Vegetable or Animal Fats in Soap Making – what is the difference

In order to make soap, fatty acids have to be mixed with an alkali and heated in water.

Oils such as fat and butter are made up of fatty acids.

There are a variety of oils that make up these fatty acids, but each has their own molecular makeup so vegetable or animal fat?

Animal Fat

Back in the earliest days of soap making, our ancestors used animal fat.  The most common was tallow (beef fat) and lard (rendered pork fat).  During the fall when farm animals were slaughtered, there was plenty of animal fat for soap making.

The fat would be melted down and mixed with a crude lye (water drained through wood ash)

Tallow and lard make beautiful, hard soap that is long lasting.  It also makes a lot of suds.

There are many commercial soap companies that still use tallow as their fat base.

One drawback of using animal fats for soap is that it may have a problem making suds in cold water.  These soaps may also be too drying for some people’s skin.

To remedy this problem, moisturizers such as lanolin, glycerin, goat milk, or aloes are added to soften the skin.

Artisan soap makers often mix animal fat with vegetable oil for a complex soap that cleans well and is gentle on the body.

Plant Oil

Those who look for vegan or cruelty-free products will make soaps from plant-based oils.  When the fatty acids from plants are used, it makes a moisturizing soap with a little less lather.

However, these soaps lather up well in any water temperature.  Some of the most common plant oils used for soap making are canola, sunflower, olive and palm oils. These oils are rich in Omega 3 acids (also called unsaturated fats)

They are considered the good fats that the body requires.  When used as a soap ingredient, plant oils are good moisturizers and are gentle on sensitive skin.

If other emollients are added, it creates a richly fatted soap that makes more lather and lasts longer.

When making your own soap there are a lot of choices between animal fats and plant oils.

The best way to choose which one to use is whether you want a harder or softer soap and how much lather is wanted.  Extra oils can be added for scent and moisturizing.

Those who object to using any animal products can make wonderful vegan soaps and with the right oils this soap will be just has hard as any soap produced using animal fats.

Canola oil and soap

Canola Oil

Cocoa Butter in Soap making

Cocoa Butter

Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil

Grapeseed Oil

Grapeseed Oil

Hemp, Hempseed, Hemp seed Oil

Hemp seed Oil

Olive Oil

Palm Oil

Rose hip

Rose hip Oil

Shea Nut Butter

Shea Nut Butter

No matter what oils you use making soap can be a fascinating hobby and can pay tribute to our hard working ancestors.

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4 Responses to Vegetable or Animal Fats in Soap Making – what is the difference

  1. Felina Danson says:

    Wow I did not know that you can make soaps out of plant based oils.. It’s great that they lather better in any temperature as i know my daughter is super sensitive to really hot water and for me the extra moisturizer in it would be helpful as I am getting older..This may be a new hobby I may want to try, adding my own oils for different scents would be fun.

  2. Andi says:

    I actually had no idea that they used those sort of animal fats in soap. It conjures up pictures of me cleaning fat from sausages out of my cooking pan with loads of washing up liquid, then having a wash in that water. I think they used to use whale fat too.
    I think I would much prefer the plant based ones that’s for sure.
    I had a nice soap from Lush not so long ago that was natural plant based and lathered and smelt gorgeous and very moisturising too.
    I really love handmade soaps, I would love to have a go at this one day. I have seen some gorgeous looking ones with beach scenery and a boat embedded in it. Very clever.
    You have a very lovely website. Thanks.
    Andi Tointon.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Andi, Glad you like the website.

      Yes all kinds of animal fats have been used to make soap, I prefer natural plant based oils myself. There are all kinds of wonderful natural soaps out there. Just be aware of what you are buying. I have such sensitive skin that I have to be very careful. Not all natural soaps are the same. Although Lush has some wonderful products, some of their soaps do contain synthetics you may want to read this article Bar Soap – Healthy, Natural, Safe – That’s the question

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