Stearic acid is a saturated fatty acid with an 18-carbon chain and has the IUPAC name octadecanoic acid. It is a waxy solid and its chemical formula is C17H35CO2H. Its name comes from the Greek word "stéar", which means tallow. The salts and esters of stearic acid are called stearates. As its ester, stearic acid is one of the most common saturated fatty acids found in nature following palmitic acid. The triglyceride derived from three molecules of stearic acid is called stearin. Stearic acid is obtained from fats and oils by the saponification of the triglycerides using hot water (above 200 °C). The resulting mixture is then distilled.Commercial stearic acid is often a mixture of stearic and palmitic acids, although purified stearic acid is available.
Fats and oils rich in stearic acid are more abundant in animal fat (up to 30%) than in vegetable fat (typically <5%). The important exceptions are cocoa butter and shea butter, where the stearic acid content (as a triglyceride) is 28–45%.
In terms of its biosynthesis, stearic acid is produced from carbohydrates via the fatty acid synthesis machinery wherein acetyl-CoA contributes two-carbon building blocks.
In general, the applications of stearic acid exploit its bifunctional character, with a polar head group that can be attached to metal cations and a nonpolar chain that confers solubility in organic solvents. The combination leads to uses as a surfactant and softening agent. Stearic acid undergoes the typical reactions of saturated carboxylic acids, a notable one being reduction to stearyl alcohol, and esterification with a range of alcohols. This is used in a large range of manufactures, from simple to complex electronic devices.
Stearic acid is mainly used in the production of detergents, soaps, and cosmetics such as shampoos and shaving cream products. Soaps are not made directly from stearic acid, but indirectly by saponification of triglycerides consisting of stearic acid esters. Esters of stearic acid with ethylene glycol, glycol stearate, and glycol distearate are used to produce a pearly effect in shampoos, soaps, and other cosmetic products. They are added to the product in molten form and allowed to crystallize under controlled conditions. Detergents are obtained from amides and quaternary alkylammonium derivatives of stearic acid.
In view of the soft texture of the sodium salt, which is the main component of soap, other salts are also useful for their lubricating properties. Lithium stearate is an important component of grease. The stearate salts of zinc, calcium, cadmium, and lead are used to soften PVC. Stearic acid is used along with castor oil for preparing softeners in textile sizing. They are heated and mixed with caustic potash or caustic soda. Related salts are also commonly used as release agents, e.g. in the production of automobile tires.