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How I Make Soap: An overview of the hot process soapmaking method

tea tree oil soap: no more lye

Making soap is like magic. Seriously, think about it: You take stuff that makes things feel greasy, mix it with stuff that would eat your face off and, if you do it just right, the end result is a wonderful bar of non-drying, skin-loving, fluffy-lathering soap.

Soapmaking is fun, but safety is a priority when dealing with sodium hydroxide, aka lye, aka the eat-your-face-off stuff. This is just a brief overview of the soapmaking process I use. Please do not use this as a complete how to guide. If that’s something you’re interested in, please, leave a comment and I will direct you to some more thorough resources on soapmaking.

Melting the Oils

Creating soap takes two basic things: oils or fats and an alkaline solution. In order to combine the oils and alkaline solution, the oils have to all be in liquid form and uniformly mixed. So, step one is measuring and melting the oils. For precision, all measuring is done by weight. Since I use a Crockpot for my hot process soapmaking, I add all my weighed oils to the Crockpot, then melt and mix them in the pot. For soapmaking, I generally use the low setting, but if I need to jump start the melting process I will start it on high then turn it down after a few minutes. This Crockpot is similar to the one I use.

Melting the Oils
Melting the Oils

Measuring the Lye

While the oils are warming in the Crockpot, I weigh the lye. It is important to be very precise when measuring the lye. Too little and the soap will be too soft. Too much and the soap could burn your skin. This is also why you need to be very careful about the soap recipes you use. If they are not correctly formulated, the end result could be dangerous.

Before I measure the lye, I measure the water or other liquid for the lye solution, also by weight. I do that first to limit the time I have the lye out.

Weighing the Lye
Weighing the Lye. Gloves and goggles on.

Lye Safety

I make sure to measure the lye into glassware and all containers and utensils that come into contact with lye or the lye solution are reserved solely for that purpose. Once the lye is out, I never leave it unattended. Lye crystals resemble table salt, which would be a potentially deadly mix-up. That’s also why my soap production has slowed since Thaddeus was born. Until they are old enough to understand the importance of staying out of the room and can be trusted out of sight but in earshot for the time it takes to get the soap cooking, I only make it when they are either out of the house or asleep with Chris there to tend to them if they wake up during the process.

Mixing the Lye Solution

Once my lye is measured, I add the lye to the water and stir with a wooden spoon until dissolved. Lye fizzes up when mixed, so it is important to have the liquid in a container with plenty of room. The solution with also get really hot and put off fumes, so be prepared. I like to have a window open or fans and the vent a hood running. Some soap makers mix the solution outside, but I like to stay close to my work space to limit the chance of spills.

Blending the Oils and Lye Solution

For cold process soapmaking, it is important to have the oils and lye solution at about the same temperature. With the Crockpot hot process method I use, I find I can mix the lye solution into the warmed, melted oils without having to measure the temperatures first.

When you first add the lye solution to the melted oils, the color will change from clear to opaque. In order to properly combine the lye and oils, I use a handheld stick blender. You can stir by hand, but it is much harder to get everything properly blended and it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r. I have had a stick blender die in the middle of making a batch of soap and it is a crazy long arm workout. I do not recommend it.

Adding the Lye Solution
Adding the Lye Solution

Goal of Blending

The goal for all the hard mixing is called “trace”. Basically, I’m wanting to be able to lift my blender out of the mixture and trace a design on top. With cold process, there are various stages of trace that guide when to add any fragrance, essential oils or other add-ins. Since I use the hot process method, I add almost everything after the cook. Because of that, I can mix my batches to a full, hard trace where my traced design doesn’t melt back into the mix. This limits the possibility of a false trace, or the mix seeming to quickly come to trace when it isn’t thoroughly mixed. When that happens, it might separate or have lye heavy spots.

Hard Trace
Hard Trace

Once it is at a hard trace, I stop mixing and put the lid on the Crockpot. If the mix seems too hot, for example, I had a false trace that I had to stir through, I will either turn the Crockpot to warm or off for a few minutes. Otherwise, I make sure it is on low and busy myself with cleaning up, lining my soap molds, and preparing essential oils and other additives.

Cleanup

Any lingering lye solution or soap mixture on the blender is still a risk for lye burns, so I’m cautious with the cleanup. For the whole soapmaking process, I keep a good amount of water with vinegar and a bit of dish soap ready in the sink. The vinegar helps neutralize the lye, so anything that comes into contact with lye goes directly into the vinegar solution, and I use a similar vinegar solution to wipe down my soapmaking area, just in case.

Stages of Saponification

During the cooking, the soap mix will change from an opaque, milky color to a shiny, translucent gel like texture. A pool of liquid also forms on top. that pool of liquid is glycerin, a byproduct of the saponification process. This transformation starts at the edges of the pot and happens in a wave moving towards the center. I find it really fun to watch.

Soap Waves
Soap Waves

Finishing the Batch

When the entire soap mixture is translucent and the consistency of mashed potatoes without lumps, I turn off the heat and stir the soap by hand for just a couple of minutes to let it cool. At this point, if done correctly, the mixture completely transformed to soap. I don’t want it to cool too much, or it would be hard to add the essential oils, but too hot and it will burn off the scent.

Glycerin Pool Forming in the Middle
Glycerin Pool Forming in the Middle

I then add any essential oils blended in my chosen carrier oil and any other add-ins I’m using in that batch, stir thoroughly by hand, and plop it into my molds. Since it is thick, I generally have to tap my molds on my counter firmly to eliminate air pockets.

Adding the Blended Essential Oils and Carrier Oil
Adding the Blended Essential Oils and Carrier Oil

Curing the Final Product

Because the saponification process is completed during the cooking, the soap is totally safe to use as soon as it is cool enough to touch. It needs to cool in the molds for 12-24 hours or so to hold it’s shape, though. Once it is firm enough to cut, I cut and wrap the bars. While not necessary, hot process bars still benefit from curing for at least a week or two to allow excess moisture to evaporate. As I discussed in my Proper Care and Feeding of Your Bar Soap post, the firmer and drier a bar of soap is, the longer it will last. That’s one of the reasons I wrap my soap in cloth rather than plastic. Cloth allows the soap to continue to harden for a longer lasting bar.

Soap Log in the Mold
Soap Log in the Mold

The batch I photographed for this post is my Tea Tree Oil Soap. Find it and my other handmade soaps for sale here: https://subearthancottage.com/product-category/soap-bath-beauty.

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Kombucha Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a few common questions about Kombucha. I’ve answered them based on my research and personal experience.

Kombucha questions

How much should I drink?

If you’ve never had Kombucha before, you’ll want to start slowly. Kombucha can have a detoxifying effect that can be unpleasant if you rush it. It is recommended to start with about an ounce per day at first and gradually increase until you reach a comfortable level for you. If you notice any ill effects cut back or stop for a few days to let your body catch up. Drinking lots of water can help, too.

Of course, you should always listen to your body. If you feel like you can’t tolerate kombucha don’t push it. There are plenty of other ways to get probiotics. Also, I’m not a doctor, and the above might not apply to everyone depending on your personal health. If you have any concerns, definitely consult your doctor.

Can I use metal utensils when making Kombucha?

Metal tea kettles for boiling the water are fine. It’s fine to stir the tea and sugar together with a metal spoon before adding the SCOBY. What you want to avoid is the SCOBY coming into contact with metal as that can damage the SCOBY. Even then, I have heard very brief contact is ok, such as when cutting up a giant SCOBY. I prefer to peel apart the layers and avoid metal touching my SCOBYs, though.

Can I use honey/stevia/coconut sugar/some other sweetener?

The sugar is food for the SCOBY and plain white sugar is recommended because it is easy for the SCOBY to digest. I have heard of some people having success with other sugars, but I haven’t tried it myself. If you want to try another form of sugar, I would start with a small batch and keep another SCOBY in a tea/white sugar brew as backup.

Stevia or other zero calorie sweeteners will not work because they don’t provide food for the SCOBY.

Can I use flavored teas?

Not for the main brew. You can use flavored teas to add flavor in a second ferment.

Can I use decaf teas?

This is another one where I’ve heard conflicting information. Most say not to use decaf tea. If you want to try decaf, as with different sugars, I would start with a small batch and keep another SCOBY in a regular tea/white sugar brew as backup.

My SCOBY looks funny. Is it bad?

Most SCOBYs look funny. They can be smooth and creamy colored or have air pockets and brown spots. The bottoms usually have brown stringy tentacle things hanging down. New SCOBYs grow on top of older ones until they look like a stack of slimy pancakes. (Eww.) All of this is normal, and there’s probably a million variations I haven’t described.

There are two main things to watch for: mold and black. If your SCOBY molds, it will look like blue-green dusty mold, just like what grows on bread. If you get mold, throw it all out and start over.

Black means the SCOBY is dead or dying. Toss it.

My Kombucha tastes like vinegar. What happened?

Kombucha is supposed to taste vinegary, but if it’s too strong you can always mix it with something like juice to make it more palatable. You can also use super-vinegary Kombucha in place of apple cider vinegar in recipes. If it’s straight vinegar with no sugariness left, you could use it as a hair rinse or for household cleaning where you would use ACV.

To make future batches less vinegary, there’s a couple of things to try.

1. Kombucha brews faster in warmer weather. If it’s been hot, try a shorter brew time and/or increasing the amount of sugar in the brew.

2. If your SCOBY is getting super thick, split off some layers. More SCOBY = shorter brew time.

My Kombucha is too sweet. What happened?

The easiest fix is to let it brew longer. If it’s cold, moving your jar to a warmer location may help. I think the ideal range is somewhere around 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

You should also check the condition of your SCOBY. If it is turning black, you’ll want to replace it.

Should I store my SCOBYs in the refrigerator?

No. You want to avoid extreme temperatures because they can damage the SCOBYs. The best range is between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit.

To store your extra SCOBYs, place them in a lidded jar with at least enough Kombucha for them to float and store in a cool-ish location, such as a pantry or shelf out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources.

Find more of my kombucha posts here:  https://subearthancottage.com/search/label/Kombucha

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T-Shirt to Yoga Shorts Refashion

If you’re new to refashioning or sewing clothing in general, loungewear is a great place to start. It’s less intimidating because, since you’ll only be wearing it at home, it doesn’t have to be perfect. This refashion project is perfect for a beginner because you only need two t-shirts to make it, and it’s mostly straight lines or slight curves.

I originally shared this tutorial a few years ago, before Thaddeus. The weather is beginning to warm up , so it’s a great time to sew some shorts.


I went on a little Pinterest binge a couple days ago looking for ideas to help clear my refashion stash. Saturday night I decided to make a pair of yoga pants out of a t-shirt using this tutorial. I wear a size eight on average, and used an XL adult t-shirt.

Adaptations from the original refashion project

I did make a few changes to the design. First, instead of cutting the shirt down the middle, I cut it down the sides from the middle of the underarm to the hem. This also means you’ll have an inseam and no side seams. That keeps any design on the front or back intact and moves them to the hips.

For the waistband, I cut the underarm seam from the sleeves and squared them up to be two equal rectangles, leaving the hem intact. I sewed the short sides together making a big, short tube from the sleeves. I then put the tube inside the waist of the pants with the pants right side out and the right side of the tube facing the inside of the pants. The raw edge of the tube lines up with the raw edge of the pants. I serged the top together like that. This made it so when the tube is folded down to the outside, the seam is covered.

T-shirt yoga pants refashion
IMG_4452
IMG_4459
Sorry for the awkward pictures. No one was around to take the pictures and Doctor Who was about to start.

I sewed it all on my serger. The entire refashion project took less than ten minutes. I probably should have added two minutes and switched from white to black thread. Or not.

If you don’t have a serger, you can use a zig-zag stitch to prevent breakage. Many sewing machines have specialty stitches for sewing knits, too, so check your machine to see if that is an option. This DIY T-Shirt Bag Tutorial has more information on stitch selection for knits.

Final verdict

They are a little loose at the waist. If I were planning to actually do yoga or wear them in public I should probably add some elastic at the seam. Since they will probably be used mainly for watching Doctor Who while sitting on the sofa, I probably won’t bother.

I personally don’t mind the length, but you could easily make them shorter by cutting them off to the length you prefer. Knit doesn’t unravel, so you can leave the edges raw, or turn them under and hem.

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T-shirt to yoga pants refashion

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Shampoo Bar 101 Revisited

Beer soap shampoo bar

Shampoo bars have become more popular recently. They are convenient for traveling. Unlike liquid shampoo, you don’t have to worry about travel limits and leaking bottles with a shampoo bar. Because they don’t require plastic bottles, shampoo bars are a great option for people trying to reduce waste.

Not all hair types are alike, so it takes some trial and error to find the right one. With the recent interest in shampoo bars, I thought now would be a great time to reshare my Shampoo Bar 101 post.

Beer soap shampoo bar
Shiner Bock Beer Soap: My top choice for washing my hair.


I began using bar soaps as shampoo about four years ago. Whenever I tell people this, they always look at me kind of strange or have tons of questions about how it works, so I thought I’d share it all here. Please keep in mind, this is all based on my personal experience and research.

What type of soap to use?

While there are some bars that are specially formulated to be shampoo bars, I’ve found that just about any good quality natural soap will work. You definitely want to avoid most of the bar soaps you’d find at your supermarket, because they don’t have the same properties as natural soaps and can dry your hair.

Among natural soaps, I’ve found that bars with little or no waxes work the best. My hair tends to be oily, so I also avoid soaps with a high percentage of butters (shea, cocoa, etc.) as they seem to add too much oil to my hair.

Some of the oils that work well in a shampoo bar are coconut, castor, olive, jojoba, and avocado. Most of the bars I’ve used contain at least the first three. I wouldn’t count out a bar that didn’t have them, though, until I’d tried it a few times.

What are the some of the benefits of using a bar soap?

  • Natural bars don’t strip your hair like shampoo.
  • Hair feels thicker
  • Has eliminated my need for a seperate conditioner
  • No more scalp and hairline irritation like I had with many shampoos
  • Convenient for travel-no worries about leaky bottles or (as far as I know) airline carry-on limits
  • Same bar can be used all over-no need for a seperate body wash or soap cluttering your shower

Tips for using a bar soap as shampoo:

  • Expect an adjustment period of 2-4 weeks. Your scalp is used to producing more oil to make up for the natural oils that are stripped by the detergents in shampoos.
  • You may want to use a simple clarifying shampoo or even a baby shampoo prior to the first wash with a bar. I’ve found that this helps speed up the adjustment period by removing buildup from shampoos, conditioners and styling products, giving the bar a clean slate to work with.
  • Periodically doing an apple cider vinegar (or lemon juice) rinse can help improve shine and seems to help if I feel like my hair isn’t rinsing out as well as it should. I use about 1/2 Tablespoon of ACV to about 3 cups of water and pour over my just washed hair, then rinse. I used to do this about every other wash, but now I do it about once every week or two.
  • Many styling products seem to need the detergents in shampoo to be fully removed. I try to avoid products with dimethecone and other -cone ingredients as these seem to be the hardest to wash out with a bar soap. Hairspray doesn’t seem to be a problem. You can also use pure aloe gel as a hair gel that’s also great for your hair.

I’m sure there are many things I’ve left out. Feel free to ask any questions or add to what I have here.

Oh, and before I forget, here are my favorites from my shop to use as a shampoo:

Beer Soap

Tea Tree Oil Soap (especially great if I’m experiencing any dandruff)

Shampoo bar 101
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Bar vs. Liquid Soap

Over the past few decades liquid hand soap and body wash have gained popularity over bar soaps. Bar soaps have gotten a bad reputation for being dirty and drying. While we’re pretty solidly team bar soap now, fifteen years ago we may have had one or two lonely bars sitting dry and cracked in soap dishes while bottles of the liquid variety cluttered the tub and counters. As with any personal care product, needs vary and it’s important to find what works for you.

Before I start the comparison, I should mention that not all soaps, bar or liquid, are created equally. Many things sold as soap are actually synthetic detergents, sometimes called syndets. To be a true soap, the product needs to be a fat or oil added to an alkali (lye) to form soap salts, glycerine and sometimes excess fats or alkalis. Some find syndets harsher on their skin while others actually find them to be gentler. True soap is what I know, so that’s what I’m referring to unless I say otherwise.

Cleanliness

Since soap’s primary function is to clean, let’s start there. My searching has found many references to a 1988 study where e.coli and another contaminant were put on a bar of soap then subjects washed their hands with the e.coli soap. When their hands were tested afterward, the e.coli hadn’t transferred to their hands. One such article can be found here http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/10/science/10qna.html?ref=science&_r=0.

My personal, non-scientific thoughts: Liquid soap requires a dispenser of some sort. Unwashed hands have to touch said dispenser (unless it’s an automatic dispenser). The dispenser itself doesn’t get washed after each use, so some bacteria may be transferred to your hands when you use the dispenser. They will most likely be washed away when you wash your hands.

Likewise, you touch bar soap with unwashed hands. The process of rubbing your hands over the bar with it under running water for a few seconds to create lather probably removes some of the bacteria. Properly washing your hands removes the bacteria from your hands as shown in the above study.

My verdict: They will both get you clean, so use what you like.

Drying

Before delving into natural, handmade soaps, when I thought of bar soap I either imagined “manly” deodorant soaps or the “lye soap” my granny talked about burning her scalp when she was little. Ouch! While the soap my granny knew was natural and possibly handmade, if it burned, it was not formulated properly for cleaning people. Back to my brief lesson on soaps vs. syndets, a soap with excess alkalis would burn. This might be okay for heavy house cleaning purposes, but not for personal use.

Most all soapmakers, myself included, formulate their soaps to both fully bond the lye and leave a “buffer” of unsaponified oils to protect your skin. This is known as superfatting. When done properly, you won’t feel the oil, but your skin will feel clean and hydrated, not dry.

Another factor with natural soaps, whether liquid or bar, is that they should contain glycerine as it is a natural by-product of saponification. Glycerine is a humectant, meaning that it attracts water. This helps your skin feel hydrated. Unfortunately, the glycerine often gets removed to be used in other products. This can leave your skin feeling dry.

Syndet bars and liquids often contain added moisturizers to hydrate the skin. Some people are sensitive to the detergents and other ingredients, which can cause dryness and other irritation.

My verdict: It depends. Everyone’s body chemistry is a little different, so what works for me may not work for you. Personally, I am one who reacts badly to syndets. If you are looking to avoid syndets, either because you react poorly to them or because you want a more natural product, it seems easier to find natural soaps in bar form. Natural liquids are becoming more available, though.

Waste

Waste is a subject more take into consideration, either from a frugal or a “green” standpoint. Liquid soaps generally come in plastic containers. Some are recyclable depending on what recycling programs are available in your area. Bar soap comes unwrapped or wrapped in a variety of materials. Even if wrapped in plastic, the wrapping uses less plastic than the plastic bottles used for liquid soap.

As far as the product itself, with a bar of soap, you tend to use just as much product as necessary. With liquids, I find it harder to get just enough. This is especially true with pump dispensers. I usually find they give enough soap for at least two people to use.

My verdict: Bar soap is the clear winner if you are looking to reduce waste.

All in all, the deciding factor should be what works for you. If you’ve decided to give bar soap a second chance and would like to learn more about the soaps I make, please visit my shop. I’m also more than happy to answer any questions you may have via the contact form at the right or at csloan@subearthancottage.com.

Bar vs Liquid Soap

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Shop Small Saturday

Thank you from SubEarthan Cottage on Shop Small Saturday and Every Day!

I generally try to avoid anything that seems gimmicky. The whole Black Friday, Shop Small Saturday, Cyber Monday all seem crafted to make people feel like they must buy all the things NOW. Being a small business owner, though, I wanted to address the “Shop Small” thing.

All those cute memes you see about small business owners doing a happy dance with every purchase, the care that goes into creating and packaging a product just for you, and the direct impact your purchase has on an individual or family? They’re all true, for me at least, and for the other small business owners I know. I celebrate each and every sale. I make sure to package every order with care and a handwritten thank-you. Every sale goes towards helping my family directly.

That’s not to say that big business are bad or don’t help their employees or don’t appreciate our business. Not at all. I’d be lying if I said the big blue Amazon truck never stopped at my house or I never shop at Walmart. They absolutely have their place, too. But, if today or any other day throughout the year you are able to make a purchase from a small business, know that we thank you for your support and are celebrating. Probably with a happy dance, although I refuse to post video evidence.

If you’re not in a position to make a purchase from a small business or what they offer just doesn’t fit your needs, there are other ways to offer support. Sharing their information with others that might like what they have to offer is one way. Letting them know what you like about their products is another.

Spread the Love

If you are a small business owner or know of an awesome one, please leave a comment with the shop’s info so that I and my readers can check them out, whether it’s Shop Small Saturday or some random Tuesday. Artists and authors are welcome, too. I would love to have a list of small business to refer to and to share with my friends and family.

Thank you from SubEarthan Cottage on Shop Small Saturday and Every Day!
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Heating a Rice Pack Without a Microwave

Hot rice packs are wonderful tools for easing muscle aches, cramps, and just comforting to use in cold weather. I prefer rice packs to electric heating pads because you’re not tied to an electrical outlet.

About six months ago, though, I got rid of our microwave. I have some concerns about whether they are healthy, and we rarely used it anyway. Even if the potential health risks are exaggerated or non-existent, I don’t like having things that don’t get used taking up space. Since it was summer in Texas, I didn’t really miss my rice packs. Now that it’s cold, I wanted to find a way to heat them without caving and getting another microwave.

I’ve seen some things that say anything other than a microwave is a fire-risk, so if you try to heat a rice pack in an oven, please use caution. 

Basic oven method

When researching, I found many people say to use an oven set to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit for thirty minutes. They also said to put the rice pack on a metal tray or roasting pan, and to have a pan or oven-safe dish of water alongside it to keep it from getting too dry.

My method

I was a little concerned that I may forget about it, and my oven doesn’t have a window so keeping an eye on it would be difficult. I do have a counter-top convection oven, so  that is what use. I like that the door is glass, so I can see in. It also has a timer that turns the unit off once time is up, so even if I get distracted I don’t have to worry about it over-heating. 

I always place the rice pack on a tray and put a dish of water in with it as others have suggested. I also make sure any rice packs I heat in the oven are made with 100% cotton fabric and thread. Synthetics melt easier and burn faster, whereas cotton can withstand a pretty high heat and burns slower, so cotton seems like a safer choice. 

I started with 200 degrees Fahrenheit for 20-30 minutes. It worked, but I needed it hotter. I upped it to 300-325 degrees for 15-20 minutes. At that temperature, sometimes I have to let it cool for a minute or wrap it in a towel, but it works better for me than the lower temperature. I tend to push the limit with heat, though, so 200 degrees for thirty minutes is probably plenty for most.

Probably safer method

One other method I’ve seen is to preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, TURN IT OFF, and place the rice pack (on a tray with heatproof dish of water next to it) in the preheated oven. I haven’t tried this yet, but having the oven hot but turned off seems like it would minimize any risk of the rice pack overheating and burning. If I didn’t have the convection oven, I would probably use this method. 

The standard microwave method

Using a microwave is still the recommended method. To heat rice packs in the microwave, warm it in the microwave in 15 second intervals until you reach the desired temperature. Some people recommend placing a cup of water in the microwave as well.

Basic safety

Whether you use a microwave or an oven, be mindful that they can vary in power. ALWAYS test the temperature of the rice pack before using and never leave the microwave or oven unattended while heating. You should never use heat packs on individuals who are unable to let you know if it feels too warm on their skin.

Lavender rice packs at SubEarthan Cottage

SubEarthan Cottage now offers large 100% cotton flannel rice packs. These are filled with a blend of rice and lavender buds for a pleasant hint of lavender. I sewed channels in the flannel to help keep the rice evenly distributed. They can be heated as described above, or kept in the freezer to use cold. Find all of my rice packs here.

 

Lavender rice packs at SubEarthan Cottage.