You can’t make soap without a little lye. 

It’s come up again this morning! I haven’t even had a full cup of coffee yet, and yet in one of my Facebook groups, someone is frantic because they tried to make soap without lye and now they have a mold full of oils and butters that’s doing nothing but sitting there. In this case, the victim tried shredding a bar of African Black soap into the mix instead of using lye. To seasoned soap makers, this will seem comical, even incredulous. To you newbies, you might be wondering what she did wrong, and I will tell you. 

You can’t make soap without lye. By definition, soap is the result of the chemical reaction between fats and caustic sodas (lye) such as NaOH or sodium hydroxide, what we typically use for solid soap, or KOH- potassium hydroxide; what we use for liquid soap and occasionally in conjunction with NaOH in solid soaps. There’s other caustic sodas; potassium carbonate, etc., some of which are used to make soaps such as African Black Soap. So while sodium hydroxide is the chemical most commonly referred to as lye, it’s not the only one. You’ll hear “lye” in reference to any of these caustic sodas. They are not acids, btw, they are very, very basic. Other end of the pH scale! 

You take your lye and water you’ve mixed it with (which activates it), and you mix that solution in with your oils and butters, then a chemical reaction called “saponification” happens. It takes about 24 hours to complete. At the end, you don’t have water, lye, or oil or butters: you have soap. You have the saponified salts of the oils, such as sodium cocoate (coconut oil), sodium tallowate (tallow), sodium olivate (olive oil), and so on. So when someone asks me if I use lye in my soap, I say yes, and I explain this process. And when they ask me if my soaps contain lye, I say, “Not after they are cured!” and I explain this process. 

 Now, every fat requires a specific amount of lye to get through saponification. 500g of olive oil requires 67.7g of lye, while 500g of lard requires 70.5g. 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 product. 5-10% superfatting is the usual, with 20-30% typical on 100% coconut oil soaps. So, remember, superfatting protects against excess lye in the soap. That prevents your soap from being irritating and increases its moisturizing abilities. 

We cure soap for 4-6 weeks for two reasons. First, it allows excess moisture from the bar to evaporate and the bar to harden. This makes a good, hard, bar of soap that won’t disintegrate the first time someone forgets and leaves it in the shower. Second, the pH of the bar will drop a little over those weeks, resulting in a milder bar. While it’s frustrating to have to be patient and wait six weeks to use the beautiful soap we just made, we understand how critically important this final step is. 

But what about melt and pour soap? I don’t have to use lye there! 

Well, actually, that’s because someone already did. If you read the ingredients on those bases, it’s going to say “sodium hydroxide” somewhere. So the lye is there, it’s just already been dealt with.

You’ve probably believed that if you get the tiniest speck of lye on you it will burn a hole in your arm the size of a baseball. Not true. This isn’t Fight Club. Yes, lye is a dangerous chemical and a caustic substance -much like bleach-but just show a little respect. Wear gloves and long sleeves. Definitely wear safety glasses-lye solution or raw soap in your eyes is definitely dangerous. If you get a bit of lye water or raw soap on your skin, calmly wash it off with soap and water. You might not even notice for a few minutes until it starts itching. There’s no need to douse everything in vinegar (as some movies would have you believe, because vinegar does not counteract lye) so remain calm! I’ve gotten lye burns on my arms before after I spilled raw soap all over my counter. I washed my arms but not fast enough and had burns the next day. Homemade shea butter salve soothed the itching and they healed just fine. 

But the ancient peoples washed their clothes and bodies using soap berries and soap root! Can’t you use that to make soap? It’s all natural! 

Ok, first of all, lots of things are natural, and natural doesn’t necessarily equal better. Arsenic is all natural, but we use it to poison rats and mice. Fluoride is all natural and there’s a huge debate about its safety regarding your teeth. Calcium is all natural-essential even-but if you ingest  too much of it, it blocks your ability to absorb iron and you can become anemic. It’s a fine line, too. So eat a balanced diet. 

But back to soapnuts. The vast majority of soapnuts now are imported from India. That’s unsustainable, relying on imported goods. Also, there’s no way to take soapnuts, which come in a berry or a powder, or soap root, which you can sometimes buy dried at an insane cost, and use them to start the saponification reaction. They are simply herbs with surfactant qualities which means they produce lather which may help get your clothes or hair clean of oils. I’ve tried soap nuts; they work well on lightly soiled laundry. We just don’t have much lightly soiled laundry around here, it tends to need higher powered detergent. So soap nuts weren’t for us. And they aren’t for making soap. 

Now. I hope I’ve covered why you can’t make soap without lye and maybe put some fears to bed about lye so more people will make soap. It’s fun and easy and you should try it.  Get your safety gear, learn to use a soap calculator, read about what to do if something goes wrong (my first batch seized!) and be ready to tackle soap! It’s loads of fun! See my page about where to get ingredients to get started!