Let’s start by understanding “what lye is”. Knowing how much you LOVE chemistry, this is an extremely simplistic explanation to help you visualize the creation of NaOH, or caustic soda, or LYE.
A DC electrical current is run through a salt solution (Sodium Chloride) . This breaks the salt apart into its components. (Na+ and CL) Water is added to the compartment and the water molecules are reduced down by the electric current to release the hydrogen ions. An ion exchange membrane allows the sodium ions to join up with the hydrogen ions and form sodium hydroxide in solution. (NaOH) Concentration and evaporation result in caustic soda pellets and powders.
Lye is used in multiple industries and yes, believe it or not, food production. Lye is used to:
1) Wash fruits and vegetables
2) Making chocolate & cocoa
3) Cocoa & chocolate processing
4) Softening Olives
5) Glazing pretzels
6) Use to make hominy & grits
7) Make Chinese noodles
8) Soft-drink processing
9) Thickening ice-cream
10) Making the Norwegian delicacy – Lutfisk (definitely an acquired taste)
Now, lye handled improperly or carelessly has nasty consequences and it is this fact that keeps many people from using it. That’s fine. But remember, as yeast is the reagent to bread, so is lye the reagent to soap. We cannot make soap from scratch without it. Educated soap-makers calculate the ratio of lye needed to convert ALL the fatty-acids into soap. If excess lye remains, this means the recipe was incorrect; there were not enough fatty acids in the soap for the lye to convert.
We intentionally super-fat our soap to ensure there is no remaining lye and calculate this carefully to keep the excess fat in the proper range. But remember, too much fat will:
1). Allow the bar to go rancid over time
2). Allow discoloration and spots over time
3). Damage the scent profile
4). Bar is softer and washes away faster
Making one’s own soap is all the rage today
This is great! This is helping people understand that most commercial soap is not designed to nourish the skin or underlying layers. As in cooking, it is always ideal if you can control your own ingredients or hire a chef (we are your soap chef) to use the best ingredients.
So the answer for many people who fear lye is the use of “melt & pour” soap or milling bars. Our purpose here is not to demonize these methods, they do have their place. So let’s understand them and their differences.
Melt & Pour (M&P) soap making is the process of melting an existing soap base. This is what people are actually thinking of when they say “Make Soap without Lye”. With an M&P base – the saponification and aging step has been done for you. The benefits are: No use of lye, no curing time, wide variety of fragrance options available and it is a kid-friendly process. There are tons of design options just for fun.
The disadvantages are: M&P soap contains additives to make it easily re-meltable. Depending upon the manufacturer, some M&P bases are no different than the commercial soap and contain detergents and surfactants, so let the buyer beware. When soap bases are melted, they are generally over 120 degrees, which turns the soap into a scalding hot liquid. Heat safe containers and molds are essential. And the biggie……because of the additives to help it melt, M&P soap washes away faster than either hot or cold process soap. I frequently am asked about our soap’s “longevity”, because unassuming consumers have bought M&P thinking they were getting artisan soap and were dissappointed.
Think of it like this. Melt and Pour soap is like using a cake mix. Prep, stir, and WHA-LA you have soap. With cold/hot process, you are making it from scratch and have control over each and every ingredient.
The other method is “milling” or sometimes called re-batching. This is where a cold or hot process bar of soap is scraped, peeled, and grated into a pot with a little water, heated over a double-boiler, in a crockpot or in a microwave. The mixture is stirred until a thick, liquid mass appears that can be scented, colored and poured into a mold. Milled soap is only as good as the original bar in terms of its quality.