When I was a kid, bath time involved lye soap. Grandma made it in the summer kitchen behind a closed door--she said it was too dangerous to chance having a spill near a little one. I never thought about it then, but somewhere during my adulthood I began to question just why the people who protected and loved us...would bathe us in something so dangerous.
Silly me.There was either something wrong in my recollection that we'd used lye soap, or something wrong in my understanding of just what parents are meant to do.
To truly understand why my grandma closed the door to the outside world and then cooked her dangerous brew (she was said to be a witch for other reasons--not the soap) I took on the challenge of making homemade lye soap.
I bought a book about soapmaking, The Complete Soapmaker by Norma Coney. I highly recommend this book to anyone thinking of making soap.
Above and beyond the book, I did some research. I am not a chemist, but have a good grasp of the concept. Simply put, to make soap, you need to add a base (lye/sodium hydroxide/caustic soda) to a fat. Coney's book does an excellent job of covering that.
Once the fat and base are mixed and stirred, a chemical reaction occurs called "saponification". As a chemist explained to me, roughly 2 molecules of fat and 2 molecules of base become 3 molecules of soap and 1 molecule of glycerin. So, homemade soap tends to be less drying than commercial soap because commercial soap makers remove the glycerin and sell it as a separate product--and glycerin is a moisturizer.
My most important revelation? That once the process of saponification occurs, there is no longer lye in the soap. See--it was safe all along. Whew!
Have you ever wondered how soap breaks down fat in water? It actually makes oil and water mix. The secret is...soap molecules have split personalities--sort of. ;-) One end of each soap molecule is hydrophobic (water repelling) and the other is hydrophilic (water loving). Soap molecules attract both oil and water.
Pioneers saved their fat scraps and rendered them. They saved suet, and any leftover fat such as bacon fat or from cooking meat and roasts. When they'd collected enough, they dripped water through wood ashes they'd saved, and the water that dripped through the ashes was lye. They judged the strength of the lye (pH level) by placing a fresh egg in the container of lye. If it floated, or went straight to the bottom, the solution needed to be adjusted.
In modern soapmaking, I still use lye, but it's from a plastic bottle. And I've used everything from Crisco to olive oil to saved bacon grease to make soap. Interesting thing to do.
And to make glycerin soap that's transluscent like Neutrogena--you have to use alcohol that is minimum 90 proof.
I know the man at the liqur store doubts my sincerity when I tell him I use it to make soap. Might have something to do with walking in the store and asking, "Where is your cheapest whiskey and vodka?"
Coney's book also includes instructions for making that whiskey soap. ;-)