There’s a lot of misinformation and misconception about lye. I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want soap “made with lye”. Well, I have news for them. That’s not happening.
Lye is a necessary ingredient in soap making. This very strong alkali the dissolves well in water. Once dissolved and cooled, the lye water is mixed with a cocktail of oils such as coconut, olive, soybean, palm and sunflower. Each oil contains a mix of fatty acids. Note that they’re not acidic, like we think of some tomato sauces or orange juice. They contain fatty acids.
When the alkali lye water is mixed with the oils and their fatty acids, soap is formed. Molecules of lye water bond with molecules of oils. This chemical process is called saponification. (By now, you’ll realize I love science and even if you’re not interested, I have to tell you because it really jazzes me!) During the saponification process, we no longer have any lye. We no longer have any oils. This process changes the components completely and they become soap. Think of it as the marriage between oils and lye. The two become one.
Most soapers, including myself, make sure that there are more oils in the soap than lye water. Not only do I consider this a safe practice to prevent getting lye heavy soap, it also makes the soap more moisturizing and luxurious. By “superfatting” soap, we make sure that all lye water molecules are bound to oil molecules with additional oil molecules left over for conditioning, lathering goodness.
I have really sensitive skin, and in public restrooms the soap irritates my hands so much that they hurt and I need to use some lotion on them pretty much immediately because the soap in the restroom was too harsh. This is why I love handmade soap. My skin doesn’t get dry, doesn’t need lotion in order to not hurt, and actually feels pretty darned good. Those moisturizing fatty acids in the oils I use in my soap, while perhaps not turning back time, treat my skin very well.
In the last paragraph I really used the word “soap” loosely. Did you know that most commercial “soaps” are actually detergents? That’s why I said earlier in this post that it’s not possible to make soap without lye. Soap made without lye is detergent. The jury’s still out for me about the effectiveness of using soap for washing clothes, but that’s for another blog post. Right now though, I am absolutely sure that I want to be washing my skin with soap rather than detergent.
It took me a long time to understand the difference, but soap is natural. It’s made with naturally occurring elements. Lye is natural and plant based oils are natural. But a lot of what’s in detergent is synthetic and is present is almost all commercial soaps. It’s much harsher to the skin and while you might think that squeaky clean feeling means you’re clean, it really means that the detergents in your products are stripping your skin of its natural moisture. This can leave you feeling really dry. Do the experiment of trying some handmade soap and discover the difference – healthier, better hydrated skin.