What's the deal with lye soap, anyway?
Let's just jump right in and dispel the myths about lye soap.
Every soap maker has heard this many times from shoppers at markets and fairs. "Lye soap, huh? My grandma used to make lye soap. That stuff will melt your skin right off!" (Or something to that effect.) Then they walk away shaking their heads knowingly, self assured that they've educated their spouse, friends or children about the dangers of lye soap. (We'll get back to Granny's scary soap later, don't worry.)
Well, I certainly do like to talk about soap and would be happy to answer questions and explain my products to anyone that asks. However, I'm not likely to jump in and contradict or argue with someone in front of their people at my booth at a market or fair. It's just not good business and arguing with customers doesn't sell product.
While I won't make a scene at my booth, I will say it here; Mr. Know-it-all is wrong about lye soap. The real truth is that all soap is lye soap. If it's soap, it is, at it's core, lye soap. Soap is
the product of the chemical reaction made by mixing lye and water with vegetable oils or animal fats. Well crafted soap should not be harsh or irritating. Good handmade soap should leave your skin feeling clean and smooth.
Once again for emphasis; All soap is lye soap.
Of course, just to confuse the issue, there are products that we commonly call soap that have no actual soap in them. They may have product names like "bath bar" or "body wash" instead of calling themselves soap, and may be made entirely with synthetic detergents and cleansers or may be blends of soaps and synthetics detergents. That is is a whole different subject though so I will not go into that mess at this time.
Ok, now it's time to get back to Granny's scary soap and why, if Granny was making soap today, it wouldn't be so scary.
What, in a single word, is the difference between Granny's scary soap and modern hand-crafted soap? Technology!
As a concept, most of us don't give technology a second thought. In this age technology has become thoroughly entwined in every aspect of how we get through our days. My Grandmas grew up in a different world and would have been totally bewildered by a typical conversation today. I know there's some youngsters out there so for reference, my grandmothers were both born nearly 100 years ago.
Over the river and through the woods,
To Grandmother's house we go. My car's nav knows the way,
ABS keeps me safe,
And TC gets it through ice and snow, Oh!
Just not the same, is it?
What does this talk of technology have to do with old fashioned lye soap?
The first thing we have that Grandma didn't is easy availability of a consistent supply of quality ingredients and equipment. In this part of the world, Grandma would have made soap with either lard (pig fat) or tallow (beef fat). And before you get all grossed out about smearing pig fat on your skin, many of the big commercial soaps are still made using lard or tallow as a major ingredient. Grandma would probably have gotten the fat from a local farmer or butcher and rendered it on the stove to get nice, clean fat. Instead of store-bought lye, she may have used wood ashes from the stove or fireplace. As you can guess, the chemical qualities of those ashes could vary quite a bit. And she certainly wouldn't have used distilled or even filtered water from the purifier in the fridge.
Today I just jump on the Internet and order up a variety of vegetable oils from around the world, a few of which Grandma probably never heard of and certainly couldn't source. Then I order up a shipment of 99% pure sodium hydroxide lye from a supplier in New York. When I get all that delivered to my door in a few days time, instead of using measuring cups and a bit of guesswork, I measure out all my ingredients on a highly accurate scale that I bought at the super-store down the street. And just so everything mixes right, I make sure they are at the right temperature with a highly accurate infrared laser thermometer gun.
The second big advantage I have over Grandma's soap-making is the abundance of easy and mostly accurate information available from the Internet and any of dozens or more books on the subject. Of course, like anything else on the Internet, it takes a healthy dose of common sense, research, trial and error and experimentation but the information is there. You can find charts and software exactly the right percentage of lye to saponify (make oil into soap) pretty much any kind of animal fat or vegetable oil available. And if that's not enough, find a forum or discussion group to ask the experts when you have problems. Just be nice or you'll get a healthy dose of ridicule instead of help.
So, all this is to say that the soap I make today with six oils sourced from three continents, purified water, a blend of essential oils, activated charcoal and a dash of honey, is a far cry from Grandma's scary soap you remember from your childhood.