Tag Archives: Fatty Acids

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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