Thursday, January 8, 2009


"Saponified vegetable oil" is a new phrase you will be seeing more and more of as you start reading the labels of your body/hair washes. Especially on the labels of quality body washes and soaps.

A company that cares about its brand, is using saponified plant oils as the cleanser in its bath products, because it is a traditional way to make soap that doesn't strip the skin of all of its goodness. Plain and simple.

Where did things go wrong? When cosmetics companies realized they could use cheaper surfactants (sodium laurel/laureth sulfate, etc.) that make lots and lots of lather and more lather is good right? It's the way we do things here.

Oy! The jig is up!

Now, it IS possible that sodium laureth sulfate can be listed as an ingredient with (coconut derivative) behind it. Methinks that is ok.

The Humble Soap Bar:
Alchemy or Pure Chemistry: A layman’s guide to unraveling the mysteries of soap

The legend has it that woman washing their clothes downstream from sites of sacrifice first discovered the usefulness of soap. The ancient roman myth states that this originally happened in Rome 1000 B.C, at the foot of Sapo Hill above which regular animal sacrifices were made to the pagan Gods. Tyler Durden cites a more contemporary version in the recent cinema classic Fight Club, that it was in India on the Ganges down from the ceremonial cremation sites that this phenomenon was first appreciated. The fact remains that the combination of rendered fats seeping through the ash of wood fires and into the water created a soapy clay downstream, which was found to assist immensely in these daily chores.

Notwithstanding its long and detailed history from ancient civilisations until today, soap making or the art of saponification has retained a certain mystic element. Disbelief is often the response when a traditional soap-maker explains that a bar of soap is made from the combination oils and lye. Some are shocked and intimidated at the use of lye, which is such a powerful and reactive substance, but mostly there is surprise that oil may be presented as a solid bar of soap through a relatively simple chemical reaction. However, like most artisan traditions processed soapmaking can be preformed by anyone with a little inspiration, patience. and dedication. Cooking is a great comparison, in which the combination of the good and carefully selected ingredients, mixed and stirred at the right temperature and time, can, with experience, produce a beautiful result. This is alchemy!

Unfortunately, 99 percent of all soaps and related products available today are made in huge automated mills, using pre fabricated and processed soap chips from refined, bleached and mostly hydrogenated oils. Using synthetic lathering agents and chelating agents, fillers and animal fats has allowed large soap factories to deliver soaps at a rate of 220 bars per minute, 6 days a week 24 hours a day to supply much of the demand of our modern living.

Notwithstanding this, the growing demands for certified organic products have given a new impetus to traditional soap making. The traditional method of making soap is generally known as a processed method allowing the soap-maker to use a number of different oils, flowers, clays and raw honey to create a desired product. All oils have different characteristics relevant to soap making and most oils and fats can be saponified if their properties are understood. It is this very principle that has allowed the traditional method to make a resurgence in this time when not only certified organic ingredients, but, and maybe even more importantly certified organic processing is appreciated and demanded by a more aware and conscious public.

Although the word soap has been a victim of marketing abuse over the years, the term saponification essentially defines the process of creating an alkaline salt crystal and glycerin from the combination of an acid and a base. In practical terms this process describes the chemical reaction of an oil, or more precisely the fatty acids that make up the oil, combined with lye, or sodium hydroxide (NaOH) dissolved in water as the base or alkaline. The water, although it does not itself react chemically, is the medium allowing all elements to dissolve, mix and react. It encourages an ionization process or in more understandable terms it encourages the sodium hydroxide to separate into Na and OH and the oils to break down from a triglyceride and three fatty acids (remember this from biology 19??) into the different fatty acids and glycerol.

Erring on the side of oversimplifying the chemistry, soap is created when the dissolved sodium (Na) bonds with the fatty acids by replacing some of the hydrogen atoms of the different fatty acids, thereby changing its chemical structure and thus rendering it solid over time. Simultaneously, a secondary reaction is taking place in which the glycerol and the hydroxide ion (OH) combine to from glycerin.

The reason soap crystals are able to their magical work is due to the unique chemical structure. Comprising a head and a tail, the former is attracted to water, the latter repels water but is attracted to dirt and stains. The first action of soap is to break up the surface tension of the water allowing all items to be wetted thoroughly, the second is to attach itself to dirt and suspend it in lather until it is rinsed away.

But why all the chemistry? Because the natural soap crystal as described above is hardly still found in any product you purchase. A traditional soap maker working with organic ingredients may saponify predominantly coconut oil or palm oil to achieve lather in his product. He or she will achieve this by creating the natural salt of sodium laureth (sodium plus Lauric acid, the predominant fatty acid in coconut oil). Using this as his base he or she may know use a variety of additional vegetable or nut oils and essential oil to achieve additional characteristics such as hardness of the bar, therapeutic or moisturising properties. Anyone who has ever tried to make homemade cheese or tofu will appreciate the intricacies of the getting the combination right so that nature may perform its work.

However, most commercial soap products, but especially shampoos, liquid soap and gels contain sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) or one of its 24 derivatives, which are synthetically manufactured and defined as detergents. These will create lather, but the added sulphate is an extremely harsh additive and is “designed for brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin”.

Another chemical option for those mass producing soap which contain filling or boosting agents, is to use chelating or sequestering agents such as EDTA and its cronies which are ammonium based and are used to bind and remove trace metals from the water. This means that the soap you are using may “filled” with titanium dioxide or sodium chloride (chemically derived table salt) and to attain the same lather, these chemical water softeners are often used. A careful inspection of your shampoo, liquid soap and showergels will allow you to recognise these names very quickly, but you will also find them in your washing powders, detergents and clothes softeners.

Challenge yourself to read the ingredients list of the products you purchase. Move beyond the list of herbal extracts and essential oils that it may contain and have a good look what the base ingredients are. If you want to do a simple test, purchase an organic soap and one containing EDTA and try and dissolve about 20g of each in 100ml of water, let it stand overnight and see the difference.

There is no doubt that in many skin care products the word “care’ is often the ingredient most lacking. The fact is that more aware consumer do have a choice as more certified organic skin care products are found in the market. Yes, they may be a little more expensive, have a shorter shelf life and need to be handled with a little more care, but is this not what we would expect from our own definition of Organic.

1. Ruth Winter, M.S., 1999,A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Three Rivers Press 2. Ethylenediamine tetra-acetic acid (EDTA)

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