It’s unfortunate many did not know that soap making needs some precautions. It takes a powerful alkaline agent to turn oils into soap. For bar soap, this agent is sodium hydroxide, a common chemical that is found in any number of other applications, from cleaning drains to making face creams. Lye has an extremely high pH of 14.0. By comparison, lemon juice has a pH of around 2.0 and human skin has a pH of 5.0 to 6.0. LYE IS CAUSTIC! It will burn skin, stain clothing, take the finish off wood, and damage many other surfaces. It can cause blindness and may be fatal if swallowed. That is why serious safety precautions must be taken when working with it, especially when it is dissolved in water. A splash of lye-water will eventually eat through clothing and into your skin, leaving red marks and open sores. If you do spill lye-water on yourself, immediately remove contaminated clothing, including shoes, and wash your skin under cold running water for at least 15 minutes.
Many soapers keep vinegar on hand, believing it neutralizes lye burns. There is some controversy in the soapmaking community about washing lye burns with vinegar rather than water. Adding vinegar (an acid) to lye (a base) creates a chemical reaction that releases more heat. Additionally, the act of putting vinegar on a lye burn hurts. Just use water. Although, vinegar should not be used to treat lye burns on skin, it can be used as precaution during the cleanup process. A quick wipe of your workspace with a vinegar-soaked rag can neutralize any lye dust that may have gotten on the surface.
Working with Lye, it is very important to follow these safety guidelines.
- Always use safety goggles that completely cover your eyes. Glasses do not offer adequate protection — goggles are a necessity. Some soapers wear a full-face shield.
- Wear chemical-resistant gloves (see more on). Best practice is to wear long sleeves, pants, and closed-toe shoes.
- Mix the lye-water solution in a room with adequate ventilation. Add the lye slowly and carefully and stir gently. Do not breathe in the fumes. Some soapers use an air-filter mask.
- Cover your workstation with cardboard or several layers of newspaper. Whenever possible, mix lye-water over a sink to contain spills and prevent accidents.
- Mix your lye solution in a heat-safe container that is quite a bit larger than the amount of liquid you are mixing. When lye is mixed with water, it produces a heat reaction that goes up to 200°F (93°C). Other liquids (especially those containing sugars) can create an even warmer reaction.
- Always add the lye to the water, not the other way around. Adding water to lye can create a caustic volcano that could foam out of the container.
Emergency Response When Lye Spill On SKIN
- If you splash lye, lye-water, or fresh soap batter on any part of your body, immediately rinse the area with copious amounts of cold water. Then rinse some more, using fully cured soap to wash away the chemical residue.
- If you spill a large quantity on yourself, strip off your clothing at once and jump into a cold shower for 20 minutes, again using soap to clean off the lye.
- If your skin is red or painful after that, go to the emergency room.
- EYES. Immediately flush with cold, running water for at least 20 minutes. Seek medical attention promptly.
- THROAT. If you somehow swallow lye in any form, rinse your mouth thoroughly and then drink one or two large glasses of water. Do not induce vomiting, but seek immediate medical attention.