You can't turn water and vegetable oils into a bar of soap without lye, a caustic salt.* Although the process of soap making can easily be simple and safe, it's important to follow a few guidelines and safety precautions during the parts of the process that involve handling lye. So let's break it down.
Lye (sodium hydroxide) can irritate and burn the eyes, skin and respiratory tract if handled incorrectly. Lye comes in a crystalline form and can be found in home and hardware stores, usually with the cleaning supplies.
How lye works in the soap making process:
During the soap making process, lye is mixed with water to create a caustic lye solution, which initiates the saponification reaction when it's added to the skin care oils in the recipe. Once the reaction is complete, the lye is chemically changed and no longer as hazardous. But before, during and for 4 to 6 weeks after the pouring the soap, it is important to take care when handling the crystal lye, liquid mixture and curing soap.
Before using lye, read the manufacturer’s safety and first aid information. Always adhere to the caution information provided by the lye manufacturer. In addition to the information provided by the lye manufacturer, we recommend the following.
When handling lye crystals:
1. Avoid contact with skin, eyes, mucous membranes and clothing.
2. Do not use or mix with any other chemicals or household cleaners.
3. Avoid breathing in any lye dust or particles.
4. Do not take internally.
5. Do not use with or on aluminum.
6. Keep container tightly closed, labeled and out of reach of children.
When handling lye solution:
1. Always wear gloves, long sleeves, pants, close-toed shoes and safety goggles.
2. Slowly and carefully add the pre-measured lye crystals to the pre-measured cold water, avoiding splashes.
3. Mix the lye solution in a container set on a rimmed, plastic tray or non-aluminum baking sheet in a well-ventilated area such as under your kitchen exhaust vent set on high.
4. Avoid splashing solution on skin, in eyes or clothing.
5. Avoid breathing in fumes.
6. Do not take internally.
7. Do not leave lye solution unattended at any time during your soap making process.
When handling poured soap:
1. For 4 to 6 weeks after the soap is poured, avoid handling it with bare hands. If you must handle it, wear gloves.
As long as you follow these guidelines and those provided by the lye manufacturer, the process of soap making from scratch (with lye) can be safe and fun. If you'd prefer not to use lye, consider following recipes that use a melt-and-pour base, in which the lye has already neutralized.
*Note: In recipes that call for a melt-and-pour base, the steps involving lye and the need for safety precautions have already been completed in the development of the base.