More Soaping Adventures and Lessons Learned

I don’t think anybody likes to talk about their mistakes. I know I don’t. But what my wife and I thought was a major soap making mess up from over a year ago has turned into a happy ending, or so it seems. Let me explain, and give a little background to the story.

our first soap

our first soap

We’ve been making soap here for a little over three years now. We haven’t made enough to be experts at it, but we aren’t rank novices either. We started out with simple recipes and made simple soaps without any frills or fancy ingredients. As we gained experience, we got more adventurous, coming up with creations like our Citrus Coffee Hand Soap and our Peppermint Honey Oatmeal bath bar. We don’t sell our soaps, but we do give them away to friends and family. That’s one excuse we use for making so much soap! And we do love to experiment. As my wife likes to say, sometimes it’s about the process, and not the finished product.

Peppermint Honey Oatmeal Soap

Peppermint Honey Oatmeal Soap

Before long we were making soaps with goats milk instead of water. And then we tried soaps with 100% olive oil. We even made one with lard, though that one turned out to be not our greatest creation (not much lather). Of all the soaps we made, we really fell in love with the goats milk soaps. In addition to being great for your skin, the milk sugars and proteins in the milk make for a lovely lather. So if you take a soap recipe that already lathers up nicely, and make it with goats milk instead of water, it will be even better. Or at least that’s been our experience.

Lavender Goats Milk (left) and Clary Sage Lavender (right) soaps

Lavender Goats Milk (left) and Clary Sage Lavender Goats Milk (right) soaps

Any milk can be used to make cold process soap, from goat’s milk to 2% cows milk to buttermilk. Different soap makers have their favorites. Even coconut milk can be used, though technically it’s not really milk at all. So, as we were making soaps in 2011 we decided to try to make one using coconut milk instead of water. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but it turned into a disaster – or so we thought.

coconut milk - it

coconut milk – it’s not just for cooking

Since we keep detailed notes and documentation on every soap we make (on a recipe sheet from the lye calculator), I can go back and see what we did with the first coconut milk soap. It was soap #21 for us, made on 11/18/2011. We stuck with a basic recipe for the base oils (olive, coconut, palm and castor), and substituted canned coconut milk for the water. And we used a fragrance oil we had never used before, Coconut Lime Verbena, which smelled great in the bottle.

mixing lye with goats milk by the window

friend Donna mixing lye with goats milk by the window

We made it just like we were making our goats milk soaps, gradually adding the lye to the room temperature milk (which generates heat in the process). It was pretty stinky at that point, but that’s not unusual when mixing in the lye. We always mix up the lye and liquid with the window open to help with the strong smell. And when we mixed it all up it went to ‘trace’ very quickly, and we had to work fast to pour it into our wooden soap mold before it set up in the pan. But even that wasn’t too unusual.

funky smelling coconut milk soap

funky smelling & looking coconut milk soap

The trouble began when we cut it the next day. It smelled horrible! It had what we described as an ammonia smell. Mind you, cold process soap usually smells a little funky after you first cut it because the lye hasn’t finished doing its thing with the oils yet. But this was over the top. We let it cure for 4 weeks, and it still smelled bad. We weren’t sure what to do with it. Lynda got on some soaping forums to ask others what was going on with our soap. We got a lot of advice, but no real concrete answers.

We got brave enough to try it out on our hands, and it lathered up nicely. But it still smelled bad – to us. So we let it sit in our basement cabinet where we keep all our soaps. It sat for over a year down there, hanging out with our other soaps.

freezing coconut milk for soap

freezing coconut milk for soap

Since that disaster, and after our subsequent research, we have changed how we make soap with milk. We now freeze the milk first, and mix the frozen milk with lye. That keeps the mixture cooler, and keeps the lye from scorching the milk and turning it a dark color. A little more research showed that was what we should do with the coconut milk too. But we were in no hurry to experiment with coconut milk again. Or so we thought…

I’m not sure what made her do it, but Lynda decided to try the Coconut Lime Verbena soap again a few weeks ago. She was all excited by the big, fluffy lather it made. I had to try it out for myself, and she was right, it lathered up like crazy! We still didn’t like the smell. But there was no hint of the ammonia odor we first noticed, and we decided it was just the fragrance oil we didn’t like. We guessed that using fresh and not frozen coconut milk was the big problem before. After much discussion, we decided to try and make another coconut milk soap.

lather from 2011 coconut milk soap

lather from 2011 coconut milk soap

This time we froze the coconut milk, and used a mild smelling vanilla fragrance oil we have used before. That soap has been made, and cut, and it’s curing in the basement. It will be several more weeks before we get to try it, but we are pretty confident it has turned out o.k. At least it doesn’t have that funky ammonia smell! We were so confident that we made more coconut milk soap again this week. Talk about a leap of faith. We haven’t cut that one yet, but the process went well with no surprises.

our new coconut milk soap curing

our new coconut milk soap curing

Time will tell how this story ends. Hopefully it will have a happy ending this time. I’ll let you know later on if we have a new favorite soap, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we do!

I’ll be back tomorrow with a spotlight on a vegetable variety that is appearing on our table right now, just in time for spring.


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4 Responses to More Soaping Adventures and Lessons Learned

  1. Phi loan tran says:

    All of my cold process soap smell like amonia. I have not use any milk or something like that in my recipe. My soaps are scented with essential oil. Can you tell me what was wrong. I am so sad now.

  2. Kisha says:

    Hello I’m happy things are going well with your soap making I made a batch yesterday at 1:30 pm after,and I was to excited I woke up today and cut into it and unfortunately it smelled like ammonia too . I then rain it under water and was my hand and it lather good , but when I dried my hands the felt tight and a little weird. I don’t know if I should let it set or get rid of it.

    • Dave @ HappyAcres says:

      I would cut it into bars and let it cure for a week or two. The smell should go away, then test it on your hands and see what you think.

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