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Cleaning up the soap market

April 2012  


Cleaning up the soap marketSoap is so much part of modern life that we don’t usually give it much thought.

You only need to look at the animal kingdom to see that cleaning is a basic aspect of life - seeing adult animals in the wild carefully examining and helping to clean their young illustrates how cleanliness is a fundamental aspect of existence.

In humans, it is quite likely that even the earliest man cleansed himself in various ways. The use of soap dates back to a 2800 BC recipe from the middle east. This consisted of ashes, cypress oil and sesame seed oil mixed together. Another formula for creating soap has been found on a Babylonian clay tablet of around 2200 BC which suggested mixing water, alkali and cassia oil together for a cleansing material.

Today the basic ingredients for a natural soap are animal or vegetable oils, fats or butters mixed with lye and water. Lye is basically a strong alkaline liquid rich in potassium carbonate, leached from wood ashes, so those early Babylonians had done very well with their original formula. Today though lye is not generally obtained from hardwood ashes but is instead manufactured on a commercial basis.

Of course manufacturers today have perfected the art of soap making to cater for a wide range of uses and situations, but it is interesting to understand the fundamental principal in soap. Basically soap molecules have two ends; one is attached to water and the other is attracted to air and other substances such as oil, grease and grime. When you put soap in water, or make it wet, the end of the soap molecule that is attracted to water sticks on right away, so that the other end sticks up opposite it. If this sticking up end finds some grime, it will attach itself. As more and more soap molecules attach themselves to this piece of dirt, this unwanted substance is broken down into minute particles which can then be rinsed off.

The property of soap can be varied by the ingredients, especially by the type of fatty acid and the length of the carbon chain in the soap molecule (if you would like to know fuller information on this, visit For instance, tallow or animal fats, with 18 carbons, produce a hard, insoluble soap; fatty acids with even longer chains are even more reluctant to dissolve in water. Coconut oil, a source of lauric acid with 12 carbons, can make a soap that is very soluble and lathers easily, even in salt water. Fatty acids with less than 10 carbons are not usually used in soap making because they can have a distinct odour and also cause skin irritation.

Soap can also be produced by both a cold process and a hot process. In fact, heat is needed to form soap, but during the cold process this heat is generated from the chemical reaction itself and no additional heat is added. Cold process soaps are usually opaque and have a creamy feel to them.

Hot process soap is when, as it sounds, additional heat is added. This speeds up the chemical reaction and the completed soap tends to feel a little smoother. It also produces an opaque soap but can be made transparent by added additional ingredients to clear the product.

On top of the basics, numerous other ingredients can be added to change the appearance, texture and properties of the soap. Soap can have added antibacterial ingredients to fight germs, or might be made from a very simple blend of gentle vegetable oils for babies and young skin. Other additives give different colour and advantages, including some unusual ingredients such as ground coffee beans to help reduce any odours that have impregnated the skin, natural mud extractions to add minerals, or perhaps cedarwood and kaolin clay for shaving soap for men.

Then of course soap comes in liquid and cream forms and the choice of products just goes on - there can never before have been quite so many ways to get clean!

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