The history of lye is actually rather short, even though soap has been in existence since 2800 B.C. Lye, as we know it, was not created until sometime in the early 1800’s by a chemist named Nicholas LeBlanc. He synthesized a solution of sodium hydroxide, which is what we refer to as lye. This new lye quickly became the standard for making soap and making it affordable. Prior to this time sodium hydroxide did not even exist. In the 1860’s, the process of making the sodium hydroxide was improved upon. The Solvay Method replaced the method developed by Mr. LeBlanc.
Prior to this time other alkalis were used. Some of these were items like limestone or salts. In the early expansion of the United States. I know that the lye was not a common item to carry across the country. So our forefathers made lye by running water through wood ash. By doing this they could extract the lye from the potash. This was quite an undertaking as you would not know the strength of the lye that was being made. And lye can be very harsh on the skin. The lye that they made would depend on the type of wood that was being used, the harder the better.
Lye is a very caustic material. When mixed with water, it puts off a poisonous gas and get very warm (180 to 200 degrees). I mix mine outdoors so that it dilutes into the air. In most hand soaps on the market today, there are very few that are true soaps. Most are detergents that are mostly made from chemicals that I can’t read. I can figure out some of them, but vast majority I cannot.
Today when I make my soap for Grampy’s Soap Business www.grampyssoapbusiness.com, I use a lye calculator to know how much lye I need to use to convert the oils and fats into soap. I find it fascinating to watch this process happen. And it does very quickly. Most people who make soaps at home use some form of a calculator. This ensures that the lye is used up in the soap making process. When the product is ready to sell, there is no lye in the soap. So feel safe in knowing that what you are using will not harm you in any way.