What is a chemical?

Overheard: “That contains chemicals. You should look for a more natural version.”
Me: “…ugh .”

As a chemist, I really cringe at those type of statements because I always want to shout out “EVERYTHING IS A CHEMICAL!!” Of course, I’d be wrong.

Not all matter is a chemical, but all chemicals are matter.
Wait. What does that mean? Well, for starters, energy is not a form of matter, and thus energy is not a chemical. Photons, kinetic energy, heat, etc. aren’t chemicals. Not that they matter anyway. ;0 Such a bad pun that I had to keep it.
Neither neutrons, positrons, nor electrons are chemicals, even though they’re components of an atom and are matter.
Intangible substances such as wishes, desires, and dreams aren’t either. If I make my dream come true, alas I’m not creating matter folks.

…but basically everything else is a chemical or comprised of multiple chemicals in various states. Take a frozen slushie as an example. It’s a composition of frozen water mixed with sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup, a coloring dye, and flavors. All of which are chemicals.

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Everything we eat contains chemicals, whether “good” or “bad”. I’m not going to debate the merits of organic/natural vs synthetic/conventional chemicals because that’s another blog post. However, I do want to leave you with a question. What is the chemical difference between vanillin that I extract from a bean versus vanillin I synthesize in a lab?              

***I wrote vanillin, not vanilla extract! This is an important distinction because vanilla extracted from a vanilla bean contains vanillin — as well as other aromatic chemicals such as furfural, cinnamic acid, 4-hydroxybenzaldehyde, and others — whereas synthetic vanilla extract is basically vanillin in ethanol.***

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Saponification in Soap Making

Organics in a bottle?

My new obsession recently has been soap crafting! I don’t mean melt and pour soap projects (which are perfectly fine, easy, and fun to do), but I’m talking about making my own soap out of simple chemical ingredients that can be purchased at the grocery store. I’m talking about cold-process soap, made from the saponification of oils. In soap making, this requires a base such as NaOH or KOH, also known as lye, and triglycerides found in oils, also known as esters with long hydrophobic tails attached to a glycerol. Sounds fancy and complicated but the basic chemistry really isn’t.

What is saponification?

Saponification is the cleavage of an ester to an carboxylic acid.
Basically, the mechanism is a simple addition-elimination. The base adds to the ester to form a tetrahedral intermediate, followed by elimination of an alcohol. Since the lye solution is alkaline (basic), the resulting carboxylic acid is deprotonated, resulting in a carboxylate anion stabilized by a counter cation. You’re making a salt!

After the esters are saponified, you also end up with glycerol which remains in the cold processed soap. Fun fact, soaps primarily made of glycerol (aka glycerin soap) are translucent.

To ensure that all the lye is consumed and the soap is safe to use, an excess of fatty oils are used. This is referred to as superfatting. Superfatting changes the feel of the soap, making it more rich, luxurious, and moisturizing. Basically it’s oilier.