Because our skin is so absorbent, what we put ON our bodies matters as much as what we put IN our bodies.
Back when I had serious skin issues, I didn’t realize that most store-bought soaps can really inflame skin and cause pain and irritation. I didn’t know what good soap was until I bought a bar from a homeschooling, goat-tending family in eastern Washington state at a farmers’ market. I tried the soap… and I fell in love. I became one of their best customers, placing big orders regularly and spreading goat milk soap love to all my friends and family.
So that’s why, when the kids closed their goat milk soap business, I was devastated. I looked at some local makers of goat milk soap and was a little astounded by the price – $6 a bar! So I decided I needed to learn how to make my own. The only problem… I don’t have a goat. (Serious problem!!) But I *do* have a stash of breast milk in the freezer, so I thought… why not try it?!?
Spoiler alert: it worked! Better than I could have imagined! The soap is luscious! After making it, I found the most amazing goat lady who sold me some of her girls’ milk, and I’ve been making both goat milk AND breast milk soaps ever since. I’m getting kind of good at it! And, since a lot of people are asking for details on how to do this, I thought I’d share here. This post covers both goat milk and breast milk soap. You can use either milk – but I wouldn’t suggest substituting other milks. Goat milk is recommended for skin because the ph of the soap it makes is supposedly closest to human skin ph. But if goat milk is close, is human breast milk spon on? I haven’t tested this, but based on my skin’s reaction to the soap, I’m willing to bet it is.
Before embarking on this soap journey, I did some research. I searched online and found a few blogs wherein people chronicled their experiences with making goat milk soap. I noted all the safety warnings – first, that lye is caustic and will burn your skin, so you need to wear rubber gloves and safety glasses and protect against any spills or splashes. Lye also releases harmful fumes when it’s hydrated, so it’s best to mix it with the milk outside. (If you must mix it inside, open all the windows and turn on a fan so that your work space is well ventilated. But if you can – go outside.) Another concern is that liquid added to lye can cause an explosion (didn’t we learn this in Fight Club?), so you always add the lye to the milk, and not the milk to the lye. And lastly, lye heats up as it hydrates, so in order to keep the lye from overheating and cooking (or scorching) the milk, you should start with frozen milk, and add the lye to the cubes or chunks of frozen milk, and stir continuously until the lye is dissolved and the milk is all thawed.
So yes, I was out on my porch in what looked like a white lab coat, wearing green rubber gloves and red safety glasses, doing a kind of science experiment involving a digital scale, chunks of frozen breast milk, and a white granular substance in a container marked with numerous bright red “WARNING: EXPLOSIVE” labels.
All my neighbors think I’m totally normal. Especially when I assuage their concerns by yelling out “Don’t worry! It’s just BREAST MILK!!!”
To make soap, you need to choose a recipe. You can NOT just willy-nilly dump oils and milk and lye together and hope for the best, because soap is really more science than art. It’s like the difference between cooking and baking – you can cook without a recipe or measuring things, and it will usually turn out fine, but if you try to bake a cake and don’t measure or use a recipe, you’ll bake something, but it probably won’t resemble a cake. The same is true for soap.
You can use any recipe you find online for goat milk soap, and just swap out the goat milk for breast milk, or you can fashion your own recipe using the fats and oils you prefer. It’s a good idea to read a bit about the qualities different oils have, so you can choose ones that will suit your skin and your needs. (This website was very informative on that subject.)
A note about palm oil: I’ve been using palm oil in my soaps because the goat milk soaps that I fell in love with were made with palm oil, so that’s just what I bought. But since reading about how destructive palm oil farming is to the environment, I’ve decided to switch up my soapmaking and will be using very high quality leaf lard (from pastured pigs) for my next batch. I just purchased some from the awesome farmers at Warren Wilson College, and when I told them about my plans to make breast milk soap with it, they were super excited, and they want to buy some! (See? Not everyone thinks I’m nuts.)
If you make up your own recipe or change the amounts of oils at all, you need to use a lye calculator in order to determine the amount of lye to use for the fats and oils you have chosen. They each behave differently with lye, and you don’t want to end up with too much lye in your soap (it will burn your skin) or too little lye (it won’t make soap).
If this is sounding a little complicated, trust me, I can relate. But really, it’s not that bad. I used the lye calculator at Majestic Mountain Sage, which is here. It’s a very simple, useful tool that allows you to input the number of ounces of each fat you are using, and with one click, the calculator will tell you the amount of milk and lye to use. I use the amount it recommends for a 9 percent “superfat” soap. Most guides also recommend using 60 percent “hard” oils and 40 percent “soft” oils. Here’s an excellent post on how to formulate the “perfect” soap for your needs.
My recipe has varied for each batch I’ve made, depending on what kind of soap I want and what kind of oils I have on hand. For the last batch, this was my recipe:
10 oz organic coconut oil
4.5 oz palm oil
1.5 oz organic red palm oil
3 oz castor oil
3 oz grapeseed oil
2 oz organic extra virgin olive oil
1 oz plantain-infused extra virgin olive oil
1 oz plantain-infused sweet almond oil
I mix these oils together in a 2 quart glass measuring container, and I heat them in a pan of water on the stove until they are all melted and combined.
Then I remove the measuring bowl from the hot water and let it sit until it is 100-120 degrees.
While the oils cool, I don my science lab outfit and head to the porch to mix up the lye and milk. For this recipe, I used:
9.2 oz of breast milk (you can use anywhere from 7-10 oz)
3.89 oz lye
If your milk is frozen in little baggies, cut the baggies open with a scissors and pry the frozen milk out of the baggie and into into a glass bowl (don’t thaw and re-freeze). Then measure the lye (use a digital scale – don’t rely on measuring cups or spoons) on top of the frozen milk chunks. I used a stainless steel spoon to mix it all up, stirring constantly until the milk was all melted.
The lye heats the milk up in a hurry, so if you don’t stir a lot, you risk burning the milk. (And any woman who has ever pumped milk for any period of time will give you a dirty look and a stern lecture about how every ounce of that milk is PURE GOLD and NOT TO BE WASTED.)
So be careful. And avoid the wrath of a pumping mama.
Leave the bowl of lye/milk slurry out on the porch (yucky fumes, remember?) and head inside to check the temp of the melted oils.
When the oils have cooled to that hot-bathtub-water temp, you’re ready to mix the oils with the lye/milk.
Note that this is when you have the greatest risk of spills/splashes, so cover all your skin. Put your gloves and safety glasses on. And then carefully pour the lye/milk solution into the oils and begin to stir the mixture. You have to mix it until it reaches what’s called “trace,” meaning the oils start to thicken and when you pull your spoon or immersion blender across the surface, the mixture will hold little waves on the surface. If the mixture is still completely soupy and the top of it stays flat when you pull the mixing implement out, it hasn’t reached trace yet.
Not at trace:
How long does it take for the soap to reach “trace”? That depends on myriad factors, including temperature, type of fats used, and most importantly – what you’re using to mix. If you use a spoon, it’s going to take so long you’ll think your arm is going to fall off. If you use a whisk, you’ll still feel similarly. Think 15-20 minutes of constant stirring. That doesn’t sound that bad until you actually try it. (I tried it. My arm is still growing back.) If you want your soap to “trace” in a much shorter time period, use an immersion blender. Make sure it’s spotlessly clean (you don’t want any leftover broccoli soup in your soap, do you?) Using an immersion blender, my soap usually “traces” in a few minutes. When it does, I immediately stop blending and add essential oils. For this batch, I used:
40 drops sweet orange essential oil
20 drops organic patchouli essential oil
Note that this isn’t a lot of essential oil – it makes the soap very lightly scented, which is how I prefer it. If you like a more scented soap, you’ll want to use more essential oil. You can learn more about safe dilution rates here.
Add the oils and then stir using a silicone spatula, and then pour into your mold. I used a small cardboard box lined with parchment paper as my mold.
Then I put the box of soap in an insulated cooler to keep it from cooling off too quickly. (I read that this will help prevent the formation of a thick layer of white powder on the top of the soap – which happened with my first batch. The powder is known as soda ash, and it’s supposedly harmless but not very aesthetically pleasing.)
Cleanup requires some special safety precautions, too. Even though the lye is mixed into the fats, it hasn’t yet been neutralized, so the soap mixture can still burn your skin. (Ask me how I know this!) Because of this, you need to keep those gloves on while you wash your equipment. And even though you’re washing off “soap,” your soap’s not truly soap yet, so you need to use some dish soap to break down those fats.
After a few hours, I open the lid of the cooler slightly so that moisture can escape. Two days later, I take the soap out of the mold and use a chef’s knife to cut the soap into bars. I put the soap on a baker’s rack so that air can circulate around the bars. This is to allow it to breathe while the fats and lye interact completely. This process is called “saponification,” and it’s what neutralizes the lye so that it no longer burns your skin.
The process of saponification takes 24 hours to six weeks (or longer!) I wait six weeks for all my soaps, and then I check it to see how my skin reacts to it. Many soap-makers do pH testing, which is discussed in great detail here. I’ve toyed with it but got widely varying results, and sort of gave up. My skin is the real test. First I try it on my hands. Then my arms. And finally my face. I pay close attention to how my skin feels after using the soap. Does it make my skin feel itchy? Dry? Greasy? (Almost all commercially made soaps cause these issues for me – but none of my homemade ones have.)
A final note about safety: As I researched and read about making soap, a question crossed my mind: Is it SAFE to rub breast milk all over your skin? Crunchy mama groups would have you believe that breast milk will solve all that ails the world, but there’s also the real-world consideration that breast milk is formed from blood, and blood can carry disease. (Hepatitis B and HIV, to name two of the scarier ones.) So it occurred to me that you probably shouldn’t use breast milk soap unless it was made using milk from someone who has tested negative for these blood-borne diseases. (I’ve been tested and am negative for both. Indeed, I think all pregnant women receiving regular maternal care get tested for both prior to giving birth.) So – buyer beware…? It’s probably not a bad idea to exercise caution. But then I also wondered: do goats carry blood-borne diseases? And if so, can they harm us? Would any blood-borne disease still be able to infect a person given the chemical process of soap-making? Honestly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. If you do, please weigh in, because I’m curious.
I’m not a generally squeamish person. In my household, the five second rule is more like the five-hour rule, and even that has pretty lax enforcement. Also, I know that my own milk is safe, so I’m not worried. But would I slather breast milk soap from an unknown mama all over my body? I don’t know. Probably no.
But… given that a lot of commercially made soaps contain ingredients that we know to be harmful to health (parabens are especially concerning due to their ability to disrupt hormone production), maybe I’m over-thinking the breast milk safety issue. I’m curious to know others’ thoughts on the issue, though.
Happy soap-making, friends! Let me know how it turns out!