It all started with an experiment. My daughter was making soap with medieval ingredients. I had saved her some beef tallow and some bacon fat, and were planning to add olive oil and a bit of beeswax. We entered numbers into the soapcalc.net calculator, which calculates the amount of water and sodium hydroxide (lye) to use based on the amount of each oil being used, in order to make soap that will not be too oily or harsh on the skin. Each oil has a different saponification factor, which changes the amount of lye needed, so this calculation is crucial. The calculator spit out the values, and we were on our way. We dissolved the lye in the water, then mixed the oils and lye water together, and set the mixture onto the stove.
A few hours later, the oils had fully reacted to become soap, but there was a large amount of lye left behind in the soap. First I added more water, to hydrate the mixture again so that we could try to fix it, and then we added more olive oil. For the next two hours, I stirred, waited, added more oil or water, stirred, and waited some more. Finally we got a very wobbly soap (which is normal when using the types of fats we were using) with all of the lye fully reacted. I couldn’t understand how the soap calc calculator could be that wrong. I had used it before, making a soap with three times the number of oils, and had my soap turn out beautifully. My oil said right on the package that it was “100% pure extra virgin olive oil.” How could this have happened?
A few months later, a story came out about a study that had been done by the University of California Davis Olive Center. The research team tested a large number of grocery store extra virgin olive oils for conformance to “extra virgin” requirements, a strict labelling criteria that has been poorly enforced. They found that the majority of extra virgin olive oils sold in North American grocery stores didn’t meet the profile requirements of extra virgin olive oil due to mislabelling or poor processing and handling, or worse, being adulterated with other oils. Australia tested some of their olive oils with similar results, and there was even a large sting operation by Italian police in 2008, arresting people manufacturing false olive oils. It seems that olive oil is big mob business in Italy, and anything that can be done to pad the profit margins is considered fair game by the owners of the businesses. Extra virgin olive oil is expensive to make, but it’s cheap to fake. That means questionable quality for us as consumers, because we don’t all have the equipment needed to test whether our olive oil is up to snuff. My brand, one I thought was more respectable, was found to be one of the worst offenders. No wonder the soap had failed so miserably. Since there is no differentiation in the soap calculator for different grades of olive oil, I can only conclude that my oil was adulterated with some other oil.
How does this affect chemical allergy sufferers? First of all, many chemical allergy sufferers use olive oil as a skin moisturizer. When purchasing this olive oil, there is no surefire way to know if the product contains other vegetable oils like canola or safflower, or whether the processing has resulted in other contaminants into the process. This is my primary concern, because changing the oil or its properties could result in using oils that are more comedogenic or allergenic.
Secondly, some people make their own soap. I do not know about the purity of the oils sold by soap making suppliers, but soap makers should be wary about using olive oils from the grocery store in their recipes (given the supply chain, it’s questionable), even if they run out of their other oil supplies. Luckily, there are other very gentle cleansers in the soap making scene, like hemp oil and oat oil.
Thirdly, many chemical allergy sufferers use pure olive oil soap. This is indeed a secondary concern, because there are two main possible outcomes: Either the olive oil used for the soap is pure, or the soap manufacturing facility has adjusted their process to work with the oil they receive, even if the oil isn’t pure and they don’t know it. This may or may not be of concern to some individuals, but if you’re using the soap safely so far, nothing’s changed, and you can continue to use the soap safely.
What can you do? If you live near a local source of olive oil, especially in Australia or California, buy that. Support local business and stick it to the big manufacturers in one fell swoop. If you don’t live in olive country, review the list of less-accurately-labelled brands in the first link so that you can choose an oil more likely to be honestly labelled, and follow the tips in the second link below.