As a heritage soapmaker, I spend a lot of time talking, teaching, and collecting stories about lye soap. This one soap is my entry point into most of my customer’s lives. We talk lye soap by my fire and iron kettle. Seeing me in costume stirring the soap pot brings back a lot of memories for folks, that and a need to share them. I count myself blessed to be the one with whom they share. Stories abound about Grandmas leaching ash, rendering fat, and little tikes put to stirring. And stirring. And stirring. As I converse with people, I wait for that wonderful moment when someone says:
“You do know what lye soap is good for?” I’m asked with raised eyebrows and a knowing look.
That is my cue to listen up. I’m a collector of all anecdotes Appalachian, especially folk remedies, herbal lore, and (of course) uses for lye soap. I fully turn my concentration from stirring the soap pot to the speaker, anticipating words of wisdom that aren’t spoken much anymore. Later I’ll record these little jewels in my market notebook. It’s full of almost illegible scribbles, chronicling all sorts of things my customers share with me. My lye soap list alone has grown to over 60 entries, some common and some unusual. So, as I return to blogging, I think there’s no better way to kick-off than with a series on the uses of lye soap
But before I discuss Lye Soap Use #1, we need to talk definitions. There is more than one definition for lye soap, you know. I want to make sure we, as author and readers, are on the same page. There’s the colloquial definition, what my customers mean when they ask, “Do you have lye soap?”. Then there’s what I mean, the soapmaker’s definition, when I say, “Yes, all my soap is lye soap!”
When someone references lye soap, usually they are referring to the hard, pure white, sometimes harsh soap made on every homestead in America. This was soapmaking in its purest form. One fat, usually lard or tallow, combined with a lye solution, often leached from their own ashes, produced a soap that served all cleaning uses. Usually made at butchering time, this soap would clean bodies, dishes, floors, walls, clothes, and anything else. Depending on the recipe used and the strength of the leached ash lye, the soap could be very harsh making it great for laundry but hard on the hands and face. That fact is one of the most remembered things about lye soap: it’s harshness.
This brings me to Lye Soap Use #1, the phrase I hear most regarding lye soap. I share it here tongue in cheek, “Lye Soap? That stuff will burn your skin off!”
So what about today’s handmade soaps? It might scare you, but all these wonderful handmade gentle beautiful soaps are technically and truly lye soap. By definition all soap is a lye soap. You cannot get soap without the chemical reaction between lye and fats. If you remember your chemistry lessons, two or more substances can combine at the molecular level, using each other up and giving off new products. That’s exactly what happens in soapmaking. The fat, which is an acid, combines with lye, which is an extremely strong base. The fat and lye use each other up giving off soap and glycerin. If, and this is the crux of the matter, if the recipe is balanced correctly there will be no fat or lye left in the finished product, just wonderful gentle soap and moisturizing glycerin. Soapmakers today, myself included, balance their recipes to be fat heavy. This ensures a lower pH bar and extra moisturizing for your skin.
But it’s no use swimming upstream. I can’t re-educate the world on lye soap. So, I will refer to lye soap in its colloquial form during this series. My list of 60 plus uses for lye soap usually refers to the traditional style lye soap that you all remember. But there will be times when I will reference an even better “lye” soap for a particular use. In that instance I’m using the terminology in its technically correct usage.
Lye Soap Use #1 – to burn your skin off!??? If you were looking for economical dermabrasion, I’m sorry to disappoint. But unless there is something terribly wrong with the soap recipe used, lye soap definitely will not burn your skin off. Even the traditional lye soap I make, Granny Slagle’s 1860 Lye Soap, only irritates the most sensitive skin-types. The recipe for this particular soap is slightly lye heavy. A small amount of free lye in the recipe makes soap excellent for laundry, stain removal, and other uses I’ll get into in this series. But I have yet to meet the person for whom this bar burns off their skin.
Lye Soap Use #1 – to burn your skin off!??? Actually my experience is the opposite. I meet customers every week whose skin is irritated and outright burned by the synthetics and perfumes in store-bought “soaps”. These same customers try handmade soap out of desperation and find that handmade lye soaps allowed their skin to heal. Handmade, all-natural lye soaps open a whole new world of skin care and enjoyment to many people.
Grandma’s lye soap may have taken your hide off, but mine definitely won’t.