The thought of using lye to make your own soap can be downright scary for beginning soap makers. Working with lye isn't nearly as dangerous as you might think, if you know how to work with it. And, yes, there's a way to make soap without lye (sort of).
I remember being super nervous about having to handle lye when I first started homemade soap making years ago. The first few batches of cold process soap I made where not really enjoyable, because I was so freaked out. But I was intrigued by the process and stuck with it. And with practice, came confidence and the realization that it's really not that scary.
What is lye made of?
In the old days lye was made of wood ashes soaked in water to create an alkali solution that was called potash.
Nowadays, lye is made in a lab. There are two main types of lye used to make handmade soap: sodium hydroxide (NAOH) for bar soap and potassium hydroxide (KOH) for liquid soap. Lye is also used in small amounts to make certain foods, think German-style pretzels or bagels. It's also commonly used as a drain cleaner.
Why do you need it?
In order to turn fats/oils into soap a chemical reaction has to take place. Lye (aka caustic soda) is the catalyst for the soap making or saponification process that takes place when fatty acid molecules meet NaOH (lye) molecules. Lye will latch on to the fatty acids and both will transform into something totally different - soap. The final product, the bar soap or liquid soap won't have anymore lye molecules in it, since they've been "used up" in the chemical process.
Can you make soap without lye?
The short answer is no. Unfortunately, if you want to make "real soap" from scratch, you'll need lye. Either sodium hydroxide for bar soaps or potassium hydroxide for liquid soaps.
BUT you can make a fun craft project using melt and pour soap. A melt and pour soap base is a finished product where the process of saponification has already been done for you. All you need to do is melt the soap base, add essential oils, colorants or other natural ingredients and pour it into a pretty soap mold.
You can find lots of fun melt and pour soap recipes here on the blog.
While I wouldn't call it true soap making, it's a lot of fun and very creative.
Lye Safety Precautions
1. Setting the scene
- Always soap in a well ventilated area (crack a window or turn on a fan)
- Never soap around kids or pets
- Make sure you won’t be distracted
- Review the soap recipe you're planning to use and run it through a lye calculator before you begin. This will ensure you have the right amount of lye for the oils you're using, so that your soap bars are safe to use.
2. Gearing up for safety
- Put on your googles and gloves
- Wear long sleeves and long pants
- Face masks are a good idea while you're preparing the lye water
3. Creating your lye solution
- Carefully measure out your lye in a small container (I like to use a clean yoghurt cup). Make sure not to spill any lye beads or flakes.
- Choose the right container for your lye water solution: Recommended are plastic or stainless steel. Glass may crack due to the heat. Aluminum will react with lye.
- Always pour your lye into your water. Never the other way around!
- When lye first reacts with a liquid, fumes are released that shouldn’t be inhaled.
- Hold your breath while stirring, turn your head to the side to inhale.
- As soon as all the lye has dissolved set your mixture to the side away from where you’re going to work next.
- Keep in mind that the lye solution will initially become very hot.
- Never leave your lye solution unattended in a place where kids or pets can get to.
- If you’re going to leave your lye solution unattended for a long period of time, mark your container with a “Danger: Poison” sign.
4. While making your soap
- Keep all your safety gear on for the entirety of your soaping session. Even for the cleanup right after.
Fresh soap is less dangerous than lye solution but it’s still caustic. As a matter of fact the only times I’ve ever gotten burned was by getting fresh soap batter on me. You’re so wrapped up in what you’re doing that you don’t even realize until it stings a few minutes later.
5. Oops, I got some on my skin
- Keep calm and rinse it off right away under plenty of cool water. Then wash with soap.
- If it got on your clothes remove them and wash skin
- If lye batter got on your skin, gently wipe it off and rinse area
- Don’t use vinegar to rinse. Some sources recommend using vinegar- this will only make it worse!
6. I inhaled some of the fumes
- You'll probably start to cough or have a tickle in your throat. Simply move to fresh air and take a little break.
7. Help! It got into my eye
- Rinse immediately under plenty of cool water and seek medical attention.
8. Help! Someone swallowed it!
- Drink 2 cups of water and immediately seek medical attention.
9. Storing your lye
- When not in use store your lye container tightly sealed in a place where neither kids nor pets have access to. Label accordingly.