Is Lye Soap Safe?

Lye is a very caustic chemical capable of causing serious damage. It can burn skin, cause blindness, and even cause death if ingested. And yet, this dangerous chemical is one of the main components of homemade soaps. Old timers will tell stories of how harsh lye soap is on the skin, but how well it cleans clothes.

It is true that extreme caution must be taken when using lye in soap making. Protective glasses should be worn, arms and legs should be kept covered, gloves should be worn, and an acid such as vinegar should be kept nearby to counter-act lye’s alkalinity if it should come in contact with skin. Good ventilation is another consideration when working with lye. So, why would a soap maker continue to use such a harsh product?

The other main ingredient of soap is fat – tallow, olive oil, coconut or palm oil, for example. When fat and lye are combined in proper proportions, a chemical reaction called saponification occurs. The end result is soap plus glycerin. (Glycerin is often removed from factory produced soaps which is why soap is often drying to the skin). When properly prepared and cured for several weeks, no lye remains in the final product.

So why does “lye soap” have a reputation of being harsh? In days past, homemakers made soap using lye made from wood ash. Sophisticated scales for measuring were not available and often too much lye was used. When saponification occurred, some lye was left in the soap, making it harsh on the skin. It is vitally important to measure carefully so that the correct amount of lye is used.

To answer the question, yes, soap made with lye is completely safe and is not harsh when made properly, using every precaution. Have you avoided “lye soap”, thinking that it was harsh or unsafe?

Recommended Reading: Handmade Soap: Recipes for Crafting Soap at Home

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Comments

  1. Lori Davis says

    I have made my own soap. I was nervous the first time, but now that I have learned to make it properly, I love making soap!

  2. says

    I’ve been making soap for years but never thought someone would think it’s dangerous. What a great post! It’s always good to see the other side of the coin. :)

    Thanks so much for sharing this in this week’s Thank Goodness It’s Monday carnival. I’ve pinned it on our “Thank Goodness It’s Monday” Pinterest page, too. :-)

    Blessings!
    Kresha from NourishingJoy.com

  3. Anissa says

    I still really want to learn how to do it from scratch! If I need to buy the lye, I might as well buy the soap and save myself the hassle. I will continue looking, as I believe this is a good skill to have tucked away ‘just in case’.

    • Susan says

      You’ll have to let me know what you come up with. I think being exact with measurements will be the biggest challenge.

    • Caelee says

      For a short while I had my own soap making business, it was a small business and I stopped because I got caught up in my studies and I didn’t make it a priority. Now I won’t use store bought soap, I still have leftover stock that I use today (3yrs later). When you read the labels of store bought soap and see the chemicals that go into it, you may also change your mind about the cost and time that goes into it. One of the great things about it was that I always had soap on hand that I could use for gifts for birthdays and christmas. Handmade gifts are great to receive!

  4. says

    I make my own cold process soap with lye and this is such a misconception among the public. What makes it worse is some homemade soapmakers add lye as an ingredient in their soap. Like you say in your article there should be no lye left in your finished soap product. What you have are saponified oils and lye doesn’t remain any longer. Great article!

    • Susan says

      Thanks, April!! All soap is made with lye, of course. The other bars on the market are detergents, as far as I know.

    • Susan says

      There is no such thing as soap without lye, as you know, of course!! Thanks for visiting, Heather. I appreciate you and your blog!

  5. Deb says

    Learned about soapmkaing from the time I was a toddler. We butchered at my grandparents’ and made luye and tallow over a fire in a HUGE cast pot. we ate the lard and used tallow for soapmking. We did use Red Devil lye from the store and just tallow. Made for great soap for wringer washers. We all had them then. Used store bought for our bodies, I’m 51, but did clean grease from clothes well. We quit that when I was 10 or so. For the past 14 years I have been making my own body soaps and shampoo bars with olive oil and other oils. No access to the fat like when we butchered. I now make it using my stand mixer with a crdboard piece over the top around the mixers as my hand won’t stir that long. Works great and I know all the ingredients, and how to pronounce them. LOL Never use gloves or safety glasses. I agree the old fashioned way of making wood ashes makes lye very harsh or we have no way to measure it for strength. Wouldn’t have it any other way making lye soap myself from commercial lye. I add herbs and EO to most of them also. Love the smell of cinnamon soap.

    • Susan says

      Although I didn’t grow up with all of this, I did wash clothes in a wringer washer for many years in my early marriage – including cloth diapers. We bought a house from a woman who made soap and there were boxes of it left in the house. I used that soap to wash clothes for years. Your soap making experience certainly exceeds mine; I just make plain soap!

  6. says

    I have, unfortunately, made some rather harsh soap myself until I learned to measure the lye very, very carefully. These days, I also always superfat my soap. Couldn’t ask for a better bar!

  7. Claire says

    What about lye used to cook pretzels? Is that unsafe, because it makes them taste really good, and I’d be sad if it did.

  8. annlaura says

    Nice post! My family has been making lye soap since I was almost 2yo. It’s very gentle when made with the right ratios. I use it as my face soap, and used it on my babies. A tip that is probably common – lye is a strong base, so keep apple cider vinegar out to counteract the lye if it comes in contact with your skin. Also, regarding the pretzels, there is food grade lye which is commonly used in baking as well as other food preparation.

  9. says

    My grandmother used to make soap and cure olives with lye. If proper care is taken while making both there is no problem. Its important to keep children and pets away from soapmaking area also.

    Since there is a slight bacon scent to the soap when using lard my dog decided to take a bite. From that time on I decided not to use tallow or lard for soap making. I purchased palm, olive and coconut oils which actually made a nicer soap. I added essential oils for the scent. The soap lasts a longtime and lathers even in ocean water. Great for camping.

    Strong lye soap like the pioneers made is great to do laundry with. It will bleach the stains out of anything.
    Mrs. J.

    • Susan says

      Oh, that’s interesting that your dog was attracted to the smell! So, I guess that soap with extra lye does have its purpose.

  10. says

    My dad won’t use my soap because he’s worried about the lye – he actually told me not to let the kids use it because it would burn them! Meanwhile, we’ve been using it exclusively for months, with no side effects (except softer hands and shinier hair!)

  11. says

    Great explanation of the saponification process! Even though making soap with lye requires some precautions, I’d much rather use old-fashioned lye soap than modern soap that’s full of synthetic fragrances, dyes, etc.

    Thanks for linking up to Old-Fashioned Friday!

  12. says

    Great post ! A nice lady approached me st a craft store looking at stuff in soap section. We chatted about Lye, I am a soap maker and she had a hard time understanding that you have to use Lye to make soap. By the end of conversation she got it. Thanks for post

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  14. oldschoolyoungster says

    My mother makes lye soap at a historical state park using a recipe that’s over 200 years old. Its a pioneer settlement and the recipe dates back to even then (1770s) She lets it mellow for a week or two after its hardened and cut into bars. Its great for laundry, lice, fleas, eczema, psoriasis, acne, dandruff, poison ivy and family, its hypoallergenic and safe for dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, farm animals and even babies. We live on it, its a life saver!
    Thanks for posting this article, too many people have misconceptions about this wonder soap!!!

  15. says

    This is an extraordinary site. Am so glad I found it. I just recently bought this soap at Aco, yes, Aco hardware store. I have noticed my skin been soft, not dry at all. Told my husband about it. My grandson is 7 months old and suffers from eczema, and it is really bad, can my daughter use the lye soap on his body? I love the idea that there are no chemicals in the soap. I grew up in another country and soap made with lard was used, my hair and skin were always better

  16. Susan says

    Hi Lidia, I’m glad you found us, too. I’m not sure what soap you found at the hardware store. If it just says “lye soap” I would be afraid that it would be a bit harsh, although you haven’t found that to be true on your own skin. It’s just that I would think that a hardware store would carry soap used for cutting mechanic’s grease, etc. Homemade soap with lye in it would be fine for the baby as long as the soap is superfatted. That means using a recipe that doesn’t have quite enough lye for all of the fat in the recipe. A recipe with lard or tallow would be absolutely wonderful for him. I’m not a nutritionist, but it’s my understanding that eczema can be diet related, although chemicals and perfumes in things like laundry detergent could factor in as well.

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