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Posts tagged ‘Lye’

Handmade Soap is Hard on Your Skin

imageNo, actually it isn’t. I’m going to immediately qualify that statement…A well made bar of handmade soap is not harsh.

This summer we have been supporting a new local Community Market by selling our products there. It has been an extremely valuable experience, as it has allowed me to meet our customers face to face, which doesn’t happen very often when you only do online and wholesale orders.

Aside from hearing what people would like to see in our lineup, the most valuable thing for me has been hearing what their concerns are. The most prevalent concerning handmade soap is the belief that it is harsh and hard on your skin. First I’m going to talk about why so many people believe this, then we’ll look at why this belief is incorrect.

When most people are asked about handmade soap, they think about the lye soap that our grandmothers (or great grandmothers) made at home. The ingredients were rendered fat from the cows or pigs that they butchered for food, and lye made from wood ashes produced by the wood stoves used to heat their homes.

The process was simple: throw wood ash into a pot, fill it up with rainwater, let it soak until an egg dropped into the water floats with about 1/4 of its surface above the water. Strain the ashes out and use the remaining solution to make soap.

The difficulty in making soap with homemade lye is that there was no way to measure the strength of the lye. Let’s do a quick and easy review of basic high school chemistry….I promise it will be quick, hang in there! This is a molecule of water:

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Each hydrogen atom has the ability to attract and hold two oxygen atoms, giving water the chemical formula of H2O.

In this same fashion, when we make soap, the individual atoms of fatty acids that make up the vegetable oils pair off with the sodium (NA), oxygen (O), and hydrogen (H) molecules that form a molecule of lye (NAOH), forming two new molecules, soap and glycerin. If we used olive oil, we would have roughly 1 molecule of glycerin for every 3 molecules of sodium oleate (olive oil soap).

Still with me? Back to our grandmother making soap. With no way of measuring how strong the lye was, ie how many molecules of lye were in the lye and water solution, there was no way to measure how much animal fat she would need to add to pair off with, thereby neutralizing or consuming, each molecule of the lye. More often than not, the end product contained free molecules of lye within it. Lye is a caustic substance, so this active lye would sting and burn the skin when the soap was used.

So it wasn’t the handmade soap that was harsh, it was the unneutralized lye suspended within the bar of soap that caused the problems.

Fast forward to now: lye is commercially produced by passing an electrical current through either sodium chloride (salt) to produce sodium hydroxide, or through potassium chloride (potash) to produce potassium hydroxide. The end product is 100% pure lye (plus some other substances that aren’t used in soapmaking), which allows us to calculate precisely how much of any individual vegetable oil or animal fat is required to consume one molecule of lye. Each oil has a different chemical composition, so the amount of lye required to saponify (change to soap) one gram of olive oil is different than the amount required for one gram of coconut oil.

Modern soap makers use special lye calculators to create our recipes. Each type of vegetable oil contributes different qualities to a bar of soap, and we spend a great deal of time coming up with the perfect blend. Once we have that blend perfected, the lye calculator will tell us exactly how much lye and water we need to add to our batch of oils to convert every molecule of oil to soap and glycerin, and leave no lye in the finished product.

However, we don’t stop there! We add extra oils to each batch. This is called ‘superfatting’. Superfatting our soap does two things: it ensures that we never have any lye left in our soap, even if our scale is out of balance resulting in small discrepancies in the amounts measured, and it leaves a small amount of unsaponified oils in the finished product, which leaves your skin feeling lightly moisturized after your shower.

So that is why modern handmade soap is not harsh. This is not your grandmother’s soap!

If you purchase a bar of handmade soap that irritates your skin, there are three possible explanations:

1) You are allergic to one of the ingredients;

2) The Soapmaker has produced a lye heavy soap. Natural and handmade products are a growing industry, and when there is money to be made, you can be sure there will be people who try to cut corners to maximize their profit. Rushing to get product ready for sale can result in errors. Sometimes beginners will run out of an oil in their recipe, and replace it with another without running it through a lye calculator thinking that ‘it’s just a small amount, it won’t make a difference’ ;

3) You may have extremely sensitive skin. While most people with skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea etc can use a fragrance free handmade soap, there are some who cannot. Try a bar of authentic Castile soap made with 100% olive oil, which is the gentlest soap,and if that doesn’t work you should probably stick with synthetic cleansers such as Cetaphil.

One final comment on lye: there are two types of lye, potassium hydroxide, which our grandmothers made, is now used to make liquid soap, sodium hydroxide is used to make bar soap, and a blend of the two are used to make cream soaps and most shaving soaps.

Don’t believe everything you read (Part 1)

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Women’s Health magazine posted this little tidbit of “information” on page 50 of their July/August issue, and it has generated a lot of comments in the handcrafted soap industry.

Lets break it down, shall we?

“Bar soaps are more drying than liquid because the chemical sodium hydroxide is required to create the cleansing system.”

This is a quote from a chemist, who should definitely know better. Leaving aside for the moment the idea that bar soaps are drying, liquid soaps are made using the synthetic chemical potassium hydroxide. Both sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide are commonly known as lye. Bar soaps are not more drying than liquids.

“The upside is that most of today’s bars contain synthetic detergents (they’re easier to manipulate than natural ones which can be unpredictable), making them more skin-softening than they used to be.”

Today’s commercial bars contain synthetic detergents (syndets) because they are cheaper, resulting in higher profits for the manufacturer, and because they produce massive amounts of lather and less residue, not because they are easier to manipulate, or better for your skin! You can read more about synthetic detergents in my earlier post, What is Natural, Part 1.

As far as their “skin-softening” abilities, the only way that you can actually generate softer skin is by eating healthy foods, drinking lots of water, exercising, and using a sunscreen daily. There is no beauty bar, soap, lotion, cream or expensive serum that can give you softer skin. Soap is designed to cleanse your skin by removing dirt and dead cells, which may make your skin look softer. Lotions and creams make your skin feel softer, but the results are temporary, which is why you have to keep reapplying.

A carefully crafted and cured bar of handmade soap is usually “superfatted” which means that the soapmaker has included more oils in the soap than is required to fully neutralize all of the lye, leaving no active lye in the soap. These extra oils are then available to leave a light occlusive barrier on your skin to shield it from the elements. This also helps your skin to look and feel softer. Also, real soap does not strip your skin of its own natural oils. Synthetic detergents are also known as degreasers, and are designed to clean very well.

Some syndets will advertise that they have added moisturizing cream or glycerine, which supposedly gives you softer skin. If you look at the ingredients you will not find any exotic ingredients…..moisturizing creams are made by emulsifying oils and waters, the same oils that are already in handmade soaps. Syndet bars need to add them.

Real handmade soap does not need to add glycerine. Glycerine is a by product of the chemical reaction that makes soap (saponification), and we leave the glycerine where it belongs, in our soap. Commercial manufacturers remove the glycerine and sell it separately to manufacturers of glycerine soaps, thereby increasing their profits.

While we’re on the subject, lets take a look at the Dove Truth Files campaign that was seen everywhere last year, and which claimed that Dove was gentler than other products. They placed cute little pink paper dolls on a Dove bar, and on their competitors, a variety of synthetic bars, liquid cleansers and body washes. In their commercial, the paper on their bar remained intact, while the others disintegrated, supposedly proving how harsh the other products were. The website http://www.dovetruthfiles.com, and the Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/dovetruthfiles are no longer active, but according to what I’ve read, they did not try this comparison with handmade soap, only with other syndets. Here is a picture from one of their PR events, and not a single bar of handmade soap in sight. What a surprise.

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Okay, back to business…

“Look for formulas that contain hydrating oils, such as sunflower seed oil and olive oil. Try Kiss My Face Olive Oil Bar Soaps.”

Now this is where I get really steamed! They start off their comments by saying to avoid bar soaps because they contain sodium hydroxide, then finish by recommending that you go ahead and buy a particular brand of bar soap, leaving the impression that this bar soap is better because it does not contain lye! WRONG!

Kiss My Face, like every other bar or liquid soap out there, is made with lye.

Bottom line is this. Consumers need to be aware that every manufacturer, whether they are a large commercial operation or a small handcrafted soapmaker, is ultimately trying to get you to open up your wallet and buy something, and many of them will go to outrageous lengths to do so. Every magazine is trying to fill their pages with content to make you buy the issue. You must educate yourself. Just because you read something on the Internet or in a major magazine, it doesn’t make it true. Don’t believe something just because its a major company giving you the information, or because its featured in a multi-million dollar advertising campaign.

Also, keep in mind that any fool can write a blog. Don’t believe everything you read. Many bloggers will simply regurgitate something they read on someone else’s blog, without doing any independent research. This is how misinformation gets distributed so thoroughly that eventually people start believing that it is definitive and proven.

Be skeptical. Ask questions.

(Unfortunately, Women’s Health is not the only one guilty of repeating misinformation. Two other websites that drive me crazy are Skin Deep, a database administered by the Environmental Working Group, and Livestrong. However, this post is already long enough, and your brain is probably full, so I will take a look at these organizations tomorrow in Part 2.)

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