When I people find out that I make soap, the often ask similar questions which can have complex answers. So, as a follow up to my post comparing handmade soap to commercial soaps, I thought I should post a deeper look into the different types of skin cleaning products available, and clear up some confusion (and myths) about all of the options you have when it comes to the simple act of cleaning your skin.
Here are just some of the common confusions, myths, and questions that abound in the soapy world:
- Glycerin soap is made without lye.
- Commercial soaps/detergents are safer than handmade soaps because they don’t have any lye in them.
- Commercial soaps/detergents clean better than “soap”.
- Lye soaps are harsh on the skin.
So, depending on who you talk to, you should only use glycerin soaps, or only handmade soaps, or only detergents! What’s a dirty person to do when they want to get clean with that kind of confusion out there? They must take a look at the options, and make an informed decision. Here’s a summary of the research I’ve compiled (with some further reading links below!)
Soap (and soap like) Products
Handmade Soap / “Lye” Soap
The only kind of soap that is really soap.
- Made by combining oil (animal or vegetable) with lye
- While lye is used to make soap, there is no lye in the finished soap.
- It is impossible to make soap without lye.
- Can be made with natural additives (essential oils, herbs, exfoliants, moisturizers, and more)
- Is often made with chemical additives such as fragrance oils, chemical dyes for color, exfoliants, etc. (I don’t use these though)
~U.S. Food and Drug Administration To be regulated as “soap,” the product must be composed mainly of the “alkali salts of fatty acids,” that is, the material you get when you combine fats or oils with an alkali, such as lye.
To be regulated as “soap,” those “alkali salts of fatty acids” must be the only material that results in the product’s cleaning action. If the product contains synthetic detergents, it’s a cosmetic, not a soap. You still can use the word “soap” on the label.
What many people think is the safe alternative to lye soaps.
- All real soap contains glycerin, as it’s a byproduct of mixing lye with oils. So, all handmade soap is technically a glycerin soap.
- Some soaps have additional glycerin added to them.
- Most commercial real soaps have the glycerin removed from them (to be sold separately).
- When people say “Glycerin Soap” they are often talking about Melt and Pour soap.
Melt and Pour Soap
A pre-made base of processed soap and/ or chemicals used to create transparent, meltable, and pourable “soap”.
- Sold in blocks at your local craft store as a fun and “safe enough for children” craft
- May not contain any actual soap
- Can be made with harsh chemical detergents
- Can be made from scratch with real soap + sugar + alcohol + glycerin
Commercial Detergents (artificial soap)
What most people grew up using, and many still do—this includes bars, shower gels, shampoos, “antibacterial soaps”, bubble baths, and even baby wipes.
- Mass produced soap is sometimes true soap, but is often times a detergent marketed as soap
- Often petroleum based
- Can strip skin of natural oils, and lead to skin disorders and rashes
- Often contains synthetic and chemical based colors, fragrances, lathering agents, preservatives and other “things”
How Some of This Stuff is Made
How is Lye Made:
Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) is made from salt – plain old ordinary salt, dissolved in pure water, and extracted with electrolysis. It makes hard bars of soap.
Potassium hydroxide (KOH) is made from electrolysis of potassium chloride solutions. Historically, it has been extracted from wood ash (or even banana peels). It makes very soft bars of soap, and is used for making liquid soap.
Did you know: Soft pretzels are made by dipping them in lye prior to baking?
How is Soap Made:
Fats and lye are combined in a process called saponification. The most simplistic recipe would be Olive Oil (the fat) + Sodium Hydroxide (the alkali) + Water (to dissolve the alkali). The ingredients are mixed together (being very careful with the caustic lye) and a chemical reaction called saponification takes place.
If the mixture is heated with an outside heat source, it’s called “hot process” soap making. If the soap is left to finish “cooking” on its own without any additional heat source, it’s call “cold process” soap making.
How is Glycerin Made:
Glycerin is a byproduct of the soap making process, which is why all handmade soaps naturally contain glycerin.
Glycerin can be extracted from soap by adding salt and then sold as a separate product. This is very common in commercial soap manufacturing.
Glycerin can come from natural or synthetic sources. Synthetic glycerin can cause skin irritations and should not be used in cosmetics. If you are purchasing glycerin for your personal use, be very sure it is 100% natural, vegetable glycerin.
How is Glycerin Soap (aka Melt and Pour) Made:
Also called Melt and Pour soap base, glycerin soap can be either natural or synthetic. With either option, the “soap maker” melts down the pre-made soap in a microwave, adds colors, fragrances, moisturizers, etc. and pours into a mold.
Natural melt and pour soaps are made by extending the soap making process a few steps to introduce alcohol, sugar, and glycerin to create a semi-transparent or semi-opaque end product.
Synthetic melt and pour soaps are detergents, with additional lathering agents, and glycerin to create a semi-transparent or semi-opaque end product.
How is Detergent Made:
Detergents are made from a variety of chemicals combined with an alkali (most commonly sodium and potassium hydroxide… aka LYE) to make an artificial soap.
The chemicals used can include petrochemicals (from petroleum) or oleochemicals (from fats and oils), along with other chemicals such as triclosan, sulfur trioxide, sulfuric acid, and ethylene oxide.
So, Which is Best for YOUR Skin?
That’s an answer everyone should make for themselves. I happen to think that the handmade/chemical free route is the best way to go, but also realize that detergents don’t always have to be bad things — I just don’t’ want them on my skin!
Here are the same myths listed at the start of the article, “busted” based on what you now know:
Glycerin soap is made without lye. While there is no lye introduced into the melt and pour / glycerin base, it does contain soap (or detergent) that WAS made with lye. This makes them safer to use for a weekend crafting project.
Commercial soaps/detergents are safer than handmade soaps because they don’t have any lye in them. Detergents are made by combining chemicals with an alkali. That alkali is most commonly lye. And, some of the chemicals (triclosan anyone?) have been proven to cause cancer.
Commercial soaps/detergents clean better than “soap”. While this one was not busted in the above information, my research did show that based on the chemistry of how each is made, they just clean differently. Take some time to read the references below on the chemistry of soaps and detergents and you’ll see what I mean. And, you might want to consider how much “better” chemicals are for your skin than basic ingredients found in handmade soap.
Lye soaps are harsh on skin. All soap (and many detergents which can be very harsh on skin) are made with lye. While lye is a caustic substance, the end product does not have any lye in it, so it’s not the lye that makes soap harsh on skin… its your specific skin chemistry not jiving with the specific bar of soap. Talk with your soap maker and dermatologist about your skin type to find a bar that might work better for YOUR skin.
Want to try handmade soap? Here are some of my recent batches available for purchase:
The FDA on Soap – what is it, and how it differs from commercial / synthetic detergents:
More information on sodium hydroxide (including human soap! Yikes !!):
More information on Potassium hydroxide (including how to extract it from wood ash):
More information on glycerin (also called glycerol)
The chemistry of soaps and detergents
Understanding laundry detergents (some great soapy history on soap and detergent!)
Antibacterial soap – not better than soap and water, but it can give you cancer!
Making transparent “glycerin” soaps:
A list of chemicals to avoid, with a quick note on why: