Soap making in the Mountains

While in Shuhe this past week, we had the opportunity to make a few natural, fresh bars of soap, and it was a fun experience.  I can’t say that it was exactly easy.  While the woman who was instructing us showed us pages and pages of lists of oils you can use in varied proportions to create different soaps with different benefits and properties, certain oils are impossible to come by here in China, and are expensive and inconvenient to import.

(Try explaining to your Chinese friends who have never seen an avocado before what one is, let alone what it tastes like or what’s so special about its oil?!)

However, most of the other ingredients and tools can be found at local stores, and for those of you with more access to various oils, this may be a challenge you’re up for!

It seems for making a basic few bars of soap, you’ll need olive oil, a few other kinds of oil (we used 20% coconut, 20% avocado, and 10% castor oil, as well as the 50% olive oil), sodium hydroxide, any fragrance you’re looking to add (we used chrysanthemum tea and tea flowers), a sensitive scale to measure amounts, a liquids thermometer, some gloves for safety, and some flexible plastic molds (while they had fancy equipment, they had also used moon cake molds in the past, which actually made for pretty patterns on the soap when you pop it out!).

Gathering our materials for soap making.

The play-by-play is more complicated than I want to go into on this post (you can find basic soap recipes all over the internet if you’re interested), but the basic steps involve adding (carefully!) the sodium hydroxide to the water and tea base, and letting it cool to an exact temperature.

Sodium Hydroxide, a necessary ingredient for soap making.
The water, tea, and sodium hydroxide mixture waiting to cool.

Then, you’ll want to combine the various oils and heat on the stove to desired temperature.

Measuring oils.
Combining oils.

Then, when you’ve got your sodium hydroxide mixture cool, and your oils heated, you want to add the sodium hydroxide mixture to the oils, and whisk vigorously (preferrably in one direction) for probably ten to fifteen minutes, until the mixture thickens.  (Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the whisking since I was the one doing it!)

This is what the sodium hydroxide mixture looks like after it’s been sitting to cool.
Adding the sodium hydroxide mixture to the oils.

Finally, pour the mixture into the molds, and let sit in a dry, dark area, and cover with blankets for about one month.

Homemade soaps get their tints from natural elements, such as spinach, jasmine, or chrysanthemum.  here we added flower petals to make the soap prettier!

I had a chance to use my natural soap later that week in the mountains, and I even used it to wash my hair as friends suggested.  Unfortunately I didn’t feel like I was really able to get the dirt and oils out of my hair, but I did feel that the soap definitely added moisture to my skin.

I’d be interested in learning about how to make natural detergents as well at some point, but I guess I have to admit that I’m still skeptical about how “well” these natural remedies work.

Perhaps it’s more about getting used to different standards of cleanliness?  What do you think?

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2 thoughts on “Soap making in the Mountains

  1. Gee…I want to travel with you next time. Seems you have all the fun.

    I think you’ll find natural remedies like baking soda and vinegar, clean quite well…is now the time where I tell you that’s all I ever cleaned with? (And then you say, “Ah ha! that’s why I always felt her house was…” yeah…maybe keep the comment to yourself!) I do think there is a lot more ‘elbow grease’ involved with baking soda and vinegar. Not to mention it’s REALLY hard to find plain white vinegar in China and you run the risk of your apartment smelling like a fish and chip shop. I have to admit, I enjoy that I can buy regular plant based cleaning products at the shop now. And unfortunately, there’s no real substitute for bleach.

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