Use What You Make, Make What You Use

As a software engineer, one of the biggest compelling things about what I do on the web is the ability to use something that I make. There is immediate satisfaction when you get to use something you’ve built, and that feeling is hard to match.

As a regular person, I have started applying the same principle to my day to day life. Today, for the first time, I used soap that I made myself. Yes, you read that correctly. I made my own handmade soap. And it’s awesome.

Vanilla Red (vanilla + rosewood essential oils)

If you ask me what made me do this, my short response would be “because I can!”, the detailed response is a bit tricky. Short of arguing determinism vs. free will, what I would say is that the path you take in life is influenced by the road you’ve already travelled. My road to today has included me visiting the “Soap Souk” of old Sidon, in Lebanon. That souk being talked about many times in conversations throughout my life. My dad buying the big, hard, handmade soap to use at home that I used to hate because they were too big to hold as a kid and too hard to scrub your skin with. Most recently though, two immediate events have motivated me to actually do this.

The first event was learning about The Simply Co.’s Kickstarter campaign to create toxic free and sustainable laundry detergent, which then lead to learning about Lauren Singer’s journey to a waste free lifestyle. Part of creating a waste free lifestyle is buying things package free, which means shopping in the bulk isle at the grocery store. In most cases you would be saving money along with reducing waste, in the soap case that doesn’t tend to be true. Handmade soap is expensive compared to a brandname shower gel bottle.

Which leads me to the second event that made all of this come full circle. My cousin mentioned at one of the family gatherings how he had started making soap at home, and although he’s literally a physicist, it open my eyes to the possibility of actually doing it at home as opposed to needing a lab and all sorts of fancy equipment.

To Youtube I went, watched a bunch of videos of mostly women making handmade soap at home, and when I finally got over the “fear” of using lye without “adult supervision” I did what I always do, I created a spreadsheet that listed all the items that I needed to buy to be able to make soap myself. I added the cost of each item. I created recipes and determined the cost of each bar of soap. At Whole Foods, a bar of handmade soap costs $1.25/oz and each bar weighs between 4 to 6 oz. So I needed to beat the cost of approximately $5/bar of soap.

My initial calculations indicated that one batch would cost about $10 and at 3oz/bar, each bar of soap would cost about $0.9. That seemed too cheap. I didn’t trust my own estimates and assumptions because I had never done this before and I had no idea what hidden surprises would be in store. But I figured that at the very least I would come out even. So I went ahead and purchased all the equipment and ingredients needed.

White Rose + Red Rose (rose germanium + rosewood essential oils, with red clay for color)

After the first batch, I adjusted the measurements a bit to get a higher yield since my mold can handle more than I had estimated at first. The cost per batch went up to about $14 and now I could cut the loaf into 4oz bars instead of 3oz, and the cost per bar only went up to about $1.3 which was not that bad. Going from $1.25/oz to $1.3/bar is a big margin on savings. But that only accounted for the ingredients, the oils and the essential oils that went into the soap. What about the equipment that I bought? I figured that to make up the cost for that piece of the equation, I needed to make about 40 bars of soap in order to come out even as opposed to buying them from someone else. 40 bars might seem like a lot, but if you consider that a bar of soap might last about 2 weeks max (that estimate is for 2 people showering every day of the week, YMMV), 40 bars of soap is only about 80 weeks worth, which is about a year and a half. And if you factor in the fact that I’ve used the handmade soap as gift items to people, you realize that you go through them fairly quickly.

To this day, and I only started doing this about a month ago, I’ve made about 6 batches, which accounts for 60 bars. I have also experimented with some recipes, for example I tried to use honey to get a brown color and I ended up using too much and the honey dominated the entire scent. The most recent batch I did had coffee, which is an exfoliant, that gave it a dark brown color. It’s been a lot of fun trying different stuff and being creative with it. Waiting for the 6 week curing process has been the most difficult part of the whole thing. It’s worth it though.

Consuming products of your own labor is satisfying and you will be hearing about me doing the same with other items that we use at home. Hint: I’m on my second attempt growing basil and peppermint (I killed the first batch somehow!), and my first attempt at growing lettuce. Fingers crossed!