What Is Lye And How Does It Work In Our Soap?
Here at Edens Garden, we were more than excited to enter the magnificent world of Natural Bar Soap. For something that seems so simple, bar soap is actually full of complexities, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. A question we hear fairly often is if we use lye to make our cold process soap. To which the answer is - Yes!
What is Lye in Soap?
True soap bars cannot exist without lye, but in order to understand lye, let’s first discuss how soap is made.
Bar soap is made through a chemical process known as saponification (sapo is Latin for soap). A solution of lye, which is an alkali, is combined with vegetable oils to cause a chemical reaction. This reaction breaks down the fats or oils into fatty acid chains, and the lye is neutralized in the process.
Through a hot-process method, soaps can go from liquid form to a solid bar form in minutes. When an outside source of heat is applied to a lye and oil/fat solution, the water molecules in the bar are evaporated, and the saponification process is sped up. Although hot process is much quicker, we chose to cold-process our bar soaps to avoid tainting the essential oils they contain.
Without lye in soap making, there would only be puddles of fat and oil. In fact, if a soap bar is not made primarily of cleansing alkalized oils, the FDA does not consider it a soap at all!
How is Lye Made?
Back in the day, our ancestors made lye from wood ash, which yielded an inconsistent lye. Some ancient soap makers made an alkali from sodium carbonate and calcium oxide. Nowadays, lye is made from ordinary salt.
Through the chloralkali process, lye is made by dissolving salt into water. Graphite rods are inserted into the mixture when the crystals of salt are the only thing left to dissolve in the bottom of the glass. Electricity is then run through the rods where crystals of lye attach themselves. After that, the liquid is poured off and allowed to evaporate until nothing but lye crystals remain.
Is Lye Dangerous?
Lye by itself is extremely caustic. When making lye soap, caution should be taken to handle lye with great care. Lye soap that is improperly made or aged can have too much or insufficiently mixed lye and remain corrosive. It is for this reason that we “superfat” our soaps by adding more vegetable oils than required to dissolve the lye. We also cure the soap bars for 4-6 weeks to ensure they are not only safe, but highly moisturizing and cleansing!
What is Soap Without Lye?
Why, it’s not soap at all! Syndets (synthetic detergents), which are the most common forms of cleansers on the market, are surfactants bound together in a bar to cleanse and lather. While some claim to be lye-free, they oftentimes contain ingredients that were made with lye to begin with.
Lye in an Ingredients List
True soap falls under the jurisdiction of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and does not require an ingredients label. However, if there is a label, there are two main ways to list them. The first is to list what you put in the soap, including the lye. The second way is to put what is in the final soap bar. Ours is the latter. When a vegetable oil reacts with lye, it becomes a saponified version of itself. Coconut oil goes in, saponified coconut oil comes out, which refers to coconut oil that has been made into soap.
Many soaps claiming they are made without lye actually did use it as some point in the manufacturing process. Syndets commonly include ingredients like sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate, and sodium palm kernelate. Tallowate is animal fat, cocoate is coconut oil, and palm kernelate is is palm kernel. Sodium refers to the fact that these oils and fats had previously reacted with lye. Even melt-and-pour soaps contain ingredients that were derived from a reaction with lye.
When it comes to soap, lye is your friend. Through the magic of chemistry, the vegetable oils in our bar soap produce a chemical reaction with lye that leads to the creation of a glycerin-rich soap bar. Each ingredient was chosen with care for optimal cleansing and moisturization, as well as a satisfyingly firm bar of soap. In the end, we are proud to offer our Natural Soap Bars to our customers.