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:

SODIUM TALLOWATE
SODIUM COCOATE AND/OR SODIUM PALM KERNALATE
WATER
FRAGRANCE
GLYCERN
SODIUM CHLORIDE
COCONUT ACID
PALM KERNEL ACID
TALLOW ACID
PALM ACID
TETRASODIUM EDTA

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.

The Fear Continues

On Friday, the science project of an 11 year old resulted in the evacuation of a middle school. A 2 liter bottle with “wires sticking out”? It must be a bomb! Hackaday (a nerd blog) has a great editorial on the misgivings of people seeing home made electronics.

Sadly, these responses don’t seem limited to just electronics anymore. Any number of backyard projects insight an odd mix of fear and anger – line drying of clothes, making your own soap or laundry detergent, home construction projects / DIY jobs, backyard gardens, the list goes on.

At what point did we as a society decide that it must be purchased at the store to be acceptable?

Sad, so very sad.

Fate's 2010 Resolutions

While it’s a bit late in January to post this, I still feel a need to continue my yearly ritual of posting the things I’m planning on accomplishing over the new year. This years resolutions are largely related to the purpose of this blog, so I’m going to post them here.

1. Reduce / Eliminate trash at the office
Together, Fin and I have reduced our monthly trash output (excepting the ongoing project of reducing our junk count) to roughly a single trash bag a month. However, at work, I’m still outputting a considerable amount of junk – mostly disposables associated with eating lunch. My new goal is to start using washable clothes, and silverware at work. It’s way too easy to get caught into the trap of using that stuff when it’s readily available, and everyone else at the office is.

2. Go camping / outdoors more often
Last year, Fin and I went on two trips where I was camping. This year, I hope to make regular weekends at a couple local lakes / camping grounds. By the end of the year, I’m hoping for a good 6 times this year out camping with Fin.

3. Pay off another debt
Last year, I set the goal of paying off some of my college debt. I succeeded, and am hoping again this year to nuke another portion of my college and post college stupidity.

4. Perfect a soap recipe / be able to make commercial quality soap
This will be a series of blog entries on its own, but I’m hoping to create some decent quality soap using cold process techniques. My first batch is currently cooking, and I’ll have a blog entry about this and my reasons for it soon.

5. Return to martial arts
Fin’s been encouraging me to do this, but the time and cost matrix hasn’t been favorable to it actually happening. Martial arts did a lot of good things for my health and mental state, so I’d really like to get back at it.

6. Post more useful stuff more often
Part of the original goal of this blog was to post useful information, and post that on a regular basis. However, life’s been in the way, and so, not much has happened in terms of useful content here. Now that things have calmed down a bit, some of that should start happening.

7. Grow and maintain a garden
Fin’s downright excited about the idea of having a garden this year, and I’m looking forward to helping. Really, this is more of her resolution, but it’s one that I’m also looking forward to helping with.

8. Release some software / finish a project
I’ve done so many hobby projects, but none of them have hit a point to call it done. The goal this year is to actually accomplish something in that. In either software, or writing, or art, I want to actually accomplish something this year.

9. Finish unpacking
This is really the same goal as last year. I want to be rid of the boxes of junk that have been trailing me around and growing for the past 3 to 4 years. At some point this year, I’d like to say, “hey look, I’m done unpacking”.

10. Grow in maintenance / carpentry / plumbing / etc… skills
Now that I find myself in the role of “homeowner”, I can’t call the apartment management company anymore to come fix stuff. My parents were very much the type were doing things around the house meant calling the right professional. I’m hoping to break the trend a bit, and be more self sustaining. So far, no major injuries or limbs lost.