This article, How To Neutralize Lye Spills When Making Soap, is part 3 of the Farm Girl’s Making Soap Safely Series.
One of the more serious things we have to deal with while making hot or cold process soap is the handling of lye. Yes, friend, if you want to make soap from scratch you must use lye (unless you make melt and pour soap, in which case the lye step has already been handled for you.)
I’ve made soap for years and years, and I’ve never had any scary experiences with lye. That’s not to say I haven’t had my share of spills, splatters, and bloops. Soap making can be messy!
I do treat those spills with respect—lye is a strong caustic and can cause serious burns and eye injury. But if you handle those spills quickly and correctly, you’ll have nothing to worry about.
That’s why every soap maker must know how to neutralize lye spills when making soap, and how to do it safely.
One thing to note, because I’m required to do so: I am not a medical professional, so none of this should be taken as medical advice. Okie dokie artichokie?
Here are some tips ALL soap makers, both beginners and seasoned, should know.
Do Not Use Vinegar to Clean Up a Lye Spill
I know this is sacrilege in most soap making circles, but you should not use vinegar to clean up a lye spill, on yourself or anywhere else.
Just hear me out on this…
Years ago, I would always make soap with a bottle of white vinegar nearby. Conventional wisdom was vinegar, an acid, would neutralize lye, an alkali.
As a seasoned soap maker, I loved to dole out this bit of wisdom to new soapers, feeling all helpful and knowledgeable. Now, I shudder every time I see this suggested on soaping blogs and social media.
Remember those baking soda/vinegar volcanoes we made in 4th grade science class? Image that, just on a more dangerous scale.
The Material Safety Data Sheets for sodium hydroxide (AKA lye) warn against using chemical neutralizing agents to clean up any sort of lye spill. This includes vinegar.
It’s true that vinegar can neutralize lye, but it generates heat as a by-product. This is called an exothermic reaction.
You see, while lye is a strong alkaline, vinegar is a fairly weak acid. White vinegar, for example, is only about 5% to 10% acetic acid. The rest, about 90% to 95%, is water.
And we all know what happens when we add lye to water–it heats up significantly, and fast. You don’t want that reaction happening anywhere on your counter tops, floors, and definitely not the skin.
Splashing vinegar on a lye spill could worsen skin burns.
Also, you’d need copious amounts of vinegar to completely rinse away lye from your skin. A little splash of vinegar isn’t gonna cut it.
What scares me is this: A soap maker spills lye on their skin and gives it a cursory splash of vinegar, thinking the lye has been neutralized. But, in reality, the lye wasn’t thoroughly rinsed away and this poor soap maker ends up with a chemical burn. No good!
There are safer ways to neutralize lye spills when making soap, my friend.
How to clean up lye spills safely depends on what type of lye spill we’re talking about, and where the spill is found.
Save to Pinterest!
Always Wear Your Eye Protection and Gloves While Cleaning Up Lye Spills
Y’all know this but I’ll say it anyway: Whenever you are handling lye, lye water, or raw soap batter, protective equipment is a must! This includes when you’re cleaning up ANY type of caustic spill.
Sweep Up Granulated Lye With a Dry Broom
Remember those dry lye granules we were talking about? Instead of dousing them with vinegar, which would only create a hot mess (literally), sweep them up with a dry broom.
Dump the granules into your sink and rinse completely down the drain with cold water. Remember, lye is also used as a drain cleaner, so you won’t hurt your sink or pipes by washing even copious amounts of lye granules down the drain.
Once all the granules are cleaned, use a cloth or mop dampened with plain, cold water to go over the entire area several times to make sure you get every last dust-speck of lye cleaned up. As an added bit of protection, mop again with soap or floor cleaning solution. You could also use vinegar now too!
Use floor cleaner only after you’ve mopped up the area with plain water. You don’t know what interactions the cleaner might have with the lye, so better safe than sorry.
Soak Up Spilled Lye Water (AKA Lye Solution) With Paper Towels and Discard
If you accidentally spill lye water onto your counter tops or floor, soak up as much as possible with paper towels or rags you don’t mind throwing away.
Put the lye soaked rags or paper towels into your sink and rinse them well with plain, cold water to dilute the lye solution. Next, toss them into a bag, tie off, and throw away in an outdoor trashcan (preferably with a lid).
Wipe down the spill site several times with plain cold water. Afterward, wash the entire area with a mild soap, then rinse again with copious amounts of plain water.
Soaping tip: Mix your lye water solution in a container that is set in the sink, and keep it there the entire time you’re soaping.
That way, if the container accidentally gets knocked over, the mixture goes right down the drain and a rinse of the sink is all that’s needed. Nothing hurt and you’ll have the sparkliest drains around, darling!
For Raw Soap Batter Splatters On Countertops and Tables, Wipe Up With a Paper Towel
Remember, raw soap batter is caustic too! So, drips, bloops, and splatters should be cleaned up immediately. Wipe up as much as possible with a paper towel, and throw it away.
Again, toss into a bag, tie off, and place in an outdoor trashcan with a lid. You don’t want children, pets, or wildlife coming into contact with it.
Rinse the entire area well with plain, cold water. Then, because soap batter also leaves behind an oily residue, follow up with a thorough cleaning with a mild soap (dish soap is perfect). Again, rinse with plain water.
For Lye Granules, Lye Solution, or Soap Batter on Towels or Rags, Rinse with Plain Water Then Vinegar
If you get any form of lye or soap batter on towels or cloth items you don’t want to throw away, rinse under running water for several minutes. And here’s where vinegar IS helpful!
After the towel is thoroughly rinsed with water, give it a second rinse with vinegar. This will neutralize any residual alkalinity. Launder your towel as usual.
If You Spill Lye or Raw Soap Batter On Yourself, Immediately Rinse with PLAIN, COLD WATER
For a few specks of lye granules, small splashes of lye water, or splatters of soap batter on your skin, rinse, rinse, rinse with copious amounts of plain, cold water. After you’ve rinsed thoroughly, wash the area well with a mild soap and rinse some more.
If you’ve had a major mishap and lye solution or soap batter is soaking your clothes, remove them immediately (Strip, girl! Now’s not the time for modesty!) and follow the suggestions above.
Call the paramedics or visit the emergency room if the spill covers large areas of your skin and/or has seriously burned you.
Major spills like this are extremely rare, though. More common are those tiny splashes and drips.
If you notice a drip or splatter of raw soap batter or lye solution on your skin, stop soaping and clean the area. Yes, I want you to stop soaping and take care of those splatters right away, even if you’re in the middle of an oh-so-intricate-and-perfect butterfly swirl.
There will be another batch of perfect soap, friend, so take care of your skin first.
Sometimes you won’t see a splash, but will feel a slight itching or stinging. Yep, that’s a tiny bit of lye on your skin.
So, if you notice stinging or itching, take a few minutes to wash that area well with a mild soap and lots of plain cold water and you’ll be on your soapy way without any issues.
Lye Mishaps Are Rare, So Don’t Let This Scare You Off Soap Making!
If you’re careful, you will most likely go your entire soapy life without experiencing a major lye spill. But as with anything it pays to be aware, so knowing how to neutralize lye spills when making soap (safely!) is a must.
You may also want to check out these articles in the Farm Girl’s Soap Making Safely Series:
Get The FREE Cold Process Soap Making Cheat Sheet + Lye Safety Checklist
Are you ready to start soap making? I’d like to offer you this printable step-by-step guide to walk you through the entire cold process soap making procedure, plus the lye handling checklist to remind you of those key safety steps and keep you safe.
I’m also including a cold process soap recipe that is moisturizing, lathery, and so simple to make. Perfect for beginning soap makers!
These cheat sheets and soap recipe are typically reserved only for students within my course How To Make Soap From Scratch (Even If You’re Crazy Scared of Lye). But because I’m committed to helping you become a confident soap maker, I’m offering them to you!
All you have to do is sign up below and I’ll send it to your inbox.
Get the FREE cold process soap making cheat sheet + lye safety checklist. Sign up now!
Want more info about making your own soap from scratch? Check out the Ultimate Guide to Cold Process Soap Making for Beginners post