Does Your Soap Have Lye in it?

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May 3, 2013 by thesoapalchemist

Does Your Soap Have Lye in it?? I really hope not! But I can see how it could be confusing. Is it me, or do more people seem to be reading labels?

Sodium Hydroxide is listed on ALL of my soap labels. This has lead more than a few people to tell me, “YOUR SOAP HAS LYE IN IT!”

To clear up this confusion, allow me to explain and enlighten. ALL true soap is made with lye. But there is no lye in the finished product. How can this be?

Lye is the “pixie dust” that’s needed to transform oil into soap. Lye + Oil = Soap + Glycerin. In a well created recipe, there will be just enough lye to do this plus a little bit of oil left over for moisturizing ability and a nice feel in the hand.

There are several ways that a soapmaker can list the ingredients used in their bars of soap. All of the following are acceptable, but the choice of which method to use is up to the soap maker. Just remember, ALL soap was made with lye at some point in the process, and will somehow be mentioned in the ingredients. Read on to see the various ways soap makers do this.

Ingredients can be listed as Sodium Salts:

Oil that has been treated with lye is said to have been “saponified.” Saponification is simply the process of fatty acids in oil becoming “sodium salts” of the fatty acid. For example, Coconut Oil reacted with lye becomes the sodium salt of coconut oil. When that happens, it becomes “Sodium Cocoate.” It is understood that “sodium cocoate” is simply coconut oil that was treated with lye. This creates a more chemical-looking soap label, but one that doesn’t mention those “scary” chemicals: lye or sodium hydroxide.

Ingredients listed in this way, will read: “Sodium Cocoate, sodium palmitate,….”

Ingredients can be listed by the process used to make them: 

As explained above, saponification is the name of the process by which lye turns oils into soap. It’s a neat way of saying “oils treated with lye” or “soap made with sodium hydroxide” without listing “lye” or “sodium hydroxide” on the label.

An ingredient listing using this method will read: “Ingredients: A Saponified blend of coconut oil, palm oil,” etc.

Ingredients may also be listed in their raw form:

The most simple way to list the ingredients in a bar of soap is to simply list them! Each ingredient used in the soap making process is listed in order by the weight used. Coconut oil, Palm Oil, Sodium hydroxide. This sort of list is the easiest to read; it doesn’t involve any scientific words or processes. However, using it means that I’ll sometimes have to explain why there’s (not) lye in my soap!

How do you like ingredients to be listed? Do you find one method easier to understand? Which method makes the most sense from a natural soap consumer standpoint, since the customer, after all, is the one whom the label is intended to inform.


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