We all love soap and its rich and creamy lather, it foams away dirt, gets us clean and the scents transport us to faraway places. But, soap is soap, right? Wrong! True soap is made through a series of chemical reactions called saponification. Saponification is the alkaline hydrolysis of the fatty acid esters or in layman’s terms, fat/oils become soap due to a chemical reaction with a strong alkali, typically sodium hydroxide aka lye.
Did you know that using different oils, liquids, etc. create different types of soap or soap properties. For example, adding beer instead of water can create a sudsier bar. Adding aloe to a soap recipe creates a super moisturizing soap that may also help psoriasis sufferers. Using different oils can definitely make a difference in a bar of soap. Olive oil was the original oil used over a millennia ago to make Castile soap. Originally called Aleppo, this olive oil and laurel soap originated in Syria and found its way to Castile, Spain, and the Mediterranean via the Silk Road in the 12th century. Crusaders encountered caravans filled with Aleppo soap and saw how it was made during their stay in the Holy Lands. Returning home to Europe, they brought large quantities of various products that were unavailable to the region at the time and subsequently figured out how to re-create those items using local ingredients and tools that were available to them. The original Castile soap was the soap of kings and queens, peasants used other fats and lard available along with ashes to create a soap they could afford, which wasn’t as luxurious as Castile.
Many soap makers go to the dollar store to purchase their ingredients. I have nothing against dollar stores, but you cannot be assured that that inexpensive bottle of olive oil, is actually olive oil. Many articles have come out recently about the industry-wide olive oil shortcuts catching many consumers unaware.
More on the olive oil industry scam, here.
Below are several common oils used in soap making, my thoughts on them and which ones should be avoided.
Olive oil- As long as it’s a Grade A cold pressed olive oil, from a reputable source, it will make a wonderful, rich and moisturizing soap. An organic olive oil is best but can be pricey. Avoid any soap made with olive oil pomace.
Palm Oil- Avoid at all costs. Palm oil is decimating the environment of the Orangutans and Sumatran Tiger, each may go extinct in the wild in a few years. Organic Red Palm oil is no different than regular Palm Oil because the forest was destroyed in order to plant the palm trees. There is a group of farmers that own Palm Plantations that have banded together vowing not to deforest any more land, but they’ve already damaged the environment. More on the devastating effects of Palm oil here. Palm oil is cheap and can be found throughout the cosmetic and food industry, many candy bars, Nutella, etc. use Palm oil.
Grapeseed Oil- Grapeseed oil is a great oil in theory, but Petrochemicals are used to extract the oil from the seed. And, grapes are one of the most highly sprayed fruits in the industry with an average of 56 pesticide residues on each grape, more on that here.
Coconut Oil- Coconut oil is great! It makes a wonderful, foamy bar of soap, is sustainable for the environment, and coconut oil can be easily found as an organic option.
Canola Oil- Canola comes from the Rapeseed plant, a member of the mustard family, it was genetically engineered and developed in Canada. It should really be named “Rapeseed Oil”, but who would buy that? It was given the name “Canola Oil” which stands for “Canadian oil, low acid” or “Canadian Oil”. Rapeseed oil was originally used in light industry as a penetrating oil, not for human consumption. The FDA had actually banned it for human consumption in 1956. The seed is heated to the point where it goes rancid and processed using petrochemicals and solvents. Hexane, a byproduct of gasoline production is typically found in the finished product. Canola oil can be used and is found in many pesticides on the market today, it’s also highly toxic to aquatic species.
Vegetable oil- are oils that have been extracted from various seeds. The most common include rapeseed (canola oil), soybean, corn, sunflower, safflower, peanut, etc. Unlike coconut oil or olive oil that can be extracted by pressing, these new-fangled oils have to be extracted in very unnatural ways. Since 88% of the corn and 93% of the soy produced in the US is GMO, it goes without saying to skip it.
There are numerous other oils that are used in soap making, we’ve touched on a few of the most commonly used in the industry.
Bottom line, know what you’re putting on the human body’s largest organ, an organ that will absorb whatever it comes in contact with. And, know your soap maker, make sure they use quality ingredients. Also, after reading this article, you may want to rethink the oils that you use for cooking.
Next, fragrance oils vs. essential oils