Lye in Soap? How can that be safe?!

July 17, 2015

Sodium HydroxideJust about every good soap making book begins with a healthy discussion about the importance of safety when it comes to making soap. Goggles for eye protection; gloves for skin protection; aprons to protect clothing; an air mask for fumes; kids and pets out from under foot, a bottle of vinegar to neutralize spills, and a safety plan for any major accidents. The reason for all of this focus on safety boils down to one single and very important ingredient in soap: lye, otherwise known as sodium or potassium hydroxide. Lye deserves our healthy respect because it has the potential to cause serious injury.

Sodium HydroxideLye comes in many forms such as white beads, flakes, or powder, and it looks innocent enough. But lye is an extremely caustic substance that reacts and eats away at just about everything it comes into contact with. So, in addition to being careful about our own physical safety lest we receive serious burns from spilling it on ourselves, or having the liquid form splash into our eyes, we also need to pay attention to what kind of equipment we use. Aluminum is out of the question. Wood will splinter and disintegrate. Even the  thick pyrex glass measuring cup that I used to use for weighing lye began to look obviously worn, cloudy, and different than all of the rest of my glass measuring containers. Today, stainless steel, heat-resistent plastics and silicone spatulas are the go-to materials in all of my soap making tools and equipment.

So, you might be asking, if lye is all that dangerous, how can your "all-natural" soap possibly be safe for me or my family to use?! It's a good question, but I assure you that by the time you purchase a bar of Artisan handcrafted soap, it's completely safe for you to use because the lye is no longer there.

As I've given talks about soap making over the past couple of years, I've begun to use a religious metaphor to help explain how this works: "Lye gives itself up to make peace between oil and water."

Basically, soap is made of oil and water. Normally when you put oil and water together in the same container, they won't mix! You could shake and stir for hours, and still, the minute you let the container rest, the oil and water will separate into different layers. This is where the lye comes in; lye initiates a  chemical reaction that causes the oil and water to actually mix; lye gives itself up, i.e. it disappears so that oil and water can bind with each other and hold together in a solid bar of soap.

This solidified mixture and tension of oil and water in your common soap bar is what gets your hands clean! Since oil doesn't mix with water, the use of water, by itself, can't remove the oil and grime from your hands. When you use soap, however, the oil in your soap bar binds with the oil and grime on your hands, while at the same time the water in your soap bar (still attached to the oil-loving molecules) binds with your tap water, lifts the oil and grime from your hands and sort of drags it away and down the drain.

So the next time you're scrubbing away, rest assured that there's no longer any lye in your Artisan Soap bar! Just remember to wash long enough so that the new-found love between oil and water has a chance to get you clean--peacefully, safely and naturally. Now, how about a nice bar of Lavender Soap?

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