HANCOCK COUNTY — The first rule of soap-making is don’t touch the lye. The second rule is the same as the first: Don’t touch the lye.
For soap-makers in Hancock County and around the world, lye — a main ingredient in soap — is the reason protective goggles and gloves are required when making the sudsy, foaming, lathering bars of soap destined for showers and sinks.
The caustic soda can cause serious burns and is dangerous if not handled properly; but with a few safety measures, anyone can make bars of handmade soap from the comfort of their home, said Carolyn Starks of Fortville.
Starks has been making soap to sell at local farmers markets for the past few years. On a recent afternoon in the kitchen of her historic farmhouse, she joked that she would have been happy living at the turn of the century, when making your clothes, food, soap — all manner of things — was a way of life, instead of a hobby.
“I feel like I was born 100 years too late,” she said.
Starks became interested in making soap a few years ago after attending a class offered in Hancock County about cold process soap-making, a process she still uses.
To start, she lines up on her counters everything she needs to create one of the 11 types of soap she makes.
“I make all the soap right here in the kitchen like a mad scientist,” Starks said.
A good rule of thumb is to do your research ahead of time. A quick Internet search will pull up a variety of methods and recipes. Then make sure your measurements are precise, and have an accurate scale and thermometer on hand, she said.
“And always, always, always follow the directions,” she said.
Cold process soap-making requires just three ingredients to start — lye, water and oil. Optional additives, such as mint, lavender, chamomile, calendula, hemp and oatmeal, make the soap smell good and carry medicinal properties, she said.
‘I’m still learning’
Starks doesn’t travel far to find items to create her favorite fragrances. A large herb and flower garden sits outside her kitchen window.
“I like to create things, and I don’t like to go to the store much,” Starks said. “I like to do my own thing if I can. I’m still learning (about soap) and always experimenting with new items from the garden.”
She starts her soap-making by combining 32 ounces of cold water and 12 ounces of lye in a large pitcher. While she stirs the lye into the water, wisps of toxic fumes waft up. Cautious as ever, she avoids the dangerous misty tendrils while carefully continuing to stir the two ingredients together.
The mixture will get very hot very quickly, she said, “easily … 200 degrees.”
The clear mixture is then placed to the side. While it cools to the needed 98 degrees, she starts to heat the oil on the stove. She uses three oils in her soap: olive, sustainable palm and coconut.
The recipe for this soap calls for 24 ounces of coconut oil, 38 ounces of palm oil and 24 ounces of olive oil. Using a large, blue-speckled pot on the stove, all three oils are added together and heated until melted.
While making sure both the water and lye mixture and three-oil mixture are between 90 and 115 degrees, she carefully combines the two.
Like the pioneers
A handheld mixer will save time and energy, she said. Having the small piece of machinery is the one modern tweak she’s made.
“This is exactly how the pioneers would have made soap,” she said.
Then — glancing down at her mixer — “except I don’t mix it by hand. It would take forever.”
Starks mixes the ingredients until they “trace,” a state of consistency she said is hard to explain unless you’ve seen soap made.
“Trace is when, well, you just know when it is,” she said.
Simply put, trace is when the soap is firm enough to support a drizzled design on the top of the mixture.
Additives, if you want them, come last. Starks occasionally uses oatmeal, which soothes irritated skin, or essential oils, which give the soap a pleasant smell.
Another tip from Starks — always use dried herbs. They smell the best, she said.
Once trace is achieved, the thick soap mixture is poured into a mold, covered and left to cure for at least 24 hours before being hand-cut into bars.
A chemical reaction called saponification neutralizes the lye over the course of 24 hours.
Just don’t ask Starks to explain exactly how that all works.
“The lye is still in there doing its thing while it cures,” Starks said. “I don’t know where it goes, but — chemistry!”
The longer the soap cures, the more it hardens and the longer it will last.
‘Better than anything’
Starks likes that her soap is chemical-free and made from herbs she grew, cut and dried on her own farm. The 15-year Hancock County Herb Society member even raises bees for honey, which she sometimes adds to her soap.
Paul Starks, her husband of 47 years, also enjoys the natural ingredients of the handmade soap. He uses the soap daily and loves that his wife makes it in their kitchen.
The soap is also gentle, which Paul Starks, a skin cancer patient, appreciates.
“I like it better than anything I’ve ever got at the store,” he said. “I think it smells better, and it doesn’t hurt my skin at all.”
Sara Whitaker of Fortville recently bought a bar of Starks’ soap at a local farmers market and said she’s switching to homemade soap permanently.
“Before I started using it, I thought soap was just soap, but this is different,” she said. “It’s mild and doesn’t irritate my skin. Most have too much perfume. I think it’s better than the soap in the grocery store.”
Starks admits she’s unsure of the exact science behind the process — she flunked chemistry in college — but maybe that’s part of the magic.
“I don’t plan on stopping, even if I don’t understand saponification exactly,” Starks said. “It’s just so fascinating that you can mix these things together, and it makes soap.”
This week, the Daily Reporter goes behind the scenes to explore how products from Hancock County are created, start to finish. Whether the item is crafted in the comfort of a person’s home or put together in a local shop, we’ll show you how it’s made.
32 ounces cold water
12 ounces lye
24 ounces coconut oil
38 ounces palm oil
24 ounces olive oil
8 ounces oatmeal
While wearing gloves and goggles, mix cold water and lye together in an oven-safe bowl. Note: Mixture will heat quickly and create toxic fumes. Set aside to cool to 90-115 degrees.
While mixture is cooling, heat oils on the stove to 90-115 degrees; then combine with lye and water mixture until blended well.
Using a handheld mixer, continue to mix as soap mixture begins to thicken.
Mix in oatmeal.
Pour soap mixture into lined mold and let cure for at least 24 hours. Cut into bars.