|The oils used in
soapmaking are from vegetable or animal sources. Oils and fats are
dense, fatty and non-volatile in nature and consist of triglycerides.
In order to make soap these triglycerides must be broken down into their
components -- fatty acids and glycerol. This happens through the
process of combining fats and/or oils, water and sodium hydroxide. The
process is called saponification.
In reaction with the sodium
ions of the sodium hydroxide fatty acids produce soap. In reaction
with the hydroxide ions the glycerol becomes glycerin. The beauty of
real handmade soap is that the glycerin remains in the the final product.
There are many different fatty
acids and each one has a different soapmaking quality-- such as lathering,
hardness, cleansing ability, gentleness. Because each type
of oil or fat is a distinct combination of these fatty acids, each oil or
fat imparts a distinct characteristic to the resulting soap. In
perfect combination, these oils/fats will produce a hard, long-lasting soap
that quickly produces volumes of rich, luxurious lather and has superior
skin cleansing and conditioning qualities.
Although soapmaking is a
science, discovering that perfect blend of oils and fats is part of the
art of soapmaking. Here are a few of the oils and fats that you
commonly find in real handmade soap and their characteristics. You
will also find some interesting links about each of the oils and fats --
their culture, their manufacture, other uses, etc.
Olive oil, pressed or solvent extracted from the fruit and/or seeds of the
olive tree, is added for its rich, creamy lather, although small bubbles,
and is known for creating a gentle, conditioning bar.
Coconut oil is extracted from the meat (or copra) of the coconut.
Soapmakers that make all vegetable oil/fat soap love coconut oil because it
makes a very hard white bar of soap that quickly produces lots of large
Palm Oil manufactured from the fruit of the palm tree also creates a hard
Extracted from the fruit of the Castorbean Plant, Ricinus communis.
Not really a bean (legume) it is a member of the spurge family. It is also
called Palma Christi.
Soapmakers add castor oil to their formulas
because it enhances lather and has a long shelf life so it is valuable as a
superfat that won't quickly become rancid.
Sunflower oil from the seeds of the beautiful
sunflower, creates a rather soft soap but it is used for its conditioning
Shea butter is made from the fruit of the Karite tree, found largely in West
Africa. Shea butter is added to the soap recipe for its skin care
The 2003 National
Folklife Festival, in Washington, DC. featured traditional shea
Tallow, rendered beef fat, is the classic soapmaking
fat. It is known for producing a hard, very white bar.