10 Common Soap Making Mistakes (You Don't Want to Break These Rules for Soap Making)
I decided I'd better write this post because in the past week alone, I have had two different friends call me asking why their soap isn't turning out. One friend decided she could deviate from the recipe, and the other friend used measuring cups to measure ingredients. Add these two issues with other mistakes I have made in my past several years of soap making experience, and I have quite the list! Here are ten common soap making mistakes so you can avoid making these errors yourself!
Soap making is NOT hard. It doesn't have to be stressful.
Making your own handmade soap is fun, relaxing, creative, and allows you to make something good for your family! It can also help you make some extra money, as in the case of a friend of mine who learned how to make hot process soap from my eBook and is now doing a great little side business with my recipe! (Glad to help!) :-)
**You may also be interested in reading about How to Color Your Soaps Naturally Using Herbs and Clays.
FTC Disclosure: There are affiliate links scattered throughout this article. If you click through and make any kind of purchase I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you--Heidi (Full Disclosure Here)
BUT! There are some soap making rules you just should NEVER break, or you may be dealing with messed up soap.
Sometimes nothing bad will happen if you break some of these rules. Other times, you may end up with a safety disaster. Or, you could burn yourself. At the least, you may end up with a bunch of wasted oils and lye, along with a caustic mess. One of the worst possibilities is that someone else could get hurt.
So, to be sure your soap making sessions are fun, creative, enjoyable...and most of all SAFE, read through these common soap making mistakes before you start your handmade soap making endeavors!
10 Common Soap Making Mistakes You Do NOT Want to Make
1) Substituting Oils or Butters: Can You Make Oil or Butter Substitutions in Your Soap Recipe?
I got a text from a friend letting me know she had substituted shea butter with cocoa butter in my recipe, straight across. Well, luckily, these butters are similar enough that the soap turned out ok, although with a different consistency and a bit crumbly. HOWEVER, this was a lucky accident.
You see, oils and butters have something called a "sap value." This is also known as the saponification value, and it is a number assigned to an oil or butter that tells you the amount of lye needed to convert one gram of specific fat (oil/butter) to soap.
Oils and butters can vary greatly in their saponification value, depending on the types and amounts of fatty acids contained in the oil, among other things. Therefore, you may think you are trading one oil for a similar one, but their saponification values can be far enough apart to affect the outcome of your soap...or cause it not to saponify at all.
So what's a soap maker to do if she/he wants to substitute say, a tree nut oil (like almond oil) for another oil (maybe a non-tree nut oil) that may be better for that person?
There are two ways to handle substitutions of oils, in my experience. There are probably other ways, but these are the two things I've done in the past with success when I have wondered how to safely substitute one oil or butter for another one and still make good soap.
Oil/Butter Substitution Strategy #1: Use a Saponification Values Chart to Compare
The first thing you can do to safely substitute oils or butters in your soap making is to find a saponification chart and find another oil/butter with a similar sap value. For example, almond oil has a saponification value of 0.136 for lye, while Babassu oil has a sap value of 0.175. These are not close enough to substitute straight across.
However, Apricot oil, with a sap value of 0.135, is close enough to not make a big difference in the soap making outcome. Here is a handy saponification value chart for lye/sodium hydroxide (NAOH) and potassium hydroxide (KOH) for your enjoyment!
Oil/Butter Substitution Strategy #2: Run Your Changes Through a Lye Calculator
The other way to be sure you have a safe recipe change is to run your numbers through a lye calculator. This will ensure you have the right amount of lye needed to saponify the oils/butters you want to use into good soap.
You should always do this anyway, in my opinion. I never used to do this when I first started making soap. I just trusted the recipe. But I have learned that it takes just a couple extra minutes, and I have run across errors in recipes this way and have been able to adjust accordingly.
My favorite lye calculator is this one from SoapCalc.net. It's great! Plus it gives you a table of ranges for soap qualities because not all oils and butters can really go together well in a good bar of soap. You want to pay attention to characteristics like hardness, lathering ability, skin conditioning, and more.
2) Forgetting to Add Something
This sounds obvious....but I have been guilty of this on occasion. One time, I left out 12 whole ounces of almond oil, and I just could NOT figure out why that soap wasn't saponifying already!
I use the hot process method of soap making most of the time, and I had my mixture cooking away for...get this...FIVE hours! LOL And it just would not work! I kept testing it using the "zap" test, and I'll tell you---my tongue was not feeling too good, by the time I realized I had neglected to add the almond oil.
That was a real "DOH!" moment.
But stuff like this happens in real life. Now I have a checklist....just in case. Or, I'll pull out all my ingredients before starting and put them away as I go along. Either way helps this forgetful old lady. ;-)
Closely related to #2---Distractions in your soap making area can cause you to make mistakes. I have a feeling my husband was trying to talk to me when I accidentally omitted the almond oil in my fiasco mentioned above.
But distractions do happen.
Another friend texted me with a picture of some really crumbly unsaponified soap that was a real mess. Turns out her husband wanted his dinner right now already! So, she made a mistake and ended up with a mess.
It's really a good idea to plan time for your soap making so that you are not worried about children, pets, or anything else. Especially if you are a newbie soap maker, please be sure you can concentrate on your soap.
The other thing about distractions is that they can create a really unsafe environment. The minute you turn your back, you don't want your little toddler accidentally getting into your lye! That could be a serious tragedy.
So just be sure you can give your soap making your full attention for the time it takes to start and finish.
Another reason to be watching your soap as it cooks in the crock pot is that it may have a tendency to "cook over," which quickly stirring it down can take care of. But if you aren't watching--you may not see it. Then you'll have a caustic mess on your hands. Ask me how I know. LOL
How long does hot process soap making take?
Well, hot process soap making usually takes about an hour and a half to three hours, with most soap making sessions taking roughly two hours, in my experience. Count on it taking a little longer if you are a beginner.
4) Incorrectly Measuring Ingredients
Uh-Oh! Don't do this!
Another friend sent me a picture of her soap, and it was a mess. She told me she had measured everything out just fine, the mixture came to trace perfectly, but as it cooked, it became a big ugly hardened mass.
After asking her a few questions, she told me she had used measuring cups to measure out her ingredients instead of a kitchen scale.
You absolutely MUST use a kitchen scale and measure as accurately for the recipe as you can. I try to be within 1/100th of an ounce when I measure out my ingredients, because I just don't want to take chances.
The reason a kitchen scale is the only way to go when measuring your ingredients is the weight of the oils/butters/lye won't always match up to the liquid/dry measures in volume. Volume and weight are two different things!
So...PLEASE be sure to use that kitchen scale to make your soap.
5) Forgetting Your Safety Gear
Safety gear includes these things:
** Eye coverage. I recommend safety glasses. However, I just use my eyeglasses because without them, I can't see. But be sure you have something covering your eyes. You don't want that strange little splash to accidentally end up in your eyes, right? Lye can blind you!
** Rubber gloves. Splashes do happen, and you want your hands and arms protected.
** Long sleeves. Depending on the kind of lye you are using, you may get "dust" that settles on your bare arms as you measure (Ask me how I know). If you have sensitive skin, it will itch at the very least or burn at the worst. So, just do yourself a favor and wear those long sleeves.
** Don't go barefoot. (Again. Ask me how I know...lol.) And along these lines, you should also wear long pants.
** A mask. Some soap makers like to wear a mask, like a painter's particle mask, because when you mix your lye solution fumes result. I just turn my head away and stand back as I stir plus I go outside to mix my solution, but if you can't do this, then a mask is a good solution.
6) Getting Fancy Too Fast
You know, I love my soap making books. My favorites are Jan Berry's Natural Soap Making, Kelly Cable's Natural Soap Making for Beginners, and Alicia Grosso's The Everything Soap Making Book. Also, here is a shameless plug for my own Hot Process Soap Making eBook! They are all really fun to look at those incredible pictures and want to give everything a try.
If you are just starting out and haven't experienced several soap making sessions, I suggest you take one relatively simple recipe and use that to make your own variations until you have an intuitive sense about what works and what doesn't.
THEN go ahead and start branching out into new recipes with exotic ingredients and more complicated methods.
I say this only because if you are a beginner and you have an early fail, you may decide to give up. And soap making is just too valuable a skill to give up on. So start easy. Try variations. Then branch out into more difficult things.
That's why I wrote my eBook, How to Make Hot Process Soap: How to Create & Customize Your Own Soap. It includes my no-fail best amazing soap recipe, along with more recipes for variations, along with charts your coloring, texturizing, and scenting your own soaps.
It's a great way to learn and begin to make quality soap and then experiment before moving on to other soap recipes that require a huge array of ingredients. It's available on Amazon Kindle too.
7) Using Metal Tools (Except Stainless Steel)
Some metals interact with lye, and not in a good way. Tin and aluminum, in particular, can cause problems. For example, lye and aluminum can create hydrogen gases! Frankly, I recommend not using any kind of metal in your soap making.
Lye mixed into room temperature water can have an initial temperature of 200 degrees! So, keep that in mind when choosing a container for mixing up your lye solution.
8) Mishandling Lye
By this, I mean how you mix up your lye solution. You should always be sure to pour your lye into the water and never the other way around. If you add water to the lye, you stand the chance of creating a lye volcano, and this has the potential to cause injury.
If you do happen to get lye or caustic soap on your skin, just rinse well for 10-15 minutes with water. Some people say to use vinegar to counteract the alkalinity of the lye, but this is a controversial subject among soap makers.
If you're in doubt, please seek medical attention. In my experience, I've tried both water and vinegar, and both have helped. The best thing of all, though, is to avoid getting lye on your skin.
A Quick Note: My husband is a painter, and he works with caustic substances all the time. He actually laughed at my fears using lye "because it's caustic" as he works with dangerous chemicals on a daily basis.
So. When soap makers like me go on and on about all the safety concerns with lye---well, just use safety precautions and good common sense. You'll be fine.
9) Purchasing Sub-Par Ingredients
All oils and butters are not equal, my friends. Although you don't need to spend a ton of money, once you start experimenting with different brands of oils and butters and essential oils, you will discover there are some big differences.
For example, the cheap olive oils you find on store shelves are not always pure olive oil. I hate to break that to you, but it's true.
I bought a huge jug of olive oil from my local grocery store because it was actually less expensive than my usual Costco Organic Olive Oil (the best priced quality olive oil I've been able to find). Well, our store room gets REALLY cold in the winter time. Guess what? The Costco olive oil never changes composition. The cheap olive oil from the store actually separated. Ew.
Another friend of mine tried purchasing shea butter from a different company than I recommended, and when she got it, it smelled like chemicals according to her. She ended up sending it back.
Just be aware that some companies do adulterate their products, and do your due diligence.
My favorite place to purchase oils, butters, herbs, clays, and essential oils for my soap making is Starwest Botanicals. I've never once been disappointed in the many years I've purchased from them.
10) Not Having Fun
You know what? Try not to stress out too much in your soap making endeavors. I know when I first started making soap, I decked myself out like the guys on Breaking Bad! LOL
And I double checked (which doesn't hurt) every single measurement I made, and was SUPER careful about everything (which also isn't a bad thing). But----I was a stress case.
I'll be honest. Soap making wasn't fun for me at first. I was just too worried about EVERY. THING. And looking back, I realize I shouldn't have been. Experience teaches us to lose our fear, right?
What made me keep at it was that I just LOVED my soaps! I loved creating them. I loved making my own versions using the same recipe that worked every time. I loved the pleasure people showed when I gave them my hand made gifts. You should see people's eyes light up when you hand them your home made soaps. It's really fun!
(You might also enjoy Killer Toxins Lurking in Your Soap.)
Final Thoughts on Soap Making Mistakes
Yes, there are some things you need to be aware of and cautions you need to take when making your own soap from scratch. Absolutely.
Especially if you are a beginner, you may be stressed out about all the things at first. I know I was. But trust me. The more soap you make and the more different things you try---the easier and more enjoyable it gets for you! I promise!
Are you wondering which method you should use? Cold process or hot process soap making? You'll love reading this article, Cold Process vs. Hot Process: Which is Better, because it's a pretty fair rundown of the positives and negatives of both styles.
Do you have experiences with making soap? Are there any mistakes I've left out? Leave your comments, questions, and experiences in the comments section! We love to hear from you!
Hugs & Self Reliance,
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