In this post I’ll be showing you how to make a custom zero waste soap, but first we need to talk about the why. These DIYs are not just fun (but they can be) – they can be a real way to wrest power from mega-corporations who prioritize profit over people.
As some may know, I started my exploration of zero waste in 2015 with basically zero budget, living in a food desert without a car. Thus, a lot of my zero waste ideas were born out of necessity, not out of an Instagram-fueled consumer nightmare.
Soap was one issue that seemed simple (buy an unpackaged/almost-naked bar), but turned out to be quite difficult. When the idea of dropping $6-10 on a bar of artisanal makes your budget whimper, you’ve got to scale back. But what I found in the aisles of my local dollar store scared me.
What’s the big deal about soap?
One thing I noticed was that low-waste skincare options were almost non-existent, although bars proved the best bet. And even if I wasn’t concerned with plastic packaging, it was pretty much impossible to find any body wash products that didn’t contain something highly toxic.
You quickly realize health is the lowest priority for companies looking to exploit a vulnerable consumer base,. The issue is amplified when living in majority-Black areas. This piece, written by Dr. Kristian Henderson on EcoCult, explains exactly how toxic the options are. As she notes, a study found 75% of products marketed toward Black women are considered toxic.
When most people’s only options are the 3-4 small shelves of product in a dollar store, the chances those products are toxic skyrocket. And for those living in less wealthy urban, suburban, and even small towns, the chances they’re forced into a dollar store is high.
Studies have shown that dollar stores deliberately target low-income urban areas and push out small local grocers that are often the only way neighborhoods can get any sort of fresh food. Pretty soon, the only easy access people have to any sort of food is the heavily-processed items at a Dollar Tree.
And this delves directly into the heart of what intersectional environmentalism needs to tackle: why are those in poverty (disproportionally BIPOC) not allowed access to safe, affordable products? And how do we change that system?
Is there any safe, low-cost, low-soap?
During my own early research, I found the one low-cost, accessible option for safe, non-toxic soap was castile soap. I particularly prefer Kirk’s Coco Castile, since it’s cheaper than Dr. Bronner’s and doesn’t contain palm oil (though Dr. Bronner’s is ethically-sourced).
At $1-$1.50/bar, Kirk’s soap bars definitely fit the bill of being affordable relative to other bars of soap. That being said, anyone who’s ever used a plain castile bar – particularly if you deal with hard water – it’s hardly the most luxurious experience. Your skin feels dry and tight and you’ll end up slathering on more lotion than usual.
So my task for myself was to create an accessible way to upgrade castile in a way that keeps it simple but transforms it into something luxurious. A form of self-care as rebellion against an unfair, unjust system.
How do we decide if a zero waste diy is accessible?
Of course there are an infinite number of things to consider when dealing with making projects accessible, but I chose the top five that encapsulated most of those ideas. My parameters for accessibility:
- Location accessibility. If someone were only able to go without a car, would they be able to get the ingredients needed? (This limits shopping to places like dollar stores, CVS, Walgreens, or city Walmarts.)
- Physical accessibility. While the project may be too much for some, I pared down the steps and need for major physical activity during the production process as much as possible. (The energy and actual physical ability to do basic tasks may be out of reach for some – how can we minimize barriers as much as possible?)
- Financial accessibility. These soap bars needed to be the same or less expensive than what could be bought at the dollar store. (This necessitates cheap castile bars and ingredients people likely already had around the house, or could buy and use extras as groceries.)
- Time accessibility. While this is a relatively easy process, it must be streamlined for those who do not have the privilege of free time. (Low hourly wages force many people to take on several jobs to make ends meet.)
- Instrument accessibility. I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase this, but essentially: the soap bars could be made even without a full kitchen. (Many people in apartments may only have a hot plate, no blender, few utensils, etc.)
Taking all that into consideration, let’s create our custom soap bars!
How to create a custom zero waste soap bar
The joy of a custom zero waste soap bar is there are almost limitless options to what you can add – and most of those options already exist in your kitchen! I’ve mapped out the basic recipe as well as a few ideas on custom add-ins you can try to make it feel truly luxurious.
- 1 bar of Kirk’s castile soap*
- enough water to cover bar of soap
- 1/2 tablespoon of oil
- add-ins of choice (see recipes below)
- soap mold**
* Kirk’s is sold at Walmart and some dollar stores. You can also order it to be delivered to your local CVS or Walgreens for free, but that does require a credit or debit card.
** For soap molds, I used toilet paper rolls lined with thin plastic and a salt canister lined with bubble wrap. I’ve also seen Pringles cans, and cookie cutters on silicone mats, cardboard boxes of any size used.
Basic custom soap directions
- Grate or chop up soap, cover with water, and let sit overnight or longer. Stir when you think about it. (Grating or chopping not necessary if it’s physically difficult, but does make the process quicker.) Do not skip this step! If you don’t let the soap sit, your final product will turn out oily. Speaking from experience…
- Boil soap water, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t burn, until all the soap is melted. (You can see in my final product I didn’t get it melted down all the way before it started to burn, so the final product is a bit chunky.)
- Remove from heat and stir in oil and any add-ins. (See below for ideas.)
- Pour into soap mold and let sit until hard (if it’s a large mold, it’s best to let sit overnight). Once hard, remove from mold and enjoy!
Let’s talk infusions (added to the water before you soak the soap) and add-ins (added after you’ve boiled down the soap):
Oatmeal and honey add-in. Perfect as an exfoliant without any worrying additives, I’d definitely recommend this one! (Plus, those big cardboard canisters you buy oatmeal in are endlessly useful.) Once I removed the soap water from the heat, I added about 1/3 cup of oatmeal and 1 tablespoon of honey. Pro tip: as your bar hardens, give it a little stir on the mold so the oatmeal is distributed evenly throughout the bar.
Herbal infusions. Got a favorite herb smell? Infuse it into the water before you boil your soap! Simply pour boiling water over a small handful of your herb (you can use fresh or dried) and let the fragrance infuse for about a day. Strain and then pour over your soap. The smell is incredible!
Refreshing citrus infusion or add-in. Keep any orange, lemon, or lime peels in your freezer to use at any point. Like the herbs, infuse the water with citrus before covering the soap with it. As an added level-up, you can grate or finely chop the peels and mix it in as you add the oil.
Foraged infusions. Why not use what’s already around you? You can use the herb infusion method with any number of foraged plants. I personally like pine, dandelion, and red clover for scent. (Just be careful in urban areas: make sure you don’t forage in areas where pesticides may have been sprayed.)
Not interested in DIY? Support small makers
I’m a DIYer out of necessity and thrift, but I always get questions from people who don’t want to bother with making. So for those of you, here are some great small makers to support:
- Bestowed Essentials: vegan and cruelty free, 100% plastic free, and all natural ingredients – what’s not to love? (Green Indy partner brand)
- Tree Hugging Soap: combining “the natural practices of the wold ways”, they use natural products sourced ethically, organically, or even from their backyard!
- Bee Kind Family Farm: I love this brand in particular since their plants/herbs are foraged locally and they use their own honey and beeswax in the soaps.
- Natty Naturals: perhaps the most photogenic couple behind a brand, they offer beautiful products stemming from a dream of reclaiming our appreciation of nature.
- Emerson Soaps: natural soaps made from scratch, palm-free vegan soap.
- Zum Bar: from brand Indigo Wild, Zum Bars are a goat milk based soap found all over the place (IRL and online). They’re very gentle, all-natural, and sold at a dcent price point.