For those of us seeking out natural products you may find it interesting to learn what REAL soap is, the history of how it was discovered and made, how it's made today, and how people cleaned in the past. You might also like to know that carefully crafted old fashioned, all natural, REAL soap can be both skin cleansing, and conditioning. REAL soap can be a either a liquid or a hard bar and are today commonly referred to as Castile soap.
Dispelling some enduring myths about "lye soap" - the scary sounding term we use today for our REAL soap, will ensure we are knowledgeable consumers. Learning how to read the ingredient label will inform us how to distinguish the REAL soap made from fats and oils, from Syn-Dets, made from synthetic detergents. The front of the label may say "SOAP" but it might not be soap at all.
WHAT IS REAL SOAP AND WHO WERE THE FIRST SOAP MAKERS
Ample archaeological evidence points to soap making arising in the Near Ancient East. At the very least, it is well documented there in the art and culture of the time. Babylonians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans were all making and using a soap-like substances for various purposes by 2800 BC. During an excavation of an ancient Babylonian site this substance was found in clay vessels dating from that time.
They were mixing fats and oil with salts, creating a soap-like solution by some mysterious alchemy; the precursor to the bar of soap you might hold in your hand today. There's been advances and evolution, but the basic chemistry of soap making is, was, and always will be ... exactly same.
SAPONIFICATION - now that's a mouthful
Soap is created in a chemical reaction with the fatty acids comprising fats and oils. This reaction is called "saponification". This happens when the fats and oils come into contact with an alkali salt (potassium hydroxide and/or sodium hydroxide). In the past these naturally occurring chemical salts was extracted in various ways from ashes.
Another name for these salts is "lye".
One way you can obtain lye solution is the way our ancestors did it; pour water over a barrel filled with ashes and then collect the liquid which drips out of holes bored into the bottom. This solution will contain high levels of the dissolved alkali salts, which will in turn transform a pot of melted fats or oils into soap!
An earlier way of making soap was to boil fats together with wood ashes. This crude, harsh soap was used to clean pots, pans, utensils, in producing textile, and for medicine purposes. There is, however, LITTLE evidence that this soap was used for bathing. In fact, daily bathing was unheard of until the 20th century.
According to an ancient Roman legend, soap got its name from Mount Sapo. Animals were sacrificed there. The story goes that rain water washed a mixture of melted animal fat and ashes from the sacrifice down into the soil and to the river. Woman noticed this gruesome glaze on the surface of the water mixed with clay from the banks was better able to clean hair and clothing then plain water. Another suggestions is that soap got its name from the Celts, who called it Saipo.
HOW DID PEOPLE CLEAN THEMSELVES BEFORE SOAP?
By modern standards, our ancestors living during the 19th century and before might seem to have had poor standards of cleanliness because they didn’t take showers, bathe or wash their face and hair every single day the way most people do now. Prior to the modern era and indoor plumbing, bathing was a lot of work. In the Middle and Dark ages it is was even considered unhealthy or taboo, so people rarely took baths.
There is a lot of evidence suggesting that weekly bathing of our entire bodies using soap or detergent has negative health impacts. Epidemiologic studies of homeless people, who rarely bathe, found a high correlation with lack of bathing and significantly lower rates of infectious disease. Researchers believe this might have something to do with the intact skin microbiome.
In prehistoric times people cleaned themselves with just plain water, clay, sand, pumice and ashes. Later, ancient Greeks bathed regularly and early Romans did also. The importance of cleanliness is mentioned in the old testament and other religious texts.
Bathing became very important to the Romans, famous for their ubiquitous and often opulent bath houses. The most common way to clean then was to massage oil all over the body. Since oils will dissolve oils, when the oils is scraped off with a strigil (a curved metal instrument designed for this purpose) the dirt and grime came off with the oils. The Romans also would mix the oil with ashes and scrubbed with it, creating a slightly foaming solution that could be scraped and rinses away.
Roman bathing rituals and bath houses became very popular for all citizens of the empire. After the fall, and the dark ages which followed, bathing became rare. Diseases spread across Europe as bathing became less common, and taboos and suspicion against bathing arose.
After the Renaissance regular bathing gained popularity again and soap making became an important industry. Seed oils were expensive to produce so well-made soaps from seed oils were a high-end luxury item which few could afford. They were made by members of secretive soap guilds who carefully guarded their production techniques, secret recipes and ingredients. These scented soaps made by the guilds for their wealthy patrons were a far cry from the harsh, rustic soaps everyone else could afford to make.
Among the elite and royalty weekly bathing with lovely scented, carefully crafted, artisanal soaps became common - washing with them became a symbol of high social status. Floral scented Castile soap from the Castile region of Spain was a favorite among the elite. In the countryside, the peasant farmers were still making their "lye heavy" soaps with animal fats rendered from livestock, not expensive olive fruit oil.
After the introduction of "soap" made from synthetic detergents in the last century people took to calling old fashion soap "Lye Soap" to distinguish it from the new synthetic bars. This leads to confusion among consumers even today!
This ain't your grandma's "lye soap" my dear!
When I mention "lye soap" to some shoppers they often put the soap down and back away - dispelling the myths surrounding REAL soap (aka lye soap) is a constant challenge!
It's a bit challenger sometimes for the soap maker selling their creations that "lye soap" still has a reputation of being harsh. Prior to the modern era, this was true in the old days. Common soap was harsh. The average homemaker didn't have accurate scales to measure the exact amount of lye needed to make the household soap. In order to avoid the waste, time and expense of making a potentially greasy, useless soap from a precious resource, the common practice our great-grandmothers employed was to go "heavy on the lye" - and the term "lye heavy" was born.
Extra lye ensured that when the chemical reaction was complete - no more greasy soap. BUT, some lye remained! This soap cleans really, really well and was used mostly in homes for cleaning chores, washing dishes and clothes, but not for regular bathing, just every so often.
I'll mention briefly here that handmade Cold Creams have been around for a very long time and have been used to cleanse faces and for other uses since ancient times, until recently, mostly by the elite as the ingredients were expensive and not readily available to most people.
MODERN "OLD-FASHION" SOAP AND OIL CLEANSING
Today soap makers have access to accurate scales, formulation calculations, and commercially produced lye. We don't have to use lye solutions we collect ourselves. Instead we calculate and weigh out exactly how much lye crystals we need to saponify all of the fatty acids we want to converted to soap, then "superfat" them with precision to ensure they are extra gentle and conditioning. Used properly these widely available calculators help soap makers create lovely, conditioning soaps no longer harsh and irritating to our skin and which we can be safely use for bathing.
A common practice today to enhance the conditioning nature of our old fashion soaps is by "superfatting" them to some degree. In a "superfatted" soap a small amount of the fatty acids will not saponify, leaving some free fatty acids in the final product. Not enough to make it greasy, but enough to play an important role in how the soap affects the skin.
Studies have shown that after being washed with superfatted soap and water, the free fatty acids help skin recover it's optimal pH faster than non-superfatted soap. Properly made handmade soaps have a pH around 10, which is considered basic and this Ph can damage skin. Yet despite this studies show that skin conditions tend to improve with the use of superfatted soap.
Our skin makes a slightly acidic secretion called the Acid Mantle which coats our skin and performs important functions. One of the most effective way to deep clean the skin is to use soap - which is an alkaline foaming system. And while the acid mantle is removed when washing with alkaline soap it begins secreting the acid mantle immediately after. Within 20 minutes it's about 1/3 restored, and about 1.5-3 hours later fully restored. This varies slightly from person to person based on factors such as age, nutritional status, and the health of the skin. Learn how to quickly restore the acid mantle by applying a slightly acidic solution (toner) HERE. Something we need to consider for long term care of delicate facial skin.
A byproduct of making real soap is glycerin. When left in the soap it is very conditioning to the skin! Most modern commercial soap producers remove it and sell it, it's very valuable and used in many industries. In the past, this was not an issue - all real soap made the old fashion would have had a glycerin content. Today, small batch artisanal soap makers do not possess practical means to remove the glycerin so you can be sure there is some in a handmade real soap, even if it is not listed on the ingredients.
Since the technological advances which made vegetable seed oils inexpensive and widely available, and able to be extracted from thousands of plants from around the world, soap makers have a dizzying array of oils to craft soap with! From the humble sunflower seed, to the exotic Marula nut, each oil brings different qualities to the finished soap. For instance, a non-superfatted soap made from 100% coconut oil makes a very cleansing soap but which can be overly drying. It's a very effective hard bar great for laundry and household cleaning but should not be used for bathing if other options exist.
Contrast that to a superfatted soap made with mostly olive oil oil or hemp seed oil with the addition of Shea butter and aloe. Now you have a lovely, conditioning soap which that won't irritate you skin, can help relieve dry skin, and even soothe inflammatory skin issues.
Soap made with animal fat, so much a part of everyday life until just 50 years or so ago, have been replaced by industrial seed oils in commercial production. Milk soap, lard soap, tallow soap, are considered to be especially nourishing and skin conditioning. But today found almost exclusively made by home soap makers, sold at farmers markets, and specialty shops - all made by small batch producers and kitchen chemists.
Today, many of us are adopting the ancient practice of "oil cleansing" in various ways. More people are returning to the use of seed oils to gently clean our faces. There are significant benefits to this approach on many levels and for all skin types at all ages.
WHEN SOAP IS NOT SOAP?
Soap stayed essentially the same for thousands of years up until the last century. The chemistry of making soap has never changed, but synthetic detergents could now be created in laboratories. At this time soap was still mostly made at home with animal fats - a valuable and nutritious food! When a severe shortage hit during WWI it led to the rapid development of the first synthetic detergents in Germany.
Today, we call these Syn-dets or syndets, synthetic detergents, detergents, "non-soap washing and cleaning products" and synthetic surfactants. These cheap, synthetic detergents quickly became branded as "soaps" to appeal to the public, despite the fact they weren't soap at all. "Soap" became affordable for the average person, and went from a luxury item to a household necessity.
MODERN CLEANSING PRACTICES - THE UPSIDE ... AND DOWN SIDE
The rate and spread of infectious diseases dropped precipitously in the early 20th century as well. The germ theory had been developed and the benefits of habitual hand washing had become crystal clear. The decline in disease rates was quite evident at the time the first antibiotics became available. Some speculate that the accolades heaped upon the widespread use of the new antibiotics in controlling outbreaks of diseases was in large part due to improved personal hygiene provided by the now widely available, cheap synthetic soaps.
Yet there is a downside. Today we cleanse and clean and wash and scrub ourselves sometimes twice a day! The consequences of over cleansing in general, made worse by the use of synthetic detergents, is becoming more evident as skin conditions and diseases are increasing in all age groups.
Not only did replacing oil soaps with synthetic detergents begin to have negative consequences for our skin, simply the mechanics of constantly washing away our precious skin oils, along with the acid mantle with it's resident microbiome, causes this important organ to enter a constant state of dis-ease, struggling to protect and heal itself, vulnerable to sun damage, penetration by pathogenic acne bacteria, painful, chronic skin conditions, premature aging, and the list goes one.
The true cost of cheap synthetic soaps is paid in part downstream. Reducing our consumption of syndets reduces the downstream impacts of chemical manufacturing, not just personal use. Most synthetic chemicals Syndet are not biodegradable. They persist in the environment causeing long term toxicity to steams and living creatures. Chemicals in common soaps are no joke. They can disrupt our hormones, promote allergies, lead to reproductive issues and increase risk of some cancers.
REAL SOAP = CASTILE SOAP
Soap made from just vegetable oils, and seed butters are today all refer to as Castile Soap and they are 100% biodegradable and natural. Look for soap that is labeled as "Castile”, either in liquid or bar form. This is your guarantee that you have picked a honest to goodness, REAL soap.
The label might say "soap" but what is it really? Many synthetic detergent blends are labeled as “Soap” despite the fact that may contain little or no real soap whatsoever. They create big impressive foam, bubbles and lather from their heavy chemical load.
IS IT REAL?
Look for the word Castile Soap on the label, "saponified vegetable or seed oil" "Potassium Hydroxide" and/or "Sodium Hydroxide".
The ingredients should be 100% oils and seed butters. You should see a list of the seed oils included in the soap, these might be the common names or latin.
It might say Glycerin on the label. Glycerine is a by-product of real soap making and you may see it on the label.
Essential oils, plant extracts, and other botanicals.
You may see citric acid in a liquid soap as Ph adjuster. But commercial citric acid is synthetic derived.
OR IS IT SYNTHETIC?
Sodium Laurel Sulfate
Triclosan - found in antibacterial soap. Recent studies have found that triclosan actually promotes the emergence and growth of bacteria resistant to antibiotic cleansers. It also creates dioxin - an endocrine disruptor thyroid toxin.
Paraben releasers: “ethyl,” “butyl,” “methyl,” and “propyl” are from the paraben family even if the word “paraben” isn’t in the name.
Thank you for taking the time to read and learn about REAP soap!