About Handmade Soap


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Lye makes people nervous – but it shouldn't. A friend once read my soap label and said “ugh! Lye!” with a shudder and frown. Then she handed me a bar of her friend's handmade goat milk soap, and said I should try it, it was really good soap. Yep, it had lye in it! In fact, all soap has lye in it. Yes ALL SOAP. As far as the chemistry goes, it simply isn't soap if it doesn't use lye. Body washes, hand soap, even solid soaps are often actually detergents, but legally if they meet some (fairly confusing) criteria, they are allowed to use the word soap, even though it isn't actually soap. Glycerin soaps are simply a regular soap that has had some alcohol and sugar added to clarify it and then glycerin added (not just as a bonus, but because it's necessary - more about this in a minute). If you don't see “Lye” or “Sodium Hydroxide” on the label, look for “saponified oil of ______” which just means “soap-ified”, or combined with lye.

To make soap, an oil mixture is combined with a lye-and-water or lye-and-milk solution, and the chemical reaction creates the substance soap, and the substance glycerin. A bar of “good” soap is, on average, 1/3 glycerin. Yep, that's even better than that certain company that puts ¼ moisturizer in their “soap”. Glycerin is a humectant, meaning it pulls water from the air to itself. That is why good soap is so moisturizing – all that glycerin is sucking water out of the air, into your skin, lliterally moisturizing it (rather than just oiling it in the hopes of trapping already-existing moisture in your skin). That's also why good, handmade soap tends to melt into goo in a humid environment (your shower) – because all that glycerin just can't get enough of that humidity! (So when your soap is melting into a puddle, just remember it's a sign of quality – and then store it higher and drier, or get a soap bag, or find some nifty felted soap!)

Now – commercial soap is different, because they strip out the glycerin, and sell you bars of just pure soap – and as we all know from using it, soap is drying (at least if you already took the good stuff out!). So, they package up the glycerin in lotion, and sell it to you for your dry skin. Every time you see the price of a bar of commercial soap, you should mentally add the price of a bottle of lotion – now that “pricey” good soap seems a little more reasonable!

Once you know the basic chemistry of soapmaking, you realize that in fact, there is no lye in soap. It was an ingredient, but there is no hint of lye actually remaining, it is all turned into other substances. In fact, most recipes have a “superfat” factor (extra oils) of about 5%, some are 6 or 8, or even 10% superfatted (milk soaps are so good because the fats in the milk are basically extra, as are the egg yolks in my shampoo). This is to ensure that there is absolutely no free lye, because there's more than enough oils to react with it. Also, some oils don't completely transform in the soaping process – and that's a benefit. Shea butter, beeswax, and some others just don't react to the lye very well – which means you basically still have some shea butter in your soap, making it extra-moisturizing (again, that “lotion bar” soap that commercial companies brag about!)

Now, I've had people tell me they only use glycerin soap on their face because it's so gentle. Sadly, this is not really true. As I mentioned, glycerin soap is simply lye soap that's been clarified. “Purified” is a misnomer, because what has been taken out is not "impure", but rather anything that would cloud the clear soap – like that shea butter, or any superfatting! Glycerin soap is formulated at either 0% superfat – or negative numbers!! Then, a buffering solution of some sort of acid is added to neutralize any remaining lye (an alkali), because the important thing is that the soap is clear, not that it's great for your skin. To combat this lack of moisturizing-ness, extra glycerin is added back to the soap, thus the name. But it doesn't contain any more glycerin than “regular” bar soap.

So, to sum it up – don't panic, there's lye in your soap, it has to be there (but it isn't actually there!), and it's why handmade soap is so amazingly good for your skin!

If you have any further questions, I love to answer them, just shoot me a message anytime!