Is There Lye In Natural Soap? Won't It Harm My Skin?

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Is There Lye In Natural Soap?
Won't It Harm My Skin?


Natural Organic Soap Bar Coconut Shea Butter LavenderIf you are asking the question:

Do you use lye (sodium hydroxide) to make Chagrin Valley natural soap?

The answer is -- yes, of course.
No lye -- No soap!
All REAL soap is made with lye (sodium hydroxide mixed with a liquid).

Any skin or hair cleansing product made without sodium hydroxide is not soap, it is a detergent.


If you are asking the question:

Is there lye in a bar of Chagrin Valley Natural Soap or Shampoo?

The answer is "No."

When the chemical reaction of making soap, called saponification, is complete, the lye and oil molecules have combined and chemically changed into soap and glycerin.

If the soap is made properly, the lye is used up in the saponification process to turn oil into soap.

There is no lye present in the finished bars of soap or shampoo. While all real soap must be made with lye, no lye remains in our finished product after saponification (described below).


It Doesn't Say "Lye" or "Sodium Hydroxide" on My Soap Bar Ingredients

If it is real soap or contains real soap, it must be made with lye!

Handmade natural soap and some commercial "soap" bars are made with lye even though the words "sodium hydroxide" or "lye" do not appear on the labels. Does your bar of "soap" contain ingredients such as...

  • saponified oils: oils and butters are mixed with sodium hydroxide and a liquid (usually water).
  • sodium cocoate: the generic name for the mixture of coconut oil with sodium hydroxide (lye).
  • sodium palmate: the generic name for the mixture of palm oil with sodium hydroxide (lye).
  • sodium palm kernelate: the generic name for the mixture of palm kernel oil with sodium hydroxide (lye).
  • sodium tallowate: the generic name for the mixture of beef fat (tallow) with sodium hydroxide (lye).
  • sodium olivate: the generic name for the mixture of olive oil with sodium hydroxide (lye).

Natural Soap made with Natural and Organic Ingredients on the labelWe once had a customer who returned a bar of our natural Castile & Shea soap because her dermatologist told her that she should not use any soap made with lye.

So, what did he recommend? Dove.

It is true that the words "lye" or "sodium hydroxide" do not appear on the Dove ingredient label.

But, the first ingredients listed were sodium tallowate, sodium cocoate, and sodium palm kernelate. So you can guess what I told her! Yes, Dove is made with lye!

These alternative words are not always used to deceive consumers!

Many handmade soap makers or companies leave out the words "sodium hydroxide" (lye) from their ingredient lists because of misinformation and fear among consumers. They often choose to use the words "saponified oils" instead.

At Chagrin Valley we believe that today's consumers are pretty savvy and the best practice is to educate. Besides, as a USDA Certified Organic Company we are required to list every ingredient on our product label.


What is Sodium Hydroxide?

Making Soap adding Sodium Hydroxide to oilsSodium hydroxide, also known as lye, is needed for the saponification reaction which is at the heart of soap-making.

You can not make real soap without lye. Remember, No lye . . No soap!

Old-fashioned lye was made using hardwood ashes, a barrel or ash hopper, and rainwater. Unfortunately, since there was no standard dilution there was no way to determine if the lye water was the correct strength. That is why granny’s old-fashioned “lye soap” was often lye-heavy and had the reputation of being drying and irritating to the skin.

In case you are a bit of a science nerd like me, here is an extremely simplistic chemistry explanation of how sodium hydroxide is made today.

Sodium hydroxide (NaOH), which consists of sodium ions (Na) and hydroxide ions (OH), is actually made from from salt water.

In salt water we have two compounds salt/sodium chloride (NaCl) and water (HOH). Using a process called electrolysis, in which an electric current is passed through the salt water, the water is split into hydrogen gas (H) and hydroxide ions (OH-) and the salt into chlorine (Cl) gas and sodium (Na+) ions.

Now the sodium ions (Na+) which are positively charged can combine with the negatively charged hydroxide (OH-) ions to form NaOH. Voila! You made sodium hydroxide made from simple salt water.


Saponification: The Chemical Reaction Of Soapmaking

(The Science teacher in me could not resist this simple explanation)

If you dig deep back to your high school chemistry days, you may remember learning about acid-base reactions. When an acid and a base combine they neutralize each other and make a salt.

In simple terms, saponification is the name for a chemical reaction between an acid and a base to form a salt called "soap."

Chemistry of Soap Making Saponification Reaction

Sodium hydroxide is an alkali (base) and the acids are the fatty acids that make up the triglycerides present in oils and butters.

Once we select the oils and mix them with sodium hydroxide and a liquid (lye), the molecules combine, a chemical reaction occurs, called saponification (pictured below), and a totally different substance is created -- SOAP!

Saponification Reaction

Saponification Process of Making Natural Handmade Soap

Notice there is no LYE, no sodium hydroxide on the product side of the equation! No lye remains in our finished product!

I hope that it is now evident that once the process of saponification is complete, the lye and oil molecules have combined and have chemically changed into soap and glycerin.

Therefore, there is no lye (sodium hydroxide) present in the finished bars of soap.

An additional note: in the case of liquid soap, potassium hydroxide is used in place of sodium hydroxide.


If you are still not convinced, here is an example of another chemical reaction.

The element sodium (Na) is a highly reactive element that explodes if it touches water.

Chlorine (Cl2) is a deadly poisonous gas.

Sodium plus Chlorine become Sodium Chloride or Salt

But when they come together in a chemical reaction a totally different substance is created, table salt (NaCl)! There is no explosive sodium and no deadly poisonous chloride gas left at the end of the reaction, only salt!


Superfatting Soap

Natural Skin Care Products Made with Organic Plant OilsOne special thing to remember... all handmade soap is not created equal!

For every soap recipe, there is a precise amount fat (oils and butters) needed to ensure that all of the lye has been transformed into soap.

Superfatting is the process of adding extra fats (oils or butters) when formulating a natural soap recipe, so there is more fat in the mixture than the lye can react with during the chemical reaction.

We have developed aa special technique that allows us to use a lot of extra fats (oils or butters) when formulating a natural soap recipe. Superfatted soaps have superior moisturizing and emollient qualities.

If you look at the graphic of the Simple Saponification Reaction above, in addition to "soap," glycerin, and water, Chagrin Valley Soaps also contain free oils that have been left unchanged by the saponification process and add extra moisturizing properties to our soaps and shampoos!


Interesting Notes About Lye!

Lye has many uses outside of making soap.

In the food industry, the secret to great pretzels is often a lye bath! Lye gives pretzels their characteristic flavor, crispiness, and glossy finish.

Hominy is dried corn kernels reconstituted by soaking them in lye water until the germ is removed. Lye may also be used in the curing of olives and pickles and can be used to remove skins from tomatoes other fruits and vegetables in preparation for canning.

Sodium hydroxide is also used in the manufacture of some pharmaceutical products, such aspirin, anticoagulants that can help to prevent blood clots, and cholesterol-reducing medications.

Municipal water treatment facilities use sodium hydroxide to control water acidity and to help remove heavy metals from water.

Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is not organic, but it is one of the allowable ingredients included in USDA organic standards since it has applications in farming as well as food production.


Natural Skin Care Blogs

The Chemistry of Soap Making (in more detail)

How We Make Soap At Chagrin Valley

Are All Handmade Soaps The Same?

Browse our complete collection of organic and natural soaps

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