In 1865, the first U.S. patent for a liquid soap was issued to William Sheppard of New York City (No. 49,561). The patent described his “discovery that by the addition of comparatively small quantities of common soap to a large quantity of spirits of ammonia or hartshorn is thickened to the consistency of molasses, and a liquid soap is obtained of superior detergent qualities.” The proportions given were to dissolve one pound of common soap in water or steam, and then add 100-lbs of ammonia such that the liquid thickens to the consistency of molasses. The product was expected to be useful for both domestic and manufacturing purposes. (Hartshorn is an ancient name for an aqueous solution of ammonia).
|Decorative soaps, by Phanton at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
So, how does soap clean?
Action of soap
When used for cleaning, soap allows insoluble particles to become soluble in water, so they can then be rinsed away. For example: oil/fat is insoluble in water, but when a couple of drops of dish soap are added to the mixture, the oil/fat dissolves in the water. The insoluble oil/fat molecules become associated inside micelles, tiny spheres formed from soap molecules with polar hydrophilic (water-attracting) groups on the outside and encasing a lipophilic (fat-attracting) pocket, which shields the oil/fat molecules from the water making it soluble. Anything that is soluble will be washed away with the water.
Effect of the alkali
The type of alkali metal used determines the kind of soap product. Sodium soaps, prepared from sodium hydroxide, are firm, whereas potassium soaps, derived from potassium hydroxide, are softer or often liquid. Historically, potassium hydroxide was extracted from the ashes of bracken or other plants. Lithium soaps also tend to be hard—these are used exclusively in greases.
Effects of fats
Soaps are derivatives of fatty acids. Traditionally they have been made from triglycerides (oils and fats). Triglyceride is the chemical name for the triesters of fatty acids and glycerin. Tallow, i.e., rendered beef fat, is the most available triglyceride from animals. Its saponified product is called sodium tallowate. Typical vegetable oils used in soap making are palm oil, coconut oil, olive oil, and laurel oil. Each species offers quite different fatty acid content and hence, results in soaps of distinct feel. The seed oils give softer but milder soaps. Soap made from pure olive oil is sometimes called Castile soap or Marseille soap, and is reputed for being extra mild. The term “Castile” is also sometimes applied to soaps from a mixture of oils, but a high percentage of
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