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Soap Making

We took the first steps in learning about how soap was once made in the Wood Ashes experiment, using water to dissolve potassium hydroxide out of paper ashes.

If we had been serious about making soap, we would have used a lot more ashes, probably from a wood fire. We would have dissolved the potassium hydroxide in water and then would have boiled the water to concentrate the chemicals.

Once we had a strong solution, we would have mixed the strong base with fat or oil for a process called saponification. The result would have been soap.

This week, we will do something very similar, on a much smaller scale. To try this, you will need:

  • a dirty sink
  • a sponge
  • a porcelain cleaner that contains bleach. I used a product called Soft Scrub with bleach and it worked very well. Comet Cleanser with bleach also worked very well.
First, be careful. Anything that contains bleach can leave white, bleached spots on clothing, and can irritate your eyes.

Wet the sponge and the sink. Apply the cleaner with the sponge. Be sure to follow the directions on the package, and use it properly. Then scrub the sink. Do a good job, and get all the corners.

When you are done, rinse the sink well. While your fingers are wet, rub them together. They should feel very slippery. That slippery feeling is the result of saponification. The bleach in the cleaner is sodium hypochlorite, a strong base, just as potassium hydroxide is. A strong base will react with the fatty acids in the fat to produce soap and glycerol.

Soap? Did we really just make soap? Yes that slippery feeling is the result of saponification of the oils in your skin. The same basic process is used in oven cleaners and chemicals to open clogged drains. A strong base will convert the grease in the oven or drain into soap, which can be washed away.

Now, to make any of that into a really nice, useable soap, it would take more processing to balance the fat with the basic chemical, and then remove the impurities. Still, you really did make a tiny bit of soap. I do not recommend the process for cleaning your hands, but you are sure to get compliments on the nice, clean sink. If you want to experiment more, I am sure that the tub could use cleaning too. You might even earn a nice bowl of ice cream.

Have a wonder-filled week.