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Oils and Fats
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
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.
http://www.pacificsunoliveoil.com/our_story_1.html

Coconut Oil
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 bubbly lather.
 

Palm Oil
Palm Oil manufactured from the fruit of the palm tree also creates a hard bar.
http://www.congo-pages.org/BANDUNDU/PALM_OIL.htm
 

Castor Oil
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 Oils

Sunflower oil from the seeds of the beautiful sunflower, creates a rather soft soap but it is used for its conditioning qualities. http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/s/sunfl100.html#ext

Shea Butter
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 qualities.
http://www.globalization-africa.org/present.php?Pres_ID=2 http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/bc/pubs/fn/spr01/notes.htm

The 2003 National Folklife Festival, in Washington, DC.  featured traditional shea butter production.

Fresh Shea Butter Seeds from the Karite (Shea) Tree

Tallow
Tallow, rendered beef fat, is the classic soapmaking fat.  It is known for producing a hard, very white bar.

 

 
 

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Last updated: 04/28/09