Walk into the beauty section of any
department store today and you’ll find a dizzying array of soaps,
for every possible purpose and in every conceivable size, shape,
color, scent and style: Glycerine soaps, French milled soaps,
triple milled soaps, handmade soaps, vegetable soaps, herbal
soaps, mud soaps, milk soaps?whew!)...body bars, beauty bars,
complexion soaps, spa soaps, exfoliating soaps and cellulite
soaps…the choices are seemingly endless. It’s sometimes difficult
not to feel overwhelmed. How does one choose? By the look of
the pretty packaging, of course. Peering at the shelves
looming above your head, you finally select a tantalizing “super
duper triple milled milk soap?off the shelf and, entranced by the
beautiful, soothing, natural color scheme and elegant wrapping,
you read the ingredients label: ?span style="letter-spacing: 1">Sodium
Cocoyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Coconut Acid, Sodium Tallowate,
Sodium Isethionate, Water, Sodium Stearate, Cocomidopropyl betaine,
Sodium Cocoate, Fragrance, Sodium Chloride, Propylene Glycol,
Tetrasodium EDTA, Tetrasodium Etidronate, BHT, Blue 1, Red 33,
Titanium Dioxide.?First of all, you can’t pronounce
most of the words, and secondly, where’s the milk? Shaking
your head, you select a “Natural Glycerine Rosemary and Eucalyptus
Herbal Exfoliating Soap?(which happens to cost twice as much as
the previous one), and again you read the contents: ?span style="letter-spacing: 1">Sodium
Palmate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Water, Glycerine, Fragrance,
Sodium Chloride, Oxidized High Density Polyethylene, Green #5,
Tetrasodium EDTA, Titanium Dioxide, Yellow #10, Iron Oxide Black?
Wait a minute. “Oxidized High Density
say, “Hey, isn’t that the plastic that MILK JUGS are made from??
(Yep.) “And where the heck are the herbs in this so-called herbal
soap??nbsp; You put the soap down and buy some nice dark
chocolate instead, with a promise to yourself that you’ll bring a
dictionary next time you fancy yourself a new bath product.
Leaving the store, you have more questions than when you walked
in. What do all of these unpronounceable ingredients mean?
What’s a Cocoyl? What is soap, for that matter? And what’s the
difference between a “French milled?soap and a “triple-milled?
soap, or a “beauty bar?or a “body bar?
Indeed. What IS the difference? The
truth is, most of the products you see on grocery and cosmetics
shelves are not actually soap at all—but rather detergents.
And the products which are, in fact, true soaps, are generally
very hard, shiny, molded bars laden with plasticizers,
preservatives, perfumes and dyes. And here’s a secret: About
90% of these soaps you see on the shelves were probably made by
the same three soap companies, and all share roughly the same
base, with merely different additives. What has become known
as “glycerine soaps?are some of the most misrepresented products
of all, usually consisting of neither glycerine nor soap.
These products are a far cry from the simple sudsy substance our
grandmothers made. And there’s really nothing natural about
most of them. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. So,
how did something so basic as soap become so utterly complicated?
Well, as usual, the answer begins with the bottom line.
Soap, in its simplest form, is the result of a chemical
reaction known as saponification, or, where an acid and a
base together form a salt. All anyone needs to make soap is
a fat (which may be animal or botanically derived) and an alkali,
most commonly referred to as “lye? in the form of potassium or
sodium hydroxide. When mixed together in a solution of
water, the lye molecules collide with the fat molecules, splitting
them apart, then neutralizing into two new molecules: soap and
glycerin. Glycerin is a sticky, sweet substance that
actually draws moisture from the air and conveys that moisture to
the skin. This natural byproduct is the secret behind the
finest handmade soaps today, making them ultra rich and superbly
mild and moisturizing. It wasn’t until the industrial age
when soapmaking corporations realized that the glycerin byproduct
was more valuable than the actual soap—the old bottom line—and
commercial soap, if it’s soap at all, has become what it is today.
A Brief History of Soap
A few thousand years ago, or so the story goes, women
washing clothes in a tributary of the Tiber river noticed that it
was easier to clean clothes directly below Mount Sapo, where rain
brought a mixture of clay, ash and fats from recent animal
sacrifices and washed downhill into the water. It is for
this place, Sapo, that soap and the process of soapmaking received
its name: saponification. The truth is, no one actually
knows who invented soap, or exactly when, but it is known that
soap was used in some capacity dating back as early as 2800 B.C.
Later, the Romans employed soap for washing textiles, and there
was even a soap factory--complete with finished bars--unearthed
from the volcanic ruins of Pompeii. But it wasn’t until much
later that soap was used for personal hygiene, and even then, it
seemed to be a trend which fell in and out of favor from one era
or region to another over the course of time. During the
Dark Ages, bathing and personal hygiene was associated with
evildoing and, ironically, it was thought that sharing public
baths contributed to plague and disease. Of course, once the
connection between cleanliness and health was made, bathing again
became acceptable and even encouraged. In the 8th century,
A.D., soapmaking had been revived around Italy and Spain, where
olive oil was abundant and was used to make a soap of superior
quality and mildness. This olive oil soap became known as
“castile soap? named for the region of Castile, Spain, in which
it originated. By the 14th century, soapmaking was a common
craft in France and across England, and eventually in the 1600s,
soap had traveled with settlers to the New World.
Although from the mid 1700s until 1853, soap was
heavily taxed as a luxury item in England and was reserved for
only the wealthy, most soap in pioneer America was routinely made
by hand in the household from scraps of leftover animal fat and
grease, saved up over many months. The fat scraps would be
boiled down into tallow, and the tallow would be mixed with a
crude solution of lye, which was leached from woodash with water.
The resulting soap was generally harsh, due to crude and imprecise
methods of measurement, and was used for everything from household
cleaning and laundry to washing the hair and body, albeit less
frequently than is common today. It wasn’t until the early
1800s, when a method for converting common salt into an alkali
made the process of soapmaking simpler and cheaper, that
commercially made soaps became widely available in large
production. Up to this time, much of the alchemy of
soapmaking was still shrouded in mystery, superstition and
achieved by trial-and-error. Recipes were handed down from
generation to generation, but with little understanding of the
exact chemistry of the soapmaking process. Over time,
however, chemical and industrial advances, combined with greater
access to information and scientific knowledge made it possible to
produce soap on a large scale, and by the 1850s, soap was one of
the fastest-growing industries of its day. Economies of
scale and newer methods in formulation had transformed soap from a
luxury item to an everyday necessity. There were new laundry
soaps in powder form, cake soaps for cleaning the home, milder bar
soaps for cleansing the hair and body. The soap business
enjoyed a kingly throne for 100 years, an indispensable product in
every modern home.
But soap was not to last. During World War II,
when a shortage of raw materials due to war-diverted resources
made soap more expensive and impractical to make, an alternative
was found. Detergents had been used in Germany since around
1916, made from petroleum byproducts and superior to soap in its
ability to scour nearly any surface while rinsing clean, with the
added benefit of being much cheaper to produce. This
indiscriminate cleansing power came at a price; detergents clean a
little too well, and tend to strip everything away from the hair
and skin, including the beneficial natural oils, and leaving a
feeling of dryness or chapping. During the boom of the
1950s, though, detergents had already superceded soap and became
the new standard of cleaning. Today, detergents are the
indispensable product; used in everything from toothpaste to
laundry liquids and powders to shampoos to car polishes to shower
gels and “body bars? And detergents continue to strip our
skin and hair and continue to come at a price; the mounting
problem of dwindling petroleum reserves, a non-renewable and
highly polluting resource.
Back to the Future
Today, products litter the shelves of supermarkets and
beauty departments which look a lot like soap, but aren’t.
Mostly, they are detergents and can be most easily identified by
the label, which will say, “beauty bar?or “body bar? rather than
“soap? If you’re looking for a true soap, it does still
exist, but usually in a distorted and chemically-altered,
inferior, probably-drying bar. True soap is defined as a
salt as formed by the reaction between an oil or fat and an
alkali—that same old ancient process. But modern commercial
soap is processed at high temperatures in a vacuum, which speeds
up saponification for faster product turnover. Ever wonder
why it is that commercial soaps tend to feel drying to the skin?
Well, it all comes down to magical glycerin again—that beautiful
natural byproduct of the soapmaking process. Glycerin is so
valuable in other cosmetic and even food applications that soap
companies realized that they could make more money off the
byproduct of soap than the soap itself. Without the
glycerin, commercial soap is very drying. In order to make
up for it, and to make a longer lasting product, freshly cooked
soap is extruded between chilled steel rollers, then shredded and
chipped, amended with plasticizers to make it shiny and hard, then
mixed with perfumes and dyes to make it look and smell pretty,
along with preservatives so it has an infinite shelf life, then
pressed back together under tremendous pressure, compacted into
moulds, packaged and sold. This is what is known as “milled
What’s important to remember is this: Detergents and
soaps have not evolved to benefit us. They have evolved to
improve the bottom line of the companies who make them, at every
turn. The large companies increase their profits, and our
skin and our planet pays for it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Soap doesn’t
have to be drying. It doesn’t have to be made from animals.
It doesn’t even have to be made with heat. In contrast, soap
can be luxurious, gentle, vegetable-derived and natural.
Using modern precision and finer formulations of quality oils, and
by retaining the natural glycerin, soap can be made by the old
fashioned method (known as the “cold process?, which yields a
rich, creamy, moisturizing and abundant lather, without drying the
skin or polluting the planet. Cold process soaps are usually
made in small, artisinal batches by hand, with high-quality nut or
fruit oils chosen for their specific properties in finished soap.
Olive oil is still considered the finest soaping oil, because of
its unique ability to make both a hard and creamy soap, which
moisturizes the skin without clogging the pores. Another
important soaping ingredient is coconut oil, which contributes a
quick, copious and fluffy lather. Other exotic oils and fats
are often added to the soap formula, in what is called
“superfatting”—a method of adding an extra percentage of
nourishing oils to the forming soap, which will remain in their
unreacted form and thereby lend extra emollience within the
Look for high quality ingredients in a soap, handmade
or otherwise. Unfortunately, just because it says “handmade?
doesn’t necessarily mean that it is of high quality.
Usually, you get what you pay for in handmade soaps. If you
want to avoid synthetics, you’ll want to look for soaps made with
pure essential oils (as opposed to fragrance oils), certified
organic cold-pressed oils and herbs, and botanically-derived
colors in muted earth tones. Read your labels. If you
can’t pronounce (or even recognize) most of the words on the
ingredients list, it’s probably not natural. You shouldn’t
need a dictionary in order to choose a soap. And remember,
if a “shea butter soap?doesn’t have shea butter in one of the
first five ingredients, there’s probably not much shea butter in
it. Incidentally, when you read the ingredients of a
commercial soap, you will quite often see “sodium tallowate?
listed. Sodium tallowate is rendered animal fat.
Tallow is still used because it is cheap, and because it is
abundant. If you want to avoid animal-derived products, you
will want to make sure that the soap you choose does not contain
sodium tallowate. Look instead for sodium palmate (palm oil,
saponified) and/or sodium cocoate (coconut oil, saponified), if
you choose a commercial soap at all.
Handmade cold process soaps are beginning to show up in
those department stores, and in spas, boutiques and natural foods
stores, thanks to the growing awareness of the consequences of our
chemically-bombarded lifestyles. People are more concerned
about their health and the impact of the products they use on
their bodies and the foods they eat. And manufacturers as
well as retailers are beginning to take notice. If you
continue to demand higher quality, the market will respond.
And that’s a good thing; for me, for you, your skin and our
- Handmade Soap
“soaps?sold in grocery stores are usually not soap at all—they
are detergents! Detergents are cheaply produced petroleum-derived
surfactants used in common household cleaning products like
laundry liquid, car wash and dishwashing liquids. Yes, the same
ingredient used to wash grime off your car is also in skincare
products known as “beauty bars? “facial cleansers?or “shower
is made from animal or vegetable fats (we only use vegetable
ingredients), mixed with an alkali (lye, or sodium hydroxide). The
fatty acid molecules of the oils link up with the base, creating a
new molecule consisting of soap and glycerin. There is no lye left
in finished soap, because it is irreversibly, molecularly
transformed. This process of making soap is called saponification.
soap is fashioned in a time-honored tradition called the “cold
kettle method? The soap isn’t really cold when it’s made, but the
term refers to the absence of externally applied heat to drive the
soapmaking process…except for the heat used to melt any butters or
saturated fats, there is no other “cooking?involved.
Saponification actually generates its own heat (exothermic
reaction), which is just enough to drive the process to
completion. This method of low-temperature soapmaking helps to
preserve the nutrients imparted by the base oils and herbs, so
they are still available to your skin within the finished soap. In
contrast, commercial soap is cooked in huge vats, within a vacuum,
which speeds saponification for faster product turnover.
It takes a
full month to make a bar of good handmade soap! Once the soap is
removed from the mould and cut into logs or bars, it is placed on
racks to “cure?for at least four weeks. Like fine wine or cheese,
the aging process allows the soap to mellow and cure, so that it
will last longer and lather better.
a natural byproduct of the soapmaking process; handmade soaps
retain the natural glycerin, which makes a gentle, creamy,
moisturizing lather. Commercial soap companies remove the glycerin
from their soap, then bottle and sell it for use in cosmetic and
industrial products—for more than they make from selling soap!
Removing the glycerin is why most commercial soaps leave skin
feeling dry and itchy.
soap?is generally not soap at all—just like other commercial
“soaps? it is usually made from detergents. Even in the rare
occasion it is from a true soap base, it must be processed at very
high temperatures with special chemicals in order to achieve the
“superfat?a handmade soap means that there is a calculated excess
percentage of a particular emollient oil (such as Shea Butter or
Avocado Oil) which, instead of being linked up with lye and
turning into soap, will remain in its original state within the
finished soap and will be made readily available to the skin. The
practice of superfatting is the ultimate luxury in a moisturizing
Soap?is the common name for a soap made entirely from olive oil,
and named for the region of Spain from which this type of
soapmaking originated—the province of Castile. Today, the term is
sometimes used to describe any soap made with olive oil,
regardless of its actual content. But for soap connoisseurs, a
true castile is the gentlest of all soaps and can be made only
from 100% pure olive oil.
mid-19th century, soap was usually made by women in the home from
leached woodash and leftover tallow (boiled animal fat). Soap was
made once a year and was generally used not for bathing, but for
household cleaning and laundry. It was not until regular bathing
came into vogue that soap was elevated to its modern use as a
luxury “toiletry?item, and so the trend to perfume, color and
otherwise decorate soap began.
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