The Roles of Different Fats and Oils in Soap Making

Updated on October 20, 2019
jbosh1972 profile image

Based on my personal research while making handmade bar soap. Learning both the physical and chemical properties of fats and oils.

Fats and Oils in Soap Making

  • What is saponification
  • Estimation of saponification of fats and oils
  • Saturated fats
  • Butters and additive fats
  • Cocoa butter
  • Shea butter

What Is Saponification?

Saponification is a type of chemical reaction between a strong alkali or base (such as sodium or potassium hydroxide) and a fat. Animal and vegetable fats and oils are made of ester molecules called triglycerides. An ester is a molecule that is formed from an alcohol and an acid. In the case of fats, glycerin is the alcohol, and the acids are fatty acids like stearic, oleic, and palmitic acids.

When the alkali solution is thoroughly mixed with the oils, a reaction called saponification begins. What this means is that the glyceride of the triglyceride breaks off to form glycerine and the sodium or potassium bond with the fatty acid to form soap. With sodium, you get bar soap; with potassium, you get liquid soap.
Every oil or fat has what is called a saponification number, which is determined by the amount of alkali needed to completely saponify the fat. This number is determined by titration a test sample with a standardized alkali and acid/base indicator.

Estimation of Saponification of Fats and Oils

Saturated Fats

Most people have heard about saturated fats and their link to obesity and heart disease and other ailments. But for soap, saturated fats have multiple benefit. Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and consist of straight-chained molecules.
For bar soap, they give the soap hardness as helping the soap last longer in the shower. Most commonly used saturated fat used for commercial soap making is beef fat, also known as tallow. It is usually the first and most abundant ingredient in many soaps. It is widely available as a by-product from the meat industry and is therefore one of the cheapest fats. It created a white and very hard bar of soap. Many people with sensitive skin have problems with soaps made with beef tallow. So, they usually use body washes or seek out bar soap made from gentler vegetable sources

Another common saturated fat is coconut oil. It also gives a very hard white bar of soap, but unlike tallow, the fatty acids are shorter length carbon chains that increase water solubility. This greater solubility in water helps generate more suds and increases the cleaning ability. Unfortunately, soap made from coconut oil alone would be drying to the skin so some conditioning and moisturizing ingredients need to be added. This drying of the skin is testament to the cleaning power of coconut fatty acid soaps. Alone they strip the skins natural oils right off. Another very common saturated fat is palm oil. It is the go-to replacement for beef tallow for truly vegan soaps. It is also a good fat when skin sensitivity to beef tallow is an issue. A common recipe for homemade vegan soap consist of palm, coconut, and olive oil.

Unsaturated Fats (Liquid Oils)

The best ingredients to balance the saturated fats in a soap recipe are the unsaturated fats. By contrast, these are usually vegetable oils that are liquid at room temperature and consist mainly of bent and branched chain molecules. They have the property of acting as emollients or moisturizers in soap recipes. In the right proportions, they can effectively offset the drying qualities of saturated fats and create a bar soap that is hard, white, sudsy, and conditioning as well. One of the best condition oils is olive oil. It consists mainly of oleic acid, but the conditioning action mostly comes from the unsaponifiable, which are organic ingredients in the oil that are not acted upon by the alkali. One of which is squalane, which is used in many high-end antiaging cremes. Some other common vegetable oils are soybean, corn oil, safflower oil, castor oil, and sunflower oil. It should be noted that some vegetable oils, notably the polyunsaturated ones, have a shelf life and will darken and go rancid with age.

Butters, Additive Oils, Fats

If a more luxurious soap is desired, you can add special kinds of butters and fast to soap. They add to the smoothness and skin-conditioning properties by leaving a protective barrier on the skin to help moisturize without feeling greasy. Some butters like cocoa butter even have mild pleasant aromas that can add to the bathing experience.

Cocoa Butter
Cocoa Butter | Source

Cocoa Butter

You might already be familiar with cocoa butter in moisturizing creams, cosmetics, and lip balms. It imparts a silky smoothness to personal care products and is an excellent emollient. It's also one of the most stable fats at least partly due to the antioxidants present. It has a typical shelf life of two to five years.

Cocoa butter is extracted from the cocoa bean in tropical regions. It consists of roughly 60% saturated fats and 40% unsaturated fats. It is an offwhite to cream-colored solid which have a melting range of 93 to 101 degrees Fahrenheit, which is near body temperature. But, cocoa butter is stable and quite solid at room temperature. This makes cocoa butter perfect for its most common use of all: the manufacturing of chocolate products. All chocolates are made with cocoa butter including milk chocolate, white chocolate, and dark chocolate.

Shea Butter
Shea Butter | Source

Shea Butter

Shea butter is a buttery fat extracted from the African shea nut. It is a cream-colored fat this is softer than cocoa butter and does not have as much saturated fat. In its native land of Africa, it is used in food preparation. In fact, it is sometimes combined with other fats to substitute for the more expensive cocoa butter in chocolates. But the taste is different so 100% cocoa butter is the preferred fat for chocolate manufacture.

Shea butter also has the property of containing nonsaponifiable components. What this means is shea butter has ingredients that will not chemically interact with alkalies to form soaps. This gives shea butter its texture and emollient capabilities. The main fatty acids are the saturated stearic acid and the unsaturated oleic acid.

Questions & Answers

  • The saponification reaction occurs between an acid and base, shown in the figure in the procedure. In the reaction performed what is the acid and base?

    The “acid” is fatty acid from the oil. It is liberated from the glycerin Ester by the base in saponification. The base is a strong alkali like sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The saponification byproduct is glycerin from the oil. For soap making, glycerin is not removed from the soap mixture.

  • What is the main difference between soaps made from animal fats and plant oils?

    Animal fats typically create a harder bar of soap that may or may not be beneficial to your skin. Vegetable oils produce soap that is generally softer and gentler to the skin. There are exemptions of course. Coconut and Palm Kernel Oils produce soap that is hard and can be drying to the skin. These oils are made of short chain saturated fats that make excellent sudsy cleansing soap. So much so as they strip the skins natural oils. Therefore, most soap recipes don’t have more than 30% coconut or palm kernel oils.

  • How can I find a chart that not only lists the benefit of soaping oils, but also skin conditions that are improved by certain ingredients? For example, Eczema is improved by using _____oils in CP soap or Extreme dry skin is improved by using _____oils in CP soap.... and so on.

    I am not sure on the Eczema aspect but dry skin can be assisted by adding Shea butter or jojoba oils to soap recipe. Also, adding an additional amount of vegetable glycerin would act as an emollient and help trap moisture in.

  • There are many "blended" oils on grocery shelves now. Is there an SAP value for blended oils? Ex: 80/20% sunflower & virgin olive oil. Could blended oils be used for soap?

    Yes, you can. For example, you can take the 80/20% sunflower & virgin olive oil measure a mass, and use percentage to calculate the masses of each oil. Look up SAP values for each oil and add them together to get the amount of sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide required for saponification.

  • Where do fats and oils used in soap making come from?

    Oils are vegetable sourced glycerine esters. Examples are olive, palm, and corn oil. Fats usually refer to glyceride esters found in animal “fat” which is normally a byproduct of various meat industries. Animals fats would be lard from pork and tallow fat from cows.


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • jbosh1972 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 months ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      Your quite welcome

    • profile image

      Norma Rios Ortiz 

      8 months ago

      Thank you for all the .

    • profile image

      Concerned soap lover 

      14 months ago

      What are soaps that are used in production of commercially available soaps?

    • jbosh1972 profile imageAUTHOR


      2 years ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      Animal and vegetable fats and oils contain fatty acids usually bonded to glycerin. That’s why you hear about triglycerides and fat. Soaps are metal salts of the fatty acids. Sodium is cheap and produces the hardest soap. Sodium hydroxide is a strong base and is needed to sever the bonds of the fatty acids with glycerin. With thorough mixing and the heat of reaction, the sodium hydroxide turns the melted fats into soap. The glycerin is left in as a byproduct as an emollient.

    • profile image

      Apu saha 

      2 years ago

      why we use oil or fat in soap making process..??

      can anyone give me answer please..?

    • profile image


      2 years ago

      This article was very a chemistry undergraduate student currently carrying out a seminar title "the role of different fats and oils in soap making" please can you share me more information which might help

    • jbosh1972 profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA


      Although you could gather some info from soap making forums, I would recommend you actually go to the library and get books on soap making. Pretty in depth information. I will try to source literature soon and post it on this article.

    • profile image


      3 years ago

      Hello ! Is it possible to have the links to where you found also this infos ? It would be terribly nice :)

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      This is an amazing post

    • Farmer Rachel profile image

      Rachel Koski Nielsen 

      7 years ago from Pennsylvania, now farming in Minnesota

      This is a great hub! Very informative.

    • Anjili profile image


      8 years ago from planet earth, a humanoid

      The making of soap was one of mankind's greatest discoveries in our attempt to remain clean. The art has always intrigued me. My wife has always made liquid soap which is very handy in times of need. I should urge her to try making the solid type. Good share. Voted up

    • jbosh1972 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Indianapolis, IN. USA

      Oh thank you. I do recommend you try to make some. The best oil in my opinion is olive oil.

    • cloverleaffarm profile image

      Healing Herbalist 

      8 years ago from The Hamlet of Effingham

      Saponification! Love that word. Thanks for the great information. I have always wanted to make soaps, but never got around to it. Up, and useful


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)