Ivory 2/3/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Driving Interstate 75 through Cincinnati, Ohio, you’ll come upon a stretch with a strong fragrant and industrial smell. Proctor and Gamble, makers of such fine products as Ivory soap, Crest, Scope, Head and Shoulders, Pampers, Old Spice, Febreze, Pepto Bismol, Swiffer, and so much more.

Personally, I like Proctor and Gamble. When I see their name on a product (and I do miss their old logo but sadly conspiracy theorists claimed the moon and stars were “satanic”, and their reputation as a family company is so important to them that they pretty much immediately changed it) I know it is going to be a product of quality. Many people may not realize that they are also a very nice “neighbor” to Cincinnati, supporting local schools and events. I’m told they often donate their old quality control lab equipment (which they upgrade very regularly so “old” is very new for the recipients) to colleges. The company itself is approaching its bicentennial, founded on October 31, 1837. This just blows my mind.

There are a few “staple” products of theirs. Crest is, as I understand it, the mainstay of their product line. The one with the most interesting history, in my opinion, has got to be Ivory soap.

Ivory soap was developed before the invention of the modern washing machine which was patented (at least the washing machine with a drum) in 1851. Before then, as I understand the story, many women (as it was seen to be a woman’s job back then) would wash their family’s clothes in the Cincinnati river (which was ruled to actually belong to Kentucky). They would apparently use bar soap, and if they dropped it (no, this is not a prison story) it would sink and be lost. Proctor and Gamble developed Ivory Soap with the added benefit that it floats. Because of that, if it was dropped, it could be found and recovered.

Today it’s advertised as 99.44% pure, and, yes, it still floats. Many people assume that it floats because of its purity, but the fact is that it is whipped with air specifically so that it will float. I personally use Ivory soap (which is why I’m writing about it) and, yes, I’m old enough that I still use bar soap for my bath, my face and my hands, so I use it a lot. Ivory is the least expensive soap when I shop, but that’s not why I buy it, nor do I buy it because it floats. In fact, I buy it because I know it’s a nice, simple, clean, reliable product (and, frankly, I like supporting Proctor and Gamble). But it doesn’t tend to last very long. Because it is whipped with air, there is less “soap” in a bar of ivory than the more dense soaps out there. This, as odd as it might sound, is also very impressive to me. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but the fact is that P&G does not price it in the same range as other soaps. The company could easily do this; more or less double the price so each bar is about as much as other bar soaps on the market, and people would pay for it because, in their mind, it would be a comparable price and soap is soap. But, I believe that they keep it priced as they do because they know that there is less actual product. This, to me, says that they are a very ethical company (which I know that they are).

Soap is a pretty easy thing to make. The process is called “saponification”, which is often an early experiment in many college organic chemistry lab courses. Fats use molecules called “triglycerides” as the energy storing molecule, which is a condensation of glycerol (often used in foods as a humectant and thickener) and three fatty acids. To release the fatty acids, triglycerides are treated with a base (typically sodium hydroxide which is found in lye) which releases the fatty acids as salts (reaction of an acid with a base forms a salt). These fatty acid salts are the active ingredient in soap (detergents are very similar but instead of being organic acids they have different polar groups such as sulfates and phosphates). In fact, Ivory soap begins with sodium tallowate, the salt of tallow which is animal fat.

Because soaps are made of salts of fatty acid soaps, my sweet puppy Bella used to love to steal and eat soap. I say steal because, no, I didn’t feed it to her. I can’t imagine soap is good for dogs, but she definitely loved eating it. Humans use soap to punish our children (proverbial “wash your mouth out with soap”), but Bella sure loved it. I’m convinced she’s tasting the fatty acids, so I can’t really blame her.

For the P&G representative reading this, I am available with experience as an analytical chemist and author…

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