Here I sit again with really great intentions to get things accomplished today, but somehow time got away from me. It's 11p.m. and I'm finally stopping long enough to write this blog post before crashing for the night. Today was full of homeschooling, laundry, cooking, order filling and soap labeling. Tomorrow will bring more soap labeling, order deliveries, grocery shopping, and other errands. On a good note, I did remember to file my sales taxes today! Life always is always busy around the homestead, but tends to get a bit more hectic when my hubby goes back to work and has to leave town.
So, let's talk a little bit about soap making, specifically about lye. Lye, aka sodium hydroxide, is essential in soap making. Without lye, there is no soap. You see, lye is an alkali. When an alkali is mixed with a fat (your soap making oils) it goes through a chemical reaction which produces a new molecule that is a salt. Once the soap has gone through the saponification process, which generally is complete in 24-48 hours, there is no longer any active lye left in it. The lye has bonded with the fats to create a new molecule which is soap.
One way that a lot of soap makers test their soap to make sure that has gone through saponification is the "zap test". The zap test is conducted by touching a small piece of soap on your tongue. If the soap still has active lye in it, you will feel a zap similar to touching your tongue to the tip of a 9 volt battery. I know it sounds pretty strange, but it is one good indicator of the presence of lye (and it doesn't require any special tools).
Working with lye, we must use precautions as we make our soaps. We wear protective goggles, gloves, and other protective gear to ensure we don't get injured. A lye burn is no joke. It can cause damage to the skin and there have been soap makers who have had lye water splash into their eye and it has caused damage to their vision.
Most soap makers, when creating their recipe, add extra oils to the soap called a superfat. A superfatted soap has more oil than the lye can change into soap. The extra oil is what makes handcrafted soap feel so moisturizing to your skin. You see, every oil has a specific saponification number. This number is used to calculate how much lye is needed to turn that particular oil into soap. If you have more lye than is needed during the saponification process, it will create a bar that will not only be very harsh and irritating to the skin, but generally the bar will crumble when trying to cut it. Handcrafted soap makers take a lot of time experimenting and creating their soap recipes to not only cleanse the skin, but to also be a hard, bubbly bar that makes the skin feel moisturized. There is a lot of chemistry and a bit of artistic flair put into every bar of soap we make.
If you ever come across a soap that says it is not made with lye, it is not a true soap. It is either a melt and pour base (which more than likely was originally made with oils and lye), or it is a detergent based bar that is packed full of surfactants. Your skin will feel the difference once if you ever put the two up against each other.
Although lye can sound like a scary thing, it is important to remember that after the initial 24-48 hours, there is no longer any lye left in soap. Knowledge about lye and soap making makes you a better consumer and allows you to not fall victim to some scare tactics that can be used to sway you away from using a more natural soap. I hope you have gained a little insight about soap making. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.