Questions Asked at the Farmer’s Market (part 2)


We love our customers’ soap questions. Below are questions and comments from our customers and answers from Michele the Soap Mistress of Gray Duck Soap.

“Soap making is easy.”

Yes and no. It’s like saying baking is easy. I mean what’s in a croissant, just butter, yeast, milk and flour, right? That sounds like it should be easy. Now try making them. Now try making them while wearing a respirator and a hazmat suit. The ingredients in soap are simple, the process sounds easy, but it takes a lot of practice and technique to make a good bar of soap.

“Can you teach me how to make soap?”

I’m afraid I’m not insured to teach. Most look at me funny when I say this. Yup, you need special, costly insurance to teach soap making because we use the caustic, potentially dangerous chemical lye, which can burn and blind you if used carelessly. I have a big sign on my wall that reads “Respect the Lye!” (next to my MSDS sheets and OSHA mandated HAZCOM information, of course.)

“Can’t you make soap without lye?"

No. No lye, no soap. No lie. (Isn’t that catchy? I liked it so much I put it on a t-shirt). The use of lye (aka sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) defines soap because it’s what causes the chemical reaction of saponification when mixed with liquid and oil. If soap isn’t made with lye, it’s not soap, it’s detergent. These are often called “beauty bars,” as opposed to soap. And these labels are often far more complex, where as a soap label, like our unscented Castile soap, has only three ingredients: olive oil, water and lye.

“But I make soap too, and I’ve never used lye.”

If you’re thinking of Melt and Pour, the kind of block you buy at craft stores that you melt in the microwave, you didn’t really make soap. Sorry, but someone else made that soap using lye and then added chemicals so it would melt in the microwave. Melt and Pour is fun, great for kids, and I’ve often admired the artistry Melt and Pour makers can achieve. But to a cold process soap maker, saying you made soap with Melt and Pour, is like saying to a baker you made herb bread by buying canned dough and adding rosemary.

"I don’t like handmade soap because my grandma made lye soap and it was harsh."

Modern handmade soap is not like your grandma’s "lye soap" because with modern technology there is no more guess work in soap making. We make precise recipes and measure with precise scales. Lye is used to turn oil and fat into soap, but lye should not remain in a finished bar of soap. If it does remain, the soap is called “lye heavy” and should be thrown out. Harsh lye soaps of the old days were usually lye heavy to some degree. These days we use lye calculators to form recipes and high-quality scales that measure to a milligram. Soapers also do something called “superfatting,” which is adding 5% or more oil to the recipe than can be saponified by the lye, ensuring there’s no possibility of any free-floating lye in the soap. We also use Ph test strips to test that our finished soap falls within a normal range.

Send us your questions and we may answer in an upcoming blog.

See Part 1 of Questions Asked at the Farmer's Market


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