Saponification

It’s Soaping Day!

Okay, it turns out that there isn’t actually a National Soap Day. Although, a quick search did just teach me that there is a Global Handwashing Day in October to raise awareness around the world about the importance of clean hands in reducing the spread of bacteria.

Here at Botnia, it’s soaping day! After receiving some gorgeous fresh calendula flowers from our friends at Marin Roots Farm, I was inspired to make a couple of batches of our calendula bar soap. Calendula is great for fighting inflammation and irritated skin. Plus we mix dried calendula petals into the bars for some very gentle exfoliation.

Soap, as opposed to synthetic detergents, is made through a chemical reaction called saponification in which fats and oils are blended with water and a strong base such as sodium hydroxide. As this chemical reaction progresses, you are left with glycerin and fatty acid salts called “soap.” The resulting glycerin is great for softening your skin, but the star of the show here is the soap salt. These molecules are amazing and effective because at one end they love water, and on the other end, they love oils.

As you know, usually oil and water don’t mix, but suddenly you have a molecule that loves both oil and water. So when you rub soap across an oily surface such as your skin after a long day of soap-making, these molecules surround the oils and form little capsules. The oil-loving end is obviously facing the oil and the water-loving end is facing out along the surface of the capsule. As your rinse with water, the little oil-shuttles are swept away and down the drain. This is where soap gets its cleansing action!

As a biochemist friend once told me, the two chemical reactions that humankind ever mastered were saponification and fermentation–soap and alcohol. There is actually a soap recipe found on a tablet from ancient Babylon that dates back to 2800 BC. Ash from dried plants was mixed with water and cassia oil to make a basic soap. Perhaps I’ll have to whip us up some ancient Babylonian soap one of these days. Throw in a glass of wine, and I will have covered the basics of early chemistry. Sounds like a fun party to me!

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