The Soap Box

Soap and Saponification

Saponification is the term given to a chemical reaction that occurs when a vegetable oil or animal fat is mixed with a strong alkali. This produces two items, soap and glycerin. Water is also present, but it does not contribute to the chemical reaction. The water is only a vehicle for the alkali, which is otherwise a dry ingredient.

The word saponification literally means "soap making". "Sapo" is the root of the Latin word for soap. The French word for soap is savon. Soap making as an art that has its origins in ancient Babylon nearly 5000 years ago.

The oils used in handmade soap today are selected by the soap maker for the characteristics they will impart to the final soap. Coconut oil creates a great deal of glycerin, makes a big bubbly lather, and is somewhat drying to the skin but is quite stable. Olive oil has natural antioxidants and its soap offers a creamy lather. Tallow, or rendered beef makes a nice white, lovely bar that is firm and creates abundant lather. Many other oils can be used, each for a specific reason including any animal fats that are collected, these also be used in soap making.

The alkali used in modern soap is either potassium hydroxide, which is used to make soft soap or liquid soap because of its greater solubility, or sodium hydroxide, which is used to make bar soap. The common term for the alkali simply became "lye", which interestingly enough is not short for alkali, but finds it origins in Old English.

The soaps made in Early America, in the country and on farms for utilitarian purposes became known as "lye soap". That term lends to the misconception that soap made from lye is a harsh soap that would irritate your skin. Back then the soaps of old got a bad name because it usually had an excessive amount of alkali in it. It was difficult to get the proportions correct, the measuring techniques were quite crude, and knowledge of soap and it’s chemistry was elementary or non-existent. Lye was originally extracted from wood ashes using water, a very un-exacting process. In early America great forests were burnt down strictly for the ashes produced. It cleared the land and the land owner could make a good amount of money shipping it off to England for their large soap factories.

A fact about modern handcrafted soap, it that when made with lye to get true soap, it has no lye in the final product. It has all interacted with the oils and been transformed into soap and glycerin. Both the lye and the oils have lost their original characteristics.

Another curious fact about modern soap is that most common soap found in grocery stores are made in mass-produced factories, and have small amounts of excess alkali in it. Also, it has had all of its naturally-occurring glycerin removed so it can be sold as a separate commodity. That’s right, to add to the profit line. An important difference between most commercial soaps and handmade soaps is that the glycerin is left in each bar and thus retains its amazing natural moisturizing abilities.

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© copyright J.R.LIGGETT LTD. 2007