How to Make Soap (With or Without Lye)

How to make soap- with or without lye

Growing up, it never occurred to me that it was possible to make soap at home. I was born in a big city, grew up in another and soap was always a white-colored bar from Ivory that came in a package.

Why Make Soap at Home?

I’d always been crafty, and when I found recipes for soap making in an old-time homemaking book, I was intrigued. At the same time, all those years ago, I was unsure about some of the ingredients that the recipes called for, especially tallow and lye.

In fact, despite my intrigue with homemade soap, it took me a few years to work up the courage to make it, so I just bought handmade soap from a local vendor in the meantime. When I finally attempted to make homemade soap for our family, I was amazed at how simple it was, and how much money it saved!

While the process seems overwhelming at first glance, it is very simple, especially after you’ve done it once. Also, in less than an hour, it is possible to make enough soap for our family for months and months, and I was able to make soap for less than half the cost of buying it, even with organic ingredients.

Can You Make Soap Without Lye?

Often, the biggest concern with soap-making is the lye, and this was one of my biggest concerns as well before I researched it.

Lye comes with its fair share of warnings and with good reason, but that doesn’t mean that the finished soap product is in any way dangerous. The most often asked question on my soap recipes (like my basic slowcooker soap or my charcoal bars) is “can I make soap without lye?” The short answer is no, but the long answer requires a little science…

What is Lye?

Chemically, lye is Sodium Hydroxide, a caustic alkali. It can eat holes in fabric and skin and cause severe reactions with other chemicals. For soap, the crystal form of pure Sodium Hydroxide is used (this is important!) and the lye must be added to water, not the other way around.

Sounds dangerous… right?

Not so fast.

After all, table salt is made up of sodium and chloride, both dangerous on their own but edible once combined.

You Can’t Make Soap Without Lye

Soap by definition is an alkali mixed with fats. When combined, a process called saponification happens, creating soap. This not only allows the liquid and oils to mix (they don’t do this naturally, as you might remember from grade school science class), but also creates the action by which soap has its cleansing properties.

In other words, without Lye, you just have a bucket of chunky, fatty oils floating in water.

The important part is to make sure that the correct amount of Lye is used for the particular soap you make (more on that below) as different oils and fats require different ratios of lye.

Don’t Want to Handle Lye?

If you don’t want to physically touch the lye but still want the experience of making soap, all is not lost. There are ways that you can make and customize your own soap without handling the lye by using a pre-made melt-and-pour soap that has been pre-saponified (in other words, the lye has already been handled).

It is not lye-free, but you won’t have to handle the lye yourself.

This is the brand of melt-and-pour soap that I’ve used before, and it worked really well. You can add scents with essential oils, or add other ingredients like clays, salts, or other add-ins if you want to create a personalized soap. Again, it isn’t lye-free and you haven’t technically “made” the soap but it is a way to have the experience without having to handle the lye (but it is also much less cost effective).

How To Create Your Own Soap (With Lye)

As I explained, though Lye can be dangerous on its own, there is no lye remaining in soap that has been properly made and no reason for concern when using lye appropriately and in the correct ratio for soap making.

If you are ready to tackle the simple process of soap making using lye, here are some good resources to get started:

Soap Making Supplies Needed

Before you begin, it is important to have both a recipe and the necessary ingredients. You can make a custom soap with almost any variety of oils and fats, and a good soap calculator (like this one) will help you know how much of each ingredient you’ll need. The bulk oils I keep on hand for soap making (and general cooking and use) are:

This post explains the difference between making a hot process soap and a cold process soap and gives some specific recipe suggestions.

Once you have a recipe and the necessary oils/fats, you’ll also need to get some pure Lye to use in the saponification process. I had trouble finding it locally, but I was able to order pure lye specifically for soap making here.

I also found these kitchen tools helpful and I keep a specific one of each just for soap making and not for kitchen use:

How to Customize Your Soap

At this point, you can also decide on any add-ins for your soap to customize the color, scent or texture. In the past, I’ve used:

  • Essential oils
  • Dried herbs (for texture or color)- my favorites are dried lavender flowers, chamomile flowers or calendula, though any dried her could be added.
  • Colors– natural color options I’ve tried are spices and plant materials like spirulina, turmeric, cocoa, ground coffee (my favorite), hibiscus, beet root and others.
  • Texture add ins– like dry freshly ground coffee, healing clays, salts, oatmeal or any other ingredient.

Ever made soap? What is your favorite variation?

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