Late last year I put out a call for topics that would enhance your ability to become self-sufficient. One of the topics that was suggested over and over again was step by step instructions for making soap from common ingredients that could be stored as part of our long-term preps.
As part of the Backdoor Survival “doing it my way” initiative, I put a call out to colleagues who had not only made soap themselves but were willing to share their experience so we could learn ourselves. In this article, experienced prepper and soap-maker, Carmela Tyrell teaches us how to make cold pressed soap safely and easily using common ingredients plus gel from the Aloe Vera plant.
Survival Guide for Making Cold Pressed Vegan Aloe Vera Soap
by Carmela Tyrell
The art of soap making has been around for centuries. With a few modern reference tables and basic kitchen ingredients, you can make good quality, safe soap for yourself and others. In this case, I will be showing you how to use one of my favorite recipes that combine Aloe Vera with vegetable shortening, olive oil, and lye. This is a “cold pressed” soap, meaning that you rely only on the heat from the lye reacting to water to fuel the process that converts fat into soap.
What is Saponification?
At its simplest definition saponification is a process by which a strong alkaline substance (such as lye) converts fat into soap. It does not matter if the fat comes from an animal or a plant based source. As long as the lye is mixed in the proper ratios to water and fat, you will wind up with soap.
What You Need to Know About Weight vs. Volume
Before you begin looking up soap recipes or gathering ingredients, it is important to know what the difference between weight and volume mean in the arena of soap making.
As you may be aware, volume is a measure of how much space an object takes up. A pound of feathers takes up much more space than a pound of copper. Weight, on the other hand, is defined as the amount of gravitation pull exerted on an object. It does not matter how large or small the object is, the force of gravity will have the same effect on it. This, in turn, means that you can use weight to set up accurate ratios between items of differing volumes.
When it comes to making soap, you must always go by the weight of the items being measured, not their volume.
Basic Ingredients and Calculating Measures
My basic recipe (which makes 2 bars of soap) is as follows:
4 ounces of vegetable shortening
1 ounce of Aloe Vera gel
1 ounce of Olive Oil
1.9 ounces of distilled water
0.8 ounces of lye
You can choose just about any fat or oil of interest. In order to get them to turn into soap, you will need to manually calculate the amount of water and lye. Here are the basic steps:
Start off by using a saponification chart to get a rough idea of the ratio between lye and any given measure of a particular fat or oil. It should be noted that these charts are based on average values because the amount of fat in any given substance can vary from crop to crop and animal to animal. The saponification chart will give you a soap that does not have too much lye, and also a soap that will be usable.
Use the following calculations for this recipe.
4 ounces of vegetable shortening requires a proportion of 0.1369 to each ounce of shortening. 4 x 0.1369 requires 0.5476 ounces of lye.
Note: it does not matter if you measure in metric or standard; the ratios of fat to lye will still be the same. When measuring, however, the scale must be the same. If you are measuring in ounces, then all your measures must be in ounces. If you are working in pounds, then everything must be in pounds. In this case, if you were measuring using 4 pounds of vegetable shortening, then you would need just over one-half pound of lye; not a one-half ounce.
1 ounce of olive oil requires a proportion of 0.137. 1 ounce of olive oil x 0.137 ounces of lye = 0.137 ounces of lye to saponify 1 ounce of olive oil.
The saponification value for aloe vera gel is also 0.137, so you would need an additional 0.137 ounces of lye to saponify 1 ounce of aloe vera gel.Once you know how much lye you will need to saponify each fat or oil, add them together. In this case, that means .5476 + 0.137 + 0.137 = .8216 (which I rounded down to .8 ounces for this recipe).
Next, you will need to determine how much water to use for the amount of lye required to turn the fat into soap.
- Start off by taking the weight of the lye (0.8 ounces) and divide by 0.3; which comes out to 2.66 ounces. This is the total weight of the lye plus water for the recipe.
- To get the amount of water, simply subtract .8 ounces of lye from 2.66 ounces of solution to arrive at 1.86 ounces of water (which I rounded up to 1.9).
Zeroing the Scale and Measuring Out Main Ingredients
Now that you know how much of each ingredient you need, it is time to weigh them out. I prefer to get everything but the lye weighed out so that I can take my time while making the lye solution, and then combining it with the fats.
In order to measure the main ingredients, you will need a scale that measures to at least 1/10 of an ounce. Since the measurement of the ingredients must be exact, you should always zero out the scale properly before adding each ingredient to the bowl.
Here is the basic process:
1. Start off by zeroing out the scale
2. Next, place one bowl that you will be using on the scale.
3. Leave the bowl on the scale while you zero it out again. As you add an ingredient to the bowl, the scale will only show you the weight of that ingredient, and not the bowl itself.
Note: If you intend to add multiple items to the same bowl, be sure to zero the scale out between ingredients. It is fair to say that you can more than likely remember the last reading and figure out easily enough what the scale should read for the next item on your list. Unfortunately, if you do not have a scale that reads to 2 or 3 decimal places out, your reading may be as much as 1/10 of an ounce off. On the other hand, if you zero the scale out between readings, it will read the new additions more accurately.
Choosing Other Ingredients for Your Soap
Aside from the main ingredients, you can also add fragrance and conditioners that will change the scent and lather produced by the soap. Here are some things you may want to try:
- for oily skin, use coconut oil instead of olive oil
- for acne or inflamed skin, add oats
- to soften skin, use sea salt
- add lavender essential oil for relaxing and soothing skin
- add lemongrass essential oil for a zesty soap that will invigorate and make you feel energized
- add pumice or sand for extra scouring and removing heavy debris and oils
Safety Precautions and Gear
Since lye is very caustic, you will need to wear some protective gear before handling it. You should put the gear on as soon as you are ready to start measuring the lye, and not take it off until you are done cleaning up after soap making. Also, to avoid distractions, injuries, and distractions for yourself and others, keep pets, children, and others out of the area where you are working.
You will need the following:
- A long sleeved sweater
- Long sleeved rubber gloves
- Rubber bands. After you tuck the cuffs of your sweater into the rubber gloves, use the rubber bands to form a tight seal between the gloves and the sleeves of your sweater
- Dust mask. Since lye makes fumes, it will be best to purchase a mask that has carbon filtration in it. Failing that, get the best dust mask you can afford and be sure to work with the lye only outdoors. The mask will also help protect at least some of your face if you are unfortunate enough to have the lye solution splatter in your face.
- Goggles. Always wear them over your eyes, not around your neck or on top of your head! They will only protect your eyes if they are covering them. Eyeglasses are no substitute for goggles that form a shield in front of your eyes and all around.
- Boots or heavy shoes. Be sure to tuck the cuff of your pants into the boots so any lye that spills or splatters does not touch the skin of your legs.
- A scarf to cover your throat.
- An apron that covers from beneath your scarf to the top of your boots. Or, you can wear a disposable protective coverall that has a hood.
3 plastic bowls or tubs
1 plastic measuring spoon
1 measuring cup
1 ceramic bowl
1 plastic spoon
Note: Look on the bottom of plastic bowls, tubs, and gear to find out which kind of plastic they are made from. Use only ones that have an “E” rating.
Step by Step Instructions
In all fairness, you will spend more time setting up to make the soap than actually combining the ingredients. Here are the steps you will need to follow:
1. Start off by cutting enough Aloe Vera leaves to make one ounce of gel. Use thick, fleshy leaves that are full of gel. Water the plant a few days prior to picking the leaves so that you have more fluid gel. Set the aloe leaves on a paper towel or in a bowl until the yellow fluid (this is aloe juice) stops running out.
2. Take one bowl and measure out the distilled water. Set the bowl outside so it is ready for adding the lye. Do not forget to zero out the scale before and after placing the bowl on it.
3. Take another bowl, zero out the scale, and add the olive oil. Zero the scale out again and add the shortening. Set the bowl aside.
4. Cut the aloe leaves so that you have just a thin area open. Squeeze the leaf so that only the thinner, less pulpy material comes out of the leaf. Try to avoid the heavier pulp as it will only have to be strained out.
6. Heat up the shortening and olive oil in the microwave for about 1 minute on high. You can also pour the oil and shortening into a pot and melt them carefully with a regular stove element.
7. Bring the aloe and melted oils outside where you will be working and set them aside in a ceramic bowl. Do not mix the aloe in the ceramic bowl. You should also bring along any fragrances or other additives that you plan to add to the soap.
8. Zero the scale out with the cup for the lye on it. Use a spoon to carefully scoop lye out of the container and add it to the measuring cup. As soon as you are done, cap the lye up and put it away in a safe place.
9. Slowly pour the lye into the water. NEVER POUR WATER INTO THE LYE!!!! As you pour the lye into the water, steam will form in just a few seconds. Avoid inhaling the fumes. The lye solution will go from cloudy to clear. Do not stick your fingers or hands into the water.
11. Stir this solution with a plastic spoon until a “trace” is left in the soap.
12. Next, add the aloe. You will need to stir it quite a bit. The gel and oils will slowly be absorbed by the rest of the soap. Just be patient and keep stirring. Do not stick your fingers or hands in the mixture.
13. Pour the soap into molds. You still need to keep your fingers and hands out of the mixture because lye is still present.
15. You can remove the soap from the mold after it is hard enough. Let it cure for at least another 4 weeks before using. During this time, the saponification process will continue at a slower rate and use up any lye that remains.
Commercial Soap is Cheap and Easy to Store. Why Bother?
One look at the ingredient list on any given bar of commercial soap should tell you that our nation is already in a major crisis. Not only are the ingredients found in these soaps dangerous to human health, they will also be unavailable soon after a social collapse occurs.
No matter what kind of catastrophe you are dealing with, keeping your body as clean as possible reduces the risk of disease and infection of open wounds.
Please feel free to comment below on your experiences with making lye soap. I am always interested in different additives as well as different fat ratios that provide better lather or cleansing properties.
About the author: Carmela Tyrell is an experienced prepper that enjoys spending time working in her garden and exploring new ways to generate off-grid electricity and water for her family’s home. She prides herself in working hard to cut reliance on all things “municipal” and transition to a more self-sustainable living. She is also very knowledgeable about herbal remedies, surviving a nuclear disaster and bugging in. You can read more of her work on Survivor’s Fortress.
Inquiring Minds Want to Know
After reading through these instructions for the first time, I had a few questions, especially as they related to distilled water and gel from an Aloe Vera plant. Carmela was kind enough to provide some additional clarification.
1. Under “Tools” you mention looking at the bottom of plastic tubs for an E rating but I don’t see buckets mentioned in the article. Perhaps I am blind?
For this article, I made just a small batch of soap, so no buckets were required. Other people may choose to make larger amounts of soap and use different containers; so I wanted to make sure they know what is safe and what isn’t. The URL I linked in the text works for all plastics. http://classicbells.com/soap/lyeStorage.html
2. What would be a good alternative to distilled water in a SHTF situation?
The water needs to be as soft as possible and as close to pH 7.0 as possible so that it doesn’t interfere with the lye. There are DIY methods for softening water and also bringing the pH to neutral. Perhaps I should do a DIY on that, and also how to make your own PH testing gear. The water won’t be as good as distilled, but it may be better than using the water “as is” in some areas.
3. Can purchased Aloe Vera gel be used?
You can, but be careful about what you are getting. All of these products have stabilizers and fillers that detract from the health benefits of making Aloe Vera soap. There was also a report on the news recently that the vast majority of aloe gels on the market have little or no aloe gel in them.
Gaye’s note: This is the Aloe Vera gel I use in my own DIY products.
4. In the last paragraph, you solicit comments. Do you Carmela plan to review the comments that are posted by my readers. That would be fantastic!
Yes, I am willing to respond to questions as I like to interact with readers.
The Final Word
For many, the fear of making soap using lye ranks right on up there with the fear of pressure canning. On the other hand, I know of many prepper and homesteading types that do one or both to relax. Most assuredly, I am not in that camp. Yet.
This summer, when I get settled at my one acre of bliss, I plan to make cold pressed Aloe Vera soap outdoors, where I have the space and plenty of fresh air. I am excited to learn this skill and hope that someday, I too will become an expert.
Need more information? Smart Soapmaking, the book by my Friday Harbor friend Anne L. Watson, is the best!
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!