Soapmaking Oils: What are They all About?
“I am out of shortening. May I substitute another oil? I don’t want to use palm oil anymore. What can I use instead?”
These and similar questions are not uncommon among soapmakers. The answers are at times, simple, and at other times, not so simple. For instance, good 1:1 substitutes for shortening are tallow, lard or palm. Not so simple? The person who wants to substitute shortening without using any of the aforementioned oils! At this point, the soapmaker may have to rework his formula to find one that yields a similar bar.
In order to substitute oils, rework formulas or make up our own formulas, we need to know what each oil contributes to soap. This is best accomplished by learning about the fatty acids that make up each oil. The fatty acids that we track for soapmaking oils are: lauric, myristic, linoleic, linolenic, oleic, palmitic, stearic and ricinoleic.
Wait! Don’t let your eyes glaze over yet. Stick with me and I’ll try to make it easier.
Oils high in lauric and myristic acid contribute to a hard, lathering bar of soap. These include coconut, palm kernel and babassu oil.
Oils high in palmitic and stearic acid give us hard bars. These include palm, tallow, and shortening (the hardening which is further enhanced by hydrogenation). Additionally, butters such as cocoa, mango and shea, among some lesser known as illipe and mowrah butter.
Finally, oils high in conditioning are high in oleic, linoleic and linolenic acids. This encompasses a large number of oils such as sunflower, safflower, olive, sweet almond, and apricot kernel oil. Although these oils are primarily used for conditioning, they are thought to make soft soap. More about that in our next installment.
Learn your oils and you hold the key to creating the perfect soap bar!
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Until next time, may your days be filled with bubbles and wax.
Beth Byrne for the Saponifier