Frequently asked questions !!!!
“Why would anyone want to use something as caustic soda as lye on their skin?”
No Lye, No Soap
We had customers ask that question recently. We also had a guy on the phone comment that “lye doesn’t seem very organic, man.” And by “organic,” he meant groovy. On the organic point, he was right. Lye isn’t organic, but it is one of the allowable non-organic ingredients included in USDA organic standards since their inception. On the groovy point, we disagree. The truth about lye in soapmaking is simple. There is no true soap without lye (check the FDA definition), and there’s a huge difference between “made with lye” and “containing lye.”
None of this is news to people in the soap business. For the public at large, though, and even for some soapmakers, the subject can be confusing. Lye, after all, is also known as caustic soda, and soap made from lye is what frontier women made in cauldrons that was great on clothes but murder on skin.
Many perceptions of lye have nothing to do with modern soapmaking. But if you’re in the business of making or selling soap, these perceptions persist and are part of your life. The good news is, you can always fall back on chemistry, which is where the truth lies. You’re not using lye on your skin. You’re using soap.
The Chemistry of Soap
Here’s the truth to fall back on. Soap is the result of a chemical reaction called saponification that occurs between lye and a type of molecule called a triglyceride (a fat or oil), where both substances are chemically transformed, creating soap and natural glycerin. Neither of the original ingredients exists anymore. All the lye – either sodium hydroxide for bar soap or potassium hydroxide for liquid soap – is consumed in the reaction.
So, while soap is made with lye, it doesn’t contain lye. Modern methods and measuring scales – as opposed to what was available to frontier women – allow soapmakers to use the proper mixture of oils and lye, ensuring that all lye is consumed. In addition, many soapmakers, including Ouma Hanna se boerseep, add more lye than is required for the chemical reaction, further ensuring the neutralization of lye and adding to the soap’s moisturizing qualities. Including extra fats in the mixture is known as superfatting.