How to Make Biodegradable Soap for Camping


Making soap is as old as the hills, and there are just about as many soap recipes as soap makers. One thing all soap recipes have in common, however, is a basic set of steps and ingredients which, taken together, produce the chemical reaction known as saponification. As the American Heritage Dictionary describes it, this is "a reaction in which an ester is heated with an alkali, such as sodium hydroxide, producing a free alcohol and an acid salt, especially alkaline hydrolysis of a fat or oil to make soap." Until we add potentially toxic ingredients, all soap is biodegradable, so make a basic soap for your camping trip and the planet will thank you.

Things You'll Need

  • 1 cup plus 2 tbsp. solid fat such as vegetable shortening
  • 1 1/3 cups olive oil
  • ¼ cup lye
  • 8 oz. cold water, preferably distilled
  • Glass measuring cup
  • Heatproof glass bowl
  • 2 wooden spoons
  • Stainless steel pot
  • Soap molds or wooden box
  • Damp cloth sized to fit box
  • Assemble your materials on a clean, uncluttered surface---preferably a tabletop near the stove. Put on rubber gloves and safety goggles. Ensure the room has adequate ventilation and that no children or pets are near.

  • Pour 8 oz. cold water in a large, heatproof glass bowl such as Pyrex.

  • Measure the lye in a glass cup and slowly add it to the cold water. This solution will rapidly heat to more than 175 degrees Fahrenheit and create fumes, so avoid inhaling it. Stir the solution carefully with a wooden spoon to dissolve all the lye. Allow the solution to cool.

  • Melt the shortening slowly over low heat in a stainless steel pot. Stir in olive oil with a second wooden spoon. Remove the pot the from heat and allow cooling until the shortening slightly thickens but does not solidify. Stir it occasionally as it cools.

  • Pour the lye solution in a slow, steady stream into the cooled shortening and oil mixture. Stir constantly until the mixture begins to heat up from the chemical reaction and thicken. This may take from 15 to 30 minutes, but keep stirring until trace develops. Trace is the stage in which a line drawn across the surface of the mixture will leave a definite mark, or dribbles will sit on the surface for a bit before sinking back in.

  • Consider adding a few drops of scent like Essential Oils when trace develops and stir them in. Pour the mixture into soap molds or a wooden box lined with a damp cloth.

  • Let the soap sit undisturbed for 24 hours to cure.

  • Cut the soap into bars. You should have six to eight bath-size bars. Set them aside in a closet or other cool, dark space for at least two weeks before using. Soap becomes firmer as it ages.

Tips & Warnings

  • Experiment with herbs, fragrances and other ingredients to make your own special blends.
  • Lye is very caustic. Always wear protective gloves and goggles and follow all safety recommendations in handling it.

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  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009.
  • The Chemical Formulary, Vol. 1 b H. Bennett, editor in chief; 1933
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