Natural Soapmaking (once Soap Naturally)
Description and fatty acid properties of some soap making oils



About hard oils and soft oils

In the simplest sense, oils that are solid at room temperature are "hard" and oils that are liquid at room temp are "soft". Oils that are "hard", contribute to hardness and/or lather in soaps, oils that are "soft" contribute to conditioning. The problem is, there are degrees of soft and hard, depending on the makeup of the individual oil.... some "hard oils" are harder then others, and some "soft" oils are softer then others.

One of the simplest ways to "guessitmate" how soft or hard an oil will be is to look at one of the oil properties spreadsheets, like the ones on Kathy Millers website.

Look at the "Iodine Value" for each oil. This number is actually a test result, indicating the degree of saturation of an oil. The lower the number, the more saturated the oil is. The more saturated it is, the harder it is in soap. Oils with high numbers will be soft in soap, the higher the number, the softer they will be.

Just a little more detail, .... Oils are made up mainly of a variety of fatty acids. (Mostly chains of 12 to 18 carbon atoms with assorted attachments.) Some fatty acids are saturated (carbon atoms along the chain are holding all the hydrogen atoms they possibly can), these contribute hardness or lather when they are saponified. Some fatty acids are unsaturated (have 1 or more bonds where carbons are holding 2 hands instead of extra hydrogens), these contribute conditioning and softness. The main conditioning fatty acids are oleic, (1 unsaturated bond), linoleic (2 unsaturated bonds) and linolenic (3 unsaturated bonds). The more unsaturated bonds, the better the conditioning, and the more easily it is absorbed by the skin, but the softer the oil is in soap, and the more prone to oxidation.

Because each oil is a unique combination of these fatty acids, the properties and hardness of each will vary. Making soap means choosing a combination of oils with different degrees of hard/soft, conditioning, and lather, to get the particular product that fits you best.

Mary Anne


Amounts of unsaponifiables in soapmaking/carrier oils, as compiled by listmember Mary Anne

Oils, butters and fats are made up mainly of fatty acids. These react with lye to saponify. Some oils also contain substances which are unsaponifiable. These are things in the oil or butter, that are not fatty acids, and, being chemically different, can't saponify. Generally they are things like phenols, tocopherols, triterpenes, steroids, sterols, and hydrocarbons like squalene and alcohols.. which are natural in the plants and come out with the fatty acids in the processing of the oil.

Most oils have fairly low levels of these unsaponifiable components, others have a fairly significant amount which affect the feel of the soap.

The following table summarises information about the amount of unsaponifiables I have collected along the years.

Oil name% of unsaponifiables
Apricot Kernel 0.5-0.7%
Avocado 2-11%
Black Currant <4%
Borage 1-2%
Castor 0.5-1.0%
Cocoabutter <0.8%
Coconut 0.6-1.5%
Corn 1-2%
Evening Primrose 1-2%
Flax (Linseed) 0.5-1%
Grapeseed 0.8-1.5%
Hemp 0.1-0.5%
Illipe Butter 0.1-1.2%
Jojoba <=50%
Kokum 0.2-1%
Laurel Berry Oil 1-6%
Mango <=0.7%
Meadowfoam Oil 0.20%
Sal Butter <=0.6-2.2%
Sesame 1.5% max
Shea up to 6% - 17%

Mary Anne


Mary Anne's description of the oils/fats she prefers to use, and why

Each skin seems to "feel" oils differently, so opinions vary....and experimenting yourself is really the most accurate indicator of how oils will feel to you. Here is my 2 cents worth on the oils I prefer to use:

Properties of Oils:

  • Bees Wax: inhibits lather at higher amounts, I like about 3% when I use it (not often), may prevent ash problems,.... if its the natural, unrefined wax, it seems to give soap more of a "honey" scent then honey does....
  • Castor Oil: promotes lather, and conditioning, gives a thick, small bubble creamy lather, as opposed to coconut and PK's thinner "big bubble" lather, "soft" oil
  • Cocoa Butter: I don't find cocoa butter drying, but its also not conditioning for me, although some skins think it is.... its fatty acid profile is very similar to tallow, and to me, that is what it feels like in soap... its mild, makes hard soap, but doesn't help noticeably with conditioning... when I use it in soap, I sub it for one of the hard oils, tallow/lard/palm, and I use it because of the 15% it leaves a light cocoa scent that enhances fo's like raspberry,....
  • Coconut Oil: hard bar, big bubble lather.... needs to be properly balanced by conditioning oils because it does such a good job of cleaning that it can feel drying. .... when used with "filler oils" .... oils that are only moderate in conditioning, I keep it at a max of 20-25% with my usual superfat level (6%) , OR use it higher and boost the superfat level by about 2% over my usual... when used with only "high conditioning" oils, like my basic olive, coconut, sunflower, castor, I use it up to about 32-36% with 6-7% superfatting.
  • JoJoba Oil: is really a wax,... and very like the skins natural sebum, ,... because of its stability (its mostly waxes and unsaponifiables, with only 12% fatty acids), it can be used as a superfatting oil added at the end of HP or in rebatch with no problems...and even a very small amount 1-2% will give a very noticeable difference in feel
  • Olive Oil: mild, small bubbles, by itself it will make quite a hard bar, but it doesn't have enough "hardening ability" to balance softer oils.
  • Palm Oil: I don't use much because of its high cost here... there are oils that harden better, and oils that condition better,... for me it is an expensive filler oil.
  • Shea Butter: I like shea in lotions, but not soap... for me it needs to be treated like cocoa butter in soap.
  • Tallow: hard bar, small thin lather.... my preference to replace palm in recipes
  • Sunflower, Safflower, Grapeseed, Hemp, - I like a bit of a high linoleic oil in all my soaps, 10-15% of one of these in every soap. In soaps, these oils feel much better on my skin then even shea or emu. If the level is kept in this range, I don't have a problem with spoiling,... although the hotter and more humid your climate, the more apt you are to have a problem with polyunsaturated oils.

Mary Anne


Fatty Acid profile of high oleic Sunflower oil, as compiled by listmember Mary Anne

The regular is cheap, in 3 or 4 L containers, and just labelled sunflower oil. The high oleic sunflower, is labelled "monounsaturated" sunflower, and pushed as a heart healthier (is that a word?) alternative. Cost wise, it is similar to cheap grades of olive, one litre of high oleic is about the same as 3 litres of regular sunflower.
It should be more like olive.

Here are the spreadsheet values:
Fatty acid namereg. sunflowerhigh oleic sunflowerolive
iodine value119-1388379-95

If "biodynamic sunflower" means the hybrid high oleic sunflower, then an all sunflower would be pretty much the same as an all olive. One of the batches I did with the coconut milk powder was 64% high oleic sunflower. As far as how it feels and behaves, you can't tell it from the same recipe done with olive. High oleic is very different in fatty acid profile & iodine value from regular sunflower, its really very similar to olive.

Website links: -

These sites are US producers and have some info on high oleic sunflower and high oleic safflower.

Mary Anne


Notes for Australian soap makers:

Most (if not all) sunflower oil commonly available in Australia is of the high-oleic type. For those who would like to maintain an "Aussie flavour" in their soaps, sunflower oil is a good choice, because most of what is on offer is Australian grown and Australian made.

  • Peerless: manufacturer of Australian high-oleic sunflower oil.

Marina, ListMum


Fatty Acid profile of Peach kernel oil, as compiled by listmember Mary Anne

Fatty acid namevalue
SAP value.137 (NaOH)
iodine value108-118

From the fatty acid profile it should be very similar to apricot kernel. It's really a very conditioning oil, soft, with little lather, quite unlike palm kernel.

Mary Anne

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