What You Need to Know About Lye
This post contains affiliate links to help support our site. For more information, please see our full Disclosure Policy here.
The idea of making your own soap can be intriguing. Making your own soap is the only way to really know what you are rubbing on your hands or soaking your clothing in. Commercial soap makers are not required to list all of their ingredients on their packaging. Making your own soap can be truly rewarding. After all, it is nothing more than a mixture of fats or oils with lye and water. So if you are thinking of making your own soap, here is what you need to know about lye.
Lye AKA Sodium Hydroxide
Also known as caustic soda, you can sometimes purchase lye from the cleaning section of your local supermarket. If not, it is available online here. (This is what I use.) Make sure when purchasing lye for soap making, you note the sodium hydroxide content. It should be 94%-98%. Lye for soap is different than drain opening lye. Drain opener also contains nitrates and other additives that are harmful to your skin.
Of Lye. Read This!
Lye is caustic. It burns, even in tiny flakes. Lye in your eyes or on skin or clothing can cause severe burns. You should definitely never swallow or inhale. If you do accidentally, make sure you call 911 and/or Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 immediately!
Keep children and animals away from lye. Store this properly where children cannot access this.
The fumes in lye, when mixed with water, can burn your throat and chest. Work in a well-ventilated space. Do not breathe in the fumes. I personally prefer to mix my lye and water outdoors to make sure that there is plenty of air flow.
Keep newspaper handy to clean up any spills immediately. Also, have distilled white vinegar nearby, as it neutralizes the caustic effects of lye.
Do not keep lye or any lye solutions in metal. Lye reacts with any kind of metal. It is best to mix and store lye in plastic, glass, stoneware or unchipped enamel containers.
Be careful when using glass containers. Water and lye can heat enough to break the glass.
Measuring spoons of stainless steel are okay, but cups should be glass or heat-resistant plastic. Utensils exposed to lye should be enamel, crockery, glass or wood. Never use these utensils for anything else ever! Rinsing them or soaking them in vinegar makes them safe to handle and store, but you never want to use them for food or other kitchen use.
Never add hot or even warm water to lye crystals. They heat up when combined with water, and the hot water will cause spattering, increasing your risk of it burning your skin, mouth, eyes or other body parts.
For protection when making soap, wear rubber gloves and keep a bowl of vinegar nearby. If you accidentally get lye on your skin, you can dip them immediately into the vinegar to neutralize it.
First Aid for Lye Burns
As we all know, accidents happen. If you or anyone in your household should ever (God forbid) come into direct contact with lye, here are the first aid instructions.
Flush immediately with water. If no flushed, the lye will continue to burn. Add a little salt to the water that you are using to flush the burn. No access to water? Use whatever you have. Even soda pop poured over the burn is better than allowing the lye to continue to burn the skin. If, after 5-10 minutes the skin is still red and painful, seek burn care in the local hospital emergency room.
Call 911 immediately. Swallowing lye can be fatal. Lye will burn the esophagus, so inducing vomiting should be avoided to prevent the lye from further burning the throat. Drinking milk or eating ice cream may help neutralize the lye’s chemical reaction. Although vinegar, orange juice and so forth will neutralize the lye, they should not be ingested because the combination creates heat. The rise in temperature will burn physically in addition to the chemical burn.
In the Eye(s)
Call 911 immediately. Flush the eye(s) immediately with water. Add salt to the water. Use milk if available to neutralize the chemical reaction. This will almost invariably cause a trip to the emergency room as there can be permanent damage to your eyesight. Do not use vinegar or boric acid.
While using lye and creating your own soap can be rewarding, we must remember to respect that it is a chemical, that can have dire consequences if mishandled. Always use caution when using, storing, or even touching the bottle of lye. Keep away from children and pets at all times. Remember that using lye can be dangerous, so never get comfortable with handling it. It is when we get overly comfortable that accidents occur.