If you’re into natural products that are kind to your body and the environment, you may have some concerns about lye. I know I did. After all, the substance is known for being so caustic that people have to wear safety glasses to use it. So I wanted to find out the truth about this substance. What is lye, and why do natural soap makers use it?
Let me show you what I found.
What Is Lye?
Lye is an alkaline chemical that is known for its caustic nature. When working with it, the lye can damage surfaces that it comes into contact with, including your skin. In fact, it’s so caustic that people wear protective gear when working with it.
Lye is sodium hydroxide. It comes in liquid form, flakes, or crystals. Sodium hydroxide comes into being when soda (sodium carbonate) and lime (calcium hydroxide) come together and cause a chemical reaction.
The History of Lye
Before you could buy lye in a bottle, people used to make it from raw materials. They used it for tanning hides and making soap.
To make lye, they would burn hardwoods at high temperatures to make white ashes. Then, they used a mixture of water and baking soda to penetrate the ashes and help remove the lye from them. Next, they filtered out the ashes. That left them with water that held enough lye to make soap and dissolve the fat from the animal hides.
The Dangers of Lye
If you’re like me, you often hear about how dangerous lye is, but never hear any details. After all, if lye is in our soap, how bad can it be?
It turns out, it’s pretty bad.
Lye can corrode lots of things like metal, plastic, paint, cloth, and your skin. And if you get the lye wet, it’s even more dangerous. When mixed with water, it can cause a fire.
Why Do People Use Lye?
People use lye for all sorts of products that you probably use around the house every day. For instance, drain cleaners contain lye, as do paint strippers and silver polish. But the most common use for lye is soap.
That doesn’t seem like great news for those of us who strive to use natural soap products.
But hang on, because my research led me to some conclusions that may surprise you.
What precautions do people take when using lye?
For those people who like to make their own soap, they have to work with lye. I’ve heard stories of the soap maker ordering everyone out of the house when handling the lye because they feared for their family.
Lye is a pretty serious chemical, and if you plan to use it while making soap, you would be wise to handle it cautiously.
Here are some of the precautions you should take when handling lye:
- When mixing lye, use eye protection, and gloves
- Cover the surface area where you are working with newspaper
- If you get burned while working with it, dab vinegar on the area to help relieve the pain
- Don’t lean over the lye mixture, but stand back and don’t breathe in the fumes
- Only use heat-proof containers when mixing lye or they could crack or melt, allowing the lye to escape
- Have a readily available water source nearby in case you get burned
- Never leave the lye unattended
- Thoroughly wash your hands after handling lye because even one unseen grain can cause major irritation
Why Use Lye in Soap?
After reading about the dangers of lye, I was astonished that the product I use every day to clean myself contains it. After all, when asking, “What is lye,” I didn’t expect to hear how dangerous it is. I assumed that the natural soaps I use are good for my body and not filled with harsh chemicals.
And I was partially correct.
Stay with me because I’m about to give you an unexpected answer to your question.
How does lye work in soap?
When lye mixes with oil, it becomes soap after it saponifies. At the beginning of the soap making process, you will mix water, oil, and lye. But then you cure the soap and everything changes. As the chemicals harden, the liquid becomes a soap bar. And if you cure the soap for three to four weeks, there is no oil, water, or lye left in the soap.
Let me repeat that in case you’re as astounded as I was.
After you cure the soap for weeks, no lye remains in the soap. What’s left is soap, pure and simple.
It turns out those natural soap bars are okay, after all.
But I’ve heard that lye soap is drying
You may have heard that using lye soap will dry out your skin. But remember, no lye remains in the soap that you use. So how did people come to believe that lye soap dries out the skin?
It comes from when people first began making lye to use in their soaps. They didn’t have the sophisticated measuring devices that we do today. And that caused them to add too much lye to the soap. The result was a soap that was harsh and drying on the skin.
But today’s soap makers carefully measure the amount of lye they add to soap so you won’t have to worry about lye drying out your skin. Remember, the saponification process eliminates all traces of it.
Can You Make Soap Without Lye?
Even though science proves that lye poses no threat to us because it doesn’t exist in the soap bars we use, some people persist in trying to make soap bars without lye. But here’s the deal: it doesn’t work. Sure, you can make something that looks like soap, but soap it is not.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), soap isn’t soap unless it contains an alkali such as lye. And the only alternative to lye is potassium hydroxide. You can use this chemical when making soap, but it won’t produce a hard bar of soap. Instead, soaps made with this alternative chemical are soft and liquid.
Here’s a short video that sums it up:
What About Glycerin Soap?
We all know that glycerin is a great soap because it moisturizes the skin so well. But glycerin is a product of saponification. And what is involved in that process?
You guessed it: lye.
It’s a common misconception that manufacturers don’t use lye in glycerin soap. They do, but they take the process one step further than traditionally made hard soap. Once the soap reaches the trace state, glycerin soap makers cook the mixture with sugar and alcohol before pouring it into the mold. This extra step not only ensures that no lye remains in the soap, but it also produces glycerin.
But here’s a word of advice: be cautious when buying natural glycerin soap. That’s because manufacturers know that glycerin is valuable. It’s a humectant, which is a natural moisturizer that bonds to everything it comes into contact with. That’s why glycerin soap is so moisturizing and healthy for your skin.
But commercial soap producers rarely leave anything but a trace of glycerin in the soap. Instead, they remove most of it to sell to fertilizer and explosive companies. That’s where they get nitroglycerin.
But other natural soap companies provide glycerin soap that contains all of the moisturizing benefits that you would expect.
What Is Lye: Did You Find the Answer?
If you came here asking, “What is lye,” you likely have a much better understanding of the chemical. I set out to find the answer to this question because I was thinking about making my own soap. But after reading the possible consequences of working with lye, I’ve decided that the risk just isn’t worth it for my family and me. Not when I can purchase natural soaps at great prices — without all the risks of working with lye.
What about you? If you came here asking, “What is lye,” did you get your answer? And will you try to make your own soap, or will you buy from someone who is experienced enough to work with the chemical without risk? I’d love to hear about your decision in the comment section below!
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