I have been making and sharing soap for years—long before I ever considered selling it—and I have always been educated and transparent with the ingredients I use. It is in this spirit (and perhaps with a little pride) that I’m starting a series of blog entries introducing each ingredient.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, I’m kicking this series off with my most controversial ingredient: tallow/lard
At its most basic level, making soap involves the reaction of two ingredients: an alkali (lye solution) and fatty acids (fats and/or oils).
The term tallow refers to the fatty but hard substance obtained from rendering cow fat. Lard is rendered pig fat. Since it was first discovered centuries ago, traditional soap has been made with the lye derived from wood ash and rendered animal fat (such as tallow or lard hereafter referred to as “tallow”).
Most soaps today are made with a recommended blend of three basic categories of fats/oils: lathering hard oils (tallow), conditioning hard oils, and nourishing soft oils.
Every fat and oil is comprised of a unique blend of fatty acids. The primary fatty acids in tallow are oleic acid (36%), palmitic acid (28%) and stearic acid (22%). In soap, oleic acid is known for its conditioning and moisturizing properties. Both palmitic acid and stearic acid have lather-stabilizing properties and create hard, lasting bars of soap. One key soap characteristic not attributed to these three dominating fatty acids is cleansing power. So a bar made strictly with tallow as its fat/oil source would be hard and long lasting and would supply a good, conditioning lather but would not be a superior cleaner.
But isn’t tallow an inexpensive ingredient used only in low-quality or commercial products? No. The fatty acids in tallow are especially ideal for making soap. Historically, all soaps were made with animal fat. Today tallow is affordable because it’s a by-product of meat processing which, whether you agree with it or not, will continue to operate whether we make use of the excess fat or not. Thus tallow’s favorable economics are only another example of its suitability. Throwing out the tallow and replacing it with a more expensive, inferior substitute is about as practical as throwing out the stock after slow cooking your favorite meats or veggies and making a soup by mixing them with luxury water instead.
Ew! Won’t animal fat will make my soap feel greasy and clog pores? Nope. Geek alert. Making soap involves a chemical reaction called saponification that results in an end-product that is not a culmination of its components, but rather is an entirely different compound. In other words, although tallow is an ingredient in my process, the soaps produced do not chemically contain tallow. Many soapers emphasize this key distinction by listing “saponified tallow” as an ingredient instead of “tallow”. My soaps are very creamy but I promise they don’t moo.
The standard natural alternative to tallow in soapmaking is palm or palm kernel oil. Palm oil can make a comparable bar of soap but has controversial concerns. To keep palm oil inexpensive, the massive plantations required to produce the world’s palm oil supply are founded on unsustainable harvesting practices that are destroying rainforests, endangering native species, and exploiting foreign workers. Large-scale palm establishments are also causing soil erosion, climate change, and air and water pollution. So if you’re avoiding tallow—as a soapmaker or consumer—for environmental reasons, you might want to reconsider.
Other soaps made without tallow omit the entire “lathering hard oil” category altogether and use a higher proportion of nourishing oils. The resulting bar of soap is softer but also short-lived, that is, unless it’s cured for a very long time (and by ‘very’ I mean minimum of two and upward of five years). This demanding preparation, storage and time generally increases the ultimate cost of these soaps, sometimes by more than 100%.
Other alternatives to tallow include shea and cocoa butters. While I regularly use both of these luxury oils as a complement to my balanced soap recipe, both are inferior to tallow in hardness and lather and are extremely expensive by comparison therefore not economic alternatives on a full-scale basis.
Since making goat milk soap for the first time with my aunt when I was a child, I have always preferred a soap made with hydrating and nourishing goat milk over the water-based alternative. Because my soaps are all made using goat milk, vegan soaps that require an alternative to tallow are not of interest to my patrons or to me.
Using tallow also supports my promise to create a local, handmade product. I render my own tallow from local butchers and grocery stores whenever possible and refuse to support the massive, overseas producers of palm oil. I balance my homemade tallow (my lathering, hard oil) with a perfect blend of conditioning, nourishing, and luxury oils to create my much-loved soaps.
Having taken all of these factors into consideration, I am confident in my use of tallow and the superior soaps my loving process creates. And with that I will get off of my soapbox.