What Is Soap and How Does It Work

January 31, 2017

What Is Soap and How Does It Work

So we all know we need to use soap because it keeps us clean, prevents the spread of disease and bacteria and it makes bubbles (yeah, I dig bubbles a lot).  Until Julia and I started Whispering Willow, I didn't really know what soap was or how it worked.  

 What It Is

Soap is the result of a chemical reaction between a base and an acid.  Until recently, lye was derived from hardwood ashes and mixed with animal fat.  Here is a great article that explains the basics of making "pioneer" soap from wood ashes and animal fat.  Now we use lye (sodium hydroxide) that is created in a lab to ensure purity and consistency and our fat comes from organic vegetable oils. 

Soap's Origin Story

According to the internet, so what I'm about to say must be true, soap was likely discovered in the days of animal sacrifices.  The fat from the animal would drip down into the ashes.  The mixture would then be disposed of or run off into the nearby stream and folks learned that washing was more effective then. Eventually they would have figured out the combination and soap would go from being an accidental to an intentional item.  

How It Works

For a long time I thought that soap killed all the bad bacteria on my hands and other parts.  It turns out soap doesn't kill bacteria.  It is what is called a surfactant.  In technical terms surfactants "are compounds that lower the surface tension (or interfacial tension) between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid".  This is a fancy way of saying that part of a soap molecule will grab onto water and the other part will grab onto oil or dirt and other icky things.  When you lather up you are making all of these connections and when you rinse the icky goes with the soap down the drain. 


This is why it is so important to wash your hands for 20 seconds so that the soap has a chance to grab onto all the bad stuff.  A very technical way of making sure you are washing your hands for 20 seconds is to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.  Wayne was taught this by health food inspectors when he managed a deli in Charlotte, so the technique is legit.  Plus its a fun way to teach kids the importance of hand washing and who doesn't love singing the Happy Birthday song?!?

Use It Often

Some of the benefits of soap are obvious, especially after a trip to the gym or an afternoon working in the yard.  Washing your hands is also the best way to prevent the spread of disease from the common cold to the flu to other scary things.  You should wash your hands regularly.  Here are a few suggestions from the CDC about when to wash your hands:

  • Before, during and after preparing food
  • Before eating
  • After using the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing
  • After touching garbage
  • After touching a pet or handling pet food or treats
  • For the comprehensive list click here

Most importantly, soap should be a part of any emergency preparedness kit.  It even made the list for the CDC's Zombie Apocalypse Emergency Kit!

 Happy Washing!




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