Critical Safety Measures Every Smart Soapmaker Should Know
When many soapmakers first start out, they don't give much thought to how to make handmade soap safely. And when they do, their efforts are typically focused on the caustic nature of lye, and not on any of the other ingredients or important safety measures. And even still, misinformation runs rampant on something as universally important as dealing with sodium hydroxide.
I was no exception! I made my first batch of soap without gloves or goggles, and simply mixed my lye solution outside before diving in. It didn't take long for me to realize that in order to make handmade soap safely, I needed to take a lot more steps than I was!
How to Make Handmade Soap Safely
While this should be a very basic topic for many soapmakers, I think that a lot of important parts of how to make handmade soap safely are typically overlooked. It took me years before I realized and put into place all the necessary safety measures I should have had from the start!
I hope this list of seven safety measures will help you get your wheels turning on how you can make cold process soap more safely!
Safety Measure #1: Understanding the Ingredients
Throughout the hundreds of classes, talks, and workshops I've taught, tons of soapmakers have told me that their biggest obstacle in starting soapmaking was their fear of sodium hydroxide (lye). And while soapmakers always conquer that fear by diving in, they don't always do so armed with the proper information.
Consult a Safety Data Sheet for Each Ingredient You Use
To ensure you know how to safely use and store an ingredient, consult a SDS (Safety Data Sheet) for that ingredient from your supplier. If your supplier does not have a SDS for an ingredient available, you may want to ask them to supply you with one and consider finding a new supplier, if they will not give you one. In the mean time, you will likely be able to find and consult another supplier's SDS for the ingredient.
For instance, in the case of sodium hydroxide, many soapmakers for years have passed around the knowledge that they should clean lye solution spills and splashes with vinegar, when in reality, many SDS specifically state not to use any neutralizing agents! Here's two SDS examples for sodium hydroxide:
You'll notice that if you spill lye solution on your skin, you should remove affected clothing, rinse with WATER, and consult a doctor or Poison Control. Splash it in your eye? Rinse with water. Get it in your mouth? Rinse with water. Only in the event of a small liquid spill does it ever recommend neutralizing (and even then, a spill kit is preferred), followed by rinsing with lots of water!
Research Your Ingredients Independently Before Using Them
Besides consulting a SDS before you use an ingredient, you should also do your research! Should you be using the ingredient in the manner that you plan? Is it safe to use the ingredient? With the ingredient react to another ingredient or react in the environment of the formulation? "I didn't know" isn't an appropriate response to improper ingredient usage! It's your job as a formulator to know. ;)
Safety Measure #2: Using Accurate Measurements
I'm often asked for the number of drops or how many cups of an ingredient to use in my tutorials, and the answer is always: I don't know, you should be weighing your ingredients! Measuring your ingredients by volume makes it extremely easy to use inaccurate amounts of an ingredient in a formula. You should always weigh your ingredients on an accurate digital scale for precision.
When manufacturing for resale, this includes your colorants and other additives! When I first started my business, I weighed everything to make the first batch of a product and entered those weights in my Soapmaker records. From there on out, all ingredients were weighed, even micas, natural colorants, etc. So, why do we use volume measurements for tutorials and as hobbyist? Most likely because it's easier and a lot of hobby soapmakers do not have a robust scale that can weigh small amounts of ingredients.
Keeping Your Scale Accurate
Once you have a quality digital scale to weigh your ingredients, it's not a set and forget it scenario! In order to make handmade soap safely time after time, your scale needs to remain accurate. How do you do that? Check it for accuracy often, and calibrate your scale periodically or as needed.
Most scales have a calibration mode, so if you wish to calibrate a scale yourself, refer to your scales manual. Note: it is direly important that you follow the directions exactly! You will need an accurate weight specifically for calibration. For instance, to calibrate a My Weigh KD-8000:
- You need a 5 kg calibration weight
- Turn the scale off and place it on a stable flat surface.
- Press and hold the Power button and the MODE button at the same time, release both keys, and wait for the display to show CALE.
- Place the 5 kg weight on the scale, wait three seconds, and press TARE. Wait for the display to read PASS, and then remove the 5 kg weight.
You'll notice that a calibration weight costs as much or more than the cost of this particular scale, especially depending on the class of the calibration weight!
If you are a hobbyist, you may purchase a smaller lower class calibration weight and check your scale for relative accuracy periodically. If your scale weighs a calibration weight inaccurately, you know it's time to either calibrate your scale or purchase a new one. For instance, a KD-8000 should remain accurate throughout it's lifetime (according to the manufacturer), and is calibrated during the manufacturing process, however, it's important to follow up and check it yourself.
Do you need your scale inspected?
If you are in business, you may need to register or obtain a license for your scale or have it inspected by your state's Department of Weights and Measures. For instance, in Arizona, a license is required for any commercial weighing, measuring or counting device used for commercial purposes in this state. And every scale used for commercial purposes requires having a NTEP Certificate of Conformance.
Keep Yourself in Check
To create a system of checks and balances, I highly recommend weighing each container you use in soapmaking and keeping a list handy. If you forget to tare your scale, it’s as easy as checking your list and subtracting the weight of the container. Knowing the weight of your molds also makes it possible to weigh a finished batch, and determine if you are missing an oil.
Safety Measure #3: Keeping Your Eyes Safe
Most soapmakers have seen the reasons for this safety measure first hand, with a splash of lye solution, a splatter of raw soap, or the sheer amount of particles that fly into the air while using colorants or making lye solution. So, it's safe to say that most soapmakers know they need to protect their peepers - yay!
Both lye solution and raw soap are caustic in nature and can severely injure a soapmaker. It goes without saying that wearing safety glasses or goggles will help prevent any eye injuries. Unless you are some kind of weird regenerating scientific anomaly, you shouldn't be throwing caution to the wind when it comes to protecting them.
From the most basic safety glasses to my favorite, onion goggles, to more heavy duty protection in face shields or full safety goggles, there is an endless array of options to protect your eyes.
Technically, you should be using coverall safety goggles and face shields the provide droplet and splash protection. You are looking for goggles that seal around the eye, and provide full eye protection like these options:
- Jackson Safety V90 Shield Clear Anti Fog Lens Protection Goggle
- TR Industrial Anti-Fog Approved Wide-Vision Lab Safety Goggle
- Uvex Stealth OTG Safety Goggles with Anti-Fog/Anti-Scratch Coating
- 3M Maxim Safety Splash Goggle, Over-the-Glass, Clear Anti-Fog Lens
Another important step is making sure to have running water available to wash your eyes, if you need it. I haven't had running water in my studio space in years, so I always make sure to have an eyewash station setup and ready to go.
Safety Measure #4: Keeping Your Skin Safe
Soapmaking is hands-on, so it makes sense to protect your hands! All soapmakers should wear gloves that can withstand exposure to lye solution, raw soap, and fragrance materials. I personally prefer nitrile gloves, as I'm allergic to latex. They come in a variety of lengths, so you can get more forearm coverage, if you wish. My favorite thing about nitrile gloves is that they are used in a variety of professions, so there are a ton of sizing options out there.
Some soapmakers use dishwashing gloves. Unfortunately, dishwashing gloves tend to be bulky which can hinder your dexterity (and most are made of latex!)
Other Skin Protection Measures
Some soapmakers also wear long sleeves, an apron, and/or a labcoat to protect their skin and clothing. If you choose to wear long sleeves or any other skin protection, ensure that it's either waterproof or can be removed easily. When wearing long sleeves, a splash of lye solution will soak into the fabric and sit on your skin. In order to rinse your skin and dilute the lye solution for removal, you need to remove the fabric as well.
Safety Measure #5: Breathing Clean Air
A lot of soapmakers are aware of the dangers of mixing lye solution and the resulting kickback of particles and fumes. The most common precaution most soapmakers follow is either mixing lye solution outside or under an exhaust hood in a kitchen. A sudden change in wind direction outside can completely negate any attempt at safety outside, and an exhaust hood in a kitchen is not likely designed to extract caustic particles!
While mixing lye solution can be disastrous for your respiratory system, soapmakers often forget that essential oils, fragrance oils, and colorant particles are also in the air we breathe. All of these ingredients hang out in the air long after you've made a batch of soap, especially as soap sits on a shelf and cures for weeks at a time in your space.
Wear a Respirator
I highly recommend snagging and wearing a respirator while making soap. You want a respirator with replaceable cartridges that filter both particulate and volatile organic compounds. Some filters are rendered ineffective by oil droplets in the air, so it's important to check which filters are compatible with the ingredients you are using. The upside to using a respirator is that full face shield respirators are available, which kills two birds with one stone!
Here's options for a half face respirator, full face respirator, and cartridges that will likely work for any soapmaker:
- 3M 6502QL Rugged Comfort Quick Latch Half Facepiece Reusable Respirator
- 3M Ultimate FX Full Facepiece Reusable Respirator FF-401, Respiratory Protection
- 3M Organic Vapor Cartridge/Filter 60921, P100 Respiratory Protection
Keeping the Air in Your Space Clean
Besides using a respirator, you should consider a fan exhaust system or fume extractor in your space to help clean the air regularly, both during making and curing of your soap. Before using a fan exhaust or installing one, make sure to check with your local environmental regulations to make sure you don't need to use a specific kind of filter or if you need a certain kind of system.
If you have a studio space that doesn't accommodate installation of a system, an air purifier can help clean the air (but is not typically enough on its own.) Again, you need to remember that you likely are dealing with both particulate and VOCs, so keep that in mind when choosing an air purifier.
Safety Measure #6: Having Emergency Backup on Hand
Most safety practices are active means of protection, like wearing personal protective gear and being respectful of the ingredients you are using. However, having proactive safety measures in place can also be a lifesaver.
I don't know a single soapmaker who hasn't experienced some kind of accidental spill, whether it's tipping a soap pot or lye solution container, spilling oils, or dropping glass fragrance bottles! Being clumsy, I've done it all. From spilling 35 pounds of castor oil on my studio floor to dropping full 16 ounce glass bottle of essential oil and more, being prepared for spills has saved my hide on numerous occasions.
Be Prepared for Spills
For oil or water spills, a basic granular absorbent is necessary to have on hand. (In a pinch, a giant bag of clay cat litter also works. Ask me how I know...) For hobbyist soapmakers who don't have a lot of ingredients on hand, a small bag or container of absorbent or portable universal spill kit will work just fine. For production soapmakers, larger spill kits for each ingredient type are necessary. To determine how big of a spill kit you need, evaluate the maximum size of an ingredient you may work with, whether it's a drum of oils or a five gallon bucket of lye solution, and the type of ingredient (oil, water, hazmat, etc.)
Keep Information at Your Fingertips
You also want to keep all safety information on hand and easy to access. I personally keep a binder of Safety Data Sheets for every ingredient on hand, organized alphabetically, so I can easily find information about an ingredient if needed. I also recommend having a contact list on hand for any needs, such as poison control, hazardous waste disposal, emergency personnel, medical contacts, etc.
Safety Measure #7: Creating A Plan & Following a Process
Over time, all soapmakers develop a flow to their soapmaking process that actually helps them make handmade soap safely. How so? When you always follow a specific protocol, you prevent mistakes and find issues before they blow up in your face.
Personally, I like to prep everything before I get started. Here’s the order in which I flow:
- Make my lye solution (or weigh my premixed lye solution)
- Weigh and melt my soaping oils (or weigh my masterbatched oils)
- Weigh and add my fragrance to my soaping oils (so I can’t forget to add it later)
- Measure and premix my colorants (in measuring cups big enough for the soap to be added)
- Check my measurements and prepped ingredients against my formula
- Clean my work surface (to give me a completely clear area to work in)
- Lay out my ingredients for the batch to my left, and my mold or any swirling/texturing tools to the right
- As each ingredient is added to the soap pot, I move the empty container to the right (so when I’m all done, there should be nothing to the left)
- Double check my formula against the empty containers, and the total soap weight in the mold versus the formula
This process prevents me from forgetting anything in my formula, as well as minimizing spills or mishaps because there is a specific order and flow. There's two steps that require me to double check what I'm doing to make sure everything is accurate and precise.
Keep Records of Your Batches
In addition to developing a flow to your soapmaking process, keeping top notch records will also help you make handmade soap safely. For every batch of soap you make, there should be a record of the ingredients used, the date it was made, and how long it was cured.
For hobbyists, I recommend printing out your formula from SoapCalc or Soapmaker 3 and putting it in a plastic sheet protector before making the soap. Then you can use a dry erase marker to make any notes or adjustments, as well as check off ingredients as you go. When you are finished, you can print a modified formula based on your notes, put the date on it, and then place it in a three ring binder that compiles all of your "made batches" into a recording system.
If the batch doesn't turn out right, or something goes wrong, you have the tools at your disposal to learn from it right away! As an added bonus to the practice, it will get you in the habit of proper record keeping should you ever decide to start a business.
Have a Plan for Safety
Another proactive planning step you should take is creating safety plans which dictate how you fix or handle a problem. You should have a plan for:
- How to determine if your handmade soap is safe to use
- How to clean up a spill of each ingredient type
- What to do with soap that is lye heavy, oil heavy, heavily fragranced, etc.
Make sure to write each plan out step by step. Have your spill plan posted in a visible place in your soapmaking area. You never know what might happen, whether or not you will be present to clean up the spill, or if you might be injured and unable to clean it up. It's a good idea to indicate where you keep your Safety Data Sheets in the spill clean up plan, too!
Do you really need all these safety measures?
When I talk to soapmakers in classes and workshops about safety, they always question if they really need to implement safety measures that seem extreme. The number one argument is that our products are safe to use, so why would making them be so hazardous?!
When you make soap, you are exposing yourself to huge amounts of ingredients on a regular basis. When using a bar of soap, your body is exposed to a very small portion of final ingredients: saponified oils, fragrance or essential oil, and colorants. However, when you make that soap, you are exposing yourself to ten times and in some cases, a hundred times or thousand times, a single normal exposure level. Plus, every time you make that soap, you are doing it again and again.
Even if you have only made ten batches of soap, with ten bars in each, you have exposed yourself to hundred times the normal ingredients you'd be exposed to in using a bar of that soap.
In fifteen years of soapmaking, I personally have developed an allergy to linalool (a compound found in lavender, basil, thyme, and other essential oils) likely due to overexposure and my ignorance in my early days of soapmaking to appropriate safety gear.
Another soapmaker I know developed such strong allergies that she had to close down her entire company and eliminate ALL fragrances (natural or not) from her life.
You only have one body. Why would you chance damaging it for the rest of your life if you didn't have to? Bare bones personal protective gear doesn't carry a high price tag: you can snag gloves, goggles, and a respirator for $30 or less. I guarantee you spend more on ingredients than that. ;)
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