Sunday, January 31, 2010

All About Soap

It constantly amazes me the number and amount of things we take for granted on a day to day basis. Personally, I like to think I'm rather smart. For all of my modern day "knowledge" if I was thrown in the wilderness, I likely wouldn't live past a season. Think for an instant about everything you use without thinking about it - electricity, microwave ovens, natural gas heating, internal combustion engines. Part of this blog was attempting to understand such things, and what better place than something people have taken for granted in our society for decades - soap.

Now, I haven't read the book "Fight Club", but I don't think it's without reason that a major component was soap. Given that (hopefully) everyone uses it on a regular basis, you'd think people in general would know where it came from. As I discovered on attempting to make soap for myself, you'd be wrong. People don't.

When I announced my intent to a few people to find out how soap was made, I ran into multiple misconceptions on a repeated basis. The biggest, and most substantial, also demonstrated the common level of knowledge -

"Lye soap, doesn't that suck?"

I believe this is the unholy combination of marketing and history. Home made soaps where often made by combining potash with animal fat. After burning a hardwood, water run through the ashes of the wood will pick up Potassium Hydroxide (POH). This water could then be added to animal fat to create a surfactant which we call "soap". A surfactant is simply a substance that lets oil and water mix.

Obtaining, and burning, hardwood, then leaching out the required compounds is something of an involved and time consuming task. So, I, like many others, took a short cut and purchased what I needed, in the form of "100% Lye".

Now, at some point the term "lye" stopped referring to "Potassium Hydroxide" and instead started referring to a very similar "Sodium Hydroxide". Sodium hydroxide however, can be manufactured from a simple chemical process involving water, electricity, and table salt. While lye is somewhat dangerous to deal with, it's been sold as years as drain cleaner, and is also used in other janitorial applications. Go figure Fin would know something about dealing with it before I even brought it home.

In fact, I quickly discovered "cold process soap making" is something of a popular hobby across the states. A multitude of websites, how to guides, and instructions are out there. Many of the "soapers" will say they make "old fashioned lye soap", and many will sell their soap online or at places like Whole Foods. For a nice premium you can find "organic vegan soap". Others will tell you about the many evils of store bought soaps, all the while advertising their own "all natural soap made with saponified oils".

One quality local vendor is Indigo Wild - manufacturers of "Zum Soap" that you'll find at a multitude of locations. At the store, you'll find it a lot more expensive than other soaps. Now, I think Zum soap is in general a high quality product, Fin and I have been using it a while now. We both have very sensitive skin, and Zum tends to work better than any other brand we've tried. Talking to a Whole Foods hippy about Indigo Wild products versus what you'd buy at the supermarket, would likely make Zum soap sound completely different than any of your discount soaps. While I might agree on quality, the same argument doesn't jump into "what the soap is".

Looking at your standard store purchased soaps (we'll ignore those anti-bacterial for now as well as body washes), you'd likely see the following ingredient list:


Allow me to simply all that for you: Saponified animal fat and vegetable fats, salt, and Tetrasodium edta

Now, the Vegan had one small point - if you're vegetarian and/or animal killing is high on your "do not" list, store bought soaps tend to have animal fat in them. More than likely, a part of your soap is coming from rendered animal fats. Also note, I didn't include any added glycerin in there - that's part of what you get saponifying fats.

The only real additive worth noting in the majority of non-premo-organic soaps is Tetrasodium EDTA. Now, there is some valid concern over the chemical, it's effects, and it's safety. There are a couple different websites out there making it seem completely safe, and a cancer inducing death toxin. In general, it's purpose in soap is to make it less reactive. The vast majority of your "natural soaps", will not contain it.

After a weekend of effort, I managed to produce my own soap, comparable in quality to those of premium soap manufacturers. And while, Fin and I will be making soap for our own reasons, we could just as easily go the store and purchase a similar product without being confused by the "Natural" on the logo. Some of the natural soaps might be better quality, but some aren't anything more than repackaged bargain bin discount soap.

In summary, the assumptions we make on something we use on a daily basis can lead to surprising results when pulling back the covers and taking a look at how things really work.

As I continue making soap, I hope to post a bit about it here, what and how I did, how well it worked, and so on.

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