Many people would like to make their own natural soaps but are afraid of working with lye. Lye is a caustic chemical that can cause significant burns and injury when handled incorrectly. Proper safety procedures when handling lye will protect you and ensure that soap making is safe and fun.
The first article I ever read about making soap called for a can of drain cleaner and I thought to myself, “when donkeys fly”. There was no way I was going to use drain cleaner in making my own soap. Further educating myself,I learned there were much better and safer ways to make soap. I hope through my learning journey I can help dispel some of your concerns about working with lye and show you that it can be safe, fun and economical to make soap at home.
Lye, also referred to as sodium hydroxide, is a necessary ingredient for making cold processed soap. Sodium Hydroxide is actually the dry form and it becomes lye once you mix it with water. It is used nationwide in various applications and is a main ingredient in oven cleaners and drain openers. It is very corrosive.
That being said, how often do you hear on the news of accidents involving Lye? Not often, because although it is caustic, if treated with respect it is very easy to work with. I am going to go over some basic safety precautions I take as a soapmaker and hopefully remove some of the fear you have so that you too can enjoy handcrafted soaps at home.
Lye should always be purchased from a reputable supplier. Never purchase drain cleaners at the hardware store and try to make soap. Often times these drain cleaners contain other chemicals that can cause serious reactions in soap making and that may be very damaging to your skin. Reputable suppliers that sell Lye as a soap ingredient provide a clean and pure product. You never want to see black specks or other debris floating around in you lye water.
Once you purchase your lye there are some handling precautions you will want to take.
1. If you have children, you must make them aware of the dangers involved while you are working with lye. Never leave you lye unattended when working with it. When not in use, make sure it is stored in a secure safe place and properly labeled. Small pets should be contained to a crate or let outside during your soap making process. You don’t want them underfoot; this could cause you to trip and spill lye water on them or yourself.
2. Always store your lye in an air tight sealed container that is properly labeled. I prefer plastic but you can use stainless steel. Never use tin, zinc or aluminum. Lye reacts with these metals so they are not safe to use.
3. If you choose to use plastic containers make sure they are strong enough to work with lye. You can test them by boiling water and pouring the boiling water into the plastic container, if it bows or melts or gives any at all do not use it, search for a stronger container. Do not use dollar store plastics.
4. Finally, you will want to make sure that you clearly label any containers that come in contact with lye. Keep in mind once you use a spoon or container for mixing lye; never use it for anything else, especially food.
Lye Handling Safety Equipment: . When actually handling lye, it is important to always use the following safety equipment. As I’ve said, working with lye shouldn’t prevent you from making soap, but you have to do it the right way. It is simply not worth the risk of an accident. .
Rubber Gloves – Preferably ones that come up to the elbow. Never make soap without your rubber gloves.
Goggles– Safety glasses and not sufficient, you want goggles that fit securely and protect the eye area. I know many soapmakers that don’t use goggles and say they have never had an accident. Keep in mind one unfortunate accident can blind you, so why take the chance.
Breathing Mask – Wear a breathing mask and make sure your area is well ventilated.
Knee length Rubber Apron to prevent any splashes that may hit my clothing and a hairnet. .
Hoegger Farmyard Contributor
Debbie is the owner of Plott Hollow Farm, dedicated to perserving endangered breeds of livestock and poultry. She is an experienced soap maker and member of The Handcrafted Soap Makers Guild. Find her farm and products at www.plotthollowfarm.com