EcoBeautyVivi asks…I know that some sufectants, even those that are touted “natural” are derived from coconut oil. However, I seem to have spotted many “natural” soaps that contain no other ingredient that could possibly make it bubble (as the other ingredients are usually just essential oils and milk) and top of the list is “coconut oil”. I’m highly suspicious that these companies are not declaring their ingredients properly. I’m no chemist and I know nuts about soap-making. Thus, my question: Can Unprocessed Coconut Oil Alone make a soap lather well?
The Right Brain responds:
Thanks for your question, Eco. Actually we should say “thank you” twice because you’re really asking two questions. Let’s break them down.
Do soaps have to list their ingredients?
The first question is something like “do soaps have to list all their ingredients?” The answer might surprise you: soaps do not have to list their ingredients. Why? Because soaps are not legally considered to be cosmetics under the US. It’s a long story but suffice it to say that back in the 1930s when these laws were being developed the soap makers were very influential in the lawmaking process. They cut a deal that exempted soaps from the regulation that says cosmetic products must list all their ingredients.
In case that isn’t confusing enough here’s a another wrinkle to the story: this exemption only applies to true soaps (those made by reacting fatty acids with alkali.) Synthetic detergent bars (or SynDet bars as they are known) must list their ingredients just like other cosmetics. That’s why you’ll see some “soap” bars with an ingredient list and others without.
Can coconut oil make a soap lather?
The answer to your second question lies in understanding how soap is made. Oil (in this case coconut oil) is reacted with lye to make soap. (Lye is just another name for sodium hydroxide.) That’s why it’s called “lye soap.” This process transforms the coconut oil into a fatty acid and then into the salt of that fatty acid. While the oil itself will not lather, the fatty acid salt is a very effective foaming agent. Ah, the magic of chemistry!
If you want to learn more about the chemistry of soap making (who doesn’t!) Here’s a link to a soap making resource that we found very informative.
The Beauty Brains bottom-line
While we applaud your healthy skepticism it is indeed possible that a soap can be made from coconut oil and not have to list its ingredients.
Image credit: www.flickr.com/photos/el_ramon