Let’s talk about the scary lye. We don’t want to blow up!!!
We do many dangerous things every day, like drive a car. We even do dangerous things in our kitchen on a regular basis, like fry with hot oil or make candy. The difference is, we’re accustomed to those activities. We know the rules and respect the associated safety precautions–but we don’t let the fear of being burned by hot oil or getting in a car accident keep us from getting on with what we want to do. For most of us, making soap isn’t an activity we were familiarized with during our childhoods. We just know it’s dangerous, and it’s actually a good, life-preserving instinct to stay away from dangers we don’t understand. But! We can learn. And then we’ll understand!
Lye is a dry form of sodium hydroxide or caustic soda. Chemically, soap is a salt. Our great-grandmas made lye at home by leaching wood ashes. As I mentioned in Part 1 of our Getting Ready to Make Soap series, this is how old-time country soap got a bad rap for being harsh. Often it was harsh due to the unpredictable, varying strength of homemade lye. Commercial lye has a standard strength, which makes today’s homemade soaps safe and predictable. All soap is made with lye, by the way. Even the glycerin blocks you get at craft stores to make glycerin soaps contain lye. Lye is what makes soap.
I know! It’s shocking if you’ve never thought about it. Lye is kinda like lard. It’s just not a word you hear in most suburban households. We’re completely unfamiliar with it and all we know is that it’s BAD, BAD, STAY AWAY, BAD. Well, we’re on target about one thing–it is a chemical deserving of respect. Lye is a poison. It’s corrosive, fatal if swallowed, and harmful if inhaled. It will burn the skin if it comes into contact with it, and it reacts to water, acids, and other materials (such as aluminum). If your skin does accidentally come into contact with lye, safety instructions recommend immediately flushing the skin with plenty of water for at least 15 minutes while removing contaminated clothing and shoes. Call a doctor or the poison control center, and wash clothing before wearing again.
When working with lye, wear safety goggles and rubber gloves. The goggles should fit snugly, provide complete protection, and fit over glasses. Many people use regular rubber dishwashing gloves, although you can also buy rubber gloves labelled for chemical protection. (I got the ones Morgan is modeling here at Wal-Mart in the refinishing/woodworking aisle.) Wear a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, shoes, etc. Tie your hair back. (You don’t want to be reaching up with your rubber glove and touching your face to push hair out of the way.) Don’t touch your soap directly later, either, even after it’s been poured into molds–not until you’ve tested it with a pH strip.
Don’t use aluminum, tin, or copper in your soapmaking–they react to lye. What can you use? Stainless steel, steel, heat-resistant plastic, glass, or enameled steel. Much of what you need to make soap can be found right in your kitchen already, and much of it can be re-used for food after being neutralized and thoroughly washed. (Don’t re-use plastic utensils/containers or wooden spoons for anything else but soapmaking as they can absorb the chemical. Stainless steel, steel, and glass can be washed pure again.) If you’re not comfortable using the same items for food and soapmaking at all, try thrift stores to pick up extras of things you will need for making soap.
Never add water to lye. ADD LYE TO WATER. Adding water to a chemical can cause a massive heat expansion. I’ve seen a couple of different rhymes in the comments on previous soap posts that you can use. Do what you oughta, add lye to the watta. Or, snow falls on the lake. Whatever you want to use to help you remember that, it’s IMPORTANT. You don’t want to blow up.
Mix the lye and water in a well-ventilated location. Many soapmakers go outside for this part, then bring the mixture back inside afterward. Also, don’t lean over the pitcher as you pour the lye into the water. You want to avoid the fumes. Add the lye slowly, don’t just dump it in.
Other basic precautions in dealing with lye hold true for many other things we do in the kitchen, so use common sense. Keep children out of the way. Send them to grandma’s house or school or the neighbor’s. If they’re in the house, make sure you have another adult available to supervise them. You can’t be running off in the middle of making soap to handle a tantrum. Don’t leave your mixture unattended for any reason. Let the doorbell ring and don’t answer the phone.
Don’t get careless or take safety lightly. At the same time, relax. The lye isn’t going to jump up out of the pot and attack you. It’s a poison, but it’s not like you’re going to drink it. Remember that our great-grandmas did not wear goggles and gloves when they were making soap. They didn’t have access to such things, but they understood the rules and respected what they were handling. We use protection when making soap today for the same reason we wear bike helmets and seat belts–we have the capacity now to make ourselves even safer when engaged in potentially hazardous activities. If they could make soap without it–and survive long enough for us to exist–we can certainly do it with the information and resources that are available to us today. Get some gloves and goggles, dress properly, and handle the lye with respect and knowledge–but without fear.
I can do it! So can you!
P.S. Morgan isn’t going to make soap. These photos are the result of too many snow days at our house.