We love when our customers come to us with questions about the products they use or specific ingredients, whether or not it’s ours. We take every concern seriously, and when we don’t know an answer we happily do some research and find out what we can for you. Of course, we’re always open about the ingredients we use and love to get feedback on how they work for you.
One ingredient in our repertoire that’s been trending in customer questions lately is lye. Lye, or sodium hydroxide, is an alkaline solution that was traditionally leached from wood ash and is now commercially manufactured from salt. As a caustic corrosive, lye can be extremely dangerous if misused, and cause serious chemical burns. Lye has also gotten some bad publicity as the go-to solution for dissolving bodies within criminal circles – and not just in the movies. We have a sign in the shop – “A little lye never killed anyone. Oh that’s right. It does.”
Sounds pretty terrifying right? Why on earth would we put such a harsh chemical in our natural soap? It’s no wonder everyone is asking about lye-free soap!
The answer sounds like a Cheshire Cat riddle: There is no such thing as lye-free soap… but all of our soap is lye-free.
How is this paradox possible? To make soap, you need only two things: fat and a lye solution. When you mix specific proportions of fat and lye solution, the process of saponification produces soap, water and glycerin. In commercial soaps, the moisturizing glycerin is removed which tends to make them harsher on your skin than handmade soaps. After 48 hours of curing there shouldn’t be any lye left in the soap and by 4-6 weeks of curing, most of the water has evaporated, resulting in a hard bar that lasts well. All soap is made with lye, there’s just no lye left when it becomes soap.
The only time this is not the case is when a soap is “lye-heavy”. This means the soapmaker miscalculated and/or weighed the lye incorrectly and added too much lye. This is why soap made in the olden days was much harsher as well; the process of leaching potassium carbonate, or potash, from wood ashes was hardly an exact science, and resulted in lye-heavy soap bars. If you're ever worried about whether your soap is lye-heavy, touch the tip of your tongue to it. If it's lye-heavy, it'll feel like you've just put your tongue on the end of a C battery, like you've just been zapped. You should obviously do this at your own risk, but it's a decent test as far as not remotely scientific tests go.
These days, the process of producing lye is far more sophisticated – as are our formulas. At Ja Nene Natural Body Products, we use a computer program to formulate every batch, avoiding the miscalculation problem. We also test our scales frequently. Each batch is pH-tested before packaging, just to make triple-sure.
So what’s the deal with so-called lye-free soaps on the market? If you see a product with an ingredient label that doesn’t list lye, it may be represented in the word “saponified”, followed by the oils used. The label may also say “beauty bar” or “cleansing bar.” Why? Because without lye, it simply isn’t soap. In the personal product industry, it’s referred to as a “SynDet” bar, short for synthetic detergent. Another supposed lye-free option is melt-and-pour soap, but even this is misleading. When you buy melt-and-pour soap, it’s only lye-free in that you’re buying cured, saponified soap that was formulated to be melted and remolded. It was still made with lye, you’re just buying it after saponification.
And we ain’t lyin’.