Calculating Lye (not lies)

For anybody new out there (if there is anybody at all, and I’m not just shouting into the abyss), I’ve been making my own soap for almost a year, and I wax poetic about it in another post.

Before homemade soap, I was plagued with folliculitis, or infected hair follicles that made summer bikini season a truly uncomfortable three months. Add in chlorinated pool water, ocean water, sun, and sand, and you had a recipe for disaster.

NOTHING worked. Sterilizing razors, waxing, laser hair removal…the folliculitis continued undeterred. Then, I switched from traditional soaps and body washes to my own soap, and like the first spring sunshine in Seattle after a long wet winter, the clouds parted and my bumps went away. Just like that. I was dumbfounded.

I’ve been using a wonderful coconut oil only recipe:

33 oz. coconut oil

12 oz. water

5.90 oz. lye (NaOH)

Essential oils (I use tea tree oil for disinfecting purposes and whatever pleases me for smell…mostly lavender, bergamot, or another citrusy smell)

The only problem with this recipe is that it tends to be drying. My fiancé won’t use it because he’s a Dove snob (despite the no doubt toxic sludge of chemicals added under the guise of “fragrance”, but I digress). So yesterday, in a fit of productivity, I decided to experiment a little.

A word of caution: experimenting with soap must be done carefully, due to the lye in soap. If you don’t experiment carefully, you may end up in the ER / in some Darwin Awards runner-up (stupid, but not dead) book.

Soap is basically a combination between oils / fats (moisturizing, stability, lather) and lye, which provides the cleaning power. Lye (NaOH or KOH) is a strong base. When you mix them together vigorously, the lye converts into soap, which is WHY the ratio is of crucial importance: unconverted lye remains a strong base that will cause burns and wreak other havoc upon you, you delicate flower!

I found this website. This basically takes all of the guesswork out of experimental soap making and is a next level genius maneuver for amateur soap artists everywhere.

I opted for this recipe:

25 oz coconut oil (because as anybody in ayurveda will tell you, coconut oil is god)

3 oz soybean oil

5 oz olive oil

5.40 oz lye

And then I used a little simple math (not complicated math) to figure out my water ratio using the tried and true soap recipe from above. A little cross-multiplication and presto-changeo, water amount.

Then, it’s business as usual! My next attempt I think will be cold-pressed soap, since right now, I use a crock pot to cook it for almost an hour before I mould it.

Ingredients (basic):

Oils (olive oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, canola oil, castor oil, almond oil…the sky’s the limit!)

Lye (found in smaller hardware stores, sold as a drain cleaner / meth production aid…make sure you get PURE LYE CRYSTALS, not just any drain cleaner, because otherwise, you’re meeting that same ER doctor as above)


Essential oils to taste


Immersion (stick) blender


Stainless steel spoon

Pot for the stove

Lots of bowls

Safety equipment (rubber gloves, safety goggles)

Bread pan (or soap mould)

Here’s the basic steps:

1. Measure out all of your ingredients into your mise on place bowls (same as if you were cooking).

2. Put any solid oils you’ve chosen to use in a pot on the stove and start heating gently.

3. Plug in the Crock-Pot and set it to low.

4. Proceed outside to a well-ventilated area, and veeerrrrryyyy carefully pour your lye crystals INTO your water. They will start to smoke (toxic fumes, so inhale as little as possible) and heat up, and when you stir the water to being almost clear, you’re done.

5. Add all of your oils to the Crock-Pot, making sure that they are about 110 degrees, give or take.

6. Gently pour in your lye/water mixture.

7. Now, you need to mix to “trace”. I use an immersion blender which TRUST ME is what you want. It’s so much faster. Otherwise you will be mixing for forty-three years. Trace is achieved when the mixture is opaque and resembles vanilla pudding if you added water to it. So, a thin pudding or gruel, but it should have some substance to it. If its opaque but still drips off the immersion blender when its removed, keep on blendin’.

8. Pop the lid on, set your timer, and then watch your pot with CONSTANT VIGILANCE. It can and WILL overflow and slime all over your kitchen counter, floor, etc. Then, not only do you lose soap, but your fiancé gets mad at you because now there is unfinished soap all over his counter. Fair enough. If you need to, you can stir and poke the soap down a little if its getting a little unruly.

9. Once the timer dings, test your soap. You want a neutral pH, and you can either use a pH strip (the civilized way of doing it) or you can put a little on your finger, let it cool (important step) and then touch it to your tongue. If there is unconverted lye, it will zap you. If it just tastes like that time you used the C word in front of your mother, you’re good.

10. Put it in a mould (I have a soap mould at home, and I use bread pans on the road) and let it cool!

11. Let it sit for four weeks before using it. I don’t do this. But I’m just telling you what the experts say.

Soap! So far, this soap is far more moisturizing and has not had any ill affects on my acne prone face skin.

♦ Stay cool, friends.

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