For anyone who makes soap, this whole entry will be fairly redundant. However, I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately from people who say they are scared of lye, and want to make soap without it. They’re either afraid of working with it, or they think it will make a bar of soap that will be highly irritating/dangerous. I’m going to address both of these concerns, and hopefully I’ll be able to talk you into making your very own soap—with lye!
To begin I want to give you a brief overview on exactly what soap is. Soap is an alkali (like sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) combined with fats. Together they go through a reaction called “saponification”, and in the end you are left with soap. So, by the very definition of “soap”, you cannot have soap without lye. That is like trying to make a baking soda and vinegar volcano without the vinegar. No vinegar and you’ve just got a pile of baking soda. No lye, and you just have bunch of un-saponified fats.
Every fat requires a certain amount of lye to turn it into soap. 500g of olive oil requires 67.7g of lye, whereas 500g of lard requires 70.5g of lye. When you are making soap the idea is to always use more fat than the lye can convert into soap. This prevents the presence of any excess lye in the finished bar, which means it will be a nice, gentle bar, and will not be irritating. A 5% superfat is fairly standard (you don’t want to go much higher than 10% or the bar will be very soft and can go rancid). With a 5% superfat, you would only use 64.3g of lye for 500g of olive oil instead of 67.7g. That means 5% of that 500g of olive oil will not be turned into soap, giving you a bar of soap that is 475g of saponified olive oil with 25g of leftover olive oil mixed into the bar to moisturize your skin and work as a buffer against any errors in measuring the lye.
Superfatting protects against excess lye in the soap being irritating. It is worth noting that every bar of store bought (yes, even Dove) soap you’ve ever used in your life has been made with lye, so if those were fine, yours will be too.
If you’ve never worked with lye, and you’re afraid of working with it, I don’t blame you. You’ve probably done a bunch of research, just like I did, (the web is full of misinformation) and the information has convinced you that if you get a speck of lye on you it will immediately burn a hole in your arm the size of a softball. That is, of course, ridiculous and untrue, so relax.😊
True, lye is a caustic substance and you definitely shouldn’t drink it or bathe in it, but really, it’s not any worse than bleach or ammonia. Respect it and all will be well. Wear gloves and clothes you don’t care about, wear goggles, lay newspapers, wax, or parchment paper down on your work station, and be careful. Work slowly, keep your temperatures low, and don’t leave your lye water unattended for pets or children to get into. That’s it, You’ll be fine. If you get a little bit of lye water or raw soap splashed on you, it’s not a big deal, just wash it off with water. You probably won’t even notice for a minute or two, at which point it’ll start to itch a little bit. Seriously, that’s it—you’ll itch but, No burning, and no horrible scarring. Please don’t try to “neutralize” lye on your skin with vinegar! I don’t know where this misinformation came about, or why people don’t do their research before believing everything they read. Vinegar will exacerbate the burn by intensifying the exothermic reaction. (**see previous post for more in depth explanation). Simple rinse with water and a mild soap, and you’ll be fine.
Some people believe using a melt & pour soap base is a good way to get around using lye. While this is true, 1) the M&P soap WAS MADE WITH LYE by somebody else, so it was still involved in the process, and 2) M&P bases often have undesirable ingredients in them, like sodium lauryl sulfate (known to be irritating & drying) and cheap, non-sustainable palm oil, so if you’re worried about irritation, making your own soap is the way to go. There is also a ridiculous marked up on melt & pour.
The only way you can get a “soap” without using lye is to add a surfactant like sodium lauryl sulfate to water. Surfactants create lather, so you’re basically just getting lathery water that will basically act as an industrial strength detergent. You can add other oils using an emulsifier to get some moisturizing properties, but this is a pretty horrible way of making a “soap-like” concoction. Many surfactants can be irritating, and so strong that they are very drying to the hair and skin (though this is not always the case, it depends on the sufactant). Regardless this is the super cheap way big companies go about creating shampoo, dish soap, and other liquid soap-type things in our lives. I equate it to processed foods some companies make to save money. These so called “soaps” are not real soaps at all, since they’re mostly water, chemicals, and petroleum byproducts, they are extremely cheap, and horrible for our skin. Most people get into soap making is to avoid this, so it would be pretty silly to turn around and just make your own “unsoap” in my opinion.
I hope this eases any concerns you’ve had about soap making and explain why you need the lye (and why it’s really not scary at all)! If you have any questions, comments, or tips, please share them below.😀