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Soapmakers: Why You Shouldn't Use Vinegar if You Come into Contact with Lye

It was one of the first things I learned when I began making my own soap; I read it in books and on the internet:

"Always keep a jug of vinegar on hand when you are working with lye.  Vinegar neutralizes lye."

Soapers, have you heard this?  Do you practice the habit of keeping vinegar nearby when you make your soaps?  So did I, until recently, when I read an interesting post on a soap forum, and then decided to research the claim myself.

Vinegar can make lye burns worse.

While it is true that vinegar (an acid) will neutralize lye (a base), there are two things that are troublesome regarding the use of vinegar on skin in contact with lye (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide):

1. Just as water does, vinegar will create intense heat when in contact with lye.

When vinegar and lye are mixed, the neutralization reaction taking place is exothermic (gives off heat), just as is the dissolution of lye into water.  Therefor, using either vinegar or water to rinse away lye will produce heat, and have the potential to burn the skin.

If both will burn, why not use the vinegar?

2. Very large amounts of vinegar must be used to rinse away and neutralize lye.

When I read the safety precautions many Soapers were putting out there, I pictured pouring a splash of vinegar out onto the lye, and then the lye being neutralized.  In reality, vinegar is a diluted solution of acetic acid, and is actually made up mostly of water.  Which means that you would have to flush with copious amounts of vinegar, possibly necessitating dumping a gallon or more of vinegar out onto yourself.

With the amount needed, it makes far more sense to just turn on the sink or jump into the shower, rather than fumble with opening a vinegar jug and trying to pour it out onto the lye.  When making soap, you should then be sure that your work area is in close proximity to a source of running water.  Usually, this is not a problem since most people tend to do their soaping in the kitchen, which is generally equipped with a sink.  An even better bet would be to use your shower, if the bathroom is close enough, since you can easily get your entire body under the running water if need be.

What should you do if your skin comes into contact with lye?

1. If the lye is in solid form (like flakes or pellets), first gently brush as much off as possible.

2. Immediately flush exposed skin in cool water for at least 15 minutes. A shower is ideal, but any source of clean, running water that you can get to is fine.

3. Be sure to remove any contaminated clothing (even if it means you are ripping your pants off in the kitchen).

4. Once the lye has been completely rinsed away, an emollient can be applied, such as aloe vera, jojoba oil, or cocoa butter; or, you can now apply vinegar (diluted by half with water) to the burn, as vinegar is a good home remedy for burns.

5. For serious injury, seek medical attention immediately.

Making Soap Is Not Dangerous

I may have made soap-making seem like a risky and dangerous practice.  I assure you, it is not!  I have been making my own soap for years, and I have never once burned myself (knock on wood).  A little common sense is all you need.

Safety wise, I view making soap in the same way I view cooking.  I would never slosh around a pot of boiling water or leave it in a spot where my child could reach it.  I love to cook, and I would never give it up because there is a rare chance that I could get burned by a hot pan.  The same goes for making soap and working with lye.  I just use my head and:

  • Make sure everyone in the home understands that I am working with a caustic material, and that they should not touch it.  I even make little signs that I tape to my containers as reminders.

  • I have small children in the house, so I keep all ingredients up out of reach, far from the edges of tables and counters, so that no curious fingers can pull them down.
  • I make sure I have time set aside and minimal distractions during soap making.  Pay attention and don't rush.

I only write this post because despite the fact that I have absolutely zero fear that I will ever seriously injure myself or anyone else during soap making, I know that in rare cases, accidents do happen.  If I were to accidentally dump a can of lye out all over myself, I would hate to find out the hard way that the splash of vinegar isn't going to do the trick.

***If you have never made soap before, but would like to learn, a simple shortening soap is a good place to get started.  Please see:

How to Make Soap for Beginners (Part I)

How to Make Soap for Beginners (Part II)

Homemade 100% Lard Soap


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks for this post. I am looking around trying to get a better picture of just how concerned I should be about lye coming in contact with other things. It seems that soapmakers think about lye the way moms in the 90's thought about germs. Perhaps it is justified. Perhaps it's not. I'd like to know at what point it's safe to put the emptied, rinsed container that held the lye water into the dishwasher. If it goes through the wash cycle, will the rest of the washed dishes have traces of it, that when dried onto the dishes will then be contaminating our drinking vessels? Do I need to buy separate vessels only for soapmaking after all?


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