Safely Working with Lye

Fear of lye is the biggest reason that people avoid making lye soap. It's understandable - lye is a dangerous, corrosive chemical. It can burn your skin, blind you, and kill you if ingested. But, it's necessary to make soap, and easy to manage if you are careful.

Remember: people use lye for many things besides soap-making, with very few problems. Have you heard of a lye-accident recently on the news? Me neither. If you've ever had to clear a blocked drain, you've probably used lye. (I've got an excellent lye-based drain cleaner in my bathroom right now, in fact.)

By following the simple tips below, you can can join in the fun of soap-making, while keeping yourself (and family) safe.

Safety for Making Lye Soap

  • Buy only PURE Lye.
    Do NOT use drain cleaner, or other items from the hardware store that list lye as one of the ingredients. These contain other chemicals which can ruin your soap and skin!

  • Physically protect yourself.

    • » Safety goggles are a must - your sight is too important to risk.

    • » Hard shoes to protect your feet from drips are required as well.

    • » Thick plastic kitchen gloves will keep your hands and forearms safe.

    • » Many soap makers choose to avoid long sleeves. Goggles and gloves form a hard physical barrier that will block the lye while you wipe it away. Clothing absorbs the lye, prevents you from wiping it away, and holds it right against your skin. Instead of long sleeves, opt for longer plastic gloves that cover as much of your forearm as possible.

  • Protect your surfaces.
    Lye is corrosive and will burn through many materials used in homes. Lye is also dangerous to clean up if it spills. Covering your working surfaces with old newspapers will protect them and make cleanup easier.

  • Always choose a sturdy, heat-resistant container for your lye-water mixture.

    • » Choose a container with enough room to contain any "splashes" when you are stirring.

    • » Do not use a container made of tin, zinc, or aluminum - lye reacts with these.

    • » The lye-water used to make lye soap can get to around 200-degrees F (water boils at 212-degrees F). Your container MUST be able to withstand this heat without breaking, melting, cracking, or otherwise falling apart.

      Test your container before making lye-water by filling it with boiling water, and letting it sit in the sink for a few minutes. It should NOT soften, bend, or leak! If it shows ANY signs of not being able to handle boiling water, toss it and find something stronger.

    • » Handles are helpful in lifting the container when it's hot.

  • When you mix your lye and water, ALWAYS add the lye to the water.
    Getting the order wrong can cause the lye to splatter, erupt, or "explode" out of the container. Here's how to remember the correct order:

    • » Use the rhyme: "It's always smarter to add lye to water! Add water to lye, and you may die!"

    • » Most recipes will call this mixture "lye-water". Use this to remember that you are adding lye to water. (It's not called "water-lye"!)

    • » Remember that lye is the most dangerous thing you are working with, so you always add it "a little bit at a time" - to make sure it doesn't overreact and cause an explosion!). Adding the water to the lye means you're essentially starting with ALL of your lye, rather than just a tiny bit!

  • Mix your lye-water with the container in the sink.
    If the container breaks - you just need to rinse out your sink, rather than cleaning lye from your counter and floor.

  • Ventilate!
    Mixing lye-water will create fumes, which are bad for your lungs. Open the window, or use an exhaust fan. Stand back a bit from the mixture, and take care to avoid the fumes.

  • Always add the lye-water to the soap oils, not the other way around.
    This is just like making the lye-water, we always add the lye to something else.

  • Keep vinegar nearby.
    Vinegar is an acid, and it will quickly neutralize lye. If lye spills on you, use the vinegar immediately to neutralize it, then rinse with cool water.