Tag Archives: Chemistry

What is Soap?

Part two of a series on soap. Part one is here if you’re interested.

Soap, in case you weren’t aware, is what you wash your hands with, usually with water. It kills germs like COVID-19 and the flu and the common cold. It’s good at getting oil and dirt off your skin. It’s common practice to wash your hands after taking a piss or a shit, you know, so you’re not interacting with door handles and people with microscopic bits of shit/piss/germs on your hands.

Soap is laughable easy to make which is what I find surprising. All it takes is a bit of motivation and effort, but it’s not hard to do. Nearly anyone can conjure up a rudimentary soap with only a few household ingredients. You take oil and add in some lye, a drain cleaner that you might have laying around in the dark recesses under the sink or in the basement and that’s it: you have soap.

Obviously the details of this are more complicated. How much lye to fat? How long to cure? What scents do you want to add? Like an onion you can always go deeper in understanding.

A fat molecule looks like this. It’s called a triglyceride and the name should tell you a bit about it. ‘Tri-‘, meaning three, and ‘-glyceride’ sounds a lot like glycerin. That comes into play later. A fat molecule is made up of three strings of something called a fatty acid all tied together by this glycerin backbone thingy.

Lye, also known as sodium hydroxide, NaOH, is a strong base. This means when you add it to water it creates a bunch of ANGRY OH- ions that love to rip other molecules apart (it can do this to your cells so don’t get it on you!). When you add the NaOH to fat, the angry OH- molecules rip the fatty acids off the backbone. These fatty acids, floating along ripped from their backbone, pick up the sodium ion (Na+) from the NaOH. The Na is positively charged and the oxygen on the fatty acid has a negative charge and chemistry stuff happens and shit. In short, you get soap.

This Na tied to a fatty acid is what is what gives soap its magical properties. Half the molecules loves polar molecules, like water, while the other half, the fatty acid tail, hates polar molecules. Everyone has seen how fat and oil don’t mix, they’re different molecules and all of that, but soap ties them together in a way. The soap can bind to fat, collect around it, while the other side binds with water. And like that you have the oil-cleaning properties of soap.

Bacteria and germ cells also are contained in a layer of fat. The technical term is “lipid bilayer” and guess what soap can do to this? Collect around it while allowing water to wash it away. And like that you have the antibacterial properties of soap.

It’s no wonder humans eventually stumbled upon this magical substance. Water is nearly a universal solvent and is required for life. Everything almost dissolves in water, except the stuff that doesn’t, like oil. You get some mud on your hands and water will wash it off. You step in some dogshit and water will wash most of it off while leaving some harmful bacteria. You mix some lye with fat to make soap and no more harmful bacteria on your shit-soiled foot. Before vaccinations were a thing good hygiene was our best defense against microbes. Not shitting near your water source. Not having dead bodies near your farms. And washing your hands. Soap, as simple and mundane as it is, gave us a huge leg-up against germs. Hell, even in 2020/2021 one of the most important guidelines regarding COVID is simply to wash your damn hands because soap is in fact magical and it does in fact work.

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On the Quest for Soap

Part One of a series about soap. Yes, soap.

If I summed up every hobby I have ever had it would be this: My hobby is doing random crafty shit to see if I can do them. Every specific hobby I’ve ever had is just a subset of this. Solar panels. Guitar playing. Making bread. Making vape juice. Painting. Making rocket engines out of sugar and stump remover. Blogging. Writing stories. And now…soap making.

Yes: soap. Soap is awesome. Haven’t you guys ever seen Fight Club?

It started a week ago and even I didn’t know I was going to get hard into soap making until I was in the kitchen at 3 a.m. with a bottle of lye and Crisco trying to figure out how to magically turn that stuff into soap. It started with a YouTube video of all things.

There’s this chemist dude on there by the name of NileRed. He makes chemistry videos (duh) that are pretty informative but also pretty hilarious in a dry-humor sort of way. (“This chemical is very toxic and even explosive, but it should be okay.”) Even if you’re not into chemistry, check him out. In one video he makes grape flavoring/grape soda out of vinyl gloves and using urea from his own urine in one of the intermediate steps. In another video he carbonates water with CO₂ from diamonds. He apparently made a video on soap four years ago that I wasn’t even aware of. I found it at 2 a.m. on Sunday, really Monday I guess, and I watched it. “Huh,” I thought, “Soap seems pretty easy to make. I have oil. And I have lye. And…I can’t sleep right now…so…maybe I can toss some shit together just to see if it works.”

And here I am a week and a half later checking to see if my soap is dry yet, googling how to make sodium hydroxide, learning the differences between sodium and potassium hydroxide, filtering oil from the bacon skillet and deep fryer, wondering what the hell ‘glycerin’ is and why some people remove it from their soaps. I wonder what would be some good essential oils to put in my soap? I wonder if I can sell my soap? I wonder if I can never buy soap ever again in my life.

Soap making fits right in with my current madness and I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to stumble into it. I probably should’ve stumbled into making soap back when I was distilling my own rum with supplies I purchased from the hardware store, but I didn’t. Remember this post where I ranted about bread and how it was sort of like the foundation of society? I said that I almost felt like I failure homo sapiens because I didn’t know how to bake my own bread. Isn’t that a requirement to be a human? To know how to make your own fire and bake your own bread? Well, put soap making up there because even if it isn’t as key to civilization as fire and bread it sure is up there. Soap making is one of those lost arts and a part of life, a part of being a stinky and dirty human that almost none of us know how to do. As with bread: we buy soap. Other people make it and we don’t worry about where it comes from or how its made. And by making your own soap you take back a tiny bit of your humanity, rediscover one of those old arts that are seemingly forgotten in our modern age.

That all sounds a bit over the top and dramatic but oh well. And I hesitate to write this part but I think I might make a series about soap and how to make it. Not like a guide per-se, there’s plenty of those and I don’t want to tell people how to do something when it’s much more fun to figure it out yourself with a bit of help and curiosity — but like a series on where the seemingly mundane adventure of making soap can take you. If there’s one thing hobbies are good for it’s giving you a deep and complex rabbit hole to crawl down and get lost in. What started as a simple project — making soap — has turned into a mess of nuance and complexity. So yeah, SOAP.

Check out my YouTube channel about off-grid green energy setups!

Or my Instagram where I post pointless artistic pics and shitty poems every whenever I get around to it.

Or my other blog where I sometimes post stories.