No Water or Lye Listed? What Gives?

Dear Soapman,

I am a long-time fan of Vermont Soap but one thing perplexes me. How is it that your ingredient labels never list water or lye in the ingredients? Is this legal? What gives?


A Friend and Fan but Curious

Dear Curious Friend,

Thanks for writing and for a terrific question.

All true soaps, whether liquid, bar, gel or foam are made from oils which make you dirty, turned into soap which makes you clean. To make this wondrous transformation, both water and an alkali (lye for short) are used. The scientific word for this entire process is called Saponification. Thus soap is made from saponified oils.

A History Lesson: Way back in 1992 a fledgling Vermont Soap made a nice baby washing bar soap as one of its first offerings. The label listed both water and sodium hydroxide (lye). Almost the next day the phone rang and your favorite Soapman got an earful about diluting the soap with water for rampant profiteering and adding lye to the soap just to be mean to little babies. Phew!

At the time there was a tiny little two person soap company called Once Sapon a Thyme. They were probably the first ever to use the phrase “Saponified oils of” (palm, coconut, olive, etc.). The Soapman tracked them down and asked permission to use this phrase at Vermont Soap and for our soon to be many Private Label clients.

Twenty years later the Consumer Products Safety Council  was asked to rule on this new soap ingredient labeling format. In their ruling they noted that “At present over 100 companies appear to use this format”, and that it was now considered a normal industry standard. No change was required.  At this time it is still not required to list water.  While we do use sodium hydroxide in the saponification of oils, no detectable sodium hydroxide is left in the final product when it is done the way we do it. In other words, sodium hydroxide is a processing aid that turns oils which make you greasy into soap which makes you clean.

The lesson in this story is that it IS possible for a SMALL pioneering organization like Vermont Soap to have a BIG impact nationally in their field. And YOU CAN TOO!

Thanks for asking,


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