Marketing smokescreen: why is it that soap cannot be made without lye

Originally posted on 12 May 2007

As Patrizia Garzena & Marina Tadiello explain in their Soap Naturally book, the idea of making soap without lye is an urban myth, possibly started for marketing reasons by snake oil-style soap vendors.
Some of them claim their soap is made from a root, or a herb, or some other vegetable material. While a number of botanicals contain natural compounds, called saponins, which behave a bit like soap, saponins are not necessarily of natural/botanical origin. And even when they are of natural and vegetable origin, saponins can be much harsher on the skin and in the environment than lye itself.
No less importantly, any soap-like substance that was not made from lye and oils could not correctly, or even legally, be described as soap.
So if you are keen to make natural soap without lye, there is really only one path you can follow: which is, you can buy some handmade soap base and then rebatch it as explained here. Soap that is properly made, in fact, will not contain any lye by the time it is ready for use. And you can be assured that as natural as possible handmade soap is the gentlest, purest, perfect choice both for your skin, and for the environment.
Oh – and if someone was still insisting they can make soap without lye… now you know they are lying!!
Note added June 2013: Patrizia & Marina’s Soap Naturally book is no longer in print. But its new, even better incarnation is available! Head over to Demetra Publishing’s Website to find out all about their new Making Soap Naturally book series.

When is Soap natural?

Today’s cosmic question:

I have a simple question, when is a soap natural.

For example with sodium hydroxide, fragrance etc. Surely these are not natural.

Interesting and important question, which requires all but “simple” answers.

Firstly- “natural” has (sadly) become such an ambiguous and controversial term, that I cannot answer unless its meaning is better qualified. What does “natural” refer to in this context, and what do you mean by “natural”?

For example, sodium hydroxide “naturally” reacts with fatty acids to give soap. This seems to me to contradict your conclusion that making soap with sodium hydroxide (if I understand correctly what you are saying) is not natural.

And if not natural refers to fragrance etc., we would first need to better qualify and describe what “fragrance” one could be using, and what “etc’s” were they planning to add to the soap.

In short, the best answer I can give to this Cosmic Question, is to recommend that you refer to the Soap Naturally book. In my opinion, this book contains enough information for each of us to decide whether and how we can make as natural as possible soap to our own liking. And, of course, (although not so “obviously” for a number of people, I found), I suggest that, at the very minimum, you actually read Chapters 1, 2 and 5 of this book.

May the Soap Bubble Fairy inspire and purify your thoughts!

Cosmic Questions

In the ten years or so I’ve been connecting with other people on the Internet, I have received something like twenty thousand email enquiries about “natural” skincare, handmade soap, or some other topic that can be broadly classified as pertinent to sustainable choices for personal and household products.

For the vast majority, these queries appear to come from people who have an honest and perfectly legitimate desire of better understanding these issues. However, some of the questions I have been asked were “questionable” at the very minimum -if not decidedly suss.

As so many other negative behaviours, both on the ‘net and in real life, suss queries seem to be enjoying vast popularity. So does the number of shonky “customers” I find myself dealing with -and it’s probably silly of me to keep listening and doing my best to answer…

But anyway, the time seems to have come for me to start collecting the most interesting, strange, provocative and outrageous questions people ask me, and publish them in a new category of this Blog journal, called Cosmic Questions. I hope this will both contribute to the general knowledge about natural soap, chemical-free skincare and sustainable options, and maybe also raise a few smiles…

And on a side note -I’ll have to better qualify what I mean by natural and sustainable one of these days!

Suss: Australian slang for suspect or suspicious, fishy.

Shonky: Australian slang for less than transparent, somewhat dishonest, fishy.

Making palmless soap: how to replace palm oil in handmade soap

So here is the angle that is closest to our soaper’s hearts: palm oil is NOT NEEDED in handmade soap. Not only it can be “substituted” – it can be avoided altogether, by designing and re-writing soap recipes starting from those oils that are easiest to find and locally available.
This means that the actual formulas would change from country to country, but there are a few general suggestions, which you might find useful:

  1. TALLOW is an improvement on palm oil, if there are no “vegetable only” constraints. And I mean “improvement” also in that it gives better soap than palm oil.
  2. OLIVE OIL gives far superior soaps to palm oil. Olive oil soaps only require sufficient curing times to turn as hard as palm-based soaps, and I have actually found that olive oil soaps have far superior durability and lathering qualities than palm-based soaps. Olive oil bar soap also gives better “melted soaps” for the kitchen and the laundry – “better” both because it has better cleaning power, and because it behaves better in these melted versions.
  3. A number of so called cheap FILLERS (unsaturated vegetable oils) are available for those who want to keep their costs down. It might be worth mentioning again that keeping the cost down with natural handmade soaps is much more a matter of optimising production and avoiding unnecessary waste, than scrimping and saving on the cost of raw materials. And this, of course, with apologies to the few truly ethical and responsible suppliers in the world, such as Rebecca, of Aromatics & More in New Zealand, and Anne of Anne Lee’s in North Carolina.

There are many more suggestions on how and what to substitute for palm oil in the Soap Naturally book, where those who want to know more can especially refer to Chapter 5, Creating your own unique soaps.

More on palm oil: are ethical options easily and readily available?

It is of course possible to resort to “more ethical” sources for common soapmaking oils such as palm oil, just to mention the one that seems to be winning the title of Most Eco-UnFriendly. It is a sad fact, however, that eco-friendliness, workers’ health and safety, sustainability and other “general good” considerations do not fit in with the business goals of any of the large public companies (corporations) that either produce, or import/export, or distribute, or market, or otherwise handle products and commodities coming from overseas for the retail market. Given these restraints, choosing organically certified/fair trade palm oil does not guarantee per se a better future, unless one has direct and immediate control on the overseas sources. One example of an authentically more ethical alternative to corporate palm oil (the kind that requires forest destruction and orangutan extinction) is when a group of consumers get together in an informal “buying group (co-operative)”, and appoint a qualified co-ordinator to organise the purchase of ethically grown, organic palm oil directly from the local producers. And yet even in this case, the necessity of transporting the raw material from the production area to the co-ordinator, and then from the co-ordinator to individual members of the buying group, might add unnecessary levels of complexity and misuse of energy resources.
A much better way to improve our options for a saner future, is to choose local products. I have always found it a bit of a mystery how palm oil is considered “indispensable” for soap in a country like Australia, where so many other, just-as-good and locally produced oils are available.
It seems to me that the only sensible explanation for pushing consumption of palm oil, in this context, is that palm oil production can be carried out by the industry players in countries where land costs, workforce costs, environmental and human health costs are so outrageously cheap, that long-distance transport and storage are basically the only costs affecting the final price of the product.
And for large companies that use palm oil as the raw material for consumer goods, this is a fantastically “good deal”, and a good enough reason to invest in the marketing of “more ethical alternatives”.
Palm oil in soap is not needed, and we can all contribute to a better environment if we learn how to do without it.

Palm oil, the orangutan and TV lies

Originally posted on Saturday, 20 January 2007

It has been interesting to follow the developments of the debate on whether palm oil can be considered an “acceptable” soapmaking oil. As shown on TV, if we want orangutans to survive, we must immediately stop buying anything containing palm oil.
Apparently, some Australian TV station recently broadcast a documentary, denouncing how orangutans have become endangered due to unethical palm “farming” practices. Not owning a TV, I did not see the show, but I have been witnessing how the waves from that piece of Australian “news” are rippling through the vast international audiences of several soapmaking mailing list. Dozens of well-meaning (albeit mis-informed) Aussie soapers and supposedly eco-conscious activists have promptly reacted to the documentary by launching a (quite vicious) campaign against “those terrible soaps made by some, which contain bad palm oil, which kills those poor, lovely orangutans”. As if the consequences of “corporate farming” practices – the economically rational, multicultural, politically correct answer to global markets and increasingly rampant consumerism – stopped with the orangutans. I for one am willing to bet that the poor orangutans would have probably been wiped out altogether, by the time the documentary was watched (and exploited) in Australia in late 2006.The question whether palm oil is indeed a more ethical option than animal fats, which it traditionally replaces in (oh so trendy) “vegetable only” soaps, is in fact several years old. More tropical forests and a larger number of orangutans could have been saved, if a sufficiently representative group of (so called) eco-conscious soapers stopped to listen and act years ago, when a few of us tried to raise awareness on the destruction of tropical forests caused by galloping demands for cheap farmland, yielding cheap raw materials for personal (as well as industry) uses.
Every year for over thirty years now, millions of hectares of jungle have been “reclaimed”, “redeveloped” and replaced by intensive farming schemes. With our support to consumerism and fast food, we have all contributed to the destruction. And those who now, by pointing the finger at palm oil users “because they kill orangutans”, insist on one small aspect of a much bigger problem, are not really doing much to reverse the destructive trend that threatens the whole world – at least as we know it.
Within the broader context of “responsible choices”, replacing palm oil is certainly a sensible step towards sustainable soapmaking. How to do it is the subject of my next article.

Mount Sapo: historical myth about soap

Historical lie: Mount Sapo, or the myth of the discovery of soap in Roman times

Originally posted on Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Several sources maintain that soap was first discovered at a place called Mount Sapo (or Mount Sappo), located in or nearby Rome. Most contemporary (Internet) soapmakers believe this Roman legend explains the origins of soap. But they are wrong – or rather, they have been wronged by misinformed marketing media.

According to the Roman legend myth (where “myth” is the correct name for the historical lie it covers), soap was first discovered at a place called Mount Sapo (or Mount Sappo), located in or nearby Rome. Here goes the popular “Roman legend”: While pouring out into the river the dirty ash-laden water where they had washed their laundry, a group of Roman washerwomen noticed a lathery scum develop where their discarded waters met the fat-laden waters coming from the cleaning of a sacrificial altar.

In some versions, the washerwomen were kneeling at the river’s edge, rubbing their laundry with fireplace ashes, while a High Priestess at the nearby temple was wiping down the grease that had stuck to the altar after one of the animal sacrifices, which were so popular back in those times. So when the grease met the ash-laden waters, a rich lather developed, and everybody immediately recognised soap – with the Latin word for soap, sapo, being chosen as a toponimical from the name of the place all this was going on: Mount Sapo (or Mount Sappo according to some “experts”).

This story is pictoresque, romantic, and completely fantastic. And yet, it sounds so perfectly “true” in our media-numbed society, that even the American Soap And Detergent Association has been (incredibly) reporting it as “The Origins of Soap”!

There are several details that give away the Mount Sapo story as not being historically reliable. In particular,

  1. There is no Mount Sapo or Mount Sappo in or around Rome, nor there has ever been.
  2. It is not enough for fats and fireplace ashes to occasionally and surreptitiously meet in the waters of a river, for them to produce soap.
  3. According to Roman historians, “sapo” (the Latin word for soap) was a product used by the Germans as a hair dye. It is not clear whether “sapo” was the Latin translation of the Celtic term, “saipo”, or vice-versa.

An honest history of soap, with documented reference sources and the acknowledgement that the annals of history do not seem to satisfy all possible questions, is included in the book Soap Naturally – Ingredients, methods and recipes for natural handmade soap (Patrizia Garzena, Marina Tadiello), which is recommended reading for anybody who is serious about making good soap.

Soap myths, misnomers and marketing hype about soap

Soap myths, misnomers and marketing hype: What a lot of people say about soap, which is NOT true!

Originally posted on Friday, 22 December 2006

If you have been involved in any way in the huge revival of handmade soapmaking that followed the Internet boom, you would have heard at least one of a number of rumours about soap – including, among others, very devious and unqualified “information” about glycerin and Castile soap, lye, the history of soapmaking, soap ash and fireplace ashes… and so on.

The trouble with rumours is that, if they are repeated long and loud enough, even those who initially recognise them as plain lies might eventually be tricked into believing they are true. And when false rumours become the accepted truth, there is no end to the damage we all can suffer as a consequence.  So I would like to expose here the most common soapmaking myths and misnomers, in the hope that bringing them out in the open and explaining why they are lies, will help us all discover true soap and avoid unnecessary problems :-)

Each myth, misnomer, piece of romantic folklore, marketing hype or other kind of mis-information deserves a separate article. New articles will appear as I write them, so you can bookmark here the permanent link to this Topic Index and come back at any time to check out new updates. If you prefer, you can subscribe to the RSS feed to be kept up to date with any new articles appearing in this online soapmaking journal.


  1. Historical lie: the myth of the discovery of soap in Roman times
  2. Marketing smokescreen: why is it that soap cannot be made without lye
  3. Bad memories: did our grannies really make soap by boiling ashes?

Favourite soap recipes

Originally posted on Monday, 18 December 2006
What makes a particular soap recipe a favourite? Evidently, the answer is personal. If someone asked me, my answer would include considerations about sustainability and biodegradability, as well as “personal appeal” characteristics (colour, smell) and, of course, skin-friendliness.
What is that you look for in a bar of soap?

Soapers in Wonderland

Originally posted on Sunday, 17 December 2006

Welcome to soapmaking heaven. We started this blog Internet journal for soapmaking beginners, hobbyists, addicts and professionals who want to connect with people who make and teach soap for a living. Follow us in our experiments and online lessons!

You can use this blog journal as a cribsheet for your experiences in making soap. Whether you have none, some or heaps, here you’ll always find something inspiring, stimulating, smart, interesting, unusual, ground-breaking, innovative, useful or simply good to know.

Browse this blog journal using the navigation links in the menu on right:

  • Under “soapmaking”, we are listing links to external sites that describe how to make, use and improve your soap
  • Listed under Categories are links to previous posts and comments
  • If you would like to contribute, tell us what you think or ask us a question, you can do so by clicking on the Comment link for this, or any other posts you would like to comment upon.

Happy browsing from the Natural Handmade Soap Fairies.