Difference Between Palm Oil & Vegetable Oil in Soap

Three bars of almond soap
Natural soaps are fairly easy to make with many types of vegetable oils, including controversial palm oil. (Image: Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

One of the key ingredients needed to make soap is fat. Until the early 1900s, most soap was made at home from leftover animal fats, until a shortage of fats occurred during World War I. In the new millennium, chemistry is much better understood and a wide variety of ingredients are available to create better soap with less difficulty than ever before. Vegetable oils produce soaps that are considered higher quality than animal fats, but which vegetable oil you choose alters the outcome of your soap and may impact the environment as well.

Palm Oil Soap Characteristics

Palm oil is a type of vegetable oil extracted from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. Palm oil is considered by soap makers to be a "hard oil," meaning it will add firmness to a bar of soap. Soap made with palm oil lathers well but will not produce a very bubbly lather. Soaps produced with palm oil also have less glycerin than other vegetable oil-based soaps, making it harsher on skin.

Other Vegetable Oils

Other vegetable oils, or any natural oils found in seeds, nuts and some fruit, that are used for soap-making include almond oil, which has rich lather and conditioning properties; avocado oil, containing a high amount of skin-nourishing vitamins; castor oil, a rich lather producer; coconut oil, bringing firmness to a bar of soap and lathering well; grapeseed oil, adding a slippery quality and creamy texture to soap; olive oil, readily available and widely used; rice bran oil, a less expensive alternative to olive oil; and shea butter, which adds hardness and produces conditioning and creamy lather.

Ecological Implications of Palm Oil

Palm oil is used for cooking, making cosmetics and as a biofuel, making it a highly sought-after resource. Unfortunately, the results of using so much palm oil for so many things is deforestation of the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra, the only two islands where wild orangutans live and are now considered critically endangered. Elephants, tigers and rhinos may also be at risk. Organizations concerned for global conservation and wildlife preservation, such as the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the World Wildlife Federation, urge consumers to limit palm oil use to those products labeled "sustainable," meaning habitats were not destroyed in their production.

Coloring

Palm oil coloring can vary from type to type. For instance, unrefined red palm oil is a deep orange and can drastically alter the appearance of soap. A very small amount of this palm oil can cause your bar to range from light lemony-yellow to a pumpkinlike orange hue. Refined palm oil is better suitable for producing white bars. Other vegetable oils can affect the color outcome of soaps similarly, depending on their concentration and the amount used in the formula.

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