What is Lye? All you need to know!
Answering some of the most commonly asked questions...If you happen to know a soap artisan or have simply googled how to make soap, you may have come across something known as Lye. This brilliant compound is the sole reason why soap works the way it does and cleans so thoroughly. But what is Lye exactly? How is it used? And can you make soap without Lye?
What is Lye?
Lye is an inorganic compound, commonly referred to as sodium hydroxide or caustic soda. Typically found in dry bright white flakes, this compound is water soluble and often used to make Lye solution for the process of saponification, the fancy way to say, "making soap".
Where does Lye come from?
Lye, being an inorganic compound, is manufactured in mass for use around the world. Multiple processes can be used with the most recent being the chloralkali process in which electrolysis is used on sodium chloride solutions. The processing of lye has continued from as early as the 1800's and continues to increase in production, measuring at an estimated 60 million dry tonnes worldwide by 2004.
Is Lye dangerous?Yes! - Lye can be a dangerous substance when handled incorrectly and without utilising the proper safety equipment. Like other corrosive acids and alkali's, sodium hydroxide in solution form can dissolve proteins quickly and lead to moderate to severe chemical burning when exposed to skin. Additionally, Lye can cause permanent blindness when it comes into contact with eyes. It is incredibly important to take these risks into consideration when using lye to make your own soaps and taking the right precautions when doing so.
When creating soap, mixing fats and oils together, you need a method of fully combining the oils so that the mixture can saponify to be turned into a hard soap bar. Lye is the standard alkaline used to form the chemical reaction needed to take place. Without it, you simply won't make any soap! There are alternatives to Lye, given that sodium hydroxide was invented after the creation of the soap bar we know and love today. Original, all natural soap recipes, used a mixture of hardwood and water to create a strong alkali known as 'potash', strong enough to allow the chemical reaction to occur, combining the oils in the mixture. Potash, however, was a sort of home-brew chemical compound which was not effectively balanced and often produced failed batches. The introduction of Sodium Hydroxide created the standard for measures of alkali in a batch and allows for the perfect reaction to occur.
Why is Lye needed in soap?
Soap can be made without Lye, Potassium Hydroxide, a very similar chemical is often used to create liquid soaps. This is equally dangerous however and the same precautions should be taken when handling it. Glycerine is commonly believed as an alternative to lye, however this isn't the case as it wouldn't allow the oils to combine and the chemical reaction needed to create soap would not take place. All soap is created with some form of lye solution, otherwise it's considered a cleaning or detergent type product which has very different cleaning properties.
Can you make soap without Lye?
Safety when using Lye
The key to using lye safely is the right equipment and environment. Before opening any containers holding any measures, be sure you're wearing some form of long-sleeved top/shirt, rubber gloves and proper eye protection. This immediately diminishes the chances of lye on skin contact. Be sure to check the equipment over thoroughly for holes or damages where lye could get potentially spill and burn. Whenever handling lye and creating a lye/water solution, keep the reaction in a very well-ventilated area. Ensure you do not stand directly over the reaction whilst it's taking place as the fumes contain traces of NaOH (Caustic Soda). Keep the area around the reaction clear and free of clutter to reduce spills.
It's best to treat lye as a strong alkali much like bleach, take the necessary precautions and think ahead!
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