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Can you make soap without lye?

Hello all and welcome back! I hope you are enjoying spring wherever you may reside. Here on the coast, we have gone from a brief, wet spring to summer overnight it seems. But my gardens are loving the warm temperatures and are growing like crazy. Meanwhile, while they grow, I am back inside making soap and developing some new products in between setting up at various festivals and farmer’s markets.

Speaking of soap, I am hoping the title of this blog post caught your eye. The big question of the day is - can soap be made without lye? The brief answer is no. BUT wait you say, I saw some recently that didn’t have lye listed in the ingredients! Well, let me explain that; and so now for the long answer.

Here in the U.S., the FDA regulates how soap is labeled. According to them, the definition of true soap is a product that is comprised of mainly "alkali salts of fatty acids", and those alkali salts of fatty acids must be the only materials that give the product its cleaning ability; it cannot contain synthetic detergents.

So, soap makers here in the States have to adhere to proper labeling guidelines. If you just call your product ‘soap’ and make no claims about it, you actually don’t have to even list the ingredients. I choose to because I feel like my customers want to know what they are using. However, those ingredients must be listed in order by weight, you cannot use the term ‘saponified’, and you list what you started with – not the end product. What I mean by this is after mixing all the ingredients together, different chemical bonds take place, and after saponification you end up with variants of those ingredients. For example, glycerin which is not generally used to make soap, is however a by-product of soap making, and is in every bar out there. If your soap meets the guidelines as being 'true soap' it now regulated by Consumer Product Safety Commission and not the FDA.

Now, if you state that your soap ‘moisturizes’ , than it is now classified as a cosmetic and you MUST put an ingredients label on it. Larger companies will use the INCI names (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) rather than common names of their ingredients. If you see a soap that claims to cure psoriasis or something else, then this is now considered a drug which legally is supposed to be sent to a lab for testing and analysis. Once complete, the lab will send you back a list of what the ingredients are to use on your label in INCI form; and the product will now be registered with the USDA.

This was albeit a very brief explanation, and there is so much more information about labeling guidelines, but for you the customer I thought it would answer a few questions you might have. If you are a soap maker I encourage you to look further into the subject.

To get back to the title of this blog – you can’t make soap without lye. But if made correctly there shouldn’t be any lye left in your soap. This is why you will occasionally see someone advertising that their soap doesn’t contain lye. You can revisit a blog post I made last year titled “Soap Making – Where art and science meet” to read up on the soap making process. I hope you found this interesting and informative. As always, let me know if you have a topic you'd like to learn more about. Until next time!


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A very informative blog and I enjoyed learning more about the process. So many rules and regulations....I had no idea. Thank you for enlightening me.

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