Classic Bells > Soapy stuff > Water in soap

Full water and other drippy myths

Soaping, like many crafts and professions, has its own lingo and traditions. Have you heard that beginners should only make "full water" soap and a "water discount" should only be used by the experts? Have you wondered what "water as % of oils" really means?

All three phrases relate to the amount of water used when making soap, but they are concepts that interfere with the goal of consistently making good soap. I want to explore these ideas and suggest better ways to choose the amount of water for more reliable soaping results.


Water as % of Oils

"Water as % of oils" is a method of calculating the amount of water based on the weight of fats in the recipe.

Most soap recipe calculators are set to a default of "38% water as % of oils." This means a soap recipe will have 38 grams (or 38 ounces) of water for every 100 grams (or 100 ounces) of fats.

The problem with using "water as % of oils" is that the amount of water in proportion to the fats is not particularly important. What is more important to the chemistry of saponification is the amount of water in proportion to the alkali (NaOH or KOH).

Water modifies how fast the alkali can attack the fat molecules.

If you want to slow the rate of saponification, use more water in proportion to the alkali. This is helpful for soap that has a lot of coconut, palm kernel, or babassu oil. Without enough water, soap with these fats is notorious for overheating and cracking and sometimes even overflowing the mold like lava from a volcano.

If you want to speed up the rate of saponification, use less water in proportion to the alkali. This is helpful for soap that has a lot of olive oil and similar liquid oils. With too much water, this type of soap can take forever to come to trace, the soap sometimes separates in the mold, and it can take ages to harden up before the soap can be removed from the mold.

Unfortunately, the math involved with the "water as % of oils" setting does exactly the opposite -- it calls for more water to be used with recipes that need less and vice versa.

Exercise 1: See how "water as % of oils" works

Open your favorite soap recipe calculator. And if you have not yet learned to use a soap calculator, now is the time to start. Soap recipe calculators....

Set up two simple soap recipes with just water, NaOH, and fat. One will use 100 grams (or ounces) of 100% coconut oil. The other one will use 100 grams (or ounces) of 100% olive oil. Use the default setting of "38% water as % of oils" for both. Leave the superfat at the default -- usually 5%.

Look for the total water weight in each recipe. You will see the two recipes call for the exact same grams (or ounces) of water -- it should be 38 grams (or ounces) for both.

Look for the "water:lye ratio" for both recipes. Compare these two numbers. Are they the same? If not, which recipe has the larger water:lye ratio?

As the number for the "water:lye ratio" gets bigger, that means there are more grams of water in the recipe for every gram of NaOH.

A water:lye ratio of 2 means 2 grams (or ounces) of water for every 1 gram (or 1 ounce) of NaOH.

A water:lye ratio of 3 means more water -- 3 grams (or ounces) of water for every 1 gram (or 1 ounce) of NaOH.

Which recipe has more water in proportion to the alkali (NaOH)? (Hint: It is the recipe with the higher water:lye ratio.)

Is this recipe the one that would benefit from more water to slow down saponification? (Hint: No, it's not!)


Full Water

"Full water" is the idea that there is a particular water content that is a standardized "benchmark" amount for making cold process (CP) soap. Unfortunately there is no consistent definition of what this "full water" benchmark really is.

Definition 1. One common definition of "full water" is the water weight that results if "38% water as % of oils" setting to calculate the water for for any blend of fats. Until recently, all of the soap recipe calculators on the internet and many books, tutorials, videos, and online forums use this "38% water as % of oils" as the norm, and many soap makers use this default setting for every recipe they make.

If you did Exercise 1 (above), you will know the results from "38% water as % of oils" range from a 3:1 water:lye ratio (25% lye concentration) for a 100% olive oil soap to 2.23 water:lye ratio (31% lye concentration) for a 100% coconut oil soap. This rule creates a lot of variation in the water-to-alkali content from recipe to recipe.

Definition 2. A second definition of "full water" is the water:lye ratio that results if "38% water as % of oils" is used to calculate the water for a classic "trinity" soap blend of 1/3 coconut oil, 1/3 olive oil, and 1/3 palm or lard. In this definition, the amount of water in proportion to alkali is about 2.57 water:lye ratio (28% lye concentration).

This consistency is an improvement over Definition 1, but the downside is that a 2.57 water:lye ratio is too much water for many soap recipes and that gets beginning soap makers in trouble. I give the reasons why in this table....

Less common definitions of "full water" discussed by respected soap makers include a 1:1 water:lye ratio (50% lye concentration) (2) and a 3:1 water:lye ratio (25% lye concentration) (3).

Kevin Dunn, author of Scientific Soapmaking, surveyed recipes in soap-making books published from the 1970s through the 2000s. Water:lye ratios in these recipes varied widely from 3.0 to 1.16 (lye concentrations from 25% to 37%). (1) Soap making authors obviously do not agree there is one "best" proportion of water to lye for making soap.


But won't more water in the lye solution be safer?

Some people believe the lye solution used for "full water" soaping is less dangerous because the alkali is diluted in more water. While there is truth in this idea for lye solutions under 9:1 water:lye ratio (under 10% lye concentration), soap makers do not use weak lye solutions like this. We use lye solutions that range from 3:1 to 1:1 water:lye ratio (25% to 50% lye concentration).

An NaOH or KOH solution at 3:1 water:lye ratio (25% lye concentration) is not any less risky than a solution at a 1:1 water:lye ratio (50% lye concentration). When a lye solution is anywhere within this concentration range, severe injury can happen within mere seconds. Be sure to use the same method of handling these lye solutions; wear the same kinds of eye, respiratory, and hand protection; and follow the same first aid treatment.


Water Discount

"Water discount" is the practice of using less water to make soap than the "full water" amount. You will hear soapers say, "I did a water discount of 10% for my last batch" or something like that. But if you do not know the "full water" basis from which the "water discount" is taken, this information is meaningless.


Better ways to calculate water -- lye concentration and water:lye ratio

When soapers ask for help, common complaints include the soap staying too soft for days after saponification, separating in the mold, weeping liquid, showing unsightly "glycerin rivers", overheating, cracking, and so on. Many are using "38% water as % of oils" to calculate their recipes, and this is one reason why these problems happen. These soapers would have fewer troubles if they would calculate the the water content based on the alkali weight.

There are two common ways to calculate water based on alkali. One is "water:lye ratio" and the other is "lye concentration."

The numbers forwater:lye ratio and lye concentration may look different, but they mean exactly the same thing mathematically. Pick the one that makes the most sense to you and stick with it.

Many soapers prefer water:lye ratio because it is more intuitive to non-chemist types. Higher water:lye ratio => More water

Because of my background in the chemical industry, it makes more sense to me to use lye concentration. Other sciency types might feel the same. Higher lye concentration => Less water

Remember -- Water:Lye Ratio and Lye Concentration mean exactly the same thing; they just look different. They are NOT mathematically the same as "Water as % of oils." You cannot easily translate a "Water as % of oils" percentage to either of the other two.

Here is a table that connects lye concentration and water:lye ratio with tips for choosing an appropriate lye concentration or water:lye ratio, if you need some suggestions to get started. It also shows how to calculate water:lye ratio and lye concentration as well as how to convert from one to the other.


As you gain more experience, you will develop your own preferences. Issues that may affect your choice of lye concentration include --

Food ingredients that cause soap to heat up -- Sugars (table sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc.), beer, food purees, etc.

Chemical accelerants -- Eugenol, a chemical found in clove essential oil, and some fragrances (many florals in particular)

Design plans -- Complicated swirls needing more working time versus simple swirls or uncolored soap that is faster to make

Temperature of ingredients -- Warmer ingredients tend to accelerate saponification

Intensity of mixing -- Stick blending or vigorous hand whisking tend to accelerate trace and saponification. Hand stirring with a spoon or spatula slows things down.


Exercise 2: See how lye concentration affects your soap making

If you are new to making soap, you might want to experiment a bit to see what lye concentration settings (or water:lye ratios) work best for you. Keep in mind that small changes in the water will make definite differences in your soap, so don't go crazy.

Using your favorite blend of soaping fats, calculate a recipe using 28% lye concentration (2.57 water:lye ratio), and make a batch of soap. See how the process goes and how the soap turns out.

Make a second identical batch except use 30% lye concentration (2.33 water:lye).

Make a third batch using 33% lye concentration (2.03 water:lye).

Evaluate the soap from the three batches. Some questions you might want to answer include --

Which recipe behaved best when you made the soap?
Did one recipe come to trace a lot faster or slower than the others?
Did the molded soap stay overly soft or was it firm fairly quickly?
Is there a difference in the appearance of the soap from the various batches?


Doesn't changing the lye concentration change the weight of the lye?

The alkali (lye) weight does not change if you change the "water as % of oils" setting, lye concentration, or water:lye ratio. These settings only change the amount of water in the recipe.

The alkali weight is determined by the kinds of fats in your recipe, the weight of those fats, and the superfat (lye discount) setting you choose. If those three things stay the same, the alkali weight stays the same too, no matter what you do to the settings for lye concentration or water:lye ratio or "water as % of oils".

Exercise 2 (above) asks you to create three soap recipes that are identical except for different lye concentrations (or water:lye ratios). If you compare these recipes, you will see the alkali weight for the recipes stays the same; only the water weight changes.

An analogy -- Mix 1 cup (250 milliliters) of sugar in 2 quarts (2 liters) of water, as if making a pitcher of Kool-Aid sweetened drink. This sugar-water mixture is going to be pleasantly sweet to drink. Next, mix 1 cup (250 mL) of sugar in just 1 pint (0.5 L) of water -- the SAME amount of sugar, but a lot less water. This mixture is going to taste much sweeter because the sugar is concentrated in less water.

In this analogy, the same amount of sugar is used with different amounts of water. Changing the lye concentration or water:lye ratio does the same thing -- the alkali (lye) stays the same; only the water changes.


In summary

If you start using lye concentration or water:lye ratio, you will learn that tweaking the water content a little higher or a little lower is just a normal adjustment to make, not something to be scared of.

Find the range of lye concentrations (or water:lye ratios) that works best for your personal soaping style and the kinds of soap you make. Enjoy your soaping!



Extra Credit. When did "water as % of oils" become the default way to calculate the water amount?

Soap making booklets and pamphlets dating to the early to mid 1900s do not explain how to calculate soap recipes. They just provide pre-made recipes.

When I checked soap making books published in the 1990s and 2000s, nearly all the authors based the water weight on the alkali weight, not on the weight of fat.

I have had no luck finding who first defined a "full water" as "38% water as % of oils," In the absence of definite information, I suspect the "water as % of fats" method was popularized by one of the earliest online soap recipe calculators. Soapcalc is the most likely possibility, in my opinion.


I believe soap recipe calculators first became available on the internet in the early 2000s. I checked the Wayback Machine for information about the age of Summerbeemeadow and SoapCalc, the oldest online calcs I know of.

The archves show the basic SummerBeeMeadow (SBM) recipe calculator (6) was first available on the company's website in mid 2002. The advanced SBM calc was added in early 2010. That basic version of the SBM calc was (and still is) very simple with no way to alter the water content.

I cannot tell if the early versions of the SBM calc used the "38% water as % of fats" rule, because websites archived on the Wayback Machine cannot do calculations and queries. The current-day basic and advanced SBM calcs do not allow the water content to be altered by the user. It appears they calculate the water content based on a 30% lye concentration.

The popular SoapCalc (7) was first archived on the Wayback Machine in 2009, so I presume this is when SoapCalc first became available on the internet. Even in its early incarnation, SoapCalc allowed the user to adjust the lye concentration and water:lye ratio, but the default for water content was the water-based-on-fat default of "38% water as % of oils."


The method of calculating water based on the alkali has been in use at least as long -- and probably longer -- than the "water as % of oils" method.

In 1995, Susan Miller Cavitch published The Natural Soap Book. She does not clearly explain how to calculate the amount of water in this book, but she does say the water content should be based on the amount of alkali,

"...Too little water won't bring the [sodium hydroxide] into solution, causing the final soaps to be brittle and dry. Too much water will add unnecessary moisture to the soaps, making them less lasting and too soft. ... Keep in mind that a formula is somewhat flexible with respect to the amount of water required to dissolve an amount of sodium hydroxide; acceptable amounts need not be exact, but rather fall within a range...." (4)

This book has no information about soap making on the internet except for the website addresses of some suppliers.

In her 1997 book The Soapmaker's Companion, Cavitch provides more detailed advice for calculating the water amount based on the alkali weight.

"...Most turn-of-the-century soap formulas use a 30 percent lye solution. Though the soapmaking process was very different then, 30 percent is still a good starting point.... First you calculate the amount of sodium hydroxide that you need, which depends entirely upon the amount of fats and oils and their SAP values.... Then you calculate the amount of water by dividing the weight of NaOH by three-tenths (.3). (9)

Companion, published just two years after The Natural Soap Book, is very much a child of the internet era. It contains an entire chapter about internet soap making forums, supplier websites, and online chat groups. Companion still says nothing about online soap recipe calculators, however, which suggests online calcs were not available in the late 1990s. (10)

In her book Making Transparent Soap, published in 2000, Catherine Failor explains how to calculate the amount of water based on the weight of alkali. She recommended using a 32.5% lye concentration (2.08 water:lye ratio) in her book.

"...all the recipes in this book have been calculated on the basis of a fairly standard-strength lye solution: 32.5 percent caustic soda to 67.5 percent water. Dividing 67.5 by 32.5 equals 2.08. That’s the constant you’ll use for the [caustic] soda/water solutions. If you multiply 13 ounces of dry caustic soda by 2.08, you’ll need 27 ounces of water (or a total of 40 ounces lye solution)...." (8)

Making Transparent Soap has a long list of suppliers including websites, but does not mention any soap recipe calculators.

In 2007, Anne L. Watson published Smart Soapmaking. Although the book gives clear, common sense instructions and recipes for making soap, the book is vague about how to calculate the water weight for a soap recipe.

Watson provided a list of five online recipe calculators in this book -- SoapCalc, Bramble Berry, Cranberry Lane, Majestic Mountain Sage, and Pine Meadows -- which shows a variety of soap recipe calculators were available to soap makers by the mid-2000s. (All of these calculators are still available for use as of the time of this writing.) (10)

Elizabeth Letcavage and Patsy Buck originally published Basic Soapmaking in 2009. Like Cavitch and Failor, these authors also advised soap makers to calculate the water based on the alkali weight.

"...multiply the weight of the lye by 2.5 to get the weight of water to be used. This is the mathematical formula: Lye x 2.5 = H2O. ... The 2.5 value is somewhat flexible, however. You may choose to use more or less, but remember that you must have enough water to dissolve the lye. Do not go below a multiplication factor of 2.0..." (5)

The water:lye ratio of 2.5 is the same as a lye concentration of about 28%. The water:lye ratio of 2.0 is a lye concentration of about 33%.

Although Basic Soapmaking includes a list of suppliers complete with website addresses, the book does not mention any online recipe calculators.


The Soap Making Forum got started in late 2006 and the first question about "water discount" was asked in March, 2007 (

Discussions on this topic since the beginning clearly show the water-based-on-alkali method was often used by soapmakers to determine the water content in their recipes. Many of these soapmakers are as skeptical as I am about the usefulness of "full water" and "water discount" as well as "water as % of oils" --

A comment in a 2008 thread-- "...Most soapers consider a 33% lye solution a discount...."

A comment from a 2009 thread -- "...I like talking in terms of lye solutions over the term 'water discount' because water discounts are quite a hazy, inconsistent animal in comparison to lye solutions for me...."

A second poster in this same thread explained, "...saying something like "I use a 34% water discount" could be interpreted several different ways...."

A comment from another 2009 thread -- "...I recommended to ... that she try not using the default - Water as a % of Oils - on SoapCalc, but rather try a batch using a Lye Concentration of 33%...."

And here is a gem from a third 2009 thread -- "...'Full water' is a nonsense term - it simply means using the default amount of water recommended by the calculator, and different calculators recommend different amounts. 'Discount' is the other nonsense term - because it means discounting (as in reducing) the amount of water, and the % discount is impossible to know unless you know the starting point, but since different calculators have different default amounts..."



(1) Dunn, K. Scientific Soapmaking. Clavicula Press. 2010. pg 293-294.

(2) Lindberg, Clara. Lye calculation using a saponification chart -- Tutorial. See the section headed "What about the water?" Auntie Clara's Handcrafted Cosmetics.

(3) Kenna. How to better understand water discounts when you make soap. See the section headed "The Most Common Lye Solution Strengths in Soapmaking." Modern Soapmaking.

(4) Cavitch, S M. The Natural Soap Book. Storey Publishing. 1995. pg 53-54.

(5) Letcavage, E, and Buck, P. Basic Soapmaking. Stackpole Publishing. 2009. pg 98-101 and 126.

(6) SummberBeeMeadow soap recipe calculator. This calc has been active from 2017 to current day at this URL: Calc was active from 2001 through 2017 at this URL:

(7) SoapCalc soap recipe calculator. This calc has been active from 2009 to the current day at this URL:

(8) Failor, Catherine. Making Transparent Soap: The art of crafting, molding, scenting & coloring. Storey Publishing. 2000. pg 75 and 178-190.

(9) Cavitch, S M. The Soapmaker's Companion. Storey Publilshing. 1997. pg 240-243 and 326-330.

(10) Watson, Anne L. Smart Soapmaking. Shepherd Publications. 2007. pg 63 and 110.