Soap-making for the Civilized Meathead


You’ve just completed a hard workout and are about to hit the showers.  Maybe you’ve hit the mats hard with Judo practice and you’ve calloused your back up with dirt, dust, and grime, getting in some quality armor-building done.

Or you’ve hit the the sandbag around for some heavy shoulder practice for your strongman challenge at the local college.  Or you’ve sweat your face off from intense yoga, challenging your structural integrity while practicing deep breathing.

Regardless, its time to shower.

How often do you shower?  Once a day?  Twice? No judgement.

If you’re in the developed world, you’ve probably got access to clean water and are, or have the capacity, to shower daily.  Even bathe daily.

With Soap too.

Aleppo Soap, photo courtesy of Dan via Flickr. Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 2.0

But have you really thought much of that bar of soap that you use?  Have you thought about its impact?  Of something that has been used for centuries?  Have you ever wondered what its impact has been?  Maybe its more than you’ll accomplish in your entire life?

Maybe, it will wake you in better building  physical virtues ?

Did you know that seven hundred years ago, people would compete to see who had gone without bathing the longest? It was a competition open to both men and women.

In fact, there was a pilgrim woman who boasted to have not bathed in 18 years!

Understanding the Chemistry of Soap

It cleans you.

Absolutely.  That’s the essence of what soap is.  Much like the detergent we use to wash dishes, soap is formed through the combination of oils and lye water.

What is lye?

People get scared when they hear that lye is composed of a strong base such as sodium hydroxide.  They freak out knowing that its so strong and required in such purity that it can burn through bone.

They get turned off of the idea of making their own soap for that very reason.

However, lets put some context on our misunderstood lye.

A few years ago in a forgotten chemistry lab, I was burned slightly by a weak acid. acetic acid (Think vinegar).  Yes, even your household vinegar, in just the right concentration can be just as dangerous as lye.

It was in high enough concentration that even weak acid could burn through layers of skin.

Good ‘ol lye

So don’t get deterred.  Just take reasonable precaution.  Just like in the gym, stupidity gets rewarded with increased mortality risk.

Now,  getting back to the soap-making or saponification process, the fatty acids in oil interact with either sodium or potassium hydroxide base to form glycerol and what is considered chemical soap.   Furthermore, heat is released in the process.

Sounds easy right?  It might make you think that soap just came out of the sky ready to clean your backside, courtesy of Johnson and Johnson, Jurgens, or Dove.

There’s a little more to it my WI-FI addicted, silver-spooned friend.

Impact of Soap

Although soapmaking has traces as far back as the Ancient Egyptians and Assyrians, the first concrete mention of soap use for cleaning people and clothes is mentioned by our gladiator-doctor, Galen in the second century C.E.  In fact, its pretty interesting to relate the Roman origins of soapmaking.

Even the word soap is very similar to the Latin word, Sapo, which is the name for the hilly area outside of Rome where ritual sacrifice of animals was carried out.

It is speculated that the formation of soap occurred when rain water mixed with the ashes of burnt wood and animal fat residue of sacrifices to create the saponified (soap-forming) substances we consider soap.

Making soap in 1873 Marseille in France.

Moreover, its interesting how similar the word soap is across cultures.  In Europe you have sapo or soap, in the middle east, central Asia, and south Asia, its sabun.  

And in other places, its sopopa.  Regardless, the impact of cleanliness is just the same.  which brings us to the question….why bother?  Its a question our friendly pilgrim women would be asking us here.

Why make soap?

Finding Purpose in Soap-making

Recovery gains

Recovery?  How does soap have anything to do with improving physical performance?

Although good food and sleep are the cornerstones for adequate recovery from training, soap and cleanliness also play a role in our ability to continue to show up to training sessions, stay healthy, and not missing opportunities for induced, controlled stress.

Whether its studying for an exam, preparing for a board meeting, interacting and helping patients/clients, or preparing for a training block in flu season, soap is the cornerstone of health in the germ theory world we live in.  Remember how we mentioned our pilgrim woman who abhorred bathing?

Well, it took a long time for physicians to unanimously declare that bathing and cleanliness were paramount for good health.

It wasn’t until Germ Theory came about, in the 19th century, that people realized that cleanliness was related to good health.  Sure, civilizations in China and the Islamic world enforced good bathing praises and soap production flourished there for hundreds of years.

However, it wasn’t unanimous across all places that soap and bathing were important until Louis Pasteur, in the mid 1800s, conducted experiments showing the transfer of disease through microorganisms.

Understand the context that you live in.

Its through using soap regularly, that we can create better positional play, along with good diet and sleep, to create better opportunity to show up for the training that we aim to carry out.

Why would you not use soap and purposely prevent yourself from reaching your goals?

Even legendary weightlifter, Donnie Shankle emphasizes the importance of skin care for weightlifters.  Its got cosmetic products, hand salves, and cheese graders too.

Why?  Because Donnie Shankle knows that any time away from training that is reasonably preventable is your own fault in missing.

Don’t be the kind of guy who can boast not bathing for 18 years like our Medieval pilgrim.

Soap-making will Wake You up to How Disconnected We are with Society 

There’s this moment that you realize what it takes to stay mobile.  If you haven’t challenged yourself physically you don’t realize the wear your lifestyle has on your body.

If you workout but haven’t done so in a while, nor done any restorative tissue work, you generally don’t feel that anything is wrong.

However, when you go ‘get back on the horse’ and do something that does challenge you physically, its only then that your realize how messed up you are.

I haven’t trained in over two weeks nor done any restorative work for my weak areas.  I went to squat the other day and I could feel how tight my hips were.

My knees cracked.  And suddenly I woke up to how jacked up my body was.

It was a wake up call.

Make soap and take the red pill that wakes you up.

With this soap adventure, we’re on another wake up call.  This one is inspired by Mike Rowe’s book,, Profoundly Disconnected.  Mike is known as a television host of a program called, Dirty Jobs.

And he highlights how disconnected the average person with people who work dirty, often un-glamorous jobs that run the infrastructure that keeps our society going.

From plumbers, to electricians, railway engineers, to elevator repairmen, the skilled trades are the backbone of our civilization.  We’ve become incredibly separated from this reality.

When you go and make your own soap, its waking up to realize how much the world around you and is impacted by the achievements of hardworking tradesmen.

Now, soap is made in the laboratory now and it doesn’t necessarily conjure ideas of toiling on the brickwork like a stone mason would but the experience is a step towards awareness of something we use every day.

Make your Own Soap for Money-Saving 

Consider this a long term project of making soap…more than one time in your life.  Most of the costs come from getting equipment specifically for soap-making as you don’t want to us the same tools for regular cooking.

If you were a chemist, you wouldn’t use the blender that’s designated for splicing up toxic substances to also make your post-workout protein shake….or would you?

The main savings for making homemade soap are in the retention of its form.  Homemade soaps, generally speaking, do not have the glycerin removed from them.

Glycerin is found in moisturizers and is usually taken out in commercial soap-making methods along with excess lye.

For this reason, your soap doesn’t last as long.

How to make soap

Equipment and Ingredients:

  1. handblender
  2. wooden spoons
  3. casing/mould
  4. sodium hydroxide (crystalline form)
  5. carrier oils
  6. optional fragrance oils
  7. carrier liquid (such as coffee)
  8. large buckets
  9. protective wear (goggles, long sleeves, gloves)

Notice how we didn’t mention quantities?  Are we trying to be annoying?  Maybe.

However, this is also because the ingredients we used were inputted into an online calculator which takes into account not only the ingredients, but the quantities as well in order to determine the amount of lye.

It also comes with instructions on effective saponification.

Now its not per say necessary to go complete lab scientist-mode in your safety but you ARE working with caustic ingredients such as sodium hydroxide (lye).

However, its recommenced that you at least take some effort to protect yourself as lye can be quite reactive.  With any chemical experiment, look up the MSDS or Material Safety Data Sheet.


What you want to do is prepare all of you ingredients and location.

We want to create the purest soap that we can reasonably make in the conditions granted.

And this is dependent on how well we can saponify our lye and oil.

You can use a cooling filler such as coffee (as we’ve done) and in a large bucket, pour your lye (whether powdered or paste) into the liquid filler.

If you’ve ever done science experiments with acids and bases in high school, you’ll remember that you have to always put acids/bases INTO the liquid fill not the other way around.  Otherwise you’ll get a spill of base in your face.

The fumes that emit from this mixture are intense.  We’ve done this part outside as the fumes were too much to handle but do so at your own discretion.


Because although going outside will create an open area for your lye to fume out without knocking YOU out, the sudden rise in temperate from this reaction will subside quickly and we’re going to also be boiling our oils while this is happening.

This is a point to consider because we want to mix the two solutions at roughly the same temperature range and having the lye mixture outside can cause a deep drop in temperature if left outside.

Now, while the lye is dissolving, use a stick blender or spoon to break it up.  This WILL result in more fumes so be wary.

You can let the mixture cool outside while you check up on your oils and their melting.  Once all the oils that you are planning to use are liquidated, use a temperature gauge to monitor the temperature.

Do the same with your lye solution until they are within 10 degrees of one another.  Ideally you want this to be around 120-130 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then combine your oils with your lye water.  More fumes will ensue and as you mix you’ll have to brace yourself for this concoction to gel.

You will notice that eventually a pudding like mixture forming and you’re nearing the ideal mixing range.

This is qualitatively speaking but, if you stir and can see streaks from the blender or spoon slowly disappearing, you are somewhere around the ideal mixing point.

From there, grease your molds and pour your mixture in them.

Store in a cool, dry place for twenty four to forty eight hours until some solidification occurs and then you can transfer them to more long-term storage.

Usually soaps will take 4 weeks or longer to cure well and you want good hardness with these so make a decent sized batch and save them.

Post-Mortem on your Soapmaking

Separation: greasy layer atop hard soapliquid soap poured too soon: lye poorly distributed; incomplete saponificationstir more thoroughly; do not pour until thick and creamy; measure accurately
separation: greasy layer atop liquid inaccurate proportions; inaccurate temperatures; rancid or salty fatfollow directions carefully; render and clean fat well
soft, greasy soapincomplete saponification; too little lye; some lye used up in hard watersoften water before making soap; measure accurately
streaked soap too little stirring; uneven emulsionpour lye more slowly into fat; stir well; accurate temperatures
very hard, brittle soaptoo much lye; fat too hard (mutton)measure lye accurately; add lard or vegetable oil
white residue on hard soap too much lye; hard wateruse rainwater/distilled water; measure accurately
cracks in soap too much lye; too much stirring; too thick when poured; set too fastreduce lye; pour when creamy thick; set at room temperature away from excessive heat
soap smells 'fatty'free fat which turns rancid; odorous fatsstir well for complete emulsion; correct proportions; render at low heat; use fresh fats; wash fats before use.


Now go be a Soap-making Tradesmen, you crazy Meathead

With that, you can see how something as simple as soap-making and taking control over it, can open you up to better awareness of your environment.

Don’t be profoundly disconnected.

Use fitness to learn about the world around you and use that experience to better impact it with your skills, interests, and strengths.

Go back and then look forward.