Lye water (sometimes called ‘Lime Water’) is a strong (caustic) liquid that is safe to use in very small amounts in cooking, but it can be dangerous if lye water is swallowed undiluted straight from the bottle. It can cause severe corrosive burns to the throat, oesophagus and stomach with permanent damage if swallowed. Children who have accidentally swallowed lye water have needed urgent medical attention in hospital.
By law, lye water must meet strict safety requirements if it is sold for household use.
Lye water sold in Australia might be stronger than the cooking ingredient used in Africa and other countries.
Lye water is an ingredient used in Asian and African cooking for cooking meat, rice or noodles and vegetables like corn, beans, maize or okra to soften or add flavour or keep vegetables colour. It is usually added as part of the recipe in small amounts (spoonfuls).
Lye water can also be used in soap making and as a cleaning agent.
Lye water is a strongly alkaline (caustic) solution which can cause severe injury in the form of corrosive burns, especially to the throat, oesophagus and stomach if swallowed. These injuries can result in hospitalisation and permanent damage in severe cases.
Lye water can be dangerous if:
- accidentally swallowed straight from the bottle, which can burn your mouth, throat and stomach
- splashed on skin, which can burn your eyes and skin.
Alternatives to use
Salt crystals or powders that do the same job as lye water include:
- bicarbonate soda (bicarb)
- sodium carbonate
- sodium bicarbonate
- lye salt
- soda ash
- magadi soda
Ways to minimise harm
- do not store lye water where children can reach the bottle, for example in the fridge
- do not forget that children can climb up to reach cupboards
- do not measure lye water into a cup or spoon and then leave it on the bench where children could accidentally swallow it – add it to your cooking straight away
- do not pour lye water into another container for storage
- make sure you put the lid on tightly
- put the bottle away straight after you have finished using it
- if swallowed undiluted, phone 000 immediately for SA Ambulance Service (or 112 from mobile phones)
Translated fact sheets for parents
Translated fact sheets detailing some of this information is available in the following languages:
- Arabic (PDF 1072KB)
- Dinka (PDF 223KB)
- English (PDF 189KB)
- French (PDF 202KB)
- Kirundi (PDF 270KB)
- Sudanese (PDF 313KB)
- Swahili (PDF 218KB)
For further information on lye water, contact SA Health's Scientific Services on
Phone: (08) 8226 7100