How to Make Soap Without Lye (your questions answered)
An introduction to what natural soap is and how you can make it at home—both with and without handling lye. Lye is probably the most feared ingredient in making soap from scratch and this piece will take you through what it is and the part it plays in soap making.
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As a soap maker, one of the most common questions that I get asked is how to make soap without lye. It’s an understandable one since a lot of people are afraid of using sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide (lye) and are concerned about “chemicals.” Others want to make soap at home with the kids and don’t want to worry about accidents. This piece covers how cold process soap is made with lye along with ideas for making soap, or at least crafting with soap, without handling lye.
Over the past eight years, I’ve run in-person beginner soap-making workshops, and I can assure you that if you want to make cold-process soap, you can. Many anxious people have crossed my doorstep, and each one has left not only feeling confident but with handmade soap in their hands. I want you to have that experience too, but to understand the answer to how to make soap without lye, you need to understand what soap is.
What Exactly Is Soap?
Soap is described in chemistry as a salt of a fatty acid and a surfactant. It’s a substance that pulls oil and grime from our skin, pans, or clothing, and helps it to rinse away in water. In essence, soap makes water wetter.
Don’t get nervous over the word chemistry, either. We rely on chemistry for life! To make soap, you do need to understand a little of what happens, and if you find a passion for soap making, learning the chemistry of customizing and formulating soap recipes will come after. To make your first batch, though, just follow my instructions, and you don’t need to worry about the science stuff.
Differences Between Soap vs. Detergent
Most of the ‘soap’ that you’re probably used to using isn’t real soap at all. Most body washes, shampoos, kitchen soap, bars of soap, and liquid hand soap are actually detergents. Detergents are also surfactants, but they are not soap. Instead, they’re made using manufactured compounds such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) – the stuff that makes toothpaste foam and cleans your teeth. For most people, it’s not harmful, but detergents are also not natural.
Even the bars of soap that you grew up with or see for sale in shops could be a detergent. The best way to know is to look at the packaging. If you can’t find the word soap on the label, then it’s not soap. If it says ‘beauty bar’ or something like that, then it’s probably a detergent. Laws dictate what manufacturers can put on their labels, but they’ll do their best to fool you.
The Invention of Soap
No one knows when soap was invented, but it was thousands of years ago. Scientists speculate that people discovered it by accident when hot oil from a cooking pot fell into an ashy puddle underneath. Perhaps the person cooking spotted a weird new substance and started experimenting with it and trying to see if they could make it again. Remember that these three ingredients are essential to the most primitive soap making – fat, ash, and water.
So what happens to transform it into soap? Wood ashes, when leached in water, create Potassium hydroxide – a type of lye. If it’s cooked with fat, it breaks apart the molecules apart and bonds with them. This process is called saponification and leads to soap being it’s own natural chemical compound. A special homemade substance that keeps our bodies and homes clean and hygienic.
How to make Soap (real soap)
We don’t use wood ashes to make soap anymore, and if you come across a tutorial telling you otherwise, please don’t try it. There is no way for us to know how much lye is in the final liquid from wood-ash leaching so it may be weak, and won’t make soap, or very high, and it can burn your skin. Instead, we use potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide from soap making suppliers. The strength of each is controlled so you can predictably formulate and make gentle soap recipes.
You can use these types of lye to make soap from scratch using the cold-process or hot-process methods. It may also be used to create some kinds of melt-and-pour soap.
Types of Lye
Potassium hydroxide is used in a hot-process method to make a kind of soap paste. You can dilute it in water to make a fabulous natural liquid soap, though it’s not a quick project. Sodium hydroxide is the lye you use to make bar soap. No other substances can be used in place of either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide to make soap.
When you introduce lye to fats and oils, it breaks the molecules apart and bonds with them, creating a new compound – soap! You can watch it happen when you’re making soap from scratch. The oils and lye begin liquidy then start turning opaque and thick. When soap comes to ‘Trace’, it’s the sign of a successful natural chemical reaction. Most of the lye is used up at that point, but after two days it’s usually always transformed into soap. That’s why natural soap does not contain lye when you use it. That lye is now soap.
On an aside, I use food-grade sodium hydroxide – though it’s caustic and yes, used to clean drains, it’s also important in some parts of the food industry. Pretzels are dipped into a weak lye solution before being baked, and lye is even used in processing cocoa and chocolate, among other things. If bakers aren’t afraid to use it in making food, you shouldn’t be worried about using lye to create gentle, handmade soap.
Can you make soap without saponification?
If all this is sounding complicated to you now, you might be asking if you can make soap without saponification. The short answer is no – all true soap begins as fats and lye. If you want to make soap from scratch, then you need to saponify fats and lye to create it. There’s a way that you can skip having to handle lye, though.
How to Make Soap Without Lye
The main way that you can make soap without handling lye is by using melt-and-pour soap. The part of it that’s real soap has already been through saponification (oils reacting with lye) and is safe to use and handle straight out of the package. All you do with it is melt it, add your scent, color, and other additives, then pour it into molds. It’s easy-peasy and a quick project and fun for both adults and littles.
Melt-and-pour soap comes in all types. Clear glycerin soap, creamy goat milk soap, palm-oil free, the list goes on. Melt-and-pour soap is usually a type of soap mixed with synthetic ingredients so it’s not considered natural soap. It’s a great way to begin your soap-making journey, though, and I even have a recipe for you to try.
Another way to make soap without lye is to use plants rich in saponins. All you need to do with them is warm the roots, leaves, and fruit of these plants in water and they create all-natural cleaner for your home and health.
There’s kind of a second way to make soap with lye. Soap makers tend to have a stash of ugly soap – basically, batches that didn’t turn out the way you’d planned. One way that we make it pretty is by rebatching it or partially rebatching soap. The former involves shredding the bars down, mixing with a little water, and melting them to a kind of paste. Afterward, you can add color, scent, etc. and push the soap batter into molds. You do need to make soap from scratch before, though, so that may defeat the purpose of your visit.
Can you make soap without chemicals?
If you’ve read this piece through, you’ll know that all real soap is made, one way or another, with lye — but also, that handmade soap doesn’t contain lye. If it’s made correctly and with a good recipe, then handmade soap is gentle and can be a hundred percent natural. You can’t avoid lye if you want to make soap from scratch. If you hear otherwise, that source is incorrect.
As for handling ‘chemicals,’ honestly, everything is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical, chocolate is made of chemicals, kittens are fuzzy purring balls of chemicals. If you’re worried about substances that are toxic, poisonous, or that could otherwise harm life, the natural world is full of plants and minerals that could kill with just the tiniest taste. Handle lye with care while you’re using it, but know that science is on your side. There will be no lye in your soap when it’s finished curing.
If you’re still worried, I encourage you to try your hand with melt-and-pour soap, and if your interest is piqued, check out my free 4-part soapmaking for beginners series and the soap making videos on my YouTube channel. I hope this piece has answered your questions and I wish you the best of luck in your soap making adventures.
Thank you! Useful and informative info is easy to understand.
What is Castile soap?
Here’s what it is along with a Castile soap recipe
Thank you for this information I’ve been debating making my own natural soaps but reading this has convinced me to go for it. I really like the way you write, very captivating. Do you write books or novels?
Thank you for this thorough explanation. There is a small typo, I believe the word “years” is missing in “No one knows when soap was invented, but it was thousands of ago”
Thank you :)
Very informative and you explained everything so well and easy to understand, thank you! I also like many others have been looking to make a basic soap with no chemicals and as a beginner I had no idea of all the things you explained so now I can stop looking for a soap recipe without lye, looking forward to try.. :)
Thank you for such a beautifully written, informative article! Can’t wait to get started!!!!
Thank you for your information. I enjoyed reading your article. Simply put . All soap has to have lye in it to become soap. But after the mold is cured and soap if finished all the lye has basically evaporated.
There are no substitutions for lye.
It has to be used in the process.
I want to make a creamy bubbly soft slightly oily bar soap . Any suggestions ?
My daughter have Celiac and bad eczema also allergies to many harsh chemicals , I’m looking to make her own soap and feeling lost .
I love your page thank you ❤️
You’re very welcome :)
Soap nuts are the best for children that have super lots is allergies and eczema. 100 organic/natural and no reactions when used on them or there clothing when u wash. Another reason some children have all these issues is the water they drink and bath in is a toxic chemical soup. I know, as I moved out to the country off city water and my little one got 70% better with allergies and eczema. Best to you.
Hello!! I have done research and have seen conflicting answers about wether or lye is organic or not. I read your article and I wanted to say thank you for clarifying other things I had questions about , but I still am unsure wether or not soap can be labeled organic with lye in it. Thank you!!
Hi Mallory, and to answer your question, yes soap made with commercial lye can be labeled as organic. It’s a bit of a tricky one, and a good question! Since all real soap requires lye in its manufacture, regulatory bodies accept it in organic soap recipes.
“… everything is made of chemicals. Water is a chemical, chocolate is made of chemicals, kittens are fuzzy purring balls of chemicals.”
Thank you for this.
A while back, I was at a health food store and the owner swore that the products she sold did not contain chemicals. When I told her that water is chemicals and that the air is chemicals, she glazed over like a deer in the headlights. I don’t understand how people can get through high school and not know that the entire physical world is made of chemicals.
Hello, I want to thank you for the article that was quite informative. My question is this, So when certain natural soap companies indicate there is no lye in their soaps, there is lye in it but has gone through a chemical transition that has taken it from it’s current state of lye and with the mix of oils and fats and a molecular change occurs with new chemical bonds with creates this new compound known as “soap”. This is a new chemical compound that is no longer considered lye, and can be touted as not having lye in the mixture. Am I correct?
That’s right Kimberley. It’s not correct to put ‘olive oil’ on a soap ingredients list unless it’s part of the superfat. Most of the olive oil in a soap recipe would react with lye and change into olive oil soap, which is called sodium olivate. Coconut oil would change into sodium cocoate, and so on. There is absolutely no lye left in its raw form in (properly made) handmade soap so it is not included on the label. Lye (sodium hydroxide in cp soap) is indicated by the sodium part of sodium olivate, and the other soap made by different oils.
I honestly cannot believe how rude people can be when they are more or less anonymous.
Also rather embarrassing that they so easily go off on a rant without actually having thoroughly read your article!!
Very well explained and clear. You speak of the melt and pour option for those that are concerned about handling lye directly and explain already that it still has lye in it.
I will be following your step by step for beginners. Thank you kindly. I love your articles. We have just started bee keeping and am looking at ways to utilise the honey and wax. Thanks. You have a new follower. K-A xx
Thank you for the lay out in the misunderstanding of no lye soaps.
I’ve been looking for ingredients to make with out lye. To be getting my answers here ending my search you can’t make true soap with out it. Answers alot of my questions and ends my new researching I’ve been doing.
Explanation was awesome. Thank you dear.
I am trying to make a bar of soap but I don’t have any lye is there a substitute or a recipe I can use that doesn’t require lye?
This piece should have answered that question for you.
Hello! I am wanting to make breast milk soap from scratch and and wondering how that process would look different then regular soap making. Would the breast milk go into the solution before it’s set into soap or after the chemical reaction has fused? Thank you:) and if you know of any good breast milk soap recipes please let me know!
Hi Alyssa, adding breast milk to soap is no different from adding other mammal soap to soap. You can use my recipe for goat milk soap if you wish :)
Thank you for this article. I never fully understood what a soap base was and what lye was. I thought the two were different. Now that I know one comes from the other I feel more confident about what I’m using. I’ve been looking all over for soap bases that have the least amount of ingredients. I don’t know if you know anything about this, but Titanium Dioxide? Every soap base seems to have it in it. Is it safe and natural?
I’m glad that you understand that now, Heather :) For your question: titanium dioxide is a nature-identical mineral that tints soap white. Many natural soap makers avoid it, but it’s a standard ingredient in melt and pour soap, toothpaste, and sunblock.
What a misleading headline, I to have been making Soap & run my own workshops. Telling people that you can make soap without lye is so misleading. Yes I read your article, yes you explain melt & pour soap and how it’s made with lye and how it’s already gone through saponification so why mislead people into thinking they are making Soap without lye? You are not making Soap when you use a melt & pour pack, you are melting an already made soap bar to add a small percentage of additives. As a fellow soap maker you should know the struggles that all soap makers face around the misinformation of lye. No soap has any lye left once it’s gone through saponification & curing process but you need lye to make soap!
Hi Michelle, I wrote this because of how many people google ‘how to make soap without lye’. Loads of people still think you can make soap without lye and it’s my intent with this piece to clear up any miscommunication. Since you’ve read the article and understand that, your outrage is misplaced.
Ok Karen. Go create your own website and stop trolling on others. My gosh.
Thank you for this information its very help full
Thank you for all this information. Will these bars be safe for septic systems and gray water use?
Hi Linda, which soap recipe are you referring to?
try again that still has lye in it. just because it’s gone through “The main way that you can make soap without handling lye is by using melt-and-pour soap. It’s already been through saponification (oils reacting with lye) and is safe to use and handle straight out of the package.” does not mean there is NO lye in the soap. When people are looking for a soap with NO lye, that means NO LYE!! that means not even the whole process from the start NO LYE. As in it should not be there from the start. Try again about making soap with no lye.
I think you’ve missed the point — there’s so such thing as real soap that’s not made with lye.
Wow, thank you for the thorough explanation of soap making and the use of lye. It was very helpful to me. I’ve made soap a few times, and wondered about the necessity of lye, so thank you for clarifying!