9 Tips for Getting Started Soapmaking, According to a Pro

published Jan 9, 2021
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Hands holding stack of handmade soaps

So you got a soapmaking kit for the holidays—either gifted or purchased for yourself—but you’re not sure where to start. You save a bunch of beautiful soap images on Instagram, semi-follow a recipe you looked up last minute on a Google search, and then feel defeated when your soap looks nothing like the picture. And then you have to clean up the mess.

Sound familiar? Understandable, since soapmaking can be a complicated craft for newbies. Thankfully, Claudia Zanes, owner and creator of CLEO Soaps, is a pro who’s ready offer tips on beginners’ common missteps of soapmaking—and how you can find your own joy in the process.

Zanes was originally drawn to soapmaking because she was trying to be more mindful of the products she was consuming, and she wasn’t happy with how her sensitive skin was reacting to some of her store-bought products. Zanes’ family is from Haiti, where many traditions come from home remedies, so she was curious enough about soapmaking to take a class in Brooklyn.

“I fell in love from that moment.  I loved the idea that I could use whatever oil combination—cocoa butter, shea butter, olive oil—to address some skin issues that I had,” she says. On top of that, Zanes is a musician and creator at heart, so she also loved the creative aspect of the process.

In the time since starting up her soapmaking hobby, Zanes has become a bonafide pro. But that doesn’t mean she’s forgotten about beginner problems. Here, she offers advice on how to move past the most common issues newbies have when starting out.

Problem: You don’t know how to pick a recipe

Zanes says: Pick something simple to start.

“Start with the basics. Don’t try to do more than you can do,” says Zanes. “You can make so many batches of soap with five basic essential oils.  Some of the most beautiful soaps are the simplest soaps.”

Beginners are best suited to trying recipes with a small ingredients list—both because they’re less complicated, and because it will involve less upfront investment.

Problem: You’re scared to use lye

Zanes says: Use proper protection and separate your tools.

While some soap recipes are lye-free, it’s an essential ingredient in most. Zanes says to invest in good goggles, gloves, wear long sleeves, and cover your shoes when soapmaking.  She also recommends using stainless steel pitchers for your lye water, as it could shatter glass. In general, she says to separate your soap making pitchers and heat resistant spatulas and ladles from your regular kitchen ones. Don’t use them for soap one day and serving friends the next. 

“Everything you use for soapmaking, make sure you’re only using it for soapmaking,” she says. If you can find a place in another room, that’s best.

Zanes says it’s especially important to make sure you keep the lye water pitcher away from anyone, as it looks like regular water. 

“You want it covered, labeled, and out of reach of children,” she says. Soapmaking isn’t for kids and animals should also not be in the room. Make sure your soapmaking spot is ventilated, and use proper precautions.

Problem: You followed all instructions, but your first batch looks terrible

Zanes says: Be patient with yourself. (Sorry, but it’s true.)

“Soapmaking is an art. Soapmaking is like cooking. The first time you cook your grandmother’s risotto, it might not turn out like grandma’s recipe,” explains Zanes. It will take experience and practice to get there.

It’s also important to be as precise as possible with your measurements when following the recipe. Zanes says she uses grams instead of ounces when measuring, and that having an accurate digital scale is very important.

Problem: You don’t want to spend a ton of money on supplies

Zanes says: Don’t! Use items you already have or multipurpose items (like olive oil) for your first batch to see if it’s something you enjoy before spending a lot of money.

“Get some basic molds. When I started, I was using milk cartons for molds! Try your hand at it and see how it goes before you spend a lot of money,” she says.

“Use what you have at home. You can make great soap with olive oil or coconut oil. Use what you have easy access to, and if you don’t end up using it for soap, you can use it to whip up your eggs.”

Problem: Your soap smelled great at first, but now… not so much

Zanes says: Some essential oil smells disappear after a time.

“It might smell really good at first, but a month later, it disappears,” she says. For this reason, Zanes recommends using five fold sweet orange for a citrus smell. She also recommends using oils like basic lavender, peppermint, and lemongrass, and steering away from cinnamon as a beginner, as it’s a little more complicated to get that scent right.

Problem: You can’t get the soap to look like the pictures on your favorite soapmaking account

Zanes says: Do not play the comparison game with Instagram.

“Social media is great, but you can get so tripped up by looking at what other people are doing. You see a picture and think: I should be at that level, but you don’t know what the grind was for them to get to that place,” says Zanes.

For this reason, she says she recommends turning to books on soap making or watching youtube tutorials on making basic, simple soaps to begin with. 

Her favorite resources:

“The Soapmaker’s Companion” by Susan Miller Cavitch. Zanes says it’s an old-school book that’s filled with recipes, techniques, and anything else you might need.

Soap Queen tutorials by Anne-Marie Faiola, as well as Bramble Berry for supplies.  Zanes says she loves her book “Pure Soapmaking”, but also recommends her videos and tutorials for beginners, as it’s kind of a “one-stop-shop” for resources and supplies.

Problem: You only save an hour to make a batch

Zanes says: That’s not enough. You should give yourself plenty of uninterrupted time, as well as prep time.

“The more you can do beforehand is helpful. Find a recipe you want to try, one that’s not super intimidating, and make sure all your ingredients are on hand,” she says.

For Zanes, who makes soap by the cold process technique, having several hours of interrupted time is important. So perhaps you pick your recipe earlier in the week, gather your ingredients, and then set aside all of Saturday afternoon to make your soap. 

“I don’t even like to have my phone on me when I’m making soap. It’s so easy to become distracted,” says Zanes. “Give yourself that block of time where you can really focus.”

Problem: You don’t know what to do with all this extra soap

Zanes says: Share!

Zanes said when she started out, she used to send her friends gift packages with the soaps she was working on, and it was not only fun to share, but it helped her create recipes based on their feedback.

“Share it! Spread the wealth, share the love, and get people excited about what you’re doing. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love receiving a free bar of soap.”

Problem: The cleanup

Zanes says: Sorry!

“That’s the part that’s no fun,” says Zanes. “Soapmaking is fun, but the clean up is not fun at all!”

She says whatever you do, don’t pour the creamy soapy substance down the drain. If you can let your containers sit for about two days so that it hardens and then it’s actual soap that you can remove, that’s ideal. After that, wash your tools with Dawn or a similar substance that cuts through grease.

And finally:

“Give yourself grace. Know that you’re learning a new skill. If you have a soap fail, look and see if you can backtrack and troubleshoot what went wrong. Even the most seasoned soapmakers, you never get it 100% of the time,” says Zanes.  

And share your soap!

“I think you’ll find great pleasure in what you’re doing. Not only will the people receiving it be so appreciative, but you’re doing good things for the earth as well and challenging yourself in beautiful ways,” Zanes says.