Thursday, May 12, 2005

Making soap

Really.

I'm making soap tonight.

Some of you may have received a couple of bars for Ambiguous Seasonal Holiday, which was the second batch I made. Tonight is the fourth batch, which is about exactly the same as the third, except that I threw out the distilled water by mistake a couple of months ago, and am just using Brita since I realized this at 11:30 tonight. Which shouldn't make a difference, but one never knows when chemistry rears its complicated head.

I've had one feedback review of the Holiday Soap, and it was positive. Mike and Family ran out of soap, and discovered to their dismay that my soap was the only thing on hand. With great trepidation they used it and, like many things people approach with initial trepidation, discovered that they quite liked it.

They've been fans of Dr. Bronner's soaps for a while, so the lack of lather of homemade soaps wasn't really a problem. Although I'm sure that the lack of text included with my soap led to a less interesting shower than that provided by the Good Doctor's verbosity. Do you know that the stuff they put into soap to make it lathery also makes it dry out your skin?

The lather problem has been ameliorated, with the happy addition of coconut oil to the mix, which adds lather but slight skin drying, which I counter with more olive oil in the superfatting stage...

Although tonight it freaked me out when I opened up the coconut oil tub and it was liquid. Coconut oil melts at 76 degrees, and the last time I made soap it was Winter, when coconut "oil" was a weird, flaky solid which I had to spoon onto my scale or into my pan for making popcorn. Coconut oil makes the world's best popcorn, by the way, which is also another reason to buy it if one is dismayed with having to buy a 32 oz. tub when only needing eight ounces for making soap. Like most "tropical oils" it'll kill you if you eat too much of it, since it's a pretty saturated fat, but it makes great popcorn. And great soap, since the trace elements in it help steer water towards that magical surface tension ratio which makes for bubbles, and which has little or nothing to do with soap's actual cleaning ability.

Really. Bubbles do not equal cleaning and are just a trick of surface tension physics. Bubbles and soap are merely an aesthetic pairing, and do quite well on their own.

I make soap using the Cold Process, or the "easy way" as I think of it. We used the other method in high school chemistry, and only one person in the class made useful soap in that lab!

Cold-process soap is pretty simple chemistry, needing just fat, lye, and water. The lye dissolved in water reacts with the triglyceride fat molecules to form soap and glycerin. The delicate part is in the measurements, as each different type of fat or oil requires a different amount of lye water to produce a particular soap result. Fortunately this is all pre-calculated.

Interestingly, in commercial soap they take out the glycerin, so that the soap hardens more quickly, but then they have to add skin softening agents so that the soap isn't too harsh. It's odd that "glycerin" soap is expensive stuff with glycerin added to the process later to make it clear instead of just leaving it alone!

I prefer a soap which has a decent amount of residual oil left un-transformed, which produces a soap which feels very nice on your skin. It is softer, however, and doesn't last as long. Did I mention that hardening agents also dry your skin?

All the stories about pioneers and harsh lye soaps are all the result of soap which wasn't made with careful attention to chemical balances and wasn't left to age properly. The saponification reaction takes about a month or so to complete after it solidifies into a bar, if it ever does. Most pioneer soaps were actually liquid! And you can make mild liquid soap if you want to, like Dr. Bronner's.

Any soap you use before the reactions are complete, however, will have unreacted lye left in it, which you really don't want in a soap that's getting anywhere near your skin.

It is nice, however, for soap you want to use for cleaning and disinfecting, and can be calculated thusly should you so wish. Harsh lye soap is great for scrubbing and disinfecting! Better than the horrific "antibacterial" crap which may end up killing us all...

When you're getting lye water by dripping ashes, and just boiling on the stove without measuring or weighing anything, it's easy to see how much of the early pioneer soap was still swimming with harsh lye, since if you didn't use enough lye it was like rubbing oily fat on your clothes and skin. Best err on the side of making actual soap.

However, today you can buy pure lye at most any grocery store in the drain cleaning section, and the ratios for nearly any fat or oil you can get are calculated to a far more accurate degree than the postal scale I use, so it's pretty easy to make some wonderful soap.

We've been using soap of the third batch here, and I really like it. It doesn't lather like commercial soaps but there are some small bubbles, yet I feel clean and my skin feels better. One nice thing about homemade soaps is that the glycerin is still in them. In commercial bar soap the glycerin is removed so that the bars solidify more quickly, but this removes one of the skin softening agents, so they have to add other stuff...

One curious thing... the commercial bar "Dove" really isn't soap! In their commercials where they say something like, "Dove isn't soap, it's a 'Beauty Bar'(tm)" they aren't lying. I'm not sure what i is, but it really and truly isn't soap. Dove has a pH of exactly 7, and the mildest soap possible is well above 8. Explains why when I've used Dove I never feel clean, just coated and perfumed. Yet nicely moist.

One of the most fascinating facts I discovered while learning about soap was the origin of shortening and other hydrogenated oils.

One of the biggest realizations in the health world has been that saturated fats are far worse for you than unsaturated fats. And lately artificially saturated fats seem to be even worse than the naturally saturated ones! Anything with "hydrogenated" in it will definately kill you.

When fats are "saturated" or "hydrogenated" they're processed so that they solidify at lower temperatures. Solid or more dense fats are more satisfying to eat, according to just about everyone. The only real difference between an "oil" and a "fat" is its consistency at room temperature, or whether it comes from a plant or an animal.

Interestingly, the process of hydrogenating oils to make them into solid fat-like stuff was created for the soap industry. More solid fats make better soap, and as the country grew in the 19th century, there wasn't enough solid fat to keep up with the country's cleaning needs, so some bright boys figured out how to make vegetable oils into solid fats for the soap industry.

The stuff wasn't considered fit for human consumption until the great depression, when real fat became too expensive for the utterly destitute, who turned to the far cheaper fatty oils produced for the detergent industry. Since capitalism siezed control after WWII ended, the cheapest solution for food fats has become the usual solution, leading to many current health problems according to current thinking. Looks like the original soap chemists were right when they considered the stuff not fit to eat. Still makes great soap, however, and quite cheaply.

From what I read, animal fats make the absolute best soap, but I've never tried them. Lard is actually the best soap making fat according to everyone, and is only slightly more expensive than vegetable shortening, but for some reason rubbing my body with dead animals makes me feel way less clean than with veggies. So I'll stick with vegetable shortening.

I still eat meat, though, but I'm working on that. I've worked down the evolutionary scale to flying lizards mostly except for pepperoni, having tried to forego mammals and seafood.

You'll get my pepperoni when you pry it from my cold, dead pizza.

Which sounds great except that my favorite pizza is mushroom, black olive, and garlic. Onions, green peppers, spinach, tomato, and artichoke are also groovy, but not essential. Anyway...

Tonight I'm making the soap about the same way I did last time, as it worked well, but I'm pouring it into different moulds.

Previously I've used two 18 x 6 x 2 plastic trays which worked well when cutting the soap into 12 bars per tray for nicely sized bars. However, I really like rounder bars which work better for softer soap since they last longer than rectangular bars. Actually rounded oval bars last the longest, but that takes individual moulds for each bar.

This time I'm using Pringle's tubes for circular soap. They're lined with plastic and sealed already, and I can just peel them off the soap cylinder after a couple of weeks of aging before cutting off round cakes of soap which I'll let dry for another month or so. Or at least that's the theory. I guess we'll see.

There's a lot to explore in the soap making universe, and you can start out like I did by typing "soap making" into google, which is recommended. I learned a lot by just digging around. Here are some links I've bookmarked but may not actually be the best pages for you to start out from:

Cold Process Soap for One 12 ox Can of Lye

Elaine's Soapmaking Pages
How to Make Cold Process Soap
Soap Problems
The Complete Guide to Soapmaking
Making Soap!

And the most useful link of all:

The MMS Lye Calculator
which allows you to mix 'n' match different oils and fats, then click and get a chart of how much lye to use to get varying soap results.

I find 8-10% oil remaining produces a wonderful bath bar.

I've been using a 48 oz tub of vegetable shortening
17 oz bottle of olive oil (pure, not virgin, as the cheap stuff makes better soap, and 17 fluid oz is 16 oz by weight)
8 oz coconut oil, available in the oils/shortening section

Since cheap shortening is usually a blend of hydrogenated soy and cottonseed oils, I ran the numbers using a 25/75, 50/50, and 75/25 ratios of each oil, and just really went with the 50/50... the various percentages were less than my scale could measure anyway, so I just went for 9 and a bit less than a quarter ounces of lye.

I mixed the lye and VERY cold water in the plastic tub the shortening came in, after washing it out. It's non-reactive plastic, and I was going to dispose of it anyway!

Use the larger amount of water, as you need to be an expert to use less. The lye and water mixing can make the water boil and splatter with less water, and you don't want that. Do work outside or in a well-ventilated area when pouring the lye into the water, as the fumes are nasty.

Save some olive oil to add after you've mixed the lye water and oils together and have mixed for a while. This is called superfatting and helps guarantee that much of the leftover unreacted oil will be olive oil, which is nicest on your skin. You want the shortening and coconut oils to react the most.

Then you mix the soap, which takes a long while if you want nice leftover oils. You can stir for hours and hours, or use an electric mixer. The soap fluid is dense, and the chemical reaction needs mixing... Seriously. Use an electric mixer, because stirring a superfatted soap by hand can become endless. Use a mixer.

After a long while if your soap has leftover oil, when stirring produces a "trace" which lasts in the mixture, you're about ready to pour the soap into the mould. Add the fragrance oil, if used, at this last stage. Adding essential oils earlier just allows their expensive essence to be turned into soap!

I like lavender.

You can also get soap colorings. Michael's or any good crafty place should carry them, along with soap moulds if you want to get fancy.

I've just touched on the process, so please ask if you want more detail!

Happy saponification!

So why am I doing this, you ask?

For some weird reason, I really enjoy learning about the basic fundamental processes which underly our complicated civilization. I love learning how things work, how things are made, and how to make them myself.

Like soap.

I adore the Foxfire series of books, and similar tomes like How Things Work and so on.

It's interesting to me to learn how the process of something like soap came to be, and what's been gained and lost in that process.

I love computers, and I bought an early single board system to learn how to program in binary and hex, and programmed a clock to make the darned thing useful in today's world. I really enjoy the graphical interface and associated magic which allows me to create and you to read this blog, as well.

My ultimate goal is to make my own wire. At that point I'll feel comfortable that I could begin recreating civilization from scratch if need be.

Seriously. What do you think is the most fundamental technical process necessary for maintaining today's technology?

17 Comments:

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