Biodegradable Soap to Use While Camping

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What Sort of Soap Can I Use While Camping?

Beth from Cincinnati sounds like a fall camping trip is in her plans. She wrote me asking, “Is handmade soap biodegradable? Specifically cold process or hot process made with vegetable oils ( no animal products)? I’m wondering if handmade soap is something that is safe to use when camping when you must be careful not to pollute the environment with products you are using at your campsite.

That’s a great question, Beth! The entire soap making renaissance of the 1970’s (highlighted by Ann Bramson's book "Soap") came about because of people wanting to be more natural, more “green” and to incorporate fewer chemicals in their lives. Many of today’s commercial soaps have fragrances, detergents, surfactants and water conditioners that could very well affect plants and wildlife if let go into a river or stream. However, the natural soap that we make (bar or liquid) can be made to be very safe and biodegradable.

You would basically want to make the soap (again, liquid or bar) without any artificial colors or fragrance oils. Essential oils (that would be safe for human skin use) would be fine since they are natural materials and will degrade. Natural colorants would be o.k. too, but probably aren’t even necessary in a natural camping soap.

Some articles you’ll find say to use a Castile soap. This is fine, but unnecessary. As long as you’re using natural (animal or vegetable) oils, the choice of oils isn’t going to affect the biodegradability of the soap.

Other environmental purists will recommend using an organic soap. If you have some organic oils to use for soap making, this is great too…though in my opinion…likewise unnecessary. The natural soaps that we’re going to make are so much more biodegradable and environmentally friendly than the detergent and surfactant based commercial soaps. Going to the extra effort to use only organic oils in your soap is admirable, but not really needed.

If you choose to make liquid soap, I wouldn’t use the “Failor” method that calculates the recipe with a lye excess and then neutralizes it with boric acid or borax. While there’s just a tiny amount of the borax or boric acid in the soap that you’d use, liquid soap can be made just fine without it, using the “Summer Bee Meadow” method which calculates the soap carefully and accurately using their lye calculator and using a 0% lye discount.

So, here are two recipes to get you started:

Basic Bar Soap for Camping

This recipe uses primarily olive oil, but also just uses coconut oil and soybean oil. Since we’re creating a soap that’s more environmentally conscious, I deliberately left out the palm oil due to the controversy surrounding palm oil farming.

The recipe uses:

  • 50% olive oil
  • 30% coconut oil
  • 20% soybean oil

To make about 3 pounds of soap, the recipe would be:

  • 16 ounces olive oil
  • 9.6 ounces coconut oil
  • 6.4 ounces soybean oil
  • 4.5 ounces lye (sodium hydroxide)
  • 11 ounces water

Follow basic soap making instructions and make your soap. If you don’t have exactly these oils, you can certainly create your own recipe - just focus on more earth friendly oils, and don’t use any artificial colors or fragrances.

Basic Liquid Soap for Camping

This recipe uses a 0% lye discount. If you don’t mind the soap being slightly cloudy, and want the soap a bit milder, use a 1-2% lye discount instead.

The recipe is:

  • 67% olive oil
  • 33% coconut oil

To make about 3 pounds of soap paste, the recipe would be:

  • 16 ounces olive oil
  • 8 ounces coconut oil
  • 5.4 ounces potassium hydroxide
  • 16.2 ounces of water ounces water

For the liquid soap, since we’re using the “Summer Bee Meadow” method, follow the basic liquid soap making instructions, but leave out step 7, the neutralization step.

And remember that natural and green doesn’t have to just apply to camping. These recipes are perfectly good for your everyday bathing and showering too!

More information about bathing and showering in the wild…