A History of Natural Soap

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September 3, 2013 by thesoapalchemist

Tradition says that natural soap was first discovered at the base of Mt. Sapo, (Latin for soap), a legendary mountain used by the ancient Greeks for animal sacrifices. Wood ash and animal drippings were carried downstream by rivers to the base of the mountain. The combination of water, wood ash and animal fat resulted in loads of lathering suds with cleaning abilities. Although this explanation seems to reasonably explain the discovery of soap, the amount of fat the Greeks burned in animal sacrifices would be inadequate to produce soap. And, perhaps more importantly, evidence of the legendary Mt. Sapo has never been found.

The earliest known, written soap recipe is credited to the ancient Babylonians around 2800 BC, and was found inscribed on a clay tablet. Babylonia was a self-governing city in ancient Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq. Sometime before 2800 BC, ancient Babylonians discovered a process by which fats could be combined with wood ash and water to create a substance capable of cleaning. Babylonians used the Latin word sapo, which was borrowed from the Celtic word for soap, saipo. One can assume, then, that soap was not created by the Babylonians, although they certainly can be credited with preserving the recipe through their writings.

By 1500 BC, the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus was written, and contains an account of combining ash with cassia oil to create a topical treatment for the skin. Additionally, it is well documented that Egyptians regularly bathed. Interestingly, Cleopatra even used Shea Butter as part of her beauty regimen.

The ancient Greeks were known to bathe as well, although they did not use soap. They preferred to wash with water alone, scrape themselves clean with a strigil (a metal bladed implement), and anoint themselves afterwards with oils including olive oil.

Fast forward a bit to 627 BC and the writings of the biblical prophet, Jeremiah. He mentions soap in chapter 2, verse 22, evidence again of soap’s existence in ancient times. In fact, soap is also mentioned in the book of Job and in Malachi. However, the fullers soap from Malachi’s writings refer to a pretreatment for wool made mostly of urine- much unlike the ash and oil combination used for personal grooming!

Around 79 AD, Pliny the Elder, an academic from Pompeii and the writer of one of the most comprehensive encyclopedias of the ancient world, mentions a soap-like substance in his book Historia Naturalis. He credits the substance to the Gauls, and writes that it is made from tallow and ashes, for the purpose of making one’s hair shiny. Unfortunately, Pliny’s life was cut short by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvias, or he may have written more about soap for us.

Ancient Romans are perhaps the most well-known of antiquity’s bathers. All Romans, with the exception of slaves, used public baths. However, I have not found any references to soap in descriptions of their famous baths, although we do know they liked to anoint themselves with oil prior to leaving the bath for the day. Romans were particularly adventurous colonizers, and built baths in every locale they occupied, including England and Bulgaria. After the fall of the Roman Empire, personal hygiene seemed to take a back seat to personal preservation, as very few references to soap are found in the literature, although, the Greek physician, Galen, mentions cleansing with soap in a 200 AD writing.

By 1200 AD, soap making centers had emerged in Marseilles, France and Savona, Italy. In fact, the French word for soap is Savon. The Castille region of Spain was another well known soaping center, responsible for making the first hard, white bars of soap out of the region’s abundantly available olive oil. Castille Soap is still known today, and refers to soaps made with all, or mostly all, olive oil.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the English monarchy sought to regulate soap production, and imposed high tariffs on soap. They went so far as to require soap molds to have padlocks, whose keys were held by the tax collectors! Eventually, the Victorian Era came around, and with it, a new interest in personal hygiene and germ control. This brought an end to the high soap taxes, allowing soap to be available and affordable to more people.

Two discoveries by French chemists Nicholas Leblanc and Michel Chevreul around the turn of the 19th century helped the progress of commercial soap making. In 1791, Leblanc patented a method of making lye from commonly available salt. In 1811, Chevreul discovered the chemistry behind the relationship of glycerin to fatty acids. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the stage was now set for mass soap production.

By the twentieth century, soap had become a commonly used, household necessity. Advances in chemistry spurred by war shortages of soap ingredients, notably oils, created the first detergents, or synthetic, non-soap cleansers. These synthetic products were cheap to produce, and led to advances in all sorts of cleaning related areas. Coldwater detergent, readily dissolving laundry detergent and concentrated detergents were all possible because of the discovery of synthetic ingredients. By the 1950′s, detergent sales had surpassed soap sales in the United States.

It seems, in an age devoted to finding alternatives to higher priced natural ingredients, we sometimes lose sight of our original intentions. Naturally made soap, with its high concentration of moisturizing oils is better for the skin than harsh detergents. Naturally made soap contains valuable glycerin, and is quite unlike synthetic moisturizers found in many mass produced detergent bars that do nothing to moisturize, but merely seal the skin, restricting air flow and clogging pores.

Thankfully, the 21st century has marked a return to natural products and a re-enlightenment concerning the benefits of naturally occurring oils and butters in our cleaning products. This is evident in little boutiques as well as our grocery stores. A desire to use natural ingredients with a focus on health and well being has become the driving force behind many fledgling businesses in the skin-care product arena. People are beginning to understand that natural products are beneficial, even though they may cost a bit more than their mass-produced counterparts. It’s a perfect time in history to use the chemistry of modern days, the abundance of natural materials and an old-world technique, to once again create skin-friendly soaps with attributes that just can’t be found in synthetic detergents.


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