What is Soap?
Soap is something that surrounds us. Whether it’s your kitchen, bathroom, laundry room, your housecleaning closet or maybe even your garden shed, you are likely surrounded by different types of soap. We know we need to use it every day, but you’ve probably never sat down and wondered, just WHAT exactly is soap?
The Chemistry of Soap
Soap is a fatty acid made from the chemical reaction between sodium or potassium hydroxide and some kind of fat. There, that’s the simple, not so scientific explanation. The process of making soap is called saponification. During saponification, the molecules in fats and oils, called triglycerides bracket three fatty acids, one glycerol bracket and are hydrolyzed into free fatty acids and combined with alkali. If you’re not great at chemistry, don’t worry. You don’t need to understand this to be able to use and enjoy soap, just stick with me here.
The simple explanation is this: Soap is an emulsifier, which means it allows oil and water to mix. Typically, oil attracts dirt, then because oil and water don’t mix, it’s very difficult to wash the dirt off with plain water. How many times have you tried to rinse the dirt off your hands with the garden hose, but it just sticks and doesn’t want to come off? Exactly. By using soap and water, you can effectively clean the majority of household messes.
Types of Soap
The type of soap you use for your situation is going to vary depending on what you’re are trying to wash off. If you need something to wash your face daily, you’re going to want something that is more moisturizing and gentle, rather than something super scrubby for getting all that yard grime off your hands after you’ve been gardening. If you’re washing dishes (or cleaning your hands after using something greasy), you want something with a higher cleansing value. The higher the cleansing, the less moisturizing it’s going to be. This is because cleansing is going to strip more oils off your skin, or the surface you’re scrubbing. Generally speaking, the more oil removed, the more dirt removed, but your also don’t want to dry your skin out either.
Different people have different skin types too, so what works for you might not work for your family member, or friend. Especially when it comes to homemade soaps, things can vary a lot between makers, and even between the same recipes made by the same maker. I personally have four recipes that I use most commonly. They are all a mix of different food grade oils and lye. Yes, lye. Because without lye, there is no soap.
Is There Lye in Your Soap?
Many people are intimidated by the concept of lye because it sounds super scary. Lye is the common term for sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. Sometimes it’s also called caustic soda, but should never be confused with baking soda. Lye and baking soda are not remotely the same thing. Typically, sodium hydroxide is used when a person wants to make a hard bar of soap and potassium hydroxide is for liquid soap. Sometimes they are both used together, such as in my natural shave soap. There are various reasons for using both, and it just depends on the recipe and the properties that the maker is trying to obtain.
There’s a reason lye can sometimes be used as a drain cleaner. It can be a dangerous chemical if used improperly. It’s important to wear proper PPE, such as gloves and goggles with working with it. Small children and pets must be prevented from accessing it, and it’s important to clean up even the smallest of spills immediately. Despite this, there’s no need to be afraid of it. Just like any other chemical, use the proper precautions, and you will be fine.
If lye is so dangerous, why is soap safe?
Remember in chemistry how every chemical reaction has a limiting factor? Soap recipes are carefully formulated so that there are always more oils than the lye can saponify. This means all the lye will be used up, and there will be a slight amount of leftover oils in the soap. This means the caustic nature of the lye has been completely neutralized and the soap is now safe to use. That being said, it’s important to remember that the saponification process can take a few days, so soap batter will also be caustic until the chemical reaction is finished. This means that the containers used to make soap need to be kept away from vulnerable people and pets until they can be properly cleaned too.
Ready to Purchase Some Soap?
Hopefully this helps you understand the process I use to make the soap you know and love. If you haven’t tried my soaps yet, and you’re overwhelmed by the abundance of options, let me make a couple suggestions:
If you want a really simple, gentle soap for your face and body, get this, the smoothest, most basic soap you’ll every try.
If you need something calming try this Lavender Soap