Diseases can run rampant when the infrastructure of a community is damaged or destroyed. Take any natural disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti, or flooding in India, and you will find deadly diseases rearing their ugly head.
Contaminated water caused by improper management of human waste, spoiled foods and the lack of personal hygiene all contribute to the spread of diseases when people are literally thrown together during a crisis.
Just because your water supply is disrupted or limited in some way does not mean you can forgo personal hygiene however. Not having flush toilets and sinks does not mean that any handy tree or bush will do. You have to be organized and be able to manage human waste, other garbage and to clean your hands and body in any situation or it can kill you.
Ideally, your bug-out-bag or survival kit will have personal hygiene items in them. However, if you do not have traditional soap or shampoo with you there is an alternative soap you can make for cleaning the hands, body, and clothing.
Alcohol based hand sanitizer should be in every bug-out-bag, survival kit or home emergency kit. The sanitizer can be used to destroy bacteria on the hands when soap and water is not available.
Making Your Own Soap
How soap works is straightforward. Soap, in particular soap made with tallow (animal fat), takes insoluble (incapable of being dissolved) particles and makes them soluble, in other words they can be mixed with water. Insoluble particles would include grease and oils. This includes body oils mixed with dirt and other grime that collects on the human body.
You probably have gotten grease or oil on your hands while cooking or doing some other chore, and then had rinsed your hands with plain water. What happens when you try to rinse the grease and oils away with just water, well the water beads up and the oils stay put. Once you add soap to the water however, it allows the oils to emulsify, in other words, blend with the water so it can be carried away with the water. The soap suspends oil, dirt and bacteria suspended in the dirt or oil, so it can be rinsed from your hands, body or clothing.
Soap making is not a complex procedure and anyone can make soap in a wilderness or even an urban environment. Soap is made by taking fatty acids (present in animal fat or some oils) and mixing it with alkali (wood ash).
Alkali causes the fatty acids to separate into glycerin, and then join by a chemical process with the potassium, which is present in alkali.
The process to make soap using lye and tallow is called saponification.
Note: Fat from cattle is commonly called tallow while fat from hogs is called lard.
Back To the Soap Making
Lye is needed along with the rendered fat from an animal. There is any number of methods for leaching lye out of potash. The field expedient method is simply pouring water through a container of ashes and collecting the liquid that drips through holes in the bottom of the container. The liquid dripping out the bottom is the lye, and by using this simple method, you will make weak lye, which is what you typically want for hand and body soaps.
Homemade lye is Potassium Hydroxide and Commercial lye is Sodium Hydroxide. Commercial lye is used in drain cleaners and for other purposes and is a manufactured chemical.
Use caution when handling any type of lye.
To make stronger lye you would combine the potash and water (slurry) and then place in a porous material, such as cheesecloth so it drips through into a container. Once collected take the lye and pour through another container of potash to increase the strength.
One method of testing lye is by placing a feather in the liquid to see how fast it dissolves or if it does at all. If the feather begins dissolving, the lye is considered ready for use.
Why would you need stronger lye? Lye can be used to treat latrines or “cat trenches” while in the field. Pour some of the mixture in the latrine every few days to help control bacteria and odor. Stronger lye soap can be used for washing clothes and general camp cleaning as well.
Animal fats have to be rendered before they can be used in soap making and rendering is nothing more than separating all of the animal’s meat tissue from in and around the fat.
There is more than one method.
To get the fat as pure as possible, cut the fat into chunks and place in a container and add water to cover the fat, add more water as needed to prevent scorching. Boil until the fat has melted. Then remove from the fire and let cool in the container you boiled it in, generally overnight.
In the morning, the pure fat will have solidified on top and the impurities would have settled on the bottom. Remove the solidified fat and to purify even more, boil again and follow the same cooling procedure.
A simpler method would be to boil the fat chunks until melted and simply pour off the solution and let cool.
Regardless of the method for rendering, once cooled and hardened mix two parts fat to one part lye and pour into a flat pan or container so it can be cut into bars once hardened. If your soap turns out to soft, add salt next time while the fat is boiling or add baking soda if you know the water you are using is considered “hard water”. The soap even though soft can still be used. Simply place it on a wet washcloth or scrubbing pad and scrub away.
Fragrances can be added or essential oils or even vinegar or lemon juice to give the soap a more favorable smell. Keep in mind fragrances can attract pests and certain animals, and if in an escape and evasion situation, you of course do not want to use any fragrances.
The glycerin in lye soap is actually good for your skin because it traps moisture to keep the skin from drying out. Some people consider lye soap to harsh for hair washing, and it can leave your hair feeling “gummy”.
Lye soap is actually not too harsh but it will strip oils from the hair, oils that collect dust and other debris causing your hair to become dirty. You can weaken the lye by adding water to make shampoo bars just for the hair if you feel it may be too strong. You can rinse your hair with vinegar to remove the glycerin.
The washing process using soap and friction helps to remove bacteria on the hands and body. Soap will not kill bacteria but will help remove it by the washing process. It is critical that you wash your hands frequently. Always wash thoroughly after using the latrine, handling raw meats or at any time your hands become soiled. Use lye soap and water to wash dishes and to launder clothes.
Use a twig as a toothbrush. Chew the end of the twig until softened into bristles, scrub the teeth. Only use water that is safe to drink for any oral hygiene method.
Keep latrines far enough away from camp and yet not so far people become lost in the darkness. Two hundred feet is usually far enough away if this is practical for your situation. You may have to mark the trail at night to prevent people from getting lost. Make sure there is a method for hand washing immediately after using the latrine.
Spoiled food should be buried away from camp as far as practical, do not attempt to burn your garbage in your campfire or any fire for that matter.
Use common sense and just because you are in a survival situation is no excuse for being dirty. You can become extremely sick or worse by not following simple common sense methods when out in the field or at home when the utilities have been disrupted for an extended period.