How To Safely Neutralize Lye and Handle Lye Spills while Making Soap (and It's Not with Vinegar)
I've made soap for years and years, and I've never had any scary experiences with lye. That's not to say I haven't had my share of spills, splatters, and bloops. Soap making can be messy!
I do treat those spills with respect—lye is a strong caustic and can cause serious burns and eye injury. But if you handle those spills quickly and correctly, you'll have nothing to worry about.
Here are some tips all soap makers, both beginners and seasoned, should know.
Always wear your safety goggles during the entire soap making process through cleanup. No exceptions!
In my younger days I routinely soaped without safety goggles. Yes, I was a wild woman.
Seriously, though, that was just plain dumb. One tiny splatter of lye water or soap batter and you can kiss your eyesight goodbye. And that's not being dramatic, that's the simple truth.
So keep those gloves and goggles on the entire time you're making soap, including cleanup. They should be the first things you put on before soaping and the last things you take off.
Never use vinegar to clean up a lye spill... ever.
Years ago, soap makers would soap with a bottle of white vinegar nearby. Conventional wisdom was vinegar, as an acid, would neutralize lye, an alkali.
And we seasoned soap makers loved to dole out this bit of wisdom to new soapers, feeling all helpful and knowledgeable. Now, I shudder every time I see this suggested on soaping blogs and social media.
Lye is an alkaline. Vinegar is an acid. Remember those baking soda/vinegar volcanoes we made in 4th grade science class? Image that, just on a larger and infinitely more dangerous scale.
We don't want that reaction happening anywhere on our counter tops, floors, and definitely not the skin.
Sweep granulated lye up with a dry broom or cloth.
If you spill lye granules on your floor or counter tops, sweep them up with a dry broom or cloth. I then dump them into my drain and rinse down with plain, cold water.
Once all the granules are cleaned, use a cloth or mop dampened with plain cold water to go over the entire area.
Soak up spilled lye water (AKA lye solution) with paper towels and discard.
If you accidentally spill lye water onto your counter tops or floor, soak up as much as possible with paper towels (or rags you don't mind throwing away).
Put the lye soaked rags or paper towels into your sink and rinse them well with plain, cold water to dilute the lye solution. Next, toss those into a bag, tie off, and throw away in an outdoor trashcan (preferably with a lid).
While soaping, I always mix my lye water solution in a container set in the sink, and I keep it there the entire time I'm soaping. That way, if the container accidentally gets knocked over, the mixture goes right down the drain and a rinse of the sink is all that's needed.
It's OK for lye to be rinsed down your kitchen drain since it's also used as a drain cleaner.
Raw soap batter splatters should be wiped up with a paper towel.
Remember, raw soap batter is caustic too! So, drips, bloops, and splatters should be cleaned up immediately.
Wipe up as much as possible with a paper towel, and throw it away. Again, toss into a bag, tie off, and place in an outdoor trashcan with a lid. You don't want children, pets, or wildlife coming into contact with it.
Rinse the entire area well with plain, cold water. Then, because soap batter also leaves behind an oily residue, follow up with a thorough cleaning with a mild soap (dish soap is perfect). Don't use household cleaners like 409 or Clorox.
If you spill lye or raw soap batter on yourself, immediately rinse with PLAIN, COLD WATER.
Rinse, rinse, rinse with plain, cold water any spills or splatters that come in contact with your skin.
After you've rinsed thoroughly, wash the area well with a mild body soap and rinse some more.
If you've had a major mishap and lye solution or soap batter is soaking your clothes, remove them immediately (now's not the time for modesty!) and follow the suggestions above. Use your best judgment and call the paramedics or visit the emergency room if the spill covers large areas of your skin and/or has burned you.
Major spills like this are rare, though. More common are those tiny splashes. Sometimes you won't notice a splash, but will feel a slight itching on your skin. Yep, that's a bit of lye or raw soap batter. So, if you notice itching, take a few minutes to rinse that area well with plain cold water and you'll be on your soapy way without any issues.
Don't let this scare you off from soaping. If you're careful, you most likely will go your entire soapy life without experiencing a major lye spill. But as with anything it pays to be aware, and know what to do if you have a spill.
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