Lye Safety in Soap Making: How to Safely Handle Lye or Sodium Hydroxide


Why is Safety Important with Lye Anyways?

We know, we know, Safety! Boring, right? 

Whether learning about safety is fun for you or not, it's vital when making soap. 

Why you ask? 

Lye, otherwise known as sodium hydroxide, just sounds like a scary couple words, doesn't it? 

Truth is, you probably don't even know how often sodium hydroxide is around you. However, what you should know, is that to be a cold process soap maker, you will work with lye, often. 

We mid as well get the "scary stuff" all out in the open, so we know exactly how to handle it, and what to do if a problem arises. In the definition of lye from Merrium-Webster, it literally states lye is a "solid caustic". 

Okay...Let's take it one step further. Caustic means, "capable of destroying or eating away by chemicals" & "a substance that burns or destroys organic tissue". This stuff is used in things like paint strippers, and if it get's on our skin (which is organic) or in your eyes, you can have problems if you don't treat it.





Are You Trying to Scare Me?

Now, we know what you're thinking, why are you starting off telling me I should make soap, and then telling me that lye can do this sort of damage. Well, because it's the truth. You need to know that when you get into cold process soap making, you will deal with this chemical and you need to be safe! 

But, once you know the safety tips and feel comfortable with lye, you can truly make some of the most beautiful, skin enriching soaps you've ever had, and at the same time it can be very controlled and safe!


Why Lye?

Let's take it one step back and discuss the role lye plays in soap making. 

Let's for instance say you're making 100% olive oil soap. This means the only oil you will use in your recipe is olive oil (keep in mind this is one of the few oils you can make a "good solid" bar, with only one oil). 


So How Are You Going to Make a Solid Bar of Soap From a Liquid Oil? 

The basis behind making a solid bar of soap is by combining oils and fats with a caustic solution, in this case with lye. The result, once saponification occurs, is....soap!

Why is this is great? 

It's great because we can simply add any oils we want to use into a lye calculator, it will then tell you the amount of lye you need to make the reaction occur to make a solid bar of soap. The reaction changes both substances, and in the end you're left with NO lye! Cool, huh!

Another term for this is saponification, like mentioned above. This is a fancy way of saying oils and fats that have been made into soap, after they have reacted with the lye solution

Obviously, you'll want to take into account properties of the oils you're using as well, but this conversation comes at a later time. This is the basic's behind the reaction of making soap and why lye safety is paramount. 


To The Point, Lye Safety Tips!

a. Never leave around children or pets. Lye should only be handled by an adult that is looking to make soap!
b. Make soap in a well ventilated area, specially when first pouring lye into the water, as fumes can be emitted. 
c. Cover your skin (long sleeve shirts, closed-toed shoes, and long pants when handling lye or your soap batter after mixed).
d. Protect your eyes: It is a must to wear goggles. Lye can come to you (from different manufacturers) in different forms, some of which may get airborne (flakes) more easily then others. Protect yourself!
e. ALWAYS POUR LYE SLOWLY INTO WATER, NEVER POUR WATER INTO LYE OR YOU COULD HAVE YOUR LYE SOLUTION GO EVERYWHERE, LIKE A VOLCANO!!!
f. When making the lye solution, use room temperature water or cooler.
g. Designate lye containers with some sort of symbol or color and store away from all other cookware. 
h. NEVER USE ALUMINUM EQUIPTMENT WITH LYE. USE HEAT PROOF PLASTIC OR STAINLESS STEEL! (YOU MAY ALSO WANT TO AVOID GLASS FOR YOUR LYE SOLUTION AS IT CAN BREAK!




What If Something Happens?

a. Lye in your Eye(s): Rinse continuously with cold water (first) for 15-20 minutes, seek medical attention
b. Dry Lye Spill: Carefully brush off that area, wipe it with a wet rag/cloth
c. Fumes bothering your breathing: Consider a respirator or work in a more well ventilated area. 
d. Poison Control Number: # 800 - 222 - 1222


Final Thoughts!

If you handle lye like we talked about, you should never have a problem! Remember, protect yourself and give yourself some space. Clear your area and make it a point to be a neat as possible. 

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