What makes an organic soap organic?  What is lye used for and is it organic? The definition of organic is something derived or relating to organic matter.  But when you go to the grocery store and see a banana labeled as organic that is not what they producers of the banana mean to convey to you.  They want you to believe that the banana was grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. For the most part (unfortunately) herbicides are allowed to be used on “certified organic” crops.

If we are talking about meat then the animal product being sold was not raised with antibiotics or growth hormones.  There is a whole slew
of problems with labeling and a debate on what really is and what isn’t organic.  And there is ample room for organic farmers to sidestep organic tests and “cheat”.  But it is my belief that something that is raised as closely as it was 100 years ago is much safer for you than something that was recently spliced together in a lab.

So what makes an organic soap an organic soap?  Certainly the ingredients should be natural right?  We don’t want pesticides or other harmful chemicals in our coconut or olive oil?  We certainly don’t want unnatural scents, dyes, or additives in the soap.  But what about lye?  Does the use of lye make a soap un-organic?

Lye is Naturally Occurring but can be Dangerous

Lye is a liquid obtained by leaching ashes (containing largely potassium carbonate or “potash”), or a strong alkali which is highly soluble in water producing caustic basic solutions. “Lye” is commonly the alternative name of sodium hydroxide (what we use to make our solid soaps) or historically potassium hydroxide (normally used in liquid soaps).  Lye originally came from ashes.  But now the ash you buy to make homemade soap is almost always electrolysed from sea water.

Even though there are those out there that make their own lye from ashes and will even tell you how, lye is no joke and can be very dangerous.  Remember the scene in fight club where Tyler Durden uses lye to make a kiss like scar in Edward Norton’s hand?  Ya that could happen with just a little bit of water and lye.  There are even sad new stories that show up every now and again about lye attacks.  They are almost identical to the horrible acid attacks we used to see on the news.  That is not what is lye used for!

What is Lye Used For?

So lyes are naturally occurring and are found in nature.  But other than soaps, what is lye used for you might ask.  Lyes are used to cure many types of food, including the traditional Nordic lutefisk, olives (making them less bitter), canned mandarin oranges, hominy, lye rolls, century eggs, and pretzels. They are also used as a tenderizer in the crust of baked Cantonese moon cakes, in “zongzi” (glutinous rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves), in chewy southern Chinese noodles popular in Hong Kong and southern China, and in Japanese ramen noodles.

Forms of lyes have used to make soap for thousand of years.  Lyes are no more or less dangerous than the natural oils we use in soaps. Once the process of saponification is complete, the lye and oil molecules have combined and chemically changed into soap and glycerin.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 soap after this process.

How does Lye work in Soap?

When we make soaps at home we have the option of using different types of oils. Lye mixes with the oils of your soap and saponifies, or becomes soap. At first, you have lye, water, and (coconut, palm, olive, etc) oil. Then the curing process begins and after a few days the lye, water, and oil turns into soap. At the end of the curing process, perhaps 3-4 weeks( sometimes more ),  there is no lye left in the soap ,  no oil, and no water. What is left behind is pure soap with nothing of the original ingredients left behind.

Sodium Hydroxide Effects on Humans

Sodium hydroxide is able to burn or corrode organic tissue by a simple chemical reaction.  Lye is necessary but it is necessar to be used with care. It can burn holes in clothes and leave burn marks on skin. If you use lye how it should be, you won’t have any problems. Most soapers will experience minor burns.  But there is a potential for serious injury.

Lye looks like water once it is dissolved in water, so you must take every precaution and keep it away from any living thing. You should also never stand directly over lye when mixing it with water. Even the fumes of mixing lye can be dangerous.

When you are ready to make the lye solution NEVER pour the water into lye. ALWAYS pour the lye into the water.  One of the best tips that I have heard regarding lye safety is to remember the order of lye into water is to envision “a light snow falling into a pond.”

And even when you pour the lye into water you want to do it very slowly.  You must sprinkle the lye in small doses into the water.  In between each sprinkle, you will want to stir, stir, and stir.  The lye mixture will become cloudy, and may give off fumes.  It bears repeating: Do not inhale these fumes.  They are extremely toxic.

How to Make Soap without Glycerin or Lye

All soaps are made with lye. Glycerin, the byproduct, is a humectant, a natural moisturizer that bonds moisture in the air to whatever it comes into contact with – in this case, your skin. If the glycerin is removed, there may be no moisturizing quality. It is not the lye causing it since it takes lye to make the oils into soap and then glycerin as a byproduct.

The short answer is it simply isn’t possible. Either sodium hydroxide is used for hard bar soap or potassium hydroxide is used for liquid soaps. There is no substitute for lye. Nothing else will make oil become soap.