I wasn’t originally going to publish this today, but I received a few comments on yesterday’s entry about the use of beef tallow in soap making. I’ve also had a quite a few questions over the years about the use of lard and beef tallow in my soaps, so I thought I’d finally bite the bullet, as it were, and write a full entry on why I use it, and what the alternatives are if you are morally opposed to using animal products.
I use lard or beef tallow as the hardening fat in my soaps—it’s what makes the bar hard so it doesn’t turn into a pile of glop the second it gets wet in your shower. Both have a long and esteemed history in soap making, and are still used as the primary fats in many cheap, mass-produced soaps today.
The other factor in creating a hard bar of soap is aging time. Most cold process recipes are formulated for a 3 week aging time, which works when you’ve got a good amount of a hardening fat in the recipe. If you don’t, you’ll need more time—sometimes, substantially more time (like 5 years). It all depends.
For those looking for an alternative, here are your options:
- Palm/ Palm Kernel Oil: These oils are the most popular plant-based alternative to beef tallow or lard when it comes to hardening a bar of soap. However, if you’re shying away from beef tallow and lard for reasons of animal welfare or the environment, you should really think twice about using palm products. Palm oil is used heavily in food and cosmetics production as it is very cheap—and it’s cheap thanks to very unsustainable harvesting practices that are destroying rain forest, exploiting workers in foreign countries, and leaving endangered species like the orangutan without habitat. Read more here, and do your own research (that source is quite biased but will definitely educate you on the negatives). TRADE OFF: Environmental concerns.
- Cocoa or Shea butter: Other hardening plant-based fats, though not as hard as beef tallow/lard or palm/palm kernel. I’ve found I need to leave these bars to age for a year or more before they get nice and hard. They’re also substantially more expensive. That said, bars made with these oils can be absolutely wonderful once they’ve finished aging. I have a few that are about 2 years old now, and I’m hoarding them because they are so wonderful! TRADE OFF: Price & time.
- Make liquid soap instead. That’ll solve the problem of needing hard fats, but obviously you’ll then have liquid soap, not bar soap. TRADE OFF: Not the same thing, but still awesome.
- Forego hard fats and age for years. This is common practice with castile soap, which is traditionally made from 100% olive oil (pomace) (USA / Canada). I’ve read that a 5 year aging time gives you a great bar of soap, so if you’ve got half a decade, go for it (2 years would probably be sufficient, though, of you aren’t using all liquid oils)! TRADE OFF: Lots of time.
So why, as a vegetarian, do I use lard or beef tallow in my soap? My thought process is this: beef tallow is a waste product of the meat industry, and by using it I am helping reduce waste and make the most of the life of an animal that was killed for steak.
I used to work at a grocery store (in the produce department), and I know the beef tallow/lard gets trimmed off the meat and thrown out at the end of the day by the meat department. I still have friends in the meat department there that will save me their fat trimmings for a day, giving me enough beef tallow for months worth of soap.
Think about that—one employee (of maybe 10 that work every day) saves me their trimmings for one shift, and it’s enough for probably 10kg of soap. Every other day of the year, that gets thrown out. Think of all that waste. The animal has already been killed (and not for its fat, obviously), and all we’re doing is using the meat (and only the cuts we like, for the most part), and throwing out everything else. That’s shameful. So, I feel like by using beef tallow I am:
- Reducing waste
- Helping use the rest of an animal that was killed for other reasons, and would be dead regardless of whether or not I rescued some of its fat from the trash bin
So, if you eat meat, I think you should definitely use beef tallow or lard in your homemade soap. If you can eat meat, there shouldn’t be an ick factor—you can probably even save the beef tallow from your own dinners. If you’re veg or vegan, feel free to use one of the alternatives I’ve listed above (I’d advocate #2). But hey, it’s something to think about. Feel free to share your thoughts below!