Yes, it takes lye to make soap. Without lye, there can be no saponification in tallow soaps. Lye is the alkali that sets saponification in progress. In fact, it is what splits fats like beef tallow or lard into fatty acids and glycerin, and helps in the formation of soap ‘traces’. However, lye is not easy to handle. While there is no harm in handling tallow or even melting beef suet (except for the continuous crackling sounds), handling lye requires special care. Since it a chemical, it reacts strongly with human beings and everything it comes in contact with. This article will detail on the safety measures that need to be taken while making tallow soaps with lye.
Lye, the alkali: Lye or liquid potash or sodium hydroxide is one of the key ingredients in soap making. It acts as a catalyst (along with water) and converts oils and fats into what we call soap. In ancient times, lye was obtained directly from ashes. Barrel method or ash hopper method was used to extract lye water from ashes using wooden equipments. In today’s advanced world, lye can be obtained directly in the form of crystals. It is actually mixed into water and the mixture is stirred to make what is called lye solution. It is this lye solution which plays an active role in extracting fats from fatty acids.
Lye is often used as a key ingredient in drain openers on account of its ability to convert greasy buildup into a soluble substance. This is why lye should be handled in the same way as drain cleaners, bleach or pool chemicals. If mishandled, lye can cause mild to severe accidents.
1. Lye into water, not water into lye: When you make tallow soaps, it is habitual to put lye crystals into water. NEVER do this. Lye has a very strong chemical reaction with water and can splash it all over – on you and around the place. To avoid any strong reaction, do this lye-water mixing in the outdoors, where there can be least damage to your surroundings. Slowly pour lye into water. Ensure that the water is very cold. Only cold water can reduce the heat caused by lye-water mixing. Also, keep stirring the solution as you pour the lye into water. Only then, you can avoid lye crystal formation at the base of the container.
2. Wear protective gear: This is VERY important. Before you handle lye, wear protective gear – gloves and goggles would do. Ensure you wear rubber gloves and also long sleeves to cover all parts of your skin. If a splash of lye on the floor can spoil everything, imagine what would happen if lye were to affect your skin or body part. So, never handle lye without this protective gear on.
3. Use only plastic or wooden utensils: When using lye, you need to be careful of your utensils too. Use only plastic or wooden stuff. Metal can have a strong reaction with lye and make it intensive and hotter. It is ideal to use a wooden blender for stirring. This is not the case while rendering tallow. You use anything that is convenient to you. However, when you mix lye with tallow, you need to be careful.
4. Be careful not to spill, keep out of reach: Be careful not to spill or splash lye solution. Lye is very caustic and has the potential to cause serious injury or even death if swallowed or can lead to blindness if it makes contact with the eyes. So, at all costs, keep out of reach of children and pets. If by chance, lye spills on your skin or eyes, immediately pour large amounts of cool water on the affected area for 10 minutes or longer. Seek medical care if lye inflicts serious damage on your skin or eyes.