All too often, I’ve heard people make comments such as, “I’d love to make my own soap, but I’m scared I’d blow up the house or burn myself.” Sound familiar?
There are a lot of myths about the process of making soap that scare people away.
It’s a shame, really, because these folks are missing out on a rewarding, addicting hobby, all because they doubt themselves and their ability to make homemade soap safely.
Is making homemade soap dangerous? Although making soap necessitates the use of lye, a potentially dangerous substance, as long as the user adheres to safety guidelines, wears gloves and safety goggles, ensures adequate ventilation, and uses common sense, the risk of harm is minimal.
Let’s sort out the fact from the fiction, go over necessary safety precautions, and even look at an alternative approach to making soap.
Before you know it, you’ll be confidently stocking your shelves with homemade soap, and worrying about a major catastrophe will be a thing of the past.
Potential Dangers of Soap Making
So, if soap making can be done safely at home, why are so many people hesitant to give it a try?
Well, to make soap, you will need to work with lye, and that’s where the fear factor comes in to play.
What Exactly Is Lye?
Lye, commonly called sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or caustic soda, is a strong alkali formed when sodium carbonate is combined with calcium hydroxide.
The two resulting products are sodium hydroxide and calcium carbonate.
Risks Involved When Working With Lye
Caution must be used whenever you work with lye.
In addition to producing toxic fumes when made in to a solution, if not handled properly, lye can:
- Cause chemical burns on skin.
- Damage surfaces.
- Cause blindness.
- Harm your lungs and throat if inhaled.
- Be explosive under certain conditions.
- Be fatal if ingested.
During soap making, lye is added to a liquid, usually water, to form an extremely alkali solution. This produces an exothermic reaction.
If you think back to your high school chemistry class, you’ll remember that an exothermic reaction gives off heat, sometimes a lot of it.
Lye water quickly reaches temperatures of close to 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Not only can temperatures that high cause some serious scalding, but they can also destroy flimsy plastic containers that are not heat proof.
When lye comes in contact with aluminum (and some other metals), hydrogen gas is produced, which happens to be explosive and flammable.
For this reason, the only metal material considered safe during soap making is stainless steel.
Additionally, lye can cause etching in glass containers over time.
This means that even a sturdy, heat-proof glass like Pyrex will develop tiny scratches every time it is used for mixing lye water.
Eventually, the glass could shatter without warning and splatter the solution on you and your workstation.
Don’t run away screaming just yet though. You’ve probably used lye before without realizing it.
Have you ever used a commercial drain opener to deal with a clogged drain? Lye was probably one of the main ingredients.
Do you like pretzels and bagels? Lye is often used when making these goodies.
Ready for the most shocking fact? Soap you buy from the store, both bars and liquid, was made using, you guessed it, lye.
The truth is, all soap is made with lye. No lye = no soap.
The reason that soap isn’t harmful for use is that by the time soap becomes soap, the lye has disappeared in a process known as saponification.
What Is Saponification?
When an alkali solution (lye mixed with water) is added to oils, a chemical reaction begins joining all the lye molecules to those of the oil to form soap and glycerin.
If the correct measurements were used, all of the lye will be completely used during saponification, and the finished soap will not contain any lye, just gentle cleansing power and skin-nourishing goodness.
Now that we’ve covered the potential dangers of working with lye when making homemade soap, you may be wondering why on earth anyone would take such a risk.
Well, lots of things that we do everyday carry the potential for danger: using bleach to clean the bathroom, driving a car, adding chemicals to your swimming pool, slicing up vegetables for dinner, and simply crossing the street to name a few.
How do we get through these activities in one piece each day? We use good old common sense, take extra care, and follow the recommended safety precautions.
The same principles apply to soap making.
As long as you’re careful, working with lye is really no more risky than any of the other dangerous activities you do everyday.
Use Protective Gear
Wearing a snug-fitting pair of high-quality safety goggles is a must.
You may be able to get by with a good pair of safety glasses, as some protection is better than none, but I’d recommend going with the goggles, especially if you wear eyeglasses.
They’ll provide superior protection and won’t slip down your nose as the glasses might.
Gloves are another item you don’t want to do without. Whatever you prefer, rubber, nitrile, or latex, will be fine.
Me? I like the long cuffed PVC dishwashing gloves that protect my forearms as well as my hands and wrists.
If you choose to use regular, wrist-length gloves, that’s fine; just be sure to wear long sleeves to protect your arms. Long pants are recommended too.
Some soap makers like to wear an apron for additional protection, but that’s up to you. It certainly can’t hurt.
The Right Equipment
For mixing the lye solution, the best option is a sturdy plastic container with a #5 recycling code.
For safety’s sake, if you don’t see a recycling code stamped anywhere, don’t assume it will be safe to use. It’s better to keep hunting for a #5 plastic pitcher, small tub, or similar item.
For stirring my lye solution, I admit, I snitched a regular stainless steel spoon from our kitchen.
Many soap makers do the same thing. Just be sure to label the spoon, keep it with your soap making supplies, and don’t allow it to be used again for food.
For stirring and scraping your raw soap into a mold, you’ll want a nice set of silicone spatulas, which won’t react with the lye.
Prep Your Work Area
Because of the toxic fumes created when adding lye to water, good ventilation is important. If possible, mix your lye solution outside.
If working indoors, open a window or two, and position a fan nearby to blow fumes toward the windows.
One important note regarding the lye solution is to always add the lye to the water, not the water to the lye, as this could produce a volcano-like eruption.
Cover your work area with a couple of layers of newspaper, especially if like many soap makers, you find yourself working at your kitchen table.
Before beginning, clear the room of all pets and potential tripping hazards. Make sure all children are safely occupied elsewhere.
Check to make sure that all of your planned ingredients are skin safe.
Avoid recipes that call for additives such as food coloring or melted crayons. You definitely don’t want to be washing your body with ingredients like that.
An Alternative Method
If you’re still uncertain about working with lye but desperately want to make your own soap, there’s an alternative soap making method that does not require you to directly work with any hazardous materials.
Melt and pour soap bases are blocks of pre-saponified soap, so no lye is necessary, and even better, there is no need to let the finished soap cure for weeks before use.
All you do is melt the premade soap base, add scent and colors if desired, and pour it into the fun mold of your choice. As soon as it has hardened, it’s ready for use!
Melt and pour soap is a terrific project to do with your kids and is a great way to bolster your confidence before diving into soap making methods that involve directly working with lye.