real science for today's homeschooler

Testing the pH of Soap

Testing the pH of Soap

We usually think of soap as being a very mild substance that is good for the skin. But, the cleansing effect of soap is due, in part, to the fact that it is a basic substance. Some soaps can dry out the skin, or even damage skin with frequent use.

When you teach your children about acids and bases and the pH scale, have them explore the pH of different soaps in your house. Test bath soap, dish soap, clothes soap, shampoos, facial cleansers, etc. They can also test household cleaners you may use, especially those that contain ammonia. But be sure these harsher products are tested under adult supervision since ammonia products can be harmful if they get in the eyes or are swallowed.

The easiest way to test pH is with pH test strips. You can buy these anywhere swimming pool or pond chemicals are sold, but they are usually fairly expensive. Unless you want them right away, you can order universal pH paper strips here for a very reasonable price. The shipping is a flat rate so you might want to join with other homeschool families to put in one order together, or look around for other science supplies you might need in the future.

For thick liquid soaps, powders, or bar soap, mix with a little distilled water so that the test strips can absorb the chemicals. All pH test strip packages come with a color key that can be used to determine the pH. Very often the color of the test strip will be in between two colors on the key. Use this as an opportunity to teach your children about estimating between two known values.

After you have results, remind children that a pH of 7 is “neutral” and completely harmless. The farther away from 7, the more harsh, and potentially harmful the base. Discuss the relationship between the pH of different types of soaps and their intended use. Why is there such a difference between bath soap and household cleaners? Also, check to see if any of the products advertise themselves to be “pH balanced.” Based on the pH test results, what does that mean? Do those products have a different pH from other similar products that don’t make that claim? Finally, you can extend the results with a consumer finance application. Do you find a difference in the pH of similar products from different brands? For example, is there a difference between the pH of a name brand bath soap and a cheaper store brand?

One final word about using test strips. A universal test strip tests a wide range of pH values and so will have less of a color change between similar pH values. A more narrow range test strip will show a bigger color range between similar pH values, but will show no results outside of the range of the pH paper. So, if you buy narrow range test strips, be sure they are within the range you want to test. For example, if you are testing soaps you will need to use pH test strips that test for a pH range above 7. Acid test strips (that test below 7) will give no results when testing soaps.

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Red Cabbage as a pH Indicator

Red Cabbage as a pH Indicator

pH is a hard concept for younger children to learn. Add a little excitement to the subject of acids and bases by using a natural pH indicator. First, the science . . . an indicator is a chemical that “indicates” or shows the presence of a substance, usually by a color change. There are many pH indicators, each working for a different range on the pH scale. A wide-range indicator detects substances on the entire pH spectrum.

A safe and easy pH indicator for kids to work with is cabbage juice. When added to different household substances, it turns a wide range of colors, which children love! Here’s how to prepare the indicator: Pinch up the very red (purple) leaves of a red leaf cabbage. Put in water and boil until the reddish purple color comes out into the water. You can do this on the stove, but the microwave works well, also. A few hints . . . use a high cabbage to water ratio as you want the color as concentrated as possible. And, use soft water. If your water is naturally soft, tap water will work fine. But, if you live in an area with hard water, it’s worth the cost to buy some distilled water for this activity. Cool the cabbage juice before using. It will store for several weeks in the refrigerator.

Next, have your child collect different household liquids they want to test for pH. You can find a list of the pH of some common liquids here. You can also just search “pH of ???” on the internet to find the pH of just about anything. Testing liquids from a wide range on the pH scale will give the most colorful results.

Once you have all your test liquids, add about a tablespoon of each to a test tube. (If you don’t have test tubes at home, the cups of a white egg carton work great!) Then, add a teaspoon or so of the cabbage juice indicator to each test liquid. The amount isn’t critical. Just add enough cabbage juice to get a good color change.

For older children, make a list of the test solutions and their actual pH collected from the internet. Have your child create a color scale that can be used to determine the pH of an unknown substance. For example, here’s a pH scale for another commercial indicator:pH scale

Once your child has made a pH chart for cabbage juice indicator, provide him/her with several “unknowns” to test the accuracy of their chart.

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