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The Dangers of Lye and What It Means for Soap Crafters

Many years ago, lots of people made their own soap. Since they usually had animal fat on hand, it was less expensive to make it themselves than to buy it from someone else. But today, most soap we buy is made in factories.

Still, the art of soap making is far from dead. Crafters often try their hand at making soap, and those with ultra-sensitive skin or allergies might make it because their skin is more tolerant to soaps that are made from scratch. However, anyone who makes soap from scratch should be aware of possible safety issues created by the use of lye.

What Is Lye?

Lye is the common name for the chemical compound sodium hydroxide. It is used commercially in a wide variety of applications, including food preparation, biodiesel production, and water treatment. But lye is best known for its use in the creation of soaps and detergents.

Lye is also known by the name “caustic soda,” because it is highly corrosive. When dissolved in water, lye creates a strong alkaline solution. It can be obtained from hardwood ashes, a method commonly used in decades past by soap makers. But today it is usually manufactured as flakes, pellets or powder.

Why Is Lye So Dangerous to Work With?

There are many reasons why it is imperative to use caution when working with lye. These include the following:

* Like many chemicals, lye can be harmful or fatal if swallowed.

* Lye can seriously damage certain materials. It will remove the shine from many surfaces, and it will eat through some substances.

* If it comes into contact with your skin, lye can cause chemical burns, and possibly scarring. It can also cause blindness if it contacts your eyes.

* When dissolved in water, lye is highly exothermic. That means that it creates a great deal of heat, which could lead to burns or cause a fire if flammable substances are present. If large amounts are dissolved, it could begin to boil, causing splatters.

* Lye reacts with a number of metals. When combined with aluminum, magnesium, zinc, tin, brass, and several other metals, it produces hydrogen gas, which is explosive.

* When combined with sugar, lye produces carbon monoxide, a potentially deadly gas.

How Can I Protect Myself While Making Soap?

When using lye for soap making or any other purpose, safety precautions are essential. Here’s what you need to do to stay safe:

* Wear safety equipment. You’ll need glasses and chemical-resistant rubber gloves.

* Make sure your work area is ventilated properly.

* Use the proper equipment. Spoons should be made of wood or plastic. Bowls should be enameled, plastic or glass, and containers for lye should be clearly marked.

* When mixing lye and water, never pour the water into the lye. This can cause an explosion. Instead, pour the lye into the water. Also, make sure the water is very cold to help prevent it from boiling during the resulting reaction.

Working with lye can potentially be dangerous. But by taking the proper precautions, you can greatly reduce the likelihood of injury and other hazards. This will help ensure that your soap-making experience is a pleasant one.

Of course, you can skip the lye all together and head for the ever popular world of melt and pour soaps … no lye required.
300 Handcrafted Soaps: Great Melt & Pour Projects
by Marie Browning

“A continuation of the projects found in Browning’s Melt & Pour Soapmaking, using commercially available soap bases. …There are also lovely molded soaps that one would hate to destroy by using. All of these soaps can be made using kitchen equipment, and no lye or animal fat is used in the process. Browning’s books are always great additions to public libraries.”—Library Journal.

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March 7, 2009 This post was written by Categories: Soap Making 5 comments

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