Women Are Making Soap Out of Breast Milk. The Internet Doesn’t Know How to Feel About It
After giving birth to her son, Leilani Williams found herself with more breast milk than she knew what to do with. She did some research and found a video on TikTok of a woman making soap out of her breast milk with a caption that called it “so moisturizing.” Other videos she saw claimed breast milk soap could heal a host of skin conditions. So, three months after giving birth, she started making her own.
She saw results right away. “It’s helped a lot with my son for sure,” says Williams, 20, who lives in Tampa, Florida, as a stay-at-home mom. “He had bad eczema when he was born. It’s also really hot here sometimes and he gets heat bumps a lot. I think it’s made a really big difference.”
Williams isn’t the only person intrigued by breast milk soap and sharing tutorials online. There are hundreds of posts on Instagram and TikTok, with new ones being uploaded every day. Video tutorials explain how to make it at home, a process that usually involves adding breast milk to a premade soap base and letting it cool and harden in the refrigerator. Some of the posts get millions of views—and polarized responses.
“I got comments like ‘What is the point of this’ or ‘This is stupid’ or ‘That’s nasty,’” she says, adding that she’s not bothered when people think it’s gross. “Before I was a mom, I wouldn’t have thought about these things or I probably would’ve thought it was a little bit weird.” Besides feeling grossed out, she says, many people wanted to know why she wouldn’t donate this milk to other parents who were struggling to feed their babies.
During the recent formula shortage, Williams did donate a week’s supply of milk to a friend but ultimately decided not to donate elsewhere. “You have to produce a lot of milk to donate to the NICU, and I don’t produce that much,” she says. Recipes vary greatly, but a batch of the soap can use anywhere from 5 to 20 ounces of breast milk, less than a day’s supply for one newborn baby, depending on weight and other factors.
Amanda Huntwork, a stay-at-home mom in Portland, Oregon, came to the idea in a similar way to Williams. A few months ago she saw a tutorial online, made the soap, and used it on her six-month-old daughter; she says it cleared her baby’s acne. Huntwork, 25, also used it on herself. “I don’t know if it’s just me, but my skin is glowing,” she says.
And not everyone using the soap is a mother. Mindy Tran, a 23-year-old recent college graduate from the Washington, DC, area, first came to try it through her sister, Thieny Hendrix, 29, who has a nine-month-old son and had brought a batch made with her own breast milk to Christmas to hand out to anyone who wanted one. “At first I was skeptical,” says Tran. “I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’” Her TikTok post about the breast milk soap caused a surprisingly big stir, with over 11 million views. There are also nearly 14,000 comments, some confused, some grossed out; and then there were “the creeps,” she says. There were also plenty of people scolding her for not being more grateful.
Beyond social media, Etsy has page after page of offerings for those unable or uninterested in making their own. These listings sometimes have a customer shipping frozen breast milk to the maker, who sends back the soap; others offer soap made with the maker’s own breast milk, not the customer’s. The listings claim breast milk soap can heal eczema, cradle cap, burns, and insect bites, that it’s “germ-fighting” or reduces redness. But is breast milk soap really as beneficial as these posts claim?
Research has been done on the benefits of the direct topical application of breast milk, though not necessarily in soap form, and the results seem mixed. A study from 2013 compared the effects of applying either human milk or hydrocortisone cream on diaper rash and found them to be equally effective in alleviating symptoms; another study from 2017 found that applying breast milk to diaper rash was better than nothing. One study from 2010 looked into whether lanolin, a wax derived from wool, or breast milk would better heal “painful and damaged nipples during lactation”; lanolin was found to be more effective.
Gülşen Vural, PhD, a professor of women’s health nursing at Near East University in Northern Cyprus, is a co-author of a study that looked at the effects of applying breastmilk, among other treatments, on babies’ umbilical cord stumps. She and other researchers applied breast milk to the infants’ healing umbilical cords to see how it would affect the process. They found that the breast milk application had no adverse effects and resulted in a faster healing time than the use of an antiseptic.
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Even so, Dr. Vural thinks that more studies need to be done. “We don’t know all the benefits of mother’s milk on skin,” she says. “But we know that there a lot of very useful substances in it—it’s antimicrobial, anti-candida.” Plus, she says, it’s often easily within reach. “The most important thing is it’s cheap; you’re not paying money for it. There are no harmful effects, no side effects like with drugs.” Further investigation could also help spread awareness of the advantages that many, including Dr. Vural, believe to be inherent in breast milk. “I have tried it on my own baby’s diaper rash problem. Really, it works quickly and heals.”
While more scientific research may be beneficial, historical precedent for the use of breast milk as a remedy is crystal clear. Joanna Wolfarth, PhD, a cultural historian, lecturer, and author of Milk: An Intimate History of Breastfeeding, says that there are records of using breast milk as a topical treatment for conjunctivitis dating back to the ancient Egyptians. (Records also show it’s been used for a variety of purposes in Greece, India, Rome, Kenya, Turkey, and China.)
“What I found was that throughout history, this tension in how we think about breast milk is always present,” Wolfarth says. “There’s a contradiction between breast milk as a kind of ideal, the symbolic potential of breast milk, the medicinal value of breast milk. But what has also been there is the kind of squeamishness, the sense that it’s a potential contagion.” Wolfarth points to the contrast between the sacredness of breast milk depicted in art, like in The Miraculous Lactation of Saint Bernard, a painting by Alonso Cano, and the unwanted attention people get when breastfeeding in public today.
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While the mixed emotions have always been there, producing an excess of breast milk—and looking for ways to use it—is relatively new. “Things have changed a lot recently because breast pumps have gotten so much better,” says Mark Kurlansky, historian and author of Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas. “In history, it was something that was hard to come by. There wasn’t any extra unless you hired a wet nurse to breastfeed.”
Tran, the woman whose sister gifted her breast milk soap, has thoughts about the spike in interest. “Almost every trend is due to the economy in some way,” she says, wondering if the recent formula shortage might have inspired people to value breast milk more than usual. “I think we’re just treasuring natural ingredients and ingredients we can get for cheaper than at a store, so there’s an emphasis on products we can make.”
For some, however, it’s worth paying to have a professional make your breast milk soap for you. Allison Young is the founder and owner of Hudson Soap Co. in Quebec. Young, 39, first started making breast milk soap in 2021 after a mother requested it. She did some research and came up with a process: To make soap, she combines frozen breast milk, supplied by from local customers, with sodium hydroxide, or lye. The breast milk and lye solution is added to melted oils and butters, then poured into a mold. After it sits in the soap mold for 24 hours, she cuts it and lets it rest on a curing rack for weeks. The oils harden, water evaporates, and she’s left with a finished “loaf” of soap. She now makes a batch of the soap about once or twice per week.
One unscented loaf of Hudson Soap Co. breast milk soap gets sliced into 22 bars and costs $110. If the price seems steep, Young offers an explanation: “It’s a good year’s worth of soap. I use top-quality ingredients. A lot of people do understand a better-quality product comes with a higher price tag.” Young advertises her product online and has gotten some comments that fall into the “ew, gross” category, but she’s undeterred. “I think it could be a good place to start when your baby has a skin condition. How can you help resolve it by doing something natural that’s right at your fingertips, you know? Or at your nipple tips.”
Huntwork, the mom in Oregon, says she’s often questioned about her decisions since her TikTok page is predominantly dedicated to breastfeeding content, including why she doesn’t donate milk. She says she considered it, but her breast milk has high levels of lipase, an enzyme that affects the taste of the milk as it ages, so much so that her baby won’t take stored milk. (She describes the taste as “soapy.”) If her child refuses the older milk based on its flavor, she assumes any other baby would too.
Meanwhile, Tran’s TikTok post has continued to garner attention. She showed the response to her sister, who “was dying laughing at all the comments. Even though they were berating her, she was like, ‘These people are so stupid, they don’t know what they’re missing out on.’”
When asked why she thinks it went viral, Tran says, “It’s the shock factor. I just think people aren’t accustomed to moms being free and open about their bodies.”
Vivian Ewing reports for The New York Times and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago and is writing a novel about motherhood.
Originally Appeared on Glamour