I run across people all the time that ask questions about the lye in our handmade soaps. Some come away with a new understanding of soap making, others just turn up their nose. :-)
Lye is essential to the art of soap making. It has been used for literally thousands of years to make various kinds of soap across every continent. Handmade soap has its origins in ancient history.
Although it is believed by many that soap's history actually began around 2800 B.C. in Babylonia (where historians found a barrel containing a soap-like substance), undeniable proof of soap's existence was first provided by a Mesopotamian clay tablet dating back to 2200 B.C. with an actual soap recipe inscribed on it. The ancient soap making technique described mixing potash and oils to form a cleansing agent.
It's almost a given that Egyptians would also make some type of soap or cleanser. Egyptian manuscripts describe a substance created by combining animal fats and vegetable oils to create a soap-like base. The documents from approximately 1500 B.C. go on to explain another type of soap that is used in the production of wool.
Around 200 A.D. the ancient Greeks were said to have used an ash mixture to clean their statues and pots. The Gauls and Romans also made soap with animal fat, beech tree ashes and Goat's Milk. The goat's milk seems to have been their favorite, and I can understand why! They made both hard and soft soap products.
Today, soap is made from vegetable or animal fats and an alkali.
In the past however, people made their own soap from animal tallow and wood ashes.
Regardless of who first created the concoction, it was undoubtedly used in Rome. This is an established fact because a soapmaker's shop was discovered within the rubble of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Romans often used soap as a cosmetic. It was quite popularwith the ladies, for they used it to dye their hair red. Plant extracts were probably used to acquire this color.
By 600 A.D. soap making guilds were formed and the modern formula for the soap that we use today was created.
The Hebrews used a salt base when creating their cleanser. This salt, used in a similar manner by many ancient cultures, could be found quite easily in their local lakes. They used the salt to create the alkali called for in the recipes.
By the eighth century, it is documented that there were soap factories in Italy and Spain. It was not until the twelfth or thirteenth century that this industry was embraced by France. France then passed on the tradition to England. The French made their soaps almost exclusively from olive oil, while the English delved into many different kinds of soap.
The Industrial Revolution forever changed the commercial production of soap. People stopped making it at home and started buying it from a catalog or store. Although, poor people did still make their own soap from wood ash and animal fats.
Today, lye is a product on the "hit list" because it is used in methanphetamine production. You can't just buy it at the store like we did 30 years ago. It must be ordered or bought from a supplier with plenty of paperwork to go along with it! But, it's still possible to make your own inexpensive and all-natural soap at home. You can make it from scratch with lye and soybean, coconut or olive oils, or you can order a rebatching base from a reputable supplier.
Either way, natural glyercin soaps are the way to go! Commercial soaps are more detergent than moisturizer these days. Vegan or at the very least, all natural, ingredients are best. Make your own soap or buy from soap-makers like me -- and be kind to your skin!