Had an interesting conversation with a woman who visited us at the Main Street Market a few weeks ago. Actually, it wasn’t much of a conversation but the experience was a reminder of the continual need to educate my customers and potential customers.
The experience/conversation: Lady looked around at our offerings, then asked me if I used lye in my soap. I told her, yes, all soap is made with lye. Apparently, she didn’t hear anything else I said after, “yes” because she instantly recoiled and said she could not use lye soap because it was too harsh on her skin.
I tried to briefly explain the soapmaking process but she wasn’t budging. It quickly became apparent that I would never convince this woman to try my soap. Sometimes, one just has to admit defeat and move on; this was one of those times!
I’ve thought about that interaction over the last several days and decided it might be interesting to explain, as simply as I can, the process of soap making.
The word saponify literally means “to turn into soap.” Saponification is the chemical reaction that happens when vegetable oil or animal fat mixes with a strong alkali. In soap making the alkali is either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (used for making liquid soap) and both are known as lye.
If you think back to your high school chemistry, you might remember that when you mix a base with an acid, you form a neutral. This is exactly what happens in the soap making process. The lye (base)mixes with the oil or fat (acid) to form the soap (a neutral). The saponification process does not happen overnight. It can take up to 8 weeks for the process to complete.
Properly handcrafted soap does not contain lye but cannot be made without lye…period…end of story. In the case of the woman who couldn’t use soap made with lye, my guess is either one of two things happened: first, too much lye was used in the soap formula and lye remained in the soap, causing irritation/burn to her skin; second, the soap was not fully cured, meaning the saponification process was cut short, leaving raw lye in the soap.
If you are worried about too much lye in your soap, ask the soap maker how long the soap has cured. You can also ask the soap maker if he/she did a tongue test on the batch of soap. A tongue test is a common, old-fashioned way to test to see if the soap has too much lye in it. Any knowledgeable soap maker will know exactly what you are asking and will not hesitate to give you an answer.