What Is Soap, Anyway?
By Terry Bryant, MoonEssence, Inc. 15 Western Ave, Petaluma, CA 94952 (707) 763-5363
Soap is an end product from a complex chemical reaction mixing an acid (fats and oils) and a base (sodium hydroxide solution, or lye solution). The process of curing is called saponification; that is, when the fats, oils, and lye solution come into contact with one another and react to form a fatty acid salt (soap), glycerin, and sodium carbonate (washing soda). Time, about three weeks, is crucial for the saponification to be complete. Then, Voîla! You have soap! The soap molecule has a water loving “head” and an oil loving “tail.” The method for creating hand crafted bar soap is called the cold process – once the sodium hydroxide solution is added to the melted fats and oils, no external heat is required to keep the soapmaking reaction going. However, “cold” does not mean cold; it was coined as a relative term, comparing it to the more common hot soapmaking temperatures used in commercial processes.
How Does Soap Clean?
Pure water, used by itself, is our most important cleanser. It gently removes emulsified substances from our body and hair without damage to the natural protective mantle of the skin. It also removes soluble environmental pollutants and most occupational chemicals. However, soap is needed to remove greasy substances that cannot be dissolved by water alone.
This is the interesting part. Soap helps clean in two ways: it helps water “wet” the surface to be cleaned, permitting water to reach more of the surface; and it connects the dirt to the water, permitting the dirt to rinse away. Normally, water and oil don’t mix, but soap molecules change everything because they act as an emulsifier. In the washing process, the oil loving tail attaches itself to oils and fats on the skin’s surface and disperses them into the surrounding water. Even mild soaps destroy the natural protective mantle of the skin, but skin re-establishes itself within several hours. Harsh soaps and detergents, on the other hand, can also leach out the oil content of the epidermis and leave the skin exposed to the outside world.
In America, soap is ubiquitous. We take it for granted. But in developing countries, it’s a luxury. Terry, through the Rotary Club of Petaluma Valley, was able to teach villagers in Osukuru, Uganda how to make soap using local natural resources. The village had recently gotten spigots to access clean ground water and a nurse-hygienist started introducing the concept of personal hygiene, but they couldn’t afford soap. However, villagers did have access to clean water, animal tallow, and hard wood ash (all the ingredients for soap!) So Terry taught them how to make lye water from hard wood ash, test it for pH, render the animal tallow, and gave them a formula with instructions on how to make bar soap. About 30 people were trained. The village created a micro-industry with the soap-making effort. Using improved hygiene, infant mortality rate declined and disease transmission in general was reduced.
Synthetic vs. Natural, What’s The Difference?
When the soap industry first started making synthetic surfactants (liquid soaps), little thought was given to skin compatibility and biodegradability. The first surfactants had great cleansing powers but were brutal to the skin. People who used them daily soon developed serious skin conditions, such as eczema and dermatitis. And although many of the irritating chemicals were taken off the market, there are still many questionable compounds, such as monoisopropanolamine (MIPA), monoethanolamine (MEA), and other words that you can’t easily pronounce, used in the manufacturing of surfactants (detergents). The list is extensive. They have good cleansing and foaming properties, but at the same time can cause skin irritations in a large sector of users. We just say, “Know your soap!”
Bottom line: Natural mild soaps clean without degreasing the natural protective mantle of skin. Our skin can easily recoup using natural soaps. If we degrease our skin using surfactants, we weaken the natural barrier and allow toxic substances and bacteria to invade the skin. Yuk!
Don’t forget: Naturally cleaned skin is healthy, and healthy skin is beautiful skin.