Does this smock make me look frugal?
October 14, 2006 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Is making your own soaps/lotions/oils/candles/etc. worth the time and trouble?

My wife and I have become interested in the notion of making our own soaps, lotions, candles, etc. We're big fans of Burt's Bees in particular, and have recently come across 3-4 different small, boutique lotions/candles/thingies that (a) are really appealing for a number of reasons (aesthetic, olfactory, other) and (b) seem pretty simple, compositionally.

I've spent enough time on frugality/simple-living message boards to know that there are many people making such products on their own, and I know that there are myriad recipes for such online (and wholesalers who supply the necessary raw materials).

I'd love to hear from someone who actually does this, whether or not they resell said products for profit. Do you find the products you make at home can compete with a Burt's Bees product (or other) on quality, for a comparable price? Is the amount of work, cleanup, mess, etc. worth the trouble? What's a good starting point for buying supplies? Any mistakes you made in your learning process that you'd be willing to share?
posted by jbickers to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's more difficult than it might appear. My business partner and I have a soy candle business and it took about a year of testing and an investment of several thousands of dollars to get it going. We are still waiting to turn a profit. Right now everything we make goes back into the business, which IS growing, but it's ALOT of work. I worked fewer hours when I had a "real" job!

If I had to advise someone thinking of starting out with something similar, I would tell them to set up an LLC, and then set up wholesale accounts with people that already make lotions/candles/thingies. Then set up a Yahoo store ($40/month) and do some business online. You can also prospect local business to see if they will carry the products in their stores.

That way you can get a feel for the business aspect of selling the products. You'll also be educating yourself about the industry, and finding out what you do/don't like about the products. To top it off, you won't have to invest the time and money in supplies and product development.
posted by Ostara at 8:13 PM on October 14, 2006


This is second-hand as my mother was in the 'handmade soap' business for many years.

In short, simply making the soap was hard work with lots of mixing, timing, and lye. After that came the selling, partnerships, etc., etc.

They (she and her sister) were doing well, but they eventually gave it up as 'too much work'. So there's that. However, if there's one credo I live by, it's this:

The instinct of doing things is a common one, and can be made a source of pleasure, healthy discipline, and usefulness, even when the work is taken up as recreation...

When one has made with his own hands any object of use or ornament there is a sense of personal pride and satisfaction in the result, that no expenditure of money can buy, and this very fact serves to dignify the task and stamp it with individuality.
- Gustaf Stikley

I say do it.
posted by unixrat at 8:37 PM on October 14, 2006


It's more difficult than it might appear. My business partner and I have a soy candle business and it took about a year of testing and an investment of several thousands of dollars to get it going. We are still waiting to turn a profit. Right now everything we make goes back into the business, which IS growing, but it's ALOT of work. I worked fewer hours when I had a "real" job!

Ostara, and unixrat, I see I may have framed the question poorly. I have no desire to do this as a business - I'm wondering whether this is worth doing simply for the creation of products for my own use (and, of course, for gifts to family/friends/etc.). It's obviously a ton of work ... is it an inordinate amount of work given the return? I'd like to be able to make a wide variety of products at home - lotions, hand soaps, bar soaps, massage oils, hair products, candles - and am guessing there is a wide array of ingredient overlap. Any advice?
posted by jbickers at 8:44 PM on October 14, 2006


Sorry - go for it! There is indeed a lot of ingredient overlap. I like Bitter Creek for fragrance oils. If you look at their scent list they will tell you which fragrance oils are safe in lotions and soaps. They are also great to talk to on the phone for suggestions.

They also have instructions on how to make bath and body products.

And since scents can't be copyrighted, you can make something that smells just like your favorite "designer" scent.

It is satisfying, and extremely fun to develop different scent combinations, and products. Feel free to email me if you want.
posted by Ostara at 9:14 PM on October 14, 2006 [1 favorite]


I've made almost all of those things at home. I loved doing it but in my experience - in most cases its cheaper just to buy them. Good soap uses 3-4 different fats which must be sourced through specialty retailers and the entire "from scratch" soap making process is both hazardous and time consuming. It's a healthy half day of work and weeks of curing per batch. You also need to do some up front investing in equipment - a precise scale, thermometers and molds. This is a great book on soapmaking if you're interested in what you'd be getting into. If entirely from scratch is a bit much - you can also check out what's called "melt and pour" which is blocks of basic soap that can be melted where you add colors and scents.
Making candles is fun - but it will make a tremendous mess. There is also the same upfront investment and unless you are burning candles all the time - and want to give a bunch away as gifts - you're going to spend way more on wax and molds than you'd ever spend on candles.
The liquid things you'd like to make are tricky - there is even more chemistry and nasty chemicals than making bar soap - again you can buy what are essentially "blanks" of unscented lotion and shower gel but it doesn't seem to me that this is what you're after.
If these are things you and your wife will enjoy doing I'd highly recommend giving it a shot, I've found it very satisfying to lather up with my own soap in the morning - but don't do it expecting to save money.
posted by Wolfie at 9:29 PM on October 14, 2006


You might drop a note to dejah420 or keep an eye on her vox blog. She has a business making soap -- I can vouch for how nice her products are -- and although she is retailing, her posts reveal much about the process and the sheer joy she takes in the creative aspects. Her posts might help you to decide whether it would be a worthwhile endeavor simply for the satisfaction of making something creative and useful.
posted by madamjujujive at 9:47 PM on October 14, 2006


I've been curious about making liquid glycerin soap - would this be simpler than making hard bar soap? I tried searching for recipes, but only found pre-made soap.

I'm mainly interested because it seems to be impossible to find unscented liquid soap in bulk, and I really feel wasteful throwing away a pump mechanism every time I use up a tiny bottle. Plus it's expensive.
posted by amtho at 9:54 PM on October 14, 2006


"Good soap uses 3-4 different fats which must be sourced through specialty retailers and the entire 'from scratch' soap making process is both hazardous and time consuming. It's a healthy half day of work and weeks of curing per batch."

It's not that bad. The fats are relatively easy to acquire (especially if you live in a large city where there might be a shop that supplies soapmakers -- or ethnic shops that sell them as well). The hazards are nothing that a little common sense can't deal with. (Gloves, safety glasses, and utensils that are dedicated to soapmaking and nothing else.) It does indeed take weeks to cure a batch, but there's no work involved in the curing other than letting the soap sit, really.

For the last few years I haven't had to buy any commercially-made soap. I get together with some friends each fall and we make a couple of big batches of soap, then we can either give it away for Christmas or just use it ourselves throughout the year.

I got started through a local soapmaker who offered in home classes. For $50 she'd come to your house and guide you through making a batch of soap. She included the supplies, too. It was a great deal and lots of fun. It only took an evening, too. (But of course then it had to cure for a month plus.) It's not that difficult or time consuming.

A great thing about it is that I can make soap with fragrances that don't annoy me.
posted by litlnemo at 10:05 PM on October 14, 2006


Like litlnemo, my husband and I make a few big batches of soap in fall every year. It keeps us in soap all year; it lets us give inexpensive homemade gifts that people actually like; and we find it fun and satisfying. It's true that it's a healthy evening of work, but it's not hard labor.

Our favorite recipe is the "Soap Essentials Bar II" from The Soapmaker's Companion by Susan Miller Cavitch.

I haven't found the equipment investment burdensome. A precise scale is a good thing to have in the kitchen anyway if you do any baking. And we make our own molds by lining cardboard boxes with plastic or waxed paper.

It's been a few years since I made dipped or molded candles. (Though I do have plans to dip some bayberry candles for Christmas this year.) Lately I've just rolled them out of honeycomb beeswax sheets, which takes almost no time at all. They aren't as long-burning as dipped candles, but they're dead simple to make, not at all messy, and fairly inexpensive. I make two 8" candles out of each sheet; my supply costs come out to a bit less than a dollar USD per candle.
posted by sculpin at 11:05 PM on October 14, 2006


I make soap. I really enjoy it, and as litlnemo said, you can make enough in one batch to last all year. The oils are not a problem -- you can make Castille soap from simple olive oil. Or you can use a combination of olive and other oils from the grocery including Crisco. The hard part is getting the lye. You used to be able to get lye (sodium hydroxide) as Red Devil drain opener in the grocery store, but they pulled it due to meth production (!). So now I have to order it online in 15 lb. buckets and pay hazardous shipping. Drag. For liquid soap, you use potassium hydroxide, and I am pretty sure that you would need to order that from a specialty retailer too. But I say try it; you can find lots of info on the web about it. There are tons of simple recipes for massage oils, lip balms, candles, etc.
posted by gingembre at 8:45 AM on October 15, 2006


When buying lye to make soap, I always wondered if the store clerks thought I was buying it for meth. *sigh* As of a year ago, though, you could still buy lye at the grocery store around here. That was the last batch of soap I made. gingembre is right about the fats -- you don't have to use specialty fats. The type of fat you use will affect the type of soap, of course -- different fats have different characteristics.
posted by litlnemo at 2:06 PM on October 15, 2006


I make candles, but there is a lot of overlap with soap-making. For one, it can be pricy to get started, it is MESSY and it takes up some room. Having said that, almost nothing makes me happier than setting up and spending a whole afternoon creating gorgeous candles that I can use, give away, or even sell if I so desire (although in my opinion, nothing ruins a hobby more than doing it for money). I am not normally a creative person, but when I make candles I am amazed with what I come up with. It is soothing and makes me happy, and having home-made candles around is nice too.

Some hints: yes, it takes up space, but is managable if you have a supportive partner. Also, you don't need all the crap they market to you, I make professional looking candles with an electric frying pan filled with water and some small pots filled with wax sitting on a trivet in the water. I bought everything I needed from a thrift store. Just make sure you get a good thermometer. And use it. Don't pour candles over the sink, wax will get in your drain and you are screwed. Cover your work area with plastic. Get some good books and read the directions completely before you begin. :) Good luck and have fun!
posted by arcticwoman at 3:36 PM on October 15, 2006


Arcticwoman, very very helpful ... thank you!

Get some good books and read the directions completely before you begin.

Any recommendations of titles you found good at cutting through all the unnecessary stuff? (Clearly something you're good at!)
posted by jbickers at 4:55 PM on October 15, 2006


I'm not at home right now, but I'll post a few later. I'm so happy to hear of someone who's interested in this stuff!
posted by arcticwoman at 6:22 PM on October 16, 2006


« Older Is there a place for a technical comparison of...   |   I'm interested in trying modeling. Are there any... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.