Tallow is perhaps the most traditional and widely used ingredient for shaving soaps because it is readily available, inexpensive and when saponified, pure tallow renders a nearly ideal fatty acid profile for making good quality shaving soaps. However, these facts have lead to many misconceptions regarding the benefits of tallow and have subsequently generated several myths. In the present article we will visit a few of them and provide an up to date scientific view on their basis, or lack of.
1) “Tallow-based soaps constitute a different class of soaps.” Tallow is an animal triglyceride derived from beef fat and since oils and fats cannot act as surfactants, they cannot directly produce lather. The connection between triglycerides and soap is the saponification reaction in which the triglycerides are broken down to produce fatty acids, which are directly responsible for the surfactant properties of soaps. The process of making a tallow-based soap is identical to making castile soap or any other soap. The only difference is the resulting fatty acid profile from the oils and fats used. Obviously, tallow soaps can be milled to alter the fatty acid profile but one can also mill soaps produced by traditional saponification containing other fats. Verdict: false. Substitution of one ingredient for another cannot be regarded as a different type of soaps.
2) “Tallow-based soaps perform better.” Some high end tallow-based soaps are outstanding and this fact has been extended into the myth that every tallow-based soap is great. The truth is that some tallow-based soaps are mediocre at best, particularly one sold under the name of “mug soap”. Verdict: obviously false, there are good and bad tallow-based soaps.
3) “Tallow-based soaps condition my skin better.” Triglycerides, like tallow, do not readily penetrate to the interior of cells, non-saponified oils and fats act as a barrier. Saponified tallow produces a high percentage of oleic acid, the main product of saponification of olive oil and a well known skin conditioner. Oleic acid is a non-essential fatty acid that is found in human sebum. Oleic acid has a wide range of positive effects on the skin including acting as emollient and moisturizer. Oleic acid aids skin regeneration and helps reduce inflammation. Oleic acid is readily absorbed by the skin and can help absorption of other important molecules like omega-3 fatty acid which plays an important role in inflammation and reduction of bad cholesterol. Despite all its benefits, oleic acid can also irritate the skin and cause acne. Verdict: true. Oleic acid can be beneficial for the skin of some people but in excess, unsaturated especially poly unsaturated fatty acids can reduce shelf life and cause skin irritation.
4) “Tallow soaps can make me sick.” This is a delicate and potentially dangerous point. Although to my knowledge, there has not been a single case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (mad cow disease or BSE) that can be traced to tallow, some people believe that tallow could be a source of protein prions. Prions are small proteinaceous infectious disease-causing agents that have been suggested as the likely cause of the BSE infections Since July 2004 the FDA has put in place regulations to prevent the use of beef products in food and cosmetics. The World Health Organization ranks tallow as low risk for transmission of BSE. In addition, tallow contains about 50% monosaturated that is believed to have beneficial effects on cancer by reducing tumor cell growth. Furthermore, tallow can have high contents of linoleic acid which helps in controlling cholesterol levels. Verdict: False or in need of further scientific evidence. As a result of these growing concerns and some of the regulations that have followed, the number of reformulated tallow-base soaps is on the rise.
5) “Tallow soaps are made with animal fats.” Historically, tallow was the rendered form of beef fat and as such, a byproduct of the meat industry and a relatively inexpensive ingredient. Nowadays, “tallow” refers to an industrial material that has a certain fatty acid composition, degree of saturation, melting point, etc. that does not necessarily need to be obtained from beef or even animal fats. Tallow-based soaps can contain vegetable fats, even if none is added by the manufacturer. Verdict: false. Although typically people tend to react against the use of animal products, in this case, it should be said that animal product lovers should not expect 100% animal fat in their tallow soaps.
6) “Tallow-based soaps last longer than other shaving product.” As Tallow is broken down during saponification, it is replaced by fatty acids and glycerol that are smaller molecules. For the most part, triglycerides (oils and fats) contain the same fatty acids albeit, in different proportions. Fatty acids differ in length and also in the number of unsaturations (double bonds) and this affects their volume. Since the fatty acid profile that is necessary for good performance is limited, the composition of most shaving soaps is chemically similar, with large deviations from these general guidelines resulting in poor performance. From this point of view, it would be hard to imagine that the origin of the fats alone determine the lasting power of a product. Verdict: False. Some tallow-based soaps last longer than other soaps because they have a lower water content, often because they are milled. It is the water content and in turn its density what determines a soap’s lasting power rather than the fats used in its manufacture.
7) “Tallow soaps are so good because they contain lanolin.” Lanolin is a yellowish substance secreted by the sebaceous glands and extracted from the wool of sheep and other animals. Contrary to popular belief, lanolin is not a fat (triglyceride) and hence cannot be saponified. However, it is common to hear the term “wool fat” to refer to lanolin. It is perhaps this fact that inspired the myth that animal fats, in particular tallow, contain lanolin. As tallow comes from beef and lanolin mainly from sheep (actually from the wool of all wool-bearing animals), there is no connection between them other than shaving soaps can contain both and in fact, some do. It is also commonly thought that lanolin replaces glycerin in soap formulations; this is not true: glycerin is a byproduct of the saponification reaction and a permanent ingredient of soap, unless it is removed afterwards.The similarity between lanolin and some of the lipids in the stratum corneum, the compounds that regulate water-loss in the skin, make lanolin an ideal semi-occlusive film suitable for use in cosmetics. Lanolin also acts as a potent emollient. Some studies indicate that the beneficial effects of lanolin are more pronounced than those of glycerin or petrolatum. On the other hand, wool alcohols, a class of compounds derived from lanolin, could be responsible for sensitization of the skin and contact dermatitis. Impure lanolin can contain significant amounts of pesticides and other undesirable compounds. The maximal content of these compounds in lanolin is strictly regulated. Nowadays, high purity or modified, hypoallergenic lanolin is available to minimize the health hazards. Verdict: False. In the absence of allergic reactions, the evidence suggests that lanolin can be beneficial for the skin. However, there is no direct connection between tallow and lanolin beyond that both are originally animal products. Although some shaving soaps contain both, there is no reason why non-tallow soaps that contain lanolin could not provide the same benefits.
A little note on reformulation: Saponified tallow has a very high content of stearic and palmitic acids, with slightly higher palmitic than stearic acid content. Due to growing health concerns, many tallow-based products have been reformulated in recent years. Palmitic acid is often used to partially replace stearic acid in newer formulations with only a few noticeable effects. The high content of palmitic acid found in palm oil is responsible for the popularity of palm oil as tallow’s replacement in newer vegetable formulations of old classics. Supplementation of palm oil with stearic acid produces a fatty acid profile that is very close to that of pure tallow. For this reason, products using these formulations have remarkably similar performance.
The fondness of shaving aficionados for tallow-based soaps in unquestionable and for a good reason: some tallow-based soaps are among the best in the world. However, the implication that that fact by itself makes any tallow-based product great, is absurd. Vegetable formulations can perform as well as the best tallow-based soaps or better and in fact, some of the best “latherers” are non-tallow shaving creams. Tallow-based soaps are not a special class of soaps and do not last longer per se. So far, tallow soaps have been safe and can be better skin conditioners than others. Finally, be aware that the current tallow can contain vegetable oils too.