No Lie... No Lye... No, Lye.

This post was originally a part of my commentary on Allafia's Everyday Shea Vanilla Mint Shampoo, for me Part III 2012 Faves. I got to writing, one thing led to another and...this post was born. I hope you find it useful!

One of my favorite shampoos contains lye. Yes, lye as in sodium hydroxide. Lye as in your granny's OG perm kit. Lye as in what burned Malcolm X when he got his 'conk'. Allafia's Everyday Shea Vanilla Mint Shampoo contains lye. Now, before you get all up in arms over what I'm about to say, just remember that I used an entire 32 ounce bottle of this product without any adverse affects. The shampoo has a relatively short ingredient list, a rarity for any hair product these days (unless you make it yourself). Here is the ingredient list:

Liquid Shea Butter Soap (Aqueous Shea Leaf (Butyrospermum parkii) Extract, Saponified Shea (Butyrospermum parkii) Butter* (and) Virgin Coconut (Cocos nucifera) Oil), Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Decyl Polyglucose, Spearmint Essential Oil.

Most consumers would see shea and shea butter, and completely ignore the words soap and saponified. Clearly, there is some cleansing/foaming agent at work -- the shampoo produces suds like every other. So I went to work, researching what saponification is. Turns out, soaps cannot be made without sodium or potassium hydroxide aka lye. Yes, lye as in relaxers. In fact, the FDA will not allow a product to be labeled or marketed as a soap if it does not "consist mainly of an alkali salt of fatty acids". An alkali salt of fatty acids is the term used to describe the end result of reacting oils and fats together with lye (sodium or potassium hydroxide). Now, once I discovered this, I did what any inquiring mind would do -- I called Allafia. Here's how that conversation went:

Representative: Thank you for calling Allafia...[says something alluding to fair trade cooperatives and whatnot], how may I help you?
Me: Hi, I recently purchased your Everyday Shea Vanilla Mint Shampoo. And while I love your product, I just have a question about one of the ingredients.
Representative: Of course, what's your question?
Me: I see one of your ingredients is saponified shea butter. It is my understanding that saponification involves using lye. Is that true of your products?
Representative: No, we don't use lye in our products at all!
Me: Oh, that's good to know. Could you tell me what you use to saponify the shea butter instead of lye?
Representative: Sure, no problem. Do you mind if I place you on hold for a second while I ask?
Me: Not at all.
[2 - 3 minutes of silence transpire]
Representative: Hello ma'am? I wasn't able to find out what is used instead of lye, I was just told that we don't use it.
Me: Really? Okay, well thank you.

Clearly, that conversation yielded me nothing. Since they offered me no viable alternatives, I am forced to continue to believe they utilize lye in their products -- until further notice. However, with further research, I am comfortable with the utilization of lye in creating soaps that go into shampoos for two reasons: #1 the concentration/amount of lye used is quite minuscule. #2 when lye is combined with oils/fats (like shea butter), it creates glycerin. Yes, glycerin, the lovely humectant packed into your favorite moisturizing products. Therefore, it can't be so bad...right?

The next time you're in Target, check out different shampoos and body wash liquids and bars. Chances are, they're made with the same chemically-derived, synthetic detergents and foaming agents. Legally, they can't even call themselves soaps, for this very reason. As we learned in the paragraph above, when soaps are created, glycerin is the byproduct. The glycerin is often removed and sold to cosmetic companies, or used by the same company to create lotions, conditioners, and other moisturizers. Ain't that something?! They create the product that strips your hair, then turn right around and use a byproduct of that stripping agent to create the conditioner/moisturizer you need to restore your hair's balance. Talk about raking it in at both ends!

I say all this to say that yes, I do believe the Everyday Shea Vanilla Mint Shampoo by Allafia contains lye. But after doing my research, I can say that I'm okay with it. After all, the proof is in how it treated my hair.

Do any of your favorite hair cleansers contain saponified ingredients? How have they worked on your hair?


  1. I use the coconut/lavender bar from Darcy's Botanicals.
    My hair loves the stuff.

  2. It's actually probably potassium hydroxide, which is lye's cousin that is almost identical to it. Like Patty and Cathy on the Patty Duke Show, remember that? It's slightly more gentle and tends to create a softer soap which is easier to become liquid. I know this from making liquid soaps myself.

  3. Very informative, thanks! I think I'll skip this product.

  4. If your reason in skipping this product is because it contains lye, there is absolutely no point. Whatever soap you use will always contain lye. Lye is a required ingredient to make soap. Go to Wholefoods and look through all of their soaps. Anything that says saponified or soap, as the author stated, requires lye. Dr. Bronner's Castile soap is...surprise, surprise...made with lye. The chemical name for lye is "sodium hydroxide" (NaOH) and "potassium hydroxide" (KOH). You will find sodium hydroxide in all bar soaps and potassium hydroxide in all liquid soaps. And yes, those organic-based soaps will ALWAYS have lye as an ingredient, because lye is the ingredient needed to make soap.

    If you wanted to use a product that didn't have soap, then you would be using a detergent. A detergent is a surfactant or mixture of surfactants. Surfactants have some soap-like characteristics, one of which is the ability to lather. You're familiar with sulfates, correct (not so fun to use for many people due to its nature of stripping the natural moisture/oils from skin and hair)? Well all those bar and liquid "soaps" (and I use quotation marks because you can never make a soap without lye by definition) that use a surfactant as its lathering agent, actually use sulfate. Surfactants often times are the cheap method that large companies use to make "soap" i.e. dishwashing liquid, shampoo, body wash liquids. But these products are not soap. And often times, these surfactants can irritate the skin (not all, as it does depend on which surfactant is used).

    I would suggest that you read up a little on soap and the lye ingredient. Lye may be perceived as super harmful because of its caustic nature. But read up on the ingredient and its interaction with water and fats that is the process (known as saponification) to make soap. Chemistry is very interesting. It's fascinating to learn about the basic God-given chemicals on this planet and the chemistry of the combination of different chemicals to get the various products that we use on a daily basis. The things that make you go "hmmm".

  5. All soap is made from lye (potassium or sodium hydroxide). The exception is 100% pure black soap made in African villages from ashes. The issue with Alaffia is not so much them using lye but lying about it. They do a lot of greenwashing to cover up a lot of their ingredients or to make themselves seem better than they are. For example, the first ingredient of their moisturizers is usually shea leaf extract. This essentially means that they took one or more leaves and "maybe" boiled it in a bunch of water and strained it just like making tea. The first ingredient is actually water and shea leaf would be at the bottom of their ingredient list, but they put it up on the top and never mention water at all. This is unethical and unfair to companies who list their ingredients according to the law. If they are ever called out by the FDA they are going to have some major issues. I would never buy from a company that is so dishonest.

    1. My husband's grandmother use to make 'lye' soap, as they called it, and it was quite harsh. The 100% pure black soap made in African villages from ashes is probably much like the pioneer soap that my husband's grandmother made--I'm guessing--but I bet it's not harsh due to a better understanding of chemistry and knowing the SAP value of various oils/butters. His grandmom, just as in those in Africa, used ash from hardwood (potash) but back then making lye water from ash was not consistent like commercial lye is today. Potash (ashes) from burned hardwood "IS" lye, Potassium Hydroxide so (politely stating) the African village soap also is made with Lye. Way back then the process of making lye from ashes and then making soap often rendered a very harsh soap. LoL, when I told my sister-in-law I was going to start making our own soap (due to my allergies not liking ANY AND ALL store bought soaps) she tried to warn me NOT TO DO THIS and proceeded to explain why--'lye.' She really was insistent on me NOT DOING IT. The thing is, and I could not convince her, that no lye is left after saponification as the lye (a base) reacts with the oils (acids) to form soap (which is a salt). The chemical reaction--saponification--is better understood these days than back then. Using a good lye calculator allows us to know how much lye (potassium hydroxide/potash or sodium hodroxide/caustic soda) is needed in order to produce soap that is not lye-heavy which is what old time soap was, lye-heavy, making the soap harsh. If one does all things properly there is no lye after making soap for all the lye has bonded with the oils/butters and undergoes the chemical reaction to produce the soap (base+acids=salt). Unless one super fats their soap there is no oils/butter left after saponification; super fatting 'can' be used to be certain that all the lye has joined/bonded with the oils to prevent lye-heavy soap. This is kind-of 'wiggle room' but finding and using a good lye/soap calculator does make soaping fun and easy AND with the proper PH--I do the 'zap test' by placing my tongue against the soap (LOL). I am loving the soaps I've made and my husband doesn't want to go back to store bought bars; he says there is no comparison. Oh, and I have just now purchased a PH tester for my soaps but I will still do the zap test as it is a sure thing when checking for heavy lye.

  6. I emailed the company yesterday and got back this slightly more in-depth response, if anyone else is googling around like I was:

    Laura Silverman (Alaffia)

    Nov 14, 10:36 PST

    Good Morning Mary,

    Thank you for taking the time to contact us at Alaffia. I am glad to assist with your questions on our shampoos.

    The majority of our shampoos do contain a natural soap base - as you note, this is shown in the ingredient list a Saponified Butyrospermum parkii (Shea) Butter and Cocos nucifera (Coconut) Oil, which indicates these two oils were cooked together to form the final soap. Our natural soap is made by heating handcrafted shea butter and coconut oil, then adding ash extract as a catalyst to create the saponification action. No lye or harsh chemicals are used at any point during the process of making this soap.

    As such, the final product is a very gentle soap that should not be harsh or stripping to the hair in any way. Because of the soap contained, the majority of our shampoos do have a high pH level, and we would just recommend using any of our conditioners after washing to restore the proper pH balance to the hair.

    We do produce one shampoo specifically formulated for curly hair as well as dry/damaged hair, and this product does not contain any true soap ingredients. Please feel free to view this item at This will contain a mild surfactant (foaming agent) to help cleanse the hair.

    I hope this information is helpful, and please don't hesitate to contact us with any additional questions you may have.

    Laura Silverman

    Lead Customer Service Representative

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