This question has stumped a surprising number of people: What is sodium palmate? End the question with sodium cocoate or sodium olivate, and the circle of questions widens. Guesses and assumptions have been interesting. Most are convinced it’s nothing they want.
The truth is, sodium palmate is simply another name for something most folks are much more familiar with: palm oil, specifically palm oil that’s been saponified into soap. Sodium palmate isn’t just another name, though. It’s the INCI name, one of an internationally agreed-on set of names that provides consistency of identification across product lines and across national boundary lines. And it’s the name required on soap labels in most countries other than the U.S.
True soap in America has it easy in that regard. As defined by the FDA, true soap is made with lye and fatty acids. As long as a true soap label makes no cosmetic claims about itself or one of its ingredients (“contains moisturizing shea butter”), and makes no drug claims (“kills bacteria”), there are no ingredient requirements. All that’s required under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act is the name of the product, its net weight, and the name and address of the manufacturer, distributor, or packager.
Even without requirements, most soap manufacturers understand that consumers expect and deserve ingredient labels. They deserve those labels to be inclusive and complete, and they deserve ingredients to appear in descending order, based on largest to smallest amounts. Those are the standard set by cosmetic ingredient rules.
For soapmakers who sell internationally, or aspire to, label obligations become less voluntary. Most other countries require labeling, and the requirements are most often INCI label names. INCI names are also referred to as the Latin or scientific names. In addition to the three vegetable-oil names above (coconut oil and olive oil are the other two), here are some common-name to INCI-name translations, courtesy of Wikipedia:
For soapmakers and sellers, ingredient names are important. The INCI system exists precisely to ensure that when hemp oil, for example, is used in multiple products manufactured or sold in different countries, it’s Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil wherever it’s listed. There’s an independent, third-party system to ensure consistency, and to foster assurance among those using the labeling system that their customers can trust and understand their products.
That’s definitely something American soapmakers should keep in mind. While labeling in the U.S. is a minimal obligation, elsewhere the emphasis is on complete and consistent label information for soap as well as cosmetics.