How Lye Becomes Soap
When caustic becomes clean.
The saponification process: fat and lye become soap and glycerin.
“Let me get this straight, you want me to wear gloves and eye protection, and then I’ll use what we make on my skin?!?” The first time I made soap, I was a touch wary. The warnings about lye are serious – the words “chemical burn” are not ones I wish to be associated with. But I truly enjoyed watching these two somewhat disgusting substances (rendering tallow is not a fun experience) become something useful (see Easy Homemade Soap) – and, as usual, that led me to find out exactly how this was possible.
In order to understand how lye and grease make soap, you first need to understand how soap works. A soap molecule has a “head” that likes water and a “tail” that likes fat. Soap works by grabbing fat – the oils and soil you want to wash off – with one end and attaching to water with the other. Voila, dirt and soap and water all down the drain (see illustration below).
As for making this grime fighter, let’s start with the components: Chemically, you could think of the tallow (a nice name for beef fat) that you make into soap as three long legs (fatty acids) held together by a glycerol cap (this combination is a “triglyceride”). And lye is made up of sodium, hydrogen and oxygen (sodium hydroxide), which splits apart when dissolved in water. When the tallow is heated with dissolved lye, the cap separates from the legs. The sodium from the lye goes with the legs to form soap, while the hydrogen and oxygen together join with the cap to become glycerin. This process is called saponification (see illustration above). The sodium end of the soap molecule spends its time wishing for water, while the tail is just waiting for more fat to join the party.