About a year ago I started making lotion bars, prompted mainly by a wish to avoid plastic packaging but also because I enjoy being creative and crafty, and here was something I hadn’t tried yet. Lotion bars are relatively straightforward, once you have the necessary supplies of beeswax, one or two butters (such as shea, cocoa or mango) and a few oils (coconut, jojoba and sweet almond, for example) and some essential oils for fragrance and added goodness. Equipment-wise a bain marie and some silicone moulds are useful but you can make do with other kitchen supplies.

Having sussed out lotion bars, the next obvious step was cold process soap (as opposed to melt and pour soaps which are glycerine-based) since this uses most of the same ingredients but with the addition of sodium hydroxide, or lye. That latter element was slightly off-putting as I kept reading how careful you have to be with it, and soap-making all began to look rather complicated. And then along came Covid and confinement and general worry, so the project got side-lined for a while.

However, as a modicum of normality returned, I decided I would go for it so I got in the extra bits and bobs I need, namely the sodium hydroxide, second-hand heatproof containers, and thermometers. And nearly a month ago I stuck a toe into the soap-making sea.

Given the almost complete absence of anglers this year due to lockdown and quarantine-related issues, I transformed the shower room into my laboratory. I began with some shampoo bars, which are made the same way as cold process soap but with a different ratio of fats to sodium hydroxide. I was a little nervous but fortunately there’s a Member of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the house who was on hand to supervise my first dealings with NaOH.

All went well. I wore gloves, goggles and an apron and was careful to add the lye to the water – you never do it the other way round. It was fascinating to watch how the lye solution begin to saponify the melted oils and butters very quickly. The mixture quickly became opaque and thicker. I added the essential oil at this point, and it only then took a few blasts of the hand blender to reach what’s called medium trace, at which point the soap is ready to poured into moulds.

That’s been one of my best attempts. With the next one I made, nourishing soap, I forgot to add the two ounces of palm oil it needed, and the batch of basic soap after that went into the moulds without the addition of fragrance. (It actually smells quite nice anyway.) I’ve made more shampoo bars too as I think we’ll need more of these than bars of soap.

I had a go with adding colour swirls using coloured mica to the most recent lot of soap I’ve made. I think I was a bit too timid as the blue has come out pastel rather than vibrant, but it’s pretty enough. I used turmeric in some of my shampoo bars and they were quite golden when I unmoulded them and put them into storage. I’ll have to see how the colour looks after curing. Ideally you need to cure the soap/shampoo bar for at least four weeks after making it. During this period it hardens fully. My first few guinea-pigs are almost ready for testing.

I’m already discovering that there are choices to be made. I can stick with as-natural-as-possible and produce whitish or creamish soap that looks nice and wholesome, but not stunning. Or I can opt to add appearance-enhancers, such as titanium dioxide to make the white whiter and thus other colours more dramatic in contrast, chemicals that will result in a harder soap (sodium lactate or stearic acid) that you can unmould sooner, and anti-oxidants or even anti-microbials to prolong shelf-life. For now I’m going with the first option and thoroughly enjoying myself.

I’ll share more of my triumphs and disasters soon!