The easiest way to get past this fear is to learn all you can about lye-safety – and practice it faithfully. You should definitely respect lye, but there’s no reason to be afraid of it, if you’re properly prepared.
The first step to being properly prepared to work with lye, is to know what to do should you have a spill or splash. Before you use your lye, you should consult the product’s Safety Data Sheet. This information should be made readily available to you by your supplier.
Common wisdom if you splash lye on your skin is to flood it with vinegar, however, when consulting a MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Potassium Hydroxide (the kind of lye used in making bar soap), I learned that it has a different suggestion. In case of contact with skin, it suggests that the area be immediately flushed with water, for at least 15 minutes; there is no mention of vinegar. Again, be sure to consult your supplier for a MSDS/SDS for the particular lye that you have purchased. Keeping an eyewash kit on hand is also a good idea.
Once you’re prepared for the worst case scenario, you’re ready to outfit yourself for normal usage. The single most important piece of safety equipment you need are goggles. These goggles need to fit tightly enough that should you have a splash, the lye solution cannot get in between the goggles and your face. They even make goggles specifically for use with eyeglasses, so there’s no excuse for not wearing them. Some soapers go so far as to wear a face shield to protect their eyes and face from splashes.
The next important piece of safety equipment that you need are gloves. If you’re allergic to latex, then consider nitrile gloves. Some people even wear lightweight cotton gloves under their protective gloves to keep their skin from coming in contact with the material of the outer gloves. Gloves are super important, because your hands are so close to the lye solution during the soap making process.
Many soapers also wear long sleeves and either an apron or a lab coat to further protect their skin and clothing. Whatever you choose to wear, make sure that it is easily and quickly removable in case of a spill or a splash. If you get lye solution on your arm, for example, and you’re wearing long sleeves, you need to be able to quickly remove the affected sleeve. Just pushing it up your arm will potentially spread the lye solution to another part of your arm!
Consider mixing your lye solution outside (as long as you can do that in a clean and sanitary way) or at least in a room with good ventilation. If you have any concerns about your nasal passages or lungs, get a respirator to wear while you prepare the lye solution, because the fumes are quite noxious.
Finally, always use stainless steel or polypropylene/polypropene (PP #5) to mix your lye solution in. Your mixing spoon should also be plastic, silicon, or stainless steel. Other metals can react with the lye to product dangerous fumes, and the lye will eventually etch glass, making it potentially unstable. I’ve read several stories of people having their glass break, spilling lye solution all over the counter and onto the floor (So, closed-toe shoes are a good idea, too).
Always add your lye to your liquid, and not the other way around. And, be very careful to add the lye gradually. If you do it the other way, you may have the lye boil over.
Reading all these safety suggestions may be enough to send you straight to the craft store for some melt and pour base! Just remember that melt and pour comes with its own set of safety challenges.
Even with melt and pour, it’s important to have a plan for reacting to spills and splashes. Whether you melt in a microwave or in a double boiler, the melted soap gets very hot and the potential for burns is very high. Again, I’ve heard of glass measuring cups breaking (even Pyrex), spilling the hot melted soap all over the counter.
Be sure to add the fragrance or essential oil at the right temperature for that particular oil, or it could flash.
If you chop the melt and pour base with a knife – which isn’t recommended – there is a danger of the knife slipping. Similarly, if you use a knife to cut your finished loaf, watch out for fingers! And of course, if you are working with young children, they must have constant supervision around the melted soap.
Whichever method of soaping you choose, please be careful, follow all the safety guidelines, and be prepared for an emergency.
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