Of Soap and Soap-Making: Some Slippery Facts

We’ve all been doing a great deal of hand-washing lately and soaps of all kinds are flying off of shelves, irrespective of their ingredients. This seems like a good time to look a little more closely at what goes into soaps, and how they achieve their cleaning action. What soap molecules do is they latch on to water molecules at one end, and to oil/grease molecules at the other. Thus two normally immiscible liquids - oil and water - are held together, and when this layer is washed away, or wiped away, the oil/grease is removed from the surface.

So where does lather come in? The honest answer is - nowhere!! The bubbles in lather are nothing but air trapped within films of the soap+water mixture! Somewhere along the history of soap, we’ve been given the idea that more lather means better cleaning, but chemically speaking this is just not true. In fact, the chemicals added to soaps to make them lather, such as SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate/SDS),SLES (Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate), and coco-glucoside are known to be very harmful to us, and to the environment in many, many ways throughout their lifecycle.

So assuming oil/grease are the enemies, the good guys are soaps without SLS / SLES, other foaming agents, and harmful chemicals, fragrant or otherwise. There is a large community of people who make their own soaps to avoid trashing their bodies and the planet. We came across one of them recently - Ms Priya Thyagarajan, co-founder of Mystical Palmyra, a heritage tours company, and wow, what soap she makes! We tracked her down for a detailed chat on how she makes her own soap, and here’s how she does it:

(Please note, how big / how much of these depends on the scale you want to do this on, so please read on to decide) Non-aluminium Drum / Sintex tank of a strong material Stone Jelly / Blue metal Trays for the soap-mix to harden on Stove for Heating / Wood-fire arrangement Cauldron / pot for mixing and heating

Wood-Ash (from moringa / teak or any other hardwood)
Soft Water (room temparature)
Coconut Oil
Additive of choice, eg, kuppaimeni (acalypha indica),
ground turmeric, essential oils, etc

The soap base is made essentially from lye and oil.

Step 1: Is to make lye - a mixture of woodash and water. “I make it by setting up a drum so that there is about 12” space at it’s bottom, for the lye to collect in. Alternatively, you can connect an outlet tube to the bottom of the drum. Then I layer stone ‘jelly’ for about 6”, then straw for 6-10”, and then hardwood ash for 6-10”. We then pour in water over the layers” says Priya.

Step 2: Wait for the water to seep through to the bottom. Repeat the process by pouring the same water over the top again.

Step 3: Once the liquid has collected,allow it to settle and then decant it.

Step 4: Boil the lye till it solidifies. (A rule of thumb: Drop an egg into it - if a portion of it about as big as a 2-rupee coin floats, then it’s done.) This could take hours, depending on various parameters.

Step 5: Add coconut oil to the lye in a ratio of 3:1, and mix well

Step 6: Boil the mixure till it reaches a ‘halwa’-like texture. (Ensure that you’re careful with the process, wear a mask to avoid inhaling the vapour)

Step 7: Pour out the mix into trays, and allow it to dry in the shade for 3 days. The soap base is now ready!

“This soap can be used as such, but we add ingredients like washed and ground kuppaimeni leaves, ground turmeric roots, and different essential oils. You can add soapnut solution if you want it to lather a little more. In order to add these things, you will have to melt the base again, add in ingredients, and then allow it to harden once more.” says Priya, re-iterating that she does this now as a passion, and is yet to make it commercial.

So that’s how soap can be made, without the use of SLS, SLES or any of the other chemicals manufacturers routinely throw in it.

If you’d like to have some safe soap to use, but don’t yet want to venture into soap-making, here’s what you can do:

Last modified onFriday, 18 December 2020 19:34
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