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Safety precautions and Lye (sodium hydroxide)

Our sincerest thanks to Eire who is a most valued member of Fresholi for this wonderfully informative and useful article - it is very much appreciated.

I thought it may be a good idea to post some of the essential safety precautions in relation to the handling of lye. I know it can be stating the obvious, but nearly all accidents can be prevented by following simple guidelines, CONSISTANTLY. All soap makers were new to handling lye at one point and a bit nervous. There is no reason to be fearful but it is good to have a healthy respect for it as with handling all chemical.

Lye is a dangerous chemical and it is imperative that safety precautions are followed when handling it, everytime single time.

1. Use properly sealed and labelled containers.

2. Store in a secure environment, in a place inaccessible to children or animals - REALLY inaccessible.

3. You must handle it in an area and using methods where granules cannot be spilled anywhere - just one granule on the floor could seriously burn a pet or child.

4. Use eye protection every time you open the container - lye burns on your skin will heal, burns to your eyes may leave your sight permanently damaged, even one single granule.

5. Have proper ventilation in the place you are working - the fumes are caustic.

6. Use safe mixing vessels - not glass because that can shatter, and only plastic that is certified to stand up to at least boiling water temperature. Pyrex glass is suitable as it is designed to withstand heat, is oven proof and heat treated. Ensure all vessels are suitable and able to withstand heat, including plastic. Wooden spoons will start to disintegrate and splinter over time.

7. Always add lye to water, never the other way around.

8. If you get lye on your skin or eyes, first wash it off with copious amounts of plain water, not vinegar.

9. Don't leave lye, lye solution, raw soap or anything else lying around even for a few minutes. There has been many reports of people drinking lye solution by accident, due to being left unattended and in unmarked jugs. I know of one story where a man died from this. Another one recently where a child ate raw soap and needed urgent respiratory care.

10. Use eye goggles throughout the entire soaping process, beginning to end. Simply banging the mould on the floor to get air bubbles out can result in raw soap splashing into the eyes.

11. Wear proper clothing, ensuring the use of long sleeves, long trousers, heavy duty gloves and enclosed footwear. Fleece type clothes are not the best option. They create static, causing the lye granules to 'jump' about.

12. Fragrances - do you know how toxic some fragrance chemicals are? (I'm including EOs here). Which are potent allergens and sensitisers? Do you know which is which? You should be handling all concentrated fragrance chemicals with care, don't get them on your skin, wash immediately if you do, work in a well ventilated area. They are safe to use when diluted but we are handling them in large quantities in concentrated form and they should be handled with care.

13. Don't store soap or fragrances in the same area that you sleep or spend a lot of time in because they are potent chemicals and can provoke asthma attacks and headaches, and can trigger allergies/sensitivities if you are exposed to them for long periods of time. The same applies to other chemicals that we use, preservatives are potentially nasty in large quantities, for example.

14. Children and pets should never be anywhere near the soapmaking process from start to finish, and you should not be in the position of having to split your attention between your soap and your children because that way you risk making mistakes.

15. Have a clear visible display of poison control, COSHH, MSDS etc..

16. Know and plan your response in the event of an accident, disaster or spill. Know what action you will take to contain it, clean it up and emergency medical routes. For instance, I have a big container of oil close to hand in the event of a large lye solution spillage, and a deck scrub.

17. If you need to use the bathroom, after removing gloves, please still wash your hands. Those lye granules are cheeky little buggers and one will show up least when you want it.. OUCH! This has happened to some soapmakers.

18. All supplies should be stored in a secure safe environment.

19. When using mica's (and other fine particle sizes) in your process, it is advisable to wear a mask along with goggles. Some of these particles are so small, they can be inhaled directly into lungs, they can also cause nasal and eye irritation.

20. Provide a safe working environment for yourself. Don't use throw rugs etc... where you can slip. Ensure a clear, uncluttered workspace.

21. If unsure about the type of steel in any implements, make up a small batch of lye specifically to check the quality of steel. Very poor quality stainless steel (mixed metals) will discolour very quickly. Others will discolour over a few uses. Dip implements into lye solution, then run through dishwasher, if the quality is inferior it will discolour. This will not be suitable for your soap making process.

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