Making Natural Soap, and Other Soap Myths
Making Soap with Baking Soda Instead of Lye Just Won't Work
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Do you dream of making natural soap at home? Unless you are willing to collect ashes to make your own lye, chances are that at least some portion of your natural soap will be laboratory created, or at the very least refined. Perhaps you have heard the rumors about making soap with baking soda instead of lye. In the other direction, you might have been told that antibacterial soaps leave you cleaner than handmade soap. Someone told you that soap is drying to the skin, and now you find yourself using a “beauty bar” but still feeling dry after a bath. We will explore these and other soap myths in the following article.
Lye For Soap: There is no substitute for sodium hydroxide, also called lye, in making solid soap. Making soap with baking soda instead of lye sounds too good to be true, and it is. When it comes to the lye you use in your soap recipe, the more reliable and standardized the product, the better your results. For this reason, laboratory or food-grade sodium hydroxide stands head and shoulders above grandmother’s method of leaching water through endless layers of ashes until the solution will float an egg. With a simple scale, you can now precisely measure a homogenized and standardized lye product that assures your soap will not be harsh and drying. If, for instance, you wanted to make goat milk soap without handling lye, there are only a few solutions. One is to use melt and pour soap base, either with goat’s milk already added or adding it to the base in small quantities. Another solution is to hand-mill natural soap, add goat’s milk while heating gently, and molding the resulting fortified soap compound.
Another common soap myth is that antibacterial soaps leave you cleaner than handmade soap. The main antibacterial action of soap, whether surfactant-based antibacterial or handmade soap bar, lies in the mechanical process of wetting, lathering, scrubbing, and rinsing the skin. Antibacterial ingredients would need to sit on your skin in a high concentration to actually kill more germs. Additionally, when a strong antibacterial is used, it can actually throw off the skin’s delicate balance of natural flora, making it possible for issues to arise.
Along the same lines as above, some believe bar soaps to be “germy.” The simple fact is that the pH of soap is hostile to bacterial growth, except on the outer wet surface, which is constantly rinsed and cleaned in the act of being used. It’s no dirtier than the pump lever on the antibacterial soap bottle.
Many people believe that soap is drying to the skin. This may be true, but it does not have to be! The tradition of adding supplemental fat to a soap recipe, or superfat, helps to guarantee a mild, gentle bar of soap. If it still leaves you feeling dry, simply add more fat the next time.
Some people think that chemicals in soap are bad for the skin. Properly made soap need only contain oils, water, and lye. Using a reliable recipe will give you soap that uses up all of the lye in the chemical reaction so that there is none left in the finished soap. At that point, you have salts of fatty acids, or soap, natural glycerin formed as part of the soapmaking reaction, and residual water from the soapmaking process. Any other ingredients are optional and not necessary. Always consider, when you are making soap, whether or not a particular ingredient has a strong likelihood of causing sensitivities. Peanut oil, for instance, or lavender essential oil — both can cause sensitivities, as can literally any other soap ingredients under the sun. Always fully disclose the ingredients in your soap to help people protect themselves from reactions. In similar terms, some go by a motto stating that “if you can’t pronounce it, it must be bad.” Lightly grazing the top of this supposition reveals problems right away. Sodium Olivate, for instance, is soap made out of olive oil. Sodium Cocoate is soap made from coconut oil. The simple unfamiliarity of a term does not mean anything about its safety or dangers.
“Natural soap doesn’t lather well.” — Perhaps someone you know has had a bad experience with a low-lathering handmade soap in the past. Maybe you live in an area with very hard water. Soap recipes can be adjusted to help with either of these issues.
“Soap interferes with the pH of the skin.” — It is true, soap has a pH around 8-9 and the surface of your skin, in most places, is about a 7. However, the skin has a protective covering called the acid mantle that protects you from sudden pH changes. A nice, gentle soap does not remove this acid mantle, and the skin returns to its natural pH level within minutes after rinsing away the soap.
Soap has existed in various forms for millennia, and in that time, many rumors and untruths have emerged. With the rise of commercial surfactant bars, marketing increased the prevalence of these rumors and beliefs. The truth is that a reliable recipe, quality ingredients, and safe practices yield a handmade soap product that is in many ways superior to surfactant formulas. Gentle but effective cleansing, good lather, and good rinsability can all be achieved in a handmade soap bar.