You Have Soap or Shampoo in Your Eye. Now What?

Don’t panic. Swear if you want. But definitely do this


Closed eye with soapy bubbles

You approach life with eyes wide-open. This is generally a good thing. One exception: in the shower. 

No matter how careful you are about keeping soap and shampoo out of your eyes (and you should definitely be very careful), it happens. And it’s no joke. The pain can last for an hour or more and make you worry that you’ve done permanent damage. 

But as long as you rinse your eye thoroughly and properly (more on that later), there’s no cause for alarm. Here’s what you need to know, including when it may be wise to see an eye doctor.

Why Soap Burns So Much

The front surface of our eyes is very sensitive, says Cristen Adams, O.D., a primary-care optometrist at America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses in Pittsburg, Calif. Any little bump or scratch can be painful. But soap can feel extra irritating because it messes with the pH of our eyes. 

A measure of the acidity in an environment, pH is indicated with a number between 0 and 14. Substances with a pH under 7 are acidic, while those with a pH over 7 are alkaline. Eyes have a pH around 7, which is neutral. Many soaps have a pH range of 9-10 and some shampoos have a pH range of 7-8. 

“Eyes have an especially low tolerance for alkaline substances, and so when soap gets into the eyes, the difference in pH causes them to burn,” Dr. Adams says.

Left unchecked, the soap could damage mucous membranes, which can lead to swelling and infection, Dr. Adams explains. But thankfully, the irritation causes reflex tears. “These tears are the eye’s way of washing out the soap,” Dr. Adams says.

That said, tears alone often don’t do the trick quickly enough to satisfy our modern-day (read: low) pain thresholds. You can give them a hand by flushing your eyes with plenty of water. Pure water has a pH of 7. It’s neutral, just like your eye itself. Normally, you don’t want to use regular water to flush your eye because it may have contaminants—a sterile over-the-counter eye wash is best. But this is an exception to that rule. 

Because soap in your eyes hurts so much, most people rush to rinse it out. That’s good. Acting fast means the surface of your eye has been exposed to only very small amounts of soap and it will recover quickly.

3 Steps to Quick Relief

When your eyes are exposed to soap or shampoo, resist the impulse to rub. Rubbing spreads the detergent around, which only makes things worse. It can also push it into the cornea, Dr. Adams says, which you definitely want to avoid, because that can lead to an abrasion.

When soap gets in your eyes, follow these steps:

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water if they’re not already clean.
  2. If you are wearing contact lenses, remove them.
  3. At the sink or in the shower, use a gentle stream of cool water to flush out your eye. Continue flushing until the burning sensation is no longer noticeable. 

This can take longer than you think. Sometimes you need to run cool water into your eye for up to 40 minutes to remove all residue.

Eye drops, artificial lubricants, or your own tears can help relieve any lingering sensitivity during the days after soap-gate. But if your eyes still feel irritated, go to your doctor so they can take a look.

Your doc may rinse your eye and check the pH several times to ensure it’s normal and no soap residue is hiding where it doesn’t belong.

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