By Eddy Montilla.
Since soap has a history of more than 5000 years, we might think that ingredients have changed through the years when in fact, the main ingredients remain intact. What has changed is the source from which we get them and the addition of new ingredients that we use today for color and scent, for example. In ancient times, primary ingredients were ashes and animal fat or vegetable oils. During the eight century, Spain and Italy (countries that probably were in the vanguard in Europe as regards soaps at that time) used goat fat and beech tree ashes while France, some time later, replaced animal fat with olive oil. That was the beginning of what could be called soap in more exact terms or modern soap, a resemblance to the soap we use today.
Soaps are basically a mix of fat (animal or vegetable), water and sodium hydroxide (lye). These days, soaps that are made from fats that come from coconut oil, palm oil, tallow (beef fat), or lard (pork fat) and they are more resistant to dissolution in water than those from oils like olive oil, soybean oil, or canola oil. Glycerine and sorbitol (a cheaper alternative to glycerine) are also used as ingredients (as emollient) for soaps.
As for the way soaps are made, the basic idea is the result of a process called saponification, a chemical reaction for the presence of fat or oil, alkali and water, which produces soap. This process begins when oils and fats are melted first and sodium hydroxide (lye) is carefully mixed into water, giving the mix some time to cool. After that, the mix of sodium hydroxide and water is poured into the container with oils and all is blended. This is the moment when we can opt to add scents, colorants, etc. The process of saponification will take between 24 and 48 hours to come to an end. However, the cure time for handcrafted soaps, that is, the time when water is dissolved from the soap in order to make a hard and long-lasting soap is between four and six weeks.
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Photo: By courtesy of Bradley Stemke under the criteria of Creative Commons (Flickr, 5-9-2018).