Updated: Nov 3, 2019
One of the most common questions that I am asked as a teacher is “What are the different oils and what are their benefits are in soap making?” This is an amazing question and with it comes an amazing answer. If you asked this same question in a soap making forum or in a soap making Facebook group, the answers provided would tell you to visit various blogs or watch YouTube videos that provide lists of different oils and their qualities. I absolutely love these suggestions, and I think they can be a great learning resource; however, learning to make soap strictly based on listed “oil qualities” from popular blogs can hinder the learning process. Many of these “resources” provide a lot of inaccurate and misleading information. This misinformation can make it even more difficult and more confusing when learning how to formulate recipes. Misinformation can set beginners (and advanced soap makers) up for failure, and it creates a lot of room for guessing (which is something we don’t believe in at UG2HP).
Let’s take a look at a few oils/butter recommendations from some popular soap making resources. These are some of their quotes and suggestions, followed by what I learned personally learned from each of them as a brand new soap maker and what other beginners may learn too.
· “Shea butter does not contribute to lather or hardness (so it’s basically a super luxe additive), and the recommended usage rate is typically 10% or less”
(As a beginner, I learned that shea doesn’t add anything to my soap and that it’s a “soft” oil with no other benefits. A beginner may continue to use less than 10% of shea butter for possibly the rest of their soaping career, unless someone says otherwise. In reality, shea butter offers lots of things to soap, including hardness! Shea butter is comprised of almost 50% saturated fats, including stearic acid which adds hardness, stability and longevity!) · Sweet almond oil is “recommended to not use it more than about 5% – 10% in soap or your soap will be too soft”
(As a beginner, I learned that if I use more than 5% of sweet almond oil, my soap will turn out too soft so I will never use more. We really know that oils like sweet almond oil can be used at different percentages when a balanced recipe is created. One of my favorite recipes is made with 30% sweet almond oil and I often use even more at the end of my cook as a PCSF. If I would have learned from this information, my famous nut butter recipe would have never been created!) · Neem oil is “anti-inflammatory, anti-biotic and heals your skin and should be used at 20% or more for its true healing benefits”
(As a beginner, I think that when I use Neem oil in my soap that it’s going to heal people’s skin and will reduce inflammation. I will now continue to tell everyone that that my neem oil soaps heal their skin and will cure their inflammation. ) · The phrase “great alternative to olive oil” is used multiple times in almost every blog source to describe the properties for pretty much every liquid oil, but their olive oil properties state that it is “very mild on the skin, starts off soft but hardens as its cured”.
(As a beginner, I see that I can use any soft oil just like olive oil and that it will turn hard over time. This is obviously not true and it can be very misleading. Some of these informational websites promote a 10-100% olive usage rate so it may inspire others to make a 100% Argan oil soap or a 100% soybean soap to gift or sell to others. That 100% Argan oil soap will cost a beginner more than $100 and won’t end up being a very good quality soap. Many soaps made in high percentages of oils “used as olive oil” may also quickly develop DOS. Olive oil is also unique in that it has some saturated fats in it like stearic and palmitic fatty acids which add stability and longevity. Not all oils should be used as a replacement oil for olive oil just because it has a high percentage of unsaturated fats, there are other factors that need to be considered.) · “Coconut oil has lots of antioxidants, is healing and has many other benefits but it can be drying” followed by a usage suggestion of “it can be used anywhere between 5-50%”.
(As a beginner, I see that coconut oil is healing, has lots of antioxidants and that I can and should use it at 50% in my first recipe. If a beginner makes a soap recipe with 50% coconut oil and doesn’t balance it out, it could end up being more than drying, it can cause redness, peeling and irritation to those with sensitive skin.)
· Olive oil “when used in soap it protects your body from internal moisture loss and helps you stay hydrated and balanced” (Do I really need to explain this one?)
These were all taken from the first few pages of a Google search for “soap oil properties”. Although a lot of the information provided in these posts is incredibly helpful, it can also be incredibly harmful to new soap makers and can be very misleading. Some of these notions go on to become “soaping laws,” as if they are the only way to make soap and that anything that goes against the suggestions can’t be correct.
So, if soap oil and property charts aren’t the best way to learn, what are beginners supposed to do? Isn’t that the easiest way? If everyone provides the same “go to this blog” answer, why is this not the best way to learn?
For this question, I provide the same exact answer, every time, for anyone who asks how to learn how to make soap: study the fatty acids used in soap making. Fatty acids are the building blocks of soap, and each fatty acid creates a different soap with different qualities. The term “fatty acid” has a fancy science-y sounding name so it must be super complicated, but in reality, fatty acids are a lot easier to learn than you may think, and they are incredibly helpful to soap makers.
It can be difficult to imagine what a fatty acid is because we can’t see it. Look at the example of a coconut oil fatty acid below for an example of the chemical structure of a fatty acid. Every oil or fat used in soap making is comprised of triglycerides. Each triglyceride is made up of a glycerol molecule and three fatty acids, which we just learned in the previous chapter about saponification. The glycerol molecule is like a tree trunk, and the fatty acids are like its branches. Every fatty is made up of a unique chemical composition that adds different characteristics to the functioning and structure of the end fatty acid salt
A fatty acid consists of a hydrophilic head and a hydrophobic tail. Hydrophilic means water-loving (hydro-water/philic-loving) and hydrophobic (hydro-water/phobic-fearing). The hydrophobic tail consists of carbon atoms that range in different quantities, which determine the different types of fatty acids.
Soap making is like baking a cake- it requires knowledge of different ingredients and how they affect the recipe, knowledge of the baking process and learned and shared experience. You wouldn’t jump feet-first into making a cake from scratch if you had no idea what food was, right? What if you had never seen food before, and someone asked you to make a cake from ingredients found at the grocery store. Would you know what to do? Would you know that you must use eggs? Would you even know what an egg was? What about flour, sugar, or oil? Each of these ingredients adds something to the cake recipe, and each is used for a specific reason, which is something that you would take the time to learn about before going to the grocery store and before baking the cake.
In soap making, the fatty acids are like the ingredients in our cake, and we should take the time to learn about what each does and how it affects the recipe before starting the soap making and recipe formulating process. Unlike baking and cooking, instead of learning about 5,000 different types of foods, in soap making, you simply need to learn about eight fatty acids. Yep, there are only eight primary fatty acids and even better, three of them are very similar in properties and soap behavior. We already know from the science of soap chapter, that during saponification, the triglyceride is broken down and that each fatty acid is saponified and creates soap (or three soap molecules to be exact). By learning about each fatty acid and the unique soap that it creates, we can learn to formulate a recipe with the properties, performance, and appearance that we want. It then becomes up to the soap maker to decide what kind of soap they want, and how much of each fatty acid they want to use.
The bar of soap that you see and feel in your hands isn’t actually a single soap, but rather a unique combination of different soaps, Although we refer to soap as “soap,” a singular noun, if we wanted to be more technical, we would call it “soaps” because a bar of soap is comprised of thousands of little individual solid soap molecules that form a crystalline structure made from a different combination of eight different sodium salts of fatty acids.
The eight fatty acids that make up our soap molecules include four saturated fatty acids- myristic, lauric, palmitic, and stearic, and four unsaturated fatty acids- ricinoleic, oleic, linoleic, and linolenic. Each fatty acid is saponified and creates a sodium or potassium salt of a fatty acid or a soap. If there are eight fatty acids, this also means that there are eight different soaps. The length of the hydrocarbon chain and the number of double bonds in the carbonylic-acid portion of the fat or oil determines the properties of the soap. This means that the chemical composition of the fatty acid will determine the qualities of the soap it creates.
Saturated fatty acids: The four saturated fatty acids are myristic, lauric, stearic, and palmitic. These will form the soaps sodium myristate, sodium laurate, sodium stearate and sodium palmitate. Because they are saturated fatty acids, they will accelerate trace and will saponify more readily than unsaturated fats. Myristic and lauric acid fatty acids both have shorter carbon chains, which make them more soluble in water and excellent cleansers. These two fatty acids create soaps that produce a fast-forming, full and bubbly lather. Palmitic and stearic have longer saturated carbon chains and will create a hard, stable soap, with a creamy lather and increased lifespan.
Unsaturated fatty acids: There are four unsaturated fatty acids: oleic, linoleic, linolenic, and ricinoleic. These will form sodium oleate, sodium linoleate, sodium linoleneate and sodium ricinoleate. Because they have at least one double-carbon bond, unsaturated fatty acids will be slower to trace and slower to saponify. Unsaturated fatty acids have long hydrophobic tails and are less soluble and produce a milder and more creamy lather. Unsaturated fatty acids are softer in nature, decrease the hardness of the bar, and have a more difficult time solidifying into solid crystals due to their shape. Ricinoleic acid is different from the other three unsaturated fatty acids because it has an OH (hydroxyl) group which increases the solubility of soap. Ricinoleic is only found in castor oil and increases the rate of trace, increases the rate of lather formation, and increases the total reaction rate.
Those are fatty acids in a nutshell! Of course, we will go into much greater detail in the next few pages, but that is a pretty good summary of what is to come. Instead of having to learn the properties of every single oil available to mankind, what they add to the soap, usage rates and more, you only need to learn about 8 fatty acids. There are literally hundreds of different fat and oil sources, but they are all comprised primarily of the same eight fatty acids. These 8 terms will dictate almost everything about your soap- how fast the saponification reaction is, how bubbly it will be, how long it will take to dilute, the cleansing capabilities, the conditioning properties, the risk for oxidation and more.
When anyone is first learning how to do something, it can be incredibly intimidating. Hearing large words or anything that has to do with science or chemistry can be terrifying to someone who was never big into science, or maybe they didn’t do so well in school. For this reason, I always go back to my culinary examples, because everyone is familiar with the experience of trying to learn to cook. When you first learn to cook, you probably wouldn't know the difference is between barding, braising, blanching, and brining! These aren’t even science terms, yet they are still scary. Even more intimidating, these are just a few of the “B”’s, there are many more culinary terms from A-Z!
Nevertheless, as everyone who starts a journey on a path to studying and experiencing something new, the “lingo” is something that is learned over time. As your skills and knowledge increase, so does your understanding of various topics and processes. I would be willing to bet you know what milk, eggs, sugar, and flour are. These are the ingredients and the fundamental building blocks of thousands of food recipes… just like fatty acids are the building blocks of soap and soap recipes. Don’t let the complicated names of fatty acids confuse you or scare you off! Instead, take a deep breath and accept the challenge. Be open-minded and willing to learn… luckily, when it comes to fatty acids, there are only eight of them! That sure beats trying to learn and remember the properties of hundreds of different oils, butters and fats!
This blog post is the introduction to our Fatty Acids chapter in both The Ultimate Guide to Hot Process Soap and The Ultimate Guide to Liquid Soap. We delve deep into the subject of fatty acids and teach our students to formulate recipes based on their needs. Soap science applies to all types of soap making- cold process, hot process, liquid soap making, shave soaps, transparent soaps, and more. Prefer to only make cold process soap? With over 300 pages dedicated to soap science and recipe formualting, there is no other resource with the same tools and information to help you learn the fundamentals, which applies to both CP and HP! By understanding fatty acids, you can have the power to make a soap that has the appearance, properties and performance that you desire. To continue reading this chapter and to learn more about recipe formualting, visit our bookstore today.
Always remember, there are SO many different ways to learn. There is no one size fits all and this very notion hurts learning opportunities! Be creative and find the research and path that makes YOU feel like a confident and informed soap maker.
Feel free to share your thoughts, suggestions or comments! For more information about the chemistry of soap, saponification, fatty acids, soap phases, recipe formulating, and SO more, be sure to get our soap making coursebooks today! The Ultimate Guide to Hot Process Soap
Are you looking for great beginner or budget recipes? Check out these four hot process soap recipes made with three oils!