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Safe Soapmaking on a Budget: A Practical Guide for Beginning Soap Makers.

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When I wanted to compile some information for all my soapy friends about the basics of soap making (soap safety), I immediately thought of my dear soapy friend, Kathy Davenport Gray, and her fantastic presentation at the 2022 HSCG conference. Who better to take my ramblings and put them into a cohesive primer on soapy safety! Without further ado, here’s Kathy’s take on my chicken scratch outline to help keep all our soapy friends soaping safely, and without breaking the bank. And please do scroll down all the way because she’s included some photos of her soap for us, too! (And we all know how much I love soapy photos!)

General soapmaking cost saving tips:

Hobbies can be expensive. Buying equipment, tools, and supplies can add up fast – but if you’re interested in making soap, I have good news for you! Soapmaking doesn’t have to break the bank: there are many cheap or even free alternatives to pricey soapmaking equipment.

Start soapmaking on a budget! Here are some ideas for cutting down the cost of making soap:

  • Raid your own kitchen for extra bowls, spatulas, spoons, and storage containers.
  • Keep your eye out for stick (emersion) blenders, crock pots, and metal pots and pans at garage sales and thrift shops.
  • Use your Amazon account and other online stores that offer free shipping to find oils, molds, and some other supplies. Here’s a link to Kandra’s soapy list on Amazon. It has some of the basics she uses, plus some nice-to-haves that she’s ordered on Amazon.
    • Exception: it’s almost always a bad idea to buy fragrance oils (FO’s), essential oils (EO’s) and mica (colorants) on Amazon. Unfortunately, there are a lot of sketchy sellers of these type of products at Amazon. Stick with reliable soapmaking suppliers for these type of purchases.
  • Buy locally! Shop for oils at your supermarket or ethnic grocers (Asian and Indian markets carry many vegetable oils and herbs that may be hard to find at chain grocery stores in the U.S.); farmer markets are great places to find items like goat milk, herbs, and organic fruit and veggies.

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Soapmaking on a budget – cost savings tips for equipment and ingredients (with soap safety in mind):

The keys to an affordable kick ass soap making set up are:

  1. knowing what materials you need (as in, what type of plastic is lye safe, what type of containers and be used to store the various ingredients etc.)
  2. and limiting yourself from buying too many things, which can be hard!

Here’s my list of the minimum goodies you’ll need along tips for economizing, and a healthy dose of safety tips along with way:

Looking for the tools I use when making soap? Check out my Amazon Shopping List.

Lye and Lye Equipment

Sodium hydroxide is commonly sold as household drain cleaner and widely available at hardware stores, grocery stores, and home improvement stores. Look for drain cleaner that contains ONLY sodium hydroxide, in granules (not liquid). Also, larger quantities of lye can sometimes be found at pool supply stores or local chemical supply companies, sold as “soda ash” or “caustic soda.”

You’ll need to remember that when using lye (aka sodium hydroxide, caustic soda, or NaOH), there are only a few types of materials that are safe for mixing and storage.

You’ll also need a lye pitcher for mixing your lye solution. When soapmaking on a budget, this is no place to skimp. Choose a suitable container made from lye safe materials (see below). A container with a lid is a useful option to contain spills and prevent a lot of water evaporation.

Lye Safe Storage Materials:

  • PLASTIC – it should always be POLYPROPYLENE – Polypropylene is rigid, tough, and resistant to moisture, grease, and chemicals. It’s commonly used for kitchen containers, to-go containers, paint mixing buckets, and some disposable cups. Look for the recycle symbol (triangle with arrows) with the number 5, which is safe for mixing and storing lye (sodium hydroxide). 
PP Icon

Note: some fragrance oils and most essential oils, at full strength, will melt plastic. Do not measure fragrances into plastic containers.

  • METAL – Metal containers should always be stainless steel. Why? Because many metals react with lye, and some will create toxic fumes – this can be quite dangerous.  Aluminum, Brass, Copper, Bronze, and Zinc are NOT SAFE to use with lye.
  • SILICONE – soap molds and mold liners made of silicone are safe to use; silicone spatulas and spoons are very useful for stirring lye and water together.
  • CERAMIC – the ceramic liner of a crock pot is safe to use for cooking soap.

What about glass? Or even “heat resistant” glass like Pyrex? NOPE! Glass is also reactive to lye, like certain metals. Lye will etch tiny cracks into glass, making it weak, which leads to the glass exploding or shattering very suddenly. Injuries are a real concern, but countertops, cabinets, and flooring can be permanently damaged. Glass containers are not safe to use when mixing soap.

Soapmaking on a budget - ley safe mixing and storage containers

I can’t bring up lye or lye containers without also stressing how important it is to BE SAFE When Handling & Mixing Lye:

  • Wear protective gear to protect eyes, skin, and lungs – safety goggles, mask or respirator, gloves, long sleeves and long pants, and shoes (no sandals or flip flops).
  • Storage – always keep your lye inaccessible from pets, children, or anyone who doesn’t know how to handle lye safely. Keep lye in an airtight container to avoid getting moisture inside, which will cause the lye to degrade. If you move the lye from the original packaging to another container, always mark the new container with the name and appropriate warnings.
  • Always add lye to water (or other water-based liquid) – adding water to lye can cause a volcano effect; remember this saying, “The Snow Falls Over the Lake”. The lye is the snow (pellets or flakes) and the lake is your water.
  • Be prepared for accidents – running water or an eye wash station will make your work area much safer; have Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for lye and fragrance/essential oils easy to find for reference.
  • When Mixing Lye with Water – do this in a well-ventilated place because the mixture will off-gas for about five minutes and quickly heat up to around 220°F. Do not stand with your face over the container. Stir until there is no more gritty material in the bottom of the container and leave the area to allow the lye solution to cool.
  • Keep Your Lye Solution Safe – Always mark the container of lye solution so it won’t be mistaken for water; keep it in a safe place, out of the reach of children and pets.

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Fats and Oils

One of the toughest lessons for new soapmakers is that it doesn’t take a lot of different oils to make excellent soap. A soap recipe that has six or more different oils is not necessary and will probably end up being very costly. When several different oils are bought you end up with a LOT; some oils will not get used up as quickly and can get old or turn rancid.

Great soap can be made with just one or two, maybe three, different oils. All oils have a shelf life, some shorter than others. Try to stick with those oils that have a longer shelf life, like Olive, Coconut, Palm, Tallow or Lard, Cocoa butter, Shea butter, Castor

Hemp seed, grapeseed, rice bran, and apricot kernel oils all have shorter shelf lives and need to be used within six months to a year. Oils that are expensive will be best used in other skincare products such as lotions, creams, and body oils. Examples: evening primrose, meadowfoam seed, jojoba, and tamanu oils.

Looking for a great starter recipe? Check out Kandra’s go-to palm-free vegan recipe. It uses just 3 oils that are all available at a grocery store!

Fragrances

Fragrances are often the biggest budget buster for soapmaking on a budget. Whether you choose fragrance oils (FO’s) or essential oils (EO’s), I say this in all seriousness: there is no prize for the person with the biggest collection. Fragrance is the single most expensive ingredient in handmade soap, so it’s more important than ever to not go crazy buying dozens of bottles of fragrance. Sure, shopping for fragrance can be as tantalizing as reading a steamy romance novel – and then you’ll have to come back to the real world. The truth is that many, many FO’s are mediocre at best, and rarely as wonderful as their descriptions. Also true: you can only use so many bars of soap in your own shower, and if you have a soap business, selling dozens of different scents is confusing to customers! Marketing studies prove that a customer that takes too much time deciding between a color or variety of a product will be more likely to WALK AWAY without purchasing anything. It’s a sobering thought: too much variety can hurt your business.

Kandra also has a great article here explaining how she tests aromas, and uses the natural aromas of the ingredients instead of expensive essential oils.

A note on Fragrance Storage:
Besides lye, FO’s and EO’s should be handled safely because they are highly concentrated and most of them can be toxic or dangerous when in contact with skin, eyes, and respiratory system. When handling fragrances, use gloves and goggles.

Scales

A kitchen scale that weighs up to around 10-11 pounds; a scale that weighs in both grams and ounces is better.  ALWAYS weigh soap ingredients! If you find a soap recipe with cups, teaspoons, or tablespoons for measurements, skip that one and keep on scrolling. Volume measurements are not accurate or precise enough for soapmaking. Here’s the scale Kandra and I both use for measuring grams.

Mixing Bowls

You’ll want one or two, 2-quart size mixing bowls, either plastic or stainless steel. An empty coconut oil gallon bucket works great and it comes full of coconut oil, too. 😊 Also, plastic paint buckets from local home improvement stores are my favorites and come in a few different sizes.

Avoid shallow, wide bowls: when mixing, you’ll want the bell of the stick blender to be covered by the liquid ingredients.

Measuring Cups / Small Containers

You’ll want a few, 1-cup or 2-cup size containers for measuring lye and additives into (other liquids, various powdered additives, colorants, salts, etc. all need to be measured into some container while you’re setting up to make soap).

Although glass shouldn’t be used for mixing or storing lye, glass or stainless-steel containers SHOULD be used for mixing EO’s and FO’s. Note: many FO’s and EO’s can eat holes in plastic; the dissolved plastic material will contaminate the oils and reduce the quality of those expensive oils.

Spoons/Spatulas

Various sizes will be needed for scooping, stirring, and scraping fresh, wet soap; large, one-piece silicone “spoonulas” are my personal favorites, for hand stirring and scraping out every last bit of wet soap going into the mold. Wood spoons will get eaten by lye, little by little, so pass up those wooden spoons, please. Kandra also likes these stainless steel spoons for dispensing colorants and stirring up small amounts of additives.

Gloves

Nitrile gloves are disposable, easy to find, and most importantly, they do not react with lye or other caustic materials.

Rubber or Latex gloves (the ones used for household cleaning) are not disposable and they are only partially resistant to caustics: if you choose to use this type of glove, to avoid disposables, please check your gloves carefully every time you use them. They will hold up for a while but can quickly develop a hole. (Ask me how I know…) 

Polyethylene (sometimes referred to as “poly”) disposable gloves are used mainly for food prep in restaurants, they are not resistant to caustics and not safe for soapmaking.

Stick Blender (also called Emersion Blender)

Yes, you could hand stir soap but it will likely take a Long. LONG. Time.

Stick blenders are an amazing and powerful tool in the world of soapmaking. When soapmaking on a budget, this will be your most expensive one-time purchase, unless you can score one at the thrift store! Instead of hours (with a spoon) you can blend up your soap in minutes, maybe even seconds.

Even a budget focused soapmaker will keep a spare stick blender on hand because you never know when your stick blender will decide to give up the ghost. As sure as your kid gets sick on the weekend, a stick blender will lay down and die in the middle of a soap batch after all the stores have closed. This is when you thank your lucky stars that you found that almost-brand-new blender at a garage sale for $5, or you grabbed one on Amazon for cheap: you plug in your spare and keep on making soap! 

Soap Pot

If planning to cook or hot process soap on the stove top, a stainless-steel pot is a must; they are also useful for melting solid oils (fats and butters) for cold process soap. However, you can melt oils in the microwave for cold process (CP) and skip the soap pot.

Crock Pot

Many soapmakers love to hot process (HP) in a crock pot.  To help keep costs down and focus on soapmaking on a budget, purchase one new on a sale around the holidays in the USA, or score one in a thrift store most any time of year.

Molds

 When your soap is ready to pour, you’ll need something to put it in. There are so many options – and once you’ve been making soap for a while, you’ll start seeing soap molds everywhere – trust me on this.

Here are a few low-cost ideas for soap molds for soapmaking on a budget:

  • Pringles cans
  • Shoe boxes
  • Cheese boxes
  • Milk cartons (quart size)
  • Old sewing machine drawers (lined with plastic)
  • Silicone cupcake molds
  • Silicone bakery molds – similar size to cupcakes
  • Handmade wood boxes from scrap wood

Molds that are made of wood or cardboard will need to be lined with a plastic bag (like an unscented garbage bag) or freezer paper.

If you make your own wood molds, never use plywood. It contains glue that will off-gas toxic fumes and carcinogens. Also, wood drawers can make great soap molds but check to see if they have glue in the joints. If so, the glue could melt if the drawers are heated in an oven for oven processing.

Other things to avoid as a soap mold are glass or metal containers. Often, liners can leak a bit and even a small amount can react with glass and most metals.

Cutters

A simple knife or cheese cutter will work fine, although many hobbyist soapmakers and professional soapers prefer to invest in a multiple-wire cutter. They can cost anywhere from around $100 for a single wire cutter, and $160 to over $200 for a multiple wire cutter. For straight cuts and uniformly sized bars, it’s hard to beat a wire cutter. There are many sellers on Etsy as well as Amazon, so read all the reviews, get recommendations, and invest wisely. I’ve had the same wire cutter for about 13 years and never even had a broken wire.

Here’s Kandra’s favorite “soapmaking on a budget” soap cutter. It’s a cheese slicer!

Storage

Finally, soaps need a place to cure and a place to be stored. Sometimes those two things can be the same place. While soap is curing it’s very important to have air circulation and the soap should be protected from dust, excessive heat, and sunlight during curing and storage times. For storage, soaps still need air circulation so don’t store in airtight containers. Metal racks should be avoided or covered with heavy cardboard or hard plastic trays.

Some free or low-cost options for soap storage include:

  • Shoe boxes with lids (small batches)
  • Flat, produce boxes from “discount club” stores (bonus: they’re stackable)
  • Plastic cafeteria trays (Read more about Kandra’s all time favorite soapy room addition)
  • Lightweight tea towels, old sheets (cut in squares) – to cover soaps

Soapmaking on a budget – whether it’s just for you, your family and friends, or as a business – can be immensely satisfying as an artistic expression with a practical element. There are endless combinations of ingredients, from base oils to fragrance, colors, shapes, and sizes.  Goat milk? Honey? Vegan? Natural colorants? What kind of soaps will you make? The only limits are your imagination and creativity. Here are a few of my soaps, some recent and some from a few years ago – I hope you enjoy looking at them, that you stay safe while making your own soaps, and that you also share photo’s of your soapy creations with us in Kandra’s Facebook Group!

Wondering what type of soaps you can make while soapmaking on a budget?

Here are some of the many beautiful soaps Kathy has made over the years! While some use more “pricy” molds, Kathy is a queen of economy and comes up with great ways to economize her soapmaking processes.

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