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I read that the chemicals potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide are extremely corrosive and will cause severe burns but I also see videos of people saying that if you get lye on you, then just wash it off and you’ll be fine. Is that actually ok. The fact that the stuff is sold in hardware stores makes it seem even less dangerous than the warnings make it out to be. Which is it?

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    $\begingroup$ Knifes are sold in hardware stores as well, yet they may cause harm. Indeed, potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide are extremely corrosive and will cause severe burns if you won't wash them off right away. If you will, they won't. That's pretty much the size of it. $\endgroup$ – Ivan Neretin Oct 19 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ The key point about hydroxide contact on your skin is to WASH IT OFF IMMEDIATELY. If you get some on your skin and wash it off it will feel soapy; this is your skin dissolving! $\endgroup$ – Waylander Oct 19 at 8:22
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    $\begingroup$ I have had a student who drank a solution of NaOH by mistake. Although he immediately reacted by drinking bicarbonate, he has now an artificial oesophagus. $\endgroup$ – Maurice Oct 19 at 8:26
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    $\begingroup$ There are developed and deployed artificial burying procedures for dead human bodies being dissolved in pressurized hot sodium hydroxide solution. It takes reportedly few hours. I am not sure I would want to end this way, though. $\endgroup$ – Poutnik Oct 19 at 9:51
  • $\begingroup$ It is like with a flame or hot water. You can safely push your fingers there, if you pull them immediately. If you do not, you are out of luck. Like being poisinous is a question of amount, being harmful is a question of time. With hot water and drawn tea bags, I perform "a kingfisher catching fish" trick by 2 fingers. $\endgroup$ – Poutnik Oct 19 at 9:54
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As noted in the comments, lye burns are very damaging to skin and especially mucous membranes. This damage can be drastically reduced if the lye is washed off as quickly as possible.

One reason that these solutions are considered particularly dangerous is that there is no discomfort immediately upon contact (in contrast to acids, which tend to produce burning sensations immediately). Instead, the affected surface simply feels a bit soapy. As a result, the presence of lye on skin may not be noticed until it is too late to prevent damage by washing.

On a side note, the "it's sold in hardware stores" argument is not a good test for chemical toxicity. There are numerous highly toxic chemicals that can be purchased readily.

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  • $\begingroup$ Lye easily penetrates into the skin, and keeps doing damage for roughly as long as you had it on your fingers after you wash it off. $\endgroup$ – Karl Oct 19 at 18:41
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This is a purely anecdotal example: I once set up a target at a shooting range which involved mixing lye. My hands were damp because I had just wiped off some snow, which provided a tacky surface for some lye to stick against.

About 2-3min later, it itched. About 10min later, it felt like an open wound, because it was; the skin had turned into a "soup" about the size of a penny. I rinsed with soap and water, added a bandage; I have a scar now.

TLDR it's definitely bad for skin.

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