Soap Chemistry

Chemistry 101

Bar Soap is formed by mixing oils, plant or animal fat with a strong caustic ingredient called sodium hydroxide, commonly referred to as lye. This is why handcrafted soap is often referred to as "lye soap". When mixed, a process called saponification occurs. Saponification is a Latin word that literally means "turning into soap". During saponfication, the lye is removed and actually no longer exists. The end-product of saponification are glycerin and salts of fatty acids which is soap. Lye is not an ingredient. It's gone! Sometimes we hear of someone that had a bad experience with lye soap as a child. Usually they used grandma's homemade lye soap. Today's soap makers have easy access to lye calculators, formulas and soap processes that assures that the lye completely saponifies. It is no lie, there is no lye, in lye soap! Sorry, I could not resist that.

Chemistry 102

Sodium Hydroxide reacts with the major components of the oils called triglycerides. Triglycerides, as the name implies are basically made up of glycerol with three fatty acids attached to it. (Think of the palm of your hand with three fingers.) The lye breaks up the triglycerides into four components so you now end up with glycerol (commonly called glycerin) and three fatty acids. These fatty acids combine with available ions like sodium or potassium hydroxides (lye) to form 'salts' of the fatty acids. Don’t confuse this with table salt. The term 'salt' is just a chemistry term. These salts of fatty acids are the major components of what we call soap.

Why use different oils?

All oils are not created equal. Each natural plant or animal oil has its own unique mixture of triglycerides giving the oil its unique characteristics. For example, the health benefits of the "Omega-3 Fatty Acids" are well known. This particular combination of triglycerides is found in some fish species and certain plant seeds, like flax seeds. Omega-3 is just a chemistry term describing a particular type of fatty acid. Have you heard the advertisements for a product that claims "7 different moisturizers"? Oils have different properties that give different benefits. Cocoa butter and shea butter (considered oils) are good for eczema, and dermatitis. Hemp seed and grapeseed oils are good for dry and irritated skin. Coconut and castor oils create lather. Palm oil is a natural anti-oxidant and makes the soap long lasting.

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