Why is it used?
EDTA (ethylene-diamine-tetra-acetic acid) is a chelator. It offers two benefits when used in soap. It increases the shelf life of your soap by chelating (binding up) certain metals that can cause DOS (dreaded orange spots, also known as rancidity). EDTA also reduces the amount of sticky soap scum formed when lye soap is used in hard water.
EDTA, sodium gluconate, and citrate do similar jobs, so if one does not appeal, then consider using the other. EDTA is arguably not as "crunchy" as citrate or sodium gluconate, so it is not the best choice for a "natural" soap. EDTA and sodium gluconate appear to be more effective than citrate in reducing soap scum.
What kind of EDTA to use?
There are two kinds of EDTA generally available to home crafters. TETRAsodium EDTA should be used in soap and other alkaline products. This is the type of EDTA that I am talking about in this article.
DIsodium EDTA is the other kind of EDTA; it should only be used in neutral pH to slightly acidic products. Disodium EDTA can be converted to the tetrasodium form if needed. But to keep soaping as simple as possible, I recommend buying the tetrasodium form.
Tetrasodium EDTA is available commercially in two forms -- powder that is about 85% pure EDTA and a liquid solution of 39% EDTA in water. Either form can be used.
How to make your own EDTA solution?
EDTA powder is dusty and you only need tiny amounts, so I recommend making a 50% masterbatch EDTA solution and using this liquid when making soap rather than the powder.
Mix 1 part EDTA with 1 part distilled water by weight. Stir until the powder is dissolved. Store in a tightly closed container at room temperature.
How much EDTA to use in soap?
Typical dosage for bar (NaOH) soap or liquid (KOH) soap is 0.5% of EDTA powder based on total batch weight. This is 5 g EDTA powder per 1000 g of total batch weight. Total batch weight is the sum of the oil weight + water weight + alkali weight.
The range of dosages suggested by various sources is very wide -- ranging from 0.05% to 4% of EDTA powder based on total batch weight. Here are some tips to help you decide --
To prevent rancidity (DOS) in soap, dosages range from 0.05% to 0.25% (0.5 g to 2.5 g EDTA powder per 1000 g total batch weight).
Kevin Dunn, author of the book Scientific Soapmaking, recommends 0.5 g EDTA per 1000 g oils to effectively control DOS. (Note his use of oil weight, not total batch weight.)
Dunn found a blend of 1.0 g rosemary oleoresin (ROE) plus 0.5 g EDTA powder added per 1000 g oils may be more effective at preventing DOS than either EDTA or ROE alone.
To also reduce hard water scum, a slightly higher dose of EDTA appears to be needed. Handcrafted soapers typically use 0.25% to 0.5% (2.5 g to 5 g powder per 1000 g batch weight) and get good results.
Use the lower percentage for soft water. Use the higher amount for hard water or if you are not sure about the hardness of the water.
How to measure EDTA?
The amount of EDTA powder needed is very small, so I think it is easier to use a homemade solution of EDTA and distilled water. Some suppliers sell a ready-to-use 39% EDTA solution.
You can make an EDTA solution in any concentration up to about 50% by weight (50 grams EDTA and 50 grams of distilled water). Measure the desired amount of EDTA powder and mix with distilled water until the EDTA is fully dissolved. Store in a labeled, airtight container.
If you know how much EDTA powder you want in a batch of soap, here is how to calculate the amount of 50% EDTA solution to use:
50% EDTA solution weight = 100 / 50 X (EDTA powder weight)
A simplified version of this formula for 50% EDTA solution:
50% EDTA solution weight = 2 X EDTA powder wt
If you are using an EDTA solution that is not 50%, then replace the "50" in first equation above with the correct percentage.
How much lye does it neutralize?
None! Do not adjust your lye weight for EDTA.
How should I add EDTA to my soap?
Blend EDTA solution into your fats along with any other additives you want to add to the fats, add the lye solution, and soap as usual. If using EDTA powder, mix the powder into water or water-based liquid (NOT the lye!) until the powder is dissolved and then blend this mixture into your fats.
CAUTION -- Do NOT add tetrasodium EDTA to concentrated lye solution.
Tetrasodium EDTA will precipitate (turn into solid particles) in a concentrated alkali solution. This precipitation causes the lye solution to become a thick white "pudding." EDTA needs to be dissolved to work properly, so do not use this "pudding" mixture to make soap.
If you make this mistake, one fix is to add sufficient water to the EDTA-lye mixture, and then stir for several minutes until the EDTA fully dissolves.
My experiments showed EDTA stays dissolved in NaOH below 35% concentration. Another soaper, however, said her EDTA precipitated in 33% NaOH solution. So you will have to experiment to find what works for you. If you let me know what you learn, I will update this article to be more accurate.
The other fix is to slowly flush the EDTA-lye mixture down the drain with lots of cold running water and start over.
Extra credit 1: How to convert DIsodium EDTA to TETRAsodium EDTA?
Disclaimer -- Other soap makers report this procedure works fine, but I do not personally have Disodium EDTA and have not personally tested the procedure. Try it at your own risk.
These instructions should make an approximately 50% mixture of TETRAsodium EDTA and water with a small excess of NaOH --
Distilled water 100 g
NaOH 22 g
Wearing gloves and eye protection, weigh the water and NaOH and mix them to make a lye solution. Let the lye cool until the solution is no more than pleasantly warm.
Disodium EDTA 100 g
Using good ventilation to control the dust, weigh the Disodium EDTA powder. Stir the powder into the lye solution until fully dissolved and the solution is clear.
Store this solution in a sturdy, leakproof container at room temperature. Since the mixture will be slightly alkaline (high pH), store this solution in a container that is safe for lye.
You would use this EDTA solution in your soap just as described above in the main article.
More about converting DI to TETRA --
Extra credit 2: Why is EDTA sold as a 39% solution?
You might be wondering why EDTA is sold as a 39% concentration. Why not just make a 50% mixture?
EDTA is used in industry to remove metal ions from water for steam boilers and other processes that use steam or hot water. It turns out 1 gram of 39% EDTA solution will chelate 1 millimole of metal ions.
When you are frequently adjusting the chelation dosage in an industrial process, using an easy-to-remember number like "1 gram EDTA per 1 millimole of metal ions" makes the calculations simpler and reduces the chance of error.
For soap makers, a 50% concentration makes more sense.
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