Making simple plain soap is relatively easy and involves basic equipment. However, there are
certain hazards to workers when making soap which any potential producer must be aware of.
This Technical Brief describes the
procedures needed to make a variety of
simple soaps and includes a number of
recipes for different types of soap.
There are three main ingredients in
plain soap - oil or fat (oil is simply
liquid fat), lye (or alkali) and water.
Other ingredients may be added to give
the soap a pleasant odour or colour, or
to improve its skin-softening qualities.
Almost any fat or non-toxic oil is
suitable for soap manufacture. Common
types include animal fat, avocado oil
and sunflower oil. Lyes can either be
bought as potassium hydroxide (caustic
potash) or from sodium hydroxide
Figure 1: Bina Baroi with some of her finished products
after soap-making training from Practical Action
Bangladesh. Photo credit: Zul / Practical Action
(caustic soda), or if they are not
available, made from ashes. Some soaps are better made using soft water, and for these it is
necessary to either use rainwater or add borax to tap water. Each of the above chemicals is
usually available from pharmacies in larger towns.
Lye is extremely caustic. It causes burns if splashed on the skin and can cause blindness if
splashed into the eye. If drunk, they can be fatal. Care is needed when handling lye and
'green' (uncured) soap. Details of the precautions that should be taken are given below.
Because of these dangers, keep small children away from the processing room while soap is
How to make lye from ashes
Fit a tap near to the bottom of a large (e.g. 250 litre) container, barrel or tub. Do not use
aluminium because the lye will corrode it and the soap will be contaminated. Make a filter
inside, around the tap hole, using several bricks or stones covered with straw. Fill the tub
with ashes and pour boiling water over them until water begins to run from the tap. Then shut
the tap and let the ashes soak. The ashes will settle to less than one quarter of their original
volume, and as they settle, add more ashes until the tub is full again. Ashes from any burned
plant material are suitable, but those from banana leaf/stem make the strongest lye, and
those from apple wood make the whitest soap.
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