So you want to make soap at home? The art of soap making (both cold process and hot process) is partly science and partly a creative endeavor that involves a certain level of danger if materials aren’t handled correctly. Lye (sodium hydroxide and/or potassium hydroxide), is a highly caustic, yet key component in the soap making process. It demands careful attention and respect.
The purpose of this article isn’t to scare you away from the practice of soap making, but rather to equip you with the necessary knowledge to do so safely. (Because it’s better to be safe, than sorry, right?) We’ve all heard of horrifying stories of lye burns and splashes. Let’s NOT let that happen to you, okay?
Let’s explore basic soap making safety precautions, including how to create a safe work area, the importance of accurate ingredient measurements, and the specific precautions needed when dealing with lye.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a thorough understanding that implementing these safety measures is as integral to the soaping process as the ingredients themselves. Let’s get started!
I know, I know. You’re really excited to make cold process or hot process soap. Before you make your first batch of homemade soap with lye, take the following measures to protect yourself:
- Research and understand the ingredients you are using in soap making, including their potential hazards and proper usage.
- Take necessary precautions to protect your eyes and skin, such as wearing safety glasses, goggles, and gloves.
- Ensure a well-ventilated workspace and use appropriate tools and equipment to avoid inhaling fumes or particles.
- Be prepared for accidents or spills by having safety measures in place, such as spill kits and emergency contact information.
Risks associated with lye
By now you know how dangerous this substance can be, but let’s get into the nitty-gritty, shall we? One of the key elements to consider is lye safety, as mishandling this potent alkali can lead to serious injuries.
Lye, sometimes called caustic soda (scientifically called sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide), is a highly corrosive substance that can cause severe skin burns and eye damage. It emits hazardous fumes when mixed with water, and becomes extremely hot.¹
It typically comes in the form of beads, crystals, flakes, or pellets. When you add the lye to water during the soaping process, it creates an exothermic reaction, which means it gets boiling hot!
Sodium/potassium hydroxide also doesn’t play well with certain materials due to its corrosive and heat-generating properties.
Tip: Soap bars are safe to handle once lye has fully saponified (turned to soap). Until then, it’s best to wear gloves to err on the side of caution. Raw soap batter can still cause nasty skin burns. Keep gloves on during clean up.
Sodium hydroxide vs. potassium hydroxide
Lye is often referred to sodium hydroxide (NaOH). Confusingly, it’s also called potassium hydroxide (KOH). Both substances are caustic lye and both are used to turn fat molecoles into soap during the saponification process.
To keep things simple:
- Use sodium hydroxide to make soap bars (either cold process or hot process).
- Use potassium hydroxide to make liquid soap.
Want more details? 👉Check out our article on the differences between sodium hydroxide vs. potassium hydroxide lye.
Basic soap making safety precautions
In the realm of soapmaking, sticking with essential safety precautions is vital to ensure a safe and successful process.
When it comes to lye safety, exercise extreme caution and use common sense. Here’s a general safety guide and tips to keep in mind:
- Always use appropriate personal protective equipment, including gloves, eye protection, and a mask, when handling lye.
- Only mix lye in a well-ventilated space to reduce exposure to fumes. That means cracking open a window if possible.
- It’s important to add lye to water, never the other way around, to prevent a violent reaction that could lead to a splash or spill. Add lye flakes to water slowly while mixing with a lye-safe spoon.
- Use lye-resistant and heat-resistant utensils to prevent chemical reactions that could compromise the process. Stay away from aluminum (which reacts with lye), glass (which can shatter), and certain flimsy plastics.
- Use caution when handling lye or raw soap batter (which is still caustic until soap has fully saponified).
- Ensure your workspace is secure and inaccessible to children or pets (in a controlled environment). It goes without saying that you want to keep young kids or furry friends out of your work area to avoid spills or bumps. Maintaining a clean workspace (devoid of potential distractions or hazards) goes a long way in preventing unnecessary accidents. Cover your tabletop with newspapers or an old tablecloth to protect the surface.
- Store your bottle of lye in a safe place. Accidental ingestion or inhalation of lye can lead to serious internal injuries.
Tip: It’s a wise idea to have an emergency plan in place, including immediate access to running water for rinsing in the event of accidental contact. And, keeping a healthy stash of extra rags to wipe up any spills is always helpful.
In the next few sections, I’ll delve into more details on key safety practices.
Eye and skin safety measures
While crafting soap from scratch, apply stringent eye and skin safety measures to prevent potential harm from caustic ingredients such as lye. Eye protection is critical, as lye can cause serious damage if it comes into contact with the eyes. Always wear safety glasses or goggles. These should provide full coverage and seal properly around the eyes to prevent any accidental splashes.
Wear protective clothing such as long sleeves to help protect the arms from potential splashes or spills of lye solution or raw soap. Splashes often occur when stirring the soap mixture or pouring it into molds.
Additionally, rubber gloves should be used to provide a barrier between the skin and the caustic ingredients. These gloves should be durable enough to withstand exposure to lye and fragrance oils, which can be irritating to the skin.
Wearing a pair of closed-toe shoes also wouldn’t hurt (to prevent any accidental contact with lye).
What should you do if lye splashes into your eye?
If lye splashes into your eye, act immediately take action to minimize potential damage. The first step is to rinse your eye with cool running water for at least 30 minutes. Gently lift upper and lower lids while rinsing. If you’re wearing contact lenses, take them out at this time.²
Try to avoid rubbing your eyes during this process as it can cause further irritation. After rinsing, seek immediate medical attention as lye is a corrosive substance that can cause severe damage to the eye if left untreated. In the meantime, keeping your eye closed and applying a cold compress can help alleviate some discomfort.
What should you do if you get lye on your skin?
In the case of exposure, stay calm! Next, take off any contaminated clothing or jewelry, blot off any lye with a clean cloth, then rinse with cold water for 30 minutes.²
This helps to dilute the lye and flush it away from the skin. Avoid using warm or hot water as it can worsen the chemical burn.
After rinsing, gently pat the area dry with a clean towel. It’s important not to rub the skin as it can cause further damage. If the burn is severe or covers a large area, seek medical attention immediately.
General safety measures for clean air when soap making
Beyond the critical importance of eye and skin protection in soap making, ensuring the cleanliness and safety of the air in your workspace is equally vital, especially given the potentially harmful fumes and particles released during the process.
While engaging in soap making at home, there are several robust safety measures to ensure clean air and prevent exposure to harmful fumes:
- Proper ventilation: Ensure your workspace is well-ventilated. Open windows and doors, use exhaust fans, or even consider working outdoors (on a nice day). This helps diffuse harmful fumes, reducing your risk of inhaling them.
- Respiratory protection: If working in a less ventilated area, a respirator mask is crucial. It filters out harmful particles and fumes, ensuring the air you breathe is clean and safe.
- Cleaning up: After soap making, clean the workspace thoroughly. Residue from soap ingredients can linger in the air and on surfaces, posing a potential risk.
Soap making equipment safety
Ensuring the safety of the equipment utilized in soap making is a crucial aspect of the entire process, with a particular emphasis on the suitability and resilience of containers and utensils.
When preparing to make soap, it’s essential to consider the materials’ compatibility with lye, heat resistance, and potential for causing a splash of raw soap.
To prioritize soap making equipment safety, here are a few essential safety tips:
- Avoid using aluminum pots or utensils. Lye reacts adversely with aluminum, causing harmful fumes and potential damage to the equipment. Instead, opt for stainless steel or rubber/silicon alternatives which are resistant to lye. You can also use a wooden or heat-resistant plastic spoon.
- Use heat-safe plastic containers for mixing the lye water solution. The process of adding lye to water generates high heat, and it’s crucial to use a container that can withstand this without melting or warping. Avoid using glass containers — the rapid temperature shift can weaken, or crack the glass, making it shatter over time.
- Keep an eye on possible splash hazards. Use containers with high sides and avoid overfilling to prevent splashes of raw soap.
Understanding ingredients and measurements
While using appropriate soap making equipment is crucial, equally important is attention paid to the ingredients used and their accurate measurements. (There’s no such thing as “eye-balling” lye or oil quanitites when crafting bars of soap!)
In cold process soap making (as well as hot process soap), understanding ingredients and measurements are integral parts of lye safety and saponification.
Want your first soap batch to turn out well? Use a digital scale. Precise measurements ensure a correct balance between lye and fats, preventing the failure of saponification and potential lye-heavy soap, which can be harmful.
This ties in with the importance of understanding ingredients. Each ingredient in soap making serves a purpose. From oils providing moisturizing properties, to fragrances adding pleasant scents, understanding the role of each ingredient will guide you in adjusting measurements to achieve desired results.
Please, please DON’T attempt to alter the amount of oils, lye, or water used in a recipe unless you are an experienced soap maker! While essential oils or fragrance oils and other add-ins are optional (and there’s a bit of leeway here), attempting to change the basic soap recipe can have disastrous results.
In a nutshell, basic soap making safety precautions go beyond handling equipment. It encompasses a holistic understanding of ingredients and their measurements, which is vital for a successful and safe soap making process.
Plan for emergencies and be prepared for anything
Now that you know more about proper safety precautions you can minimize risk. Still, accidents can happen when soaping, so it’s wise to be ready for anything. Having an emergency plan can give you the confidence and reassurance to continue with this rewarding craft.
Lye spill? It’s important to have a plan to quickly and safely contain and clean the spill. This could include having absorbent rags or towels readily available and knowing the steps to neutralize the lye (plenty of cool water and perhaps some vinegar!).
Emergency preparedness and planning also involves knowing what to do in case of burns or accidental exposure to lye. This may include having a first aid kit nearby, understanding how to properly treat chemical burns, and having the number of a poison control center on hand.
|Wear eye and skin protection
|Prevent lye contact with skin and eyes
|Handle lye with care
|Prevent lye spills
|Have a first aid kit handy
|Quick response to any injuries
Note: Many say that vinegar neutralizes lye and this is mostly true as it applies to cleaning up spills on surfaces. But DON’T use vinegar on your skin if you happen to get a lye splash! The reaction of viengar and lye causes a heating effect which can exacerbate skin burns.
The importance of record keeping
Want to really level-up your game as a soap maker? Keep good records.
In the world of soap making, rigorous record keeping plays a pivotal role in maintaining safety and improving the quality of the end product.
- Preparation: An accurate and detailed record of each ingredient, their quantities, and the process of mixing them aids in ensuring the consistency of the end product and lye safety. This also helps to troubleshoot if the final product is less than stellar.
- Execution: During the making of cold process (or hot process) soap, maintaining an up-to-date record of each step taken, any deviations from the recipe, and observations can be instrumental in identifying potential safety issues and improving future batches. (Because we all want our finished soap to be glorious, right?)
- Post-production: Keeping a record of the curing time, storage conditions, and the final product’s performance can provide valuable insights for future soap making endeavors.
In essence, the importance of record keeping in soap making can’t be overstated. It’s a vital practice that promotes safety, quality, and continuous improvement in the art of soap making.
Frequently asked questions
Is it safe to use aluminum utensils or containers for soap making with lye?
No, it’s not recommended to use aluminum utensils or containers when working with lye, as lye can react with aluminum and cause corrosion. It’s best to use stainless steel, glass, or heat-resistant plastic for handling lye.
Can you make artisan or handmade soaps without handling lye?
Yes, if you’re lye-shy, making melt and pour soap is a great way to craft homemade soaps without handling corrosive lye. You can buy pre-made soap bases (which have already been saponified). Simply melt the bases, and add any extras such as colorants, botanicals, or fragrances.
New to making soap? 🧼❓
👉We have a fantastic overview on the whole soapmaking process here: read our Timeless Guide To Soapmaking.
If you would like to see our soapmaking posts organized by topic type, see our Soapmaking Collection.
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- Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild, Lye Safety, https://www.soapguild.org/how-to/make-soap/lye-safety.php. Accessed January 2024.
- New Jersey Department of Health, Hazardous Substance Fact Sheet, Sodium Hydroxide, https://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1706.pdf. Accessed February 2021.