surface of the soap to prevent air contact.

Cut it away.

Overfill the molds slightly. Later, when the soap hardens, take a knife and cut the soap level with the mold. This also cuts away the soda ash.

Wash it away.

Wait until the soap ages and hardens. Wash the powder away by rubbing the soap with your hands under running water or by rubbing the soap over a wet dishcloth. Set the soap aside to dry then enjoy your soap!

Herbal soap

You can replace the water in soap recipes with herbal tea, but to be honest, most of the properties (color and fragrance) are lost. The best way to use herbs in soap is to add dry, finely powdered herbs to the fats before adding the lye/water. Use anywhere from 1 tablespoon to 1/4 cup dried herbs to 1 lb soap. Restrict coarsely-ground herbs to about 1 or 2 tablespoons per lb soap because they contribute a coarseness to the soap that sometimes makes it uncomfortable during use.

The nicest way to add properties of herbs to soap is the addition of pure essential oils. Over time, soap can develop a “lye-fat” odor, which essential oil prevents. Use anywhere from 1 teaspoon to 2 tablespoons essential oil per lb soap (depending on the strength of the oil).

Color is an illusive thing as far as soap is concerned. Natural colors can be obtained by adding 2 tablespoons red clay, Calendula petals, or yellow palm oil.

→ Natural Dyes You Could Use to Produce Healthy Soaps with Exciting Colors

Superfatting soap

The following recipes result in soap with very little excess fat. This soap leaves skin perfectly clean and smooth feeling. Some people like excess fat in recipes. To superfat soap, I recommend 2 to 4 tablespoons additional fat, such as castor oil. Castor oil is emollient and contributes to soap lather.

To superfat with other fats, you can subtract about .2 oz weight lye from one lb batches of soap recipes which allows excess fat to remain.

Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for –the recipes!

Ounces (oz) are determined by weight unless otherwise stated.

Homemade Soap Recipes

This is the only recipe I’ve discovered that remains scent-free without adding fragrance to the recipe. This soap is a bit too harsh for bath soap, but great for cleaning, washing dishes, delicate laundry, etc. Great lather and no fragrance.


* 16 oz coconut oil
* 2.8 oz lye
* 1 cup water (8 fluid ounces)
Fat and lye/water temperature about 120 degrees F

Estimated tracing time: 1 1/2 hours

Time in molds: 48 hours

Age: 3 weeks

Soap II — Pure Soap Mink Oil Shampoo


16 oz weight coconut oil
1/2 cup mink oil or (4 T. Castor oil)
2.9 oz lye
1 cup water (8 fluid oz.)

Oil room temperature.

Mix and use lye when the water turns clear. Put all ingredients in the blender.

Follow the instructions for “Blender Soap” Don’t let this soap trace. Process until the mixture is smooth (no oil streaks) and pour it into molds. Leave in molds 2 days. Freeze soap 3 hours to release it from the molds. Age 3 weeks.

Soap III


6 oz coconut oil
6 oz olive oil
5 oz vegetable shortening
2.6 oz lye
1 cup water (8 fluid ounces)
Fat and lye/water temperature about 120 degrees F

Time in molds: 48 hours. Age: 4 weeks

Soap IV

9 oz vegetable shortening
4 oz coconut oil
3 oz lard
2.4 oz lye
3/4 cup water (6 fluid ounces)
Fat and lye/water temperature about 120 degrees F

Time in molds: 24 hours. Age: 3 weeks

Homemade Soap Recipes : Soap V

A traditional and blender soap combination. The fats are expensive, but milk allows for about 12 bars, vs. only 6 bars of the same recipe without milk. Pretty sneaky, huh?


8 oz weight cocoa butter
5 oz weight palm oil
3 oz weight castor oil
2.2 oz weight lye (sodium hydroxide)
1 cup cold milk (I used 2% right from the frig)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon essential oil (I added 2 chamomile tea bags and 2 jasmine tea bags, dry)
Fats: 100 degree range
Lye/water/milk combination: 125 degree range

Dissolve the lye in the water. Add all ingredients to the blender. Process about 30 seconds, or until the mixture looks smooth and a uniform color. It will not trace. Pour it into the molds (it won’t separate, trust me)

Soap VI & VII


16 oz lard or beef tallow
2.2 oz lye
3/4 cup water (6 fluid ounces)

Estimated tracing 45 minutes. Fat and lye/water temperature about 120 degrees F. Time in molds: 24 hours. Age: 3 weeks

Soap VIII — Beeswax Castile


16 oz weight olive oil
1 oz beeswax
1 oz palm oil
2.1 oz lye
1 cup water (8 fluid ounces)
(melt the beeswax with the fats)
Fat and lye/water temperature about 150 degrees F.

Tracing time: about 12 minutes FAST! (This is not a good blender soap candidate!) Time in molds: 48 hours. Place the soap in a freezer for 3 hours, then remove it from the mold.

The Author:

Elaine C. White is the author of Soap Recipes: Seventy tried-and-true ways to make modern soap with herbs, beeswax and vegetable oils.

2 thoughts on “Make Modern Soap with Herbs, Beeswax and Vegetable Oils

  1. I have made your Soap V recipe many times and I’m wondering if I can double the batch without it failing. Have you doubled this recipe before and had success?
    Thank you.

  2. Sorry Laurye, the author has not given instructions for doubling the recipe. Please let us know if you have had success with that recipe if you do try doubling it. 🙂

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