Lipids in Water: Do They Actually Dissolve?

We all know that lipids and water don’t mix. But why is that? And what does the dissolution of lipids in the water really mean?

Generally, lipids are non-polar, meaning they are hydrophobic and can’t dissolve in polar water molecules. Instead, they freely dissolve in organic solvents such as benzene and chloroform.

Contrary to this common understanding, though, most lipids are amphipathic, meaning they partially dissolve in water in a heterogeneous sense.

Oil and water suspension

In this blog post, we’ll explore the science behind lipid solubility (lipophilicity) and discover just how interesting and complex it really is.

What are Lipids?

Lipids are a group of macromolecules that are essential for life. They are characterized by their insolubility in water and their high degree of fatty acid composition.

Lipids play a variety of roles in living organisms, including serving as structural components of cell membranes, energy storage molecules, and signaling molecules.

In addition, lipids are being studied for their potential use in treating certain medical conditions, especially in the scope of drug delivery.

Apart from their nutritional and health benefits, lipids also have many applications in the home and for personal care.

For example, lipids are used in making soaps, detergents, and cosmetics. They are also used as lubricants, solvents, and corrosion inhibitors.

Lipids are classified into three main groups: fatty acids, triglycerides, phospholipids, and sterols.

  • Fatty acids are the broad category of lipids characterized by long-chain hydrocarbons with a carboxylic acid group at one end. The other end of the molecule is usually capped with a methyl group.
  • Triglycerides are the most common type of lipids and are composed of three fatty acids bonded to a glycerol molecule.
  • Phospholipids are similar to triglycerides, but they contain a phosphate group instead of a glycerol molecule.
  • Sterols are a type of lipid that contains a cyclic structure and includes molecules such as cholesterol. There are two main types of sterols: lanolins and phytosterols. Lanolins are found in animals, while phytosterols are found in plants.

There are other types of lipids made up of long chains of alkanes, such as waxes.

The Structure and Polarity of Lipids

Lipids are all made up of long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and these chains can be either straight or curly.

Most lipids are amphipathic, meaning they have both hydrophobic (water-repelling) and hydrophilic (water-attracting) regions.

A typical lipid will have a polar head and a hydrophobic tail. The polar head is hydrophilic, meaning it is attracted to water. The hydrophobic tail is made up of fatty acids, which are not attracted to water.

Despite the amphipathic property, lipids are generally non-polar molecules, meaning that the charges are evenly distributed. In other words, there are no partial positive and negatively charged ends.

In summary, the long chains of carbon-hydrogens bonds in lipids form a non-polar molecule.

The Structure and Polarity of Water Molecules

In a water molecule, there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom bound together.

A covalent bond binds the hydrogen and oxygen atoms. These bonds are formed by the sharing of electrons between the atoms.

Water is a polar molecule because it has a slightly positive charge on one side (oxygen end) and a slightly negative charge on the other (hydrogen ends). In water, the oxygen atoms are more electronegatively charged than the hydrogen atoms.

As a result, the oxygen atoms will pull the electrons in the water molecules closer to them, leaving the hydrogen atoms with a slightly positive charge.

This creates a polar molecule, which means that water molecules are attracted to each other.

The negative and positive charges in water mean a strong bond between the atoms, which is what gives water its unique properties, such as high surface tension.

Do Lipids Dissolve in Water?

As you probably know, oil and water don’t mix. You can shake them up all you want, but eventually, the water is going to settle to the bottom, and the oil is going to float to the top.

This ‘incompatibility’ is usually depicted as lipids being insoluble in water. And this can be explained by the general chemistry of water being polar and lipids being non-polar, meaning the two molecules repel each other.

However, amphipathic lipid molecules such as phospholipids, glycolipids, and certain types of steroids are partially soluble in water in a heterogenous sense.

It’s the hydrophilic part that allows the molecule to interact ‘dissolve’ in water. The hydrophobic tail keeps the molecule from dissolving.

How exactly do Lipids Interact with Water?

When you put lipids in water, they’ll automatically arrange themselves into globules.

The lipid molecules will arrange themselves so that the polar groups are touching the water and the non-polar groups are in the middle facing away from the water. This is how lipids self-assemble into membranes.

In a simpler explanation, water and lipid molecules don’t share electrons or form bonds with each other. Lipid globules will just float around without mixing or blending into the water.

Why is the Solubility of Lipids Important?

Solubility is the property of a substance that allows it to be dissolved in another substance.

The solubility of lipids is essential for many reasons. For example, lipids play a role in the transport and storage of energy in the body. If lipids are not soluble, they can’t be transported or stored properly.

Additionally, the solubility of lipids affects the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and the transportation of cholesterol and other lipids in the blood.

Overall, the solubility of lipids is important for many biochemical processes. Without lipids, these processes would not be able to occur properly.

How to Dissolve Lipids in Water?

Here are some methods or techniques that you can use to dissolve lipids in water even if these two naturally repel each other:

Use surfactants

With the help of surfactants, lipids can be made to dissolve in water. Surfactants are molecules that have a hydrophobic end and a hydrophilic end.

When added to water, they lower the interfacial tension between the water and the lipid, making it easier for the lipid to dissolve.

Use an emulsifier

When you add an emulsifier to a mixture of oil and water, it helps to keep the two liquids from separating.

Emulsifier molecules have a hydrophilic (attracted to water) head and a lipophilic (attracted to oil) tail. The water-loving head of the molecule attracts the water molecules, while the lipophilic tail attracts the oil molecules.

Examples of emulsifiers used in the formulation of cosmetic products like creams and lotions that need oil dissolved include stearic acid, sodium lauryl sulfate, and Cetearyl alcohol.

Lower the pH

Lowering the pH can also increase solubility and dispersion of lipids in water.

When pH is lowered, the water’s and lipid molecules’ electrical charges change. This change in charge makes the molecules more attracted to each other, increasing the lipids’ solubility.

Additionally, the change in pH also affects the dispersion of the lipids in water. At a lower pH, the lipids are more evenly distributed in the water, making them less likely to clump together.

Utilize sonication

If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to dissolve lipids in water, sonication is your best bet. Sonication is a process that uses sound waves to break down molecules and make them more soluble.

With sonication, you can dissolve lipids in the water much more easily than you could use other methods.

Applications where you need to Dissolve Lipids in Water

Dissolving lipids in water can be helpful in a variety of applications:

  • Dissolving lipids in water can be used to create emulsions, which are commonly used in food products like mayonnaise and salad dressing.
  • Many pharmaceutical products such as antacids and cough syrups contain lipophilic ingredients that help them to dissolve in the body and be absorbed into the bloodstream. This allows the active ingredients to be released more quickly and to take effect more quickly.
  • Lipids dissolved in water can be used in cosmetics and skincare products in order to improve their texture and absorbency.
  • Shampoos and conditioners are made with surfactants such as sodium Laureth sulfate. This is a detergent that helps to break up the oils and dirt on your hair and scalp so that they can be rinsed away with water.
  • Dissolving lipids in water is an essential step in the manufacture of soap. Soap is made by combining fats and oils with an alkali substance like lye. The fats and oils are first dissolved in the lye to be broken down into fatty acids and glycerin. The fatty acids are then able to bond with the water molecules, and the soap is formed.

How to Separate Lipids from Water?

If you want to separate lipids from water, there are two great separation techniques to try out: centrifugation and chromatography.


One of the most common ways to separate lipids from water is by centrifugation. This process uses centrifugal force to separate the two substances.

First, the sample is placed in a centrifuge tube. The tube is then placed in a centrifuge and rotated at high speed.

The centrifugal force pulls the heavier lipids to the bottom of the tube while the lighter water remains at the top.

After a few minutes, the centrifugation is complete, and the lipids can be removed from the bottom of the tube.


Chromatography is a process that uses a solvent to separate molecules based on their size and weight.


There are many different types of chromatography, but the most common type is column chromatography.

Column chromatography works by having the sample (which contains the lipids and water) pass through a column filled with a solvent. The lipids will travel through the column at a different speed than the water, so they will be separated.

Once the lipids have been separated from the water, they can be collected and used for various purposes. For example, they can be used in cosmetics or as a food additive.

What will Lipids Freely Dissolve in?

While lipids won’t dissolve in polar solvents like water, they can dissolve in non-polar solvents.

As mentioned earlier, molecules of lipids are non-polar, meaning they do not have a charge. Because of this, they are attracted to other non-polar molecules, such as those found in non-polar solvents.

Examples of solvents that lipids will dissolve in include:

  • Chloroform
  • Benzene
  • Ether
  • Acetone
  • Dimethylsulfoxide
  • Ethanol

The best solvents to dissolve lipids are the top four in the list above, known as the ‘lipid solvents.’

Why do we See Oil and Water Separate?

We’ve all seen oil and water separate it’s a pretty common occurrence. But why does it happen?

Oil and water don’t mix because they are two different types of molecules. Water molecules are polar, meaning they have a Positive pole and a Negative pole. Oil molecules are non-polar, meaning they don’t have a Positive or Negative pole.

Polar molecules are attracted to each other, while non-polar molecules are not. This is why oil and water don’t mix the water molecules are attracted to each other, while the oil molecules are not.

So the next time you see oil and water separating, remember that it’s all due to the different types of molecules and charges involved.

Wrapping Up

Polar molecules have a positive end and a negative end, while non-polar molecules don’t have this charge separation. This means that polar molecules are attracted to each other while non-polar molecules aren’t.

So, when you mix lipid and water, the water molecules are attracted to each other, and they stick together. The lipid molecules, on the other hand, don’t have this electrostatic attraction, so they float to the top.

But, since most lipids are amphipathic, there will be some interaction of the polar head of the lipid molecules to the polar end of the water molecule.

This means that, depending on the type of lipid, part of the lipid structure can dissolve in water.

Depending on what you want to achieve, you can always alter the interaction between water and lipids with techniques such as adding a surfactant to the emulsion.