We recently had the opportunity to invite our local meteorologist, David Dickson, to our production warehouse to share about how we make soap! Check out the behind the scenes visit to learn a bit about our process as well as what makes soap such a fascinating product.
There’s more to soap than we had time to cover in the video, so read on to take a closer look at how we make soap, how soap works, and the chemical process that gives soap its unique properties.
1) Blend the Oils
First, we start with our unique trio of oils, olive, coconut, and soybean oil in a unique blend we’ve perfected over the years. Chemically, these oils provide the fatty acids necessary to create soap in the saponification process, but each one brings a little something different to the table too.
Oil olive contributes the primary cleaning properties as well as the creaminess and moisturizing elements, whereas soybean oil helps create the rich, luxurious lather of our bar soaps. Finally, coconut oil gives our handmade bar soaps their hardness that not only allows them to lather in different levels of water hardness, but helps maintain their structure and even last longer with daily use. This unique blend is at the core of the rich, luxurious lather of our bar soaps!
2) Add Additional Ingredients
Once our oils are blended together, we’re able to add in our additional ingredients, which vary depending on which bar soaps we’re making. Typically, this includes our color (as you can see with the Sea La Vie soap being made above), but can also include exfoliants featured in several of our bar soaps. We then blend these ingredients with the oils to prepare them for the saponification process.
3) Add Lye solution and mix to trace.
Next, we add our Lye solution to the oils and start the saponification process (more on this in a bit) as the oil molecules and lye break down and recombine, leaving the resulting soap, glycerin, and water. To encourage this chemical reaction, we blend and mix the new solution to “trace,” which is simply the point where everything has emulsified and in the process of the heat and water, starts to saponify. Specifically, our production team looks for the point where there are no longer streaks of oil, meaning everything is sufficiently mixed together for saponification to proceed.
4) Add fragrance, mix again to the final trace.
With the saponification process already underway, we add in the fragrance and emulsify the mixture to the final trace, where the saponification process continues as the soap slowly starts to thicken. Each soap mixture, due to the particular fragrance or additional ingredients, has its own unique trace and takes a different amount of time to mix.
5) Pour into our handmade molds & add our signature waves
Once the final blend has reached its trace point, the soap blend goes into our bar soap “loaf” molds that create 17 bars of soap, plus a pair of smaller soap samples. Here, the soap will naturally heat up as saponification continues and water evaporates. When the soap has reached a consistency where it is still malleable, but solidified enough to hold its shape, our production team whisks the top of the soap into the iconic waves you’ll find on every bar soap we make.
6) Let the soap sit overnight, then cut and prep
Once the waves are holding their shape, the soap sits overnight as it continues to cool following the saponification process and in turn hardens into the final product. The following day, our production team cuts the soap loaf into each individual bar. Finally, the handmade bar soaps are boxed and packaged to go to one of our three retail locations, our e-commerce warehouse, or to one of our retail partners across the country.
And that’s how we make soap! But there’s a lot more that goes into how soap actually works and how the raw ingredients we use turn into the bar soaps we offer through the process of saponification.
How Does Soap Work?
We all grow up hearing the importance of washing our hands with soap, but the reason why it’s so important is actually a fascinating look at a unique molecular reaction that takes place every time we lather up! We’re gonna get into a bit of science, but we think it’s pretty cool.
Soap is a fascinating substance in that it has the rare ability to combine water and oil. It does this thanks to its molecular structure. On one end of the soap molecule, it bonds easily with water, and on the other end, it bonds easily with fatty acids, a chemical component of oils. So, when we’re washing our hands, the lather we build up helps bond the soap molecules to the germs and grime on our hands, as well as the water we’re using to rinse it away. The soap molecules act as the bridge between the two, which is what makes washing our hands with soap so much more effective than rinsing our hands with water alone.
So, while it’s true “oil and water don’t mix,” they actually do when soap is involved!
Saponification in Soap Making
We’ve already seen how the molecular structure of soap provides its cleaning benefits, but how do we arrive at that destination? The answer lies in a specific chemical reaction, saponification. For a brief revisiting of chemistry class, soap is considered a salt, or the neutral result of an acid and base reacting to one another. In the case of soap, the acid used comes from oil, and the base is lye.
In the oil, we find trigylcerin, which is a single glycerol molecule with three fatty acids attached to it. Lye, on the other hand, is a compound of sodium hydroxide, meaning it is a sodium molecule with one hydrogen and one oxygen molecule attached. In the presence of heat and water, these molecules break apart and bond to one another. The result is a soap molecule made of the sodium from the lye and the fatty acids from the oil. As a byproduct, we also have glycerin, the remaining glycerol molecule with hydrogen and oxygen attached, as well as water. The glycerin remains in the soap, providing a moisturizing effect, while the water evaporates out over time as the soap hardens.
And that’s the process of saponification! Essentially, the oils and lye break down to their individual components and those elements rearrange themselves into the powerful compounds that make up our sea-inspired bar soaps.
Next time you’re washing your hands, you can watch the lather go to work knowing not only how it’s made, but what makes it so special!
Try Old Whaling Company Bar Soaps
Want to try out one of our handcrafted, sea-inspired bar soaps? Choose your favorite fragrances and treat yourself or share with friends!