Soap is something we all use on a daily basis and many people like to make soaps at home. There are so many variations in the shapes, colors, and scents that it’s almost impossible to track them all.
It makes for an interesting gift and, if you work the flea market scene, homemade soaps can bring in a nice side income.
Now, many of the recipes for soaps contain lye and that does tend to scare off newcomers to the soap making hobby… so you maybe wondering: can you make soap without using lye?
No, you can’t make soap without using lye. Soap is a mixture of water, oils, and fats. These substances don’t combine very well unless you add lye to the mix. However, you can use melt-and-pour soaps to make soap without directly coming into contact with lye.
What Exactly Is Lye?
Lye is a sodium hydroxide chemical and is highly caustic; meaning it’ll burn your skin and/or eyes. It also produces harmful fumes – when wet – which can damage your lungs.
Lye is also highly reactive to certain metals (i.e. aluminium, zinc, and magnesium); producing highly flammable hydrogen gas.
Because of this, many people who want to get into making soaps at home are wary of the substance. It works in soap making as a bonding agent, allowing the water, fats, and oils to combine properly to form soap.
Other uses for lye include:
- Household cleaning products (i.e. degreasers)
- Dissolving animal carcasses – I’d imagine this is mostly for hunters
- Identifying fungi (i.e. mushrooms)
When handling safety glasses, gloves and a mask are a necessity if you want to avoid injury.
If your skin should come into contact with lye, it’s recommended to remove any contaminated clothing, brush any excess lye off of your skin and run cold water over the contact area for anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour and calling emergency services.
Lye should be stored in airtight plastic containers and properly labelled to show what hazards it presents. It should go without saying but keep this stuff away from your children and pets.
The Dangers Associated with Lye
There are a variety of risks and dangers associated the use of lye. It comes in a dry, granular form for mixing.
It’s a highly reactive alkali that can be counteracted with acids (i.e. citrus or vinegar). It reacts with water and with certain metals like aluminium, iron, and magnesium.
These reactions are exothermic – meaning they release heat outwards – and are often quite violent. For this reason, one should NEVER add water to lye! Always add the lye to cool water slowly.
Some of the effects that lye can have on the human body include:
- Burning the skin
- Damaging the eyes
- Toxic fumes can do harm to the lungs – Note: this is usually when lye is mixed with water
- When swallowed, lye will burn and damage the oesophagus and cause death.
As far as storage goes, lye should preferably be stored in ceramic, stoneware, or heat-resistant plastic. Glass can be used but it is incredibly risky.
The heat put out during these exothermic reactions is extreme, and the container may break. Any utensils should be made of wood or heat-resistant plastic.
Protective eyewear and clothing should be used and it’s recommended to keep a bowl of vinegar nearby.
The vinegar will stop the burning if you should accidentally come into contact with it. If you should accidentally swallow it, you can use milk to neutralize the lye.
One thing not to do if lye has been swallowed, is to induce vomiting; it can cause some serious problems.
Melt and Pour Soap Making is like Reheating Food
Melt and Pour soap making involves using a ready-made base for your soap. These soap bases have already gone through saponification.
What that means is that all the fats and oils have already reacted with the lye to give us a soap base. There is lye present, but you won’t have to touch or work with it directly in order to make your soap.
To use the melt and pour method is much safer than other methods allowing you to focus on the aesthetics of your project.
It’s a simple case of melting the base (you can do this on your stove) and once it’s completely melted, you add your scent and/or colorant. From there you let the mixture cool slightly and transfer it over to a mould to set.
In a way, this is kind of like reheating a plate of food in the microwave.
If you make, for example, lasagne; what goes into it? Well, mincemeat, cheese, white sauce, and, of course the lasagne sheets all make up a lasagne.
Some recipes will differ but that’s the way I know to make it. The white sauce is just a mixture of milk, flower, and maybe a pinch of salt.
So, think of the white sauce as the ‘lye’ in this instance. It’s still in the lasagne but I don’t need to make more white sauce if I want some of the lasagne; I just pop it in the microwave and the microwave does the rest.
You can’t make soap without lye but, by using pre-made melt-and-pour soap bases, you can make soap without coming into direct contact with it.
Lye itself should be treated with extreme caution; keep it clearly marked, out of reach of children and, of course, far away from your beloved pets.
When mixing lye with water, you should add the lye to the water and not the other way around because the reaction will be more controlled than if you do it the other way around.
Greg spent most of his childhood in camping grounds and on hiking trails. While he lives in the suburbs nowadays, Greg was raised on a small farm with chickens. He’s a decent shot with a bow, and a huge knife enthusiast. Find out more about Greg.