To Lye or Not to Lye

To Lye or Not to Lye

Wow, what a busy summer! I hope you are having as much fun as I am. Last month I talked about the different ways of making soap. This month I thought I would talk about lye. I remember when I first started making soap and lye scared the begebers out of me. Lye can certainly be dangerous but if you treat it with respect, follow directions and dress appropriately you should be fine.

There are many myths surrounding handmade soap, but two of the biggest are about the use and safety of lye in soap. This article will dispel those myths so that you can see that handmade soap is indeed safe and even superior to the synthetic detergent bars found in the grocery store.

First, just in case you’re unfamiliar with what Lye is… here is a quick definition for you:
A lye is a liquid obtained by leaching ashes, or a strong alkali which is highly soluble in water producing caustic basic solutions. “Lye” is commonly the alternative name of sodium hydroxide or historically potassium hydroxide.

Myth #1: Soap can be made without lye.

In the most simple terms, no lye = no soap. Soap is a combination of lye, (Sodium Hydroxide or NAOH) and fatty acids that creates a chemical reaction called saponification, creating salts of the fatty acids (soap) plus glycerin. Without lye, saponification cannot happen, so you cannot have soap without lye. Each molecule is converted during saponification, so there is no resulting lye in the final bar of soap.

If you look at bars on grocery store shelves, you’ll find that the word ‘soap’ does not appear on these bars. Instead you’ll see ‘cleansing bar’, or ‘beauty bar’. These bars cannot be labeled soap, because they do not fit the definition – instead, these products are detergents, which are synthetic cleansers. They’re often made with harsh cleansing agents and petroleum by-products, and have the resulting glycerin (a moisture-attracting ingredient that helps soften skin) removed.

Some crafters will claim that they make soap without lye. They may be uninformed, or unintentionally misleading the customer. These crafters often use premade ‘melt and pour’ bases that are simply melted in a microwave, poured into a mold to cool and then sold. The crafter may not have personally used lye in the crafting of that soap, but either the manufacturer used lye to create the original base or the base was made with synthetic detergents and therefore cannot be considered a true soap.

Myth #2: Lye soap is harsh and will ‘take your hide off’.

There are tales from those who remember their grandmothers making soap outdoors in a big kettle. To hear those stories, the resulting soap was strong and dried out their skin, hence the phrase ‘It’ll take your hide off.’ Since I don’t know the formula that was used, I cannot speak to the gentleness or harshness of the ingredients included or the lack of adding additional fats to the formula to make it milder, but I do know that it was not the lye that made it harsh. In most cases, the soap of their memories probably did not have additional soothing oils and butters added to the formula and was not set aside to cure for 4-6 weeks, which helps produce a more mild soap.

As debunked in the first myth above, lye is needed to make soap. Properly made soap that is fully cured is mild and gentle to the skin. There is no remaining lye in the finished bar of soap, and it has a high glycerin content (much more than mass-produced glycerin soaps), which helps to attract and lock moisture into the skin. Depending on the extra fat (oils or butters) in the formula, the soap may be even more moisturizing and soothing. The process of adding additional fatty acids above and beyond what the lye needs for saponification is called superfatting, and is often done in the 5-7% range by soap makers to ensure their soaps will be gentle. In fact, many will find that they don’t need to use lotion after using handmade soap because it is that moisturizing to their skin.

I hope this has answered your questions and dispelled any concerns you might have about using handmade soap. Hopefully you’ll experience the benefits of handmade soap for yourself!

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