“I started messing around with soap after I got my wife a crafting magazine and thought, ‘Hey, we can make soap!'” Jeremy Lugo told me as he donned a pair of black latex gloves in preparation for a batch he was making in his tiny Bay Ridge studio. “Through the process I thought I could incorporate some really good ingredients in it and create a nice, masculine product. I was kind of sick of using hibiscus and rose-smelling stuff and I was a little frustrated as to why there isn’t stuff like this out there for guys.” This was the start of Rich + Clean, Lugo’s at-home soap-making business.
Lugo likes to make things, and the NYC-sized bedroom in his apartment (now Rich + Clean’s headquarters) has always been a workshop for him and his wife to get crafty — most of the light fixtures and even the concrete-topped kitchen island in Lugo’s apartment were put together in the workshop. Lugo thought that making soap was just going to be another hobby, but a couple months in he realized he was on to something. “Pretty much everyone who I had given soap to — because I had so much excess from different trials and error — said to me, ‘This is pretty much the best soap I ever used,'” said Lugo. “I thought, ‘This is the best soap you ever used? I still haven’t gotten to the level that I think the soap needs to be at — there’s something good here.'”
Lugo continued to perfect his soaps through trial and error, along the way picking up essential oils and mixing different scents at various ratios. “I would smell these day and night.” Eventually, he ended up with the layered, masculine aromas he currently sells. The first of the soap he perfected was his vetiver soap, and he now sells four other bars along with various body washes, hair products and skincare products.
Rich + Clean is currently a passion project (Lugo’s main work is in construction management), but Lugo says that the company is growing and suggests that it might become his full-time gig. “The more that I’ve been fading out of what I do and fading into this — it’s been growing. It’s a little scary, but no risk, no reward.”
A Quick Primer
Lugo’s soaps are made from carefully concocted recipes with a complex array of scents and exfoliants and are crafted using specialty tools. What we’re making here is a bit different. Lugo specially formulated this recipe for Gear Patrol readers, and it’s similar to the soaps he sells at Rich + Clean, but this version is simpler. It’s easy to make in just one to two hours at home with ingredients you can easily get online or at a grocery store and with supplies you’ll likely already have. The recipe is approachable for beginners, but do heed our various warnings throughout. Soap making is fun, but some of the materials (especially lye) can be dangerous to work with.
Ingredients and Supplies
Everything You’ll Need
Water-and-Lye Solution (12.5oz Water, 4.5oz Lye)
At its core, soap is basically three ingredients: oil, lye and water. The process of saponification happens between the lye and the oil, but the water is required to dissolve the lye (the water later evaporates out), so it can combine with the oil. Making a water-and-lye solution is as easy as it is dangerous: you’re only mixing the two ingredients — but if done wrong, you can cause serious damage to your skin.
Lugo says you can get lye easily online or in your hardware store with other drain cleaners. But no matter what, make sure the lye you’re getting is 100 percent sodium hydroxide. “There are some drain cleaners that will say 99 percent, and you don’t want that, because that other one percent is a chemical that was added in and it’s not going to be good for your skin,” said Lugo. He also notes that the type of water you use matters, too. Purified or distilled water is what you should use, as the minerals from tap water can react with the lye or with the oils in a negative way.
There are other precautions to take when making your solution (refer to the directions below), but one of the most important things you can do is have proper safety gear. Gloves will protect your skin in case of a spill, goggles will protect your eyes from splashes during pouring, and a face mask will protect you from the fumes created by the reaction between water and lye. Oh, and have some white vinegar on hand. “Think of Fight Club, when he pours the stuff on his hand,” said Lugo. “That’s lye and it will burn you and water does nothing for it. That’s why you should have white vinegar handy whenever you’re making soap because that neutralizes it.”
Olive Oil (14.5oz)
Castile soap is a type of soap that — apart from water and lye — is made entirely from olive oil. The benefits to this soap are its soft texture and moisturizing properties, and if you’ve ever used it you’ll understand olive oil’s importance in the soap-making process. That said, while olive oil is healthy for your skin and very moisturizing, it has virtually no lather. Hence why (at least on its own) it isn’t the best for traditional soap.
Coconut Oil (8oz)
Enter coconut oil. Coconut oil has the opposite effect as olive oil. It does nothing for moisturizing (in fact, use too much in your soap and you’ll dry out your skin) but it will build up a “a nice, bubbly, solid smooth lather” according to Lugo.
Palm Oil (9.5oz)
The third oil in Lugo’s recipe is palm oil, a solid almost lard-like oil at room temperature. It has both moisturizing and lathering properties (though neither to the extent of olive and coconut oils), but its primary purpose in Lugo’s soap recipe is to add hardness so the final product retains its bar shape and lasts longer.
Cedarwood Oil (1oz)
This is where things get fun. Any number of essential oils can be used to add scent to your soap, but Lugo chose cedarwood for our recipe because “it is just a nice masculine scent — it has properties of calming and it also promotes healthy skin.” Indeed, the scent of the cedarwood oil Lugo used was pleasant, relaxing and reminded us of a rustic cabin and a smokey bonfire.
Make sure to use “therapeutic-grade” essential oil and not to overdo it (too much will irritate the skin). Lugo’s guideline for essential oil use is thus: for a light scent, use 0.3 ounces per pound of oil used, and for a strong scent use 0.7 ounces per pound of oil used and never go over 0.8 ounces per pound of oil. For this recipe, Lugo used 0.5 ounces per pound of oil used.
Activated Charcoal (1 tsp)
According to Lugo, “activated charcoal is a super-hot ingredient right now in the grooming world.” Activated charcoal is sometimes used as a medical remedy (administered orally) for overdoses and poisonings because of its ability to absorb certain toxic substances. Lugo said that activated charcoal is beneficial for skin health for this reason, and he uses it in his Japanese peppermint soap as well as his body wash.
Latex Gloves: Protect your skin from any accidental lye spills.
Goggles: Ditto for your peepers.
Face Mask: Mixing lye and water releases dangerous fumes. Mix in a ventilated area, but it’s better to be safe and come packing one of these.
White Vinegar: Remember Fight Club?
Glass Bowls: For storing and heating up oils. Glass also will not react with lye.
Kitchen Scale: For weighing out your ingredients.
Immersion Blender: For the quickest, most even way to mix together your ingredients.
Half-Gallon Milk/Juice Carton: Reuse a cleaned-out cardboard carton with the top cut off as a mold.
Cardboard To cover the top of the milk carton while the soap sets.
Hand Towels: To cover and insulate your mold while the soap sets.
Putty Knife and Miter Box: Unless you have a couple soap molds (or don’t care about uniformity), this is how you get perfect rectangular soap bars.
It’s Easier Than You Think
Make the Water-and-Lye Solution: Measure out both your lye and distilled water into two separate non-metallic (lye reacts with some metals) bowls. Next, pour the lye into the water — never pour the water into the lye as it can bubble up into what Lugo calls a “volcanic-like reaction.” Mix the two together in a well-ventilated area as the fumes given off should not be breathed in. Continue to mix gently until the water/lye mixture turns clear. Because the mixing of water and lye naturally produces heat, set aside the mixture to cool down for about an hour before you continue the soap-making process.
Measure Oils and Charcoal: While the water/lye solution cools, measure out the olive oil, palm oil, coconut oil, cedar wood essential oil and activated charcoal using a kitchen scale. Both the coconut oil and palm oil will be too thick to pour at room temperature, so before you’re ready to mix everything together be sure to heat them up in the microwave in short, 10-second bursts until they reach a pourable state.
Combine Ingredients: In a large container, mix together your olive, palm and coconut oils. Next, slowly and carefully pour in the water/lye solution. Stir the solution and oils slowly with the immersion blender, then turn on the blender and mix vigorously until the mixture becomes fully opaque. Add essential oil(s) and activated charcoal. Continue to mix with the blender until the mixture reaches a “pudding-like” consistency — this, in soap-making parlance, is called “trace.” You can test for trace by dipping a spoon into the soap mixture and drizzling a little back on top of it. If the drippings leave slightly raised mounds on the top of the mixture, you’re good to go.
Pour into Mold: The soap will start to harden pretty quickly, so have your mold ready. Lugo has his own molds, but for at-home enthusiasts he suggests a clean cardboard milk or juice carton with the top cut off — this way when you have to remove the soap from the mold you can just tear it off. Pour the mixture into the mold. Cover the open top with a piece of cardboard, then wrap the rest of the mold in hand towels to insulate it. Let the mixture set for 24 to 48 hours.
Cut Up and Let Dry: After the soap sets for 24 to 48 hours, the water/lye solution and oils have mostly hardened into soap and are now safe to touch. Tear the soap free from the mold. You can use a miter box and putty knife to cut the block of soap into uniform bars, or, if you’re daring, do so by hand. Once the bars have been cut, set out on a drying rack for four to six weeks. Technically you can use it a day or two after you cut it, but it won’t feel great against your skin and not all the lye has saponified, so it’s best to wait. What’s more, the harder soap will last much longer.