Monday, July 20, 2009

The Chemistry Behind Soap

After yesterday's heady, six page entry I'm going to keep things easy today. We spent some of Friday night and most of Saturday at Artscape, watching musical and theatrical performances, animated shorts at the Charles and perusing the artisans booths. One thing I noticed is that a lot of people are hand making soap these days and selling it at crafts fairs. In one aisle of Artscape alone we passed three different soap vendors. It got me interested in the chemistry behind handmade soap.

From when I was younger I remember hearing stories of soap and candle making by the early European settlers in the United States. It sounded like a nasty, labor intensive process involving animal fat and caustic lye. Turns out that's exactly how soap is still made by hand today, though the process has been streamlined a bit, and "vegetarian" options exist, using all vegetable oils instead of lard. I read through the whole process last night and found it fascinating. It's all about very precise measurements and temperatures for your different oil and fat ingredients, water and lye. If you get it all right and stir it all to the right consistency a process called "saponification" starts. Once it's begun, nature takes over and converts the oils and caustic lye into a gentle bar of soap.

It's a cool sort of Ying and Yang process, taking two disparate elements, one viscous and slimy, the other caustic and dangerous and fusing them into a single, subtle object with a completely different purpose from its constituent elements. I'm sort of curious to try it. We met a couple at a party a few months ago that were raving about the process. The guy was even more enthusiastic about it than his girlfriend was. They both really loved it, and made soap together. I like that idea, and I think Kate does, too. We'll see. I haven't had a chemistry kit since I was ten years old, and I'm really interested to watch the chemistry happen. I'm also curious to see how saturated (no pun intended) the soap market is. Can you make a little extra scratch selling soap?

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