The craft of natural soap: love to lather!

Photo credit: lyng883

Soap. Whatever your brand choice, it's an everyday product and has thought to have been part of history from as far back as Ancient Babylon, around 2500 BC. In fact, an entire soap factory with finished bars was unearthed within the Pompeii ruins (pictured right).

The Egyptians used a similar soap-like material to clear their skin diseases. It has always been considered both for its medicinal and cleansing purposes and today, soap is still the first simple preventative suggestion for our current modern-day epidemic, swine flu. Jen Marsden writes.

Legend has it that the foamy stuff got its name from Mount Sapo during Roman times. After animals were sacrificed in fires the melted animal fat was washed down the hill by rainfall into the Tiber River (pictured below right) where women regularly washed. They noticed they were much cleaner here.

What used to be an utterly mystifying experience for the Romans grew into an art form, particularly with soap that has been cold processed where success lies in perfect formulation and timing.

River Tiber
Photo credit: runneralan2004

While not found in nature, soap is formed by a basic chemical reaction called saponification. It is the result of a fatty or oily acid and an alkali reacting together to form a salt.

The alkali is usually Lye, a liquid solution of potash present in plant and wood material. Traditionally, potash or wood ash was collected from homesteads and farms by peddlers who would then sell it to the (usually female) soap maker. Soap making requires three simple steps: making the lye; cleaning the fats (the most unpleasant part of the job) to ensure a sweeter-smelling soap, and then mixing together the lye and fats and boiling.

There are two types of soaps – soft soap which is like jelly to the touch, and hard soap (pictured right), where common salt is added at the end of the process, ensuring the bars are easier to store and transport.

Soap making became particularly popular in England within the 1300s, where it would be cut from a large bar and customers were charged by the weight, just like at our deli counters today.

By the 1500s, the taste for more artisan and quality soaps in southern Europe and Italy developed, where they were made from animal-free vegetable oils, in particular from mild olive oil instead of the usual beef fat.

Well known luxury white soaps made from pure olive oil from Italy and France are still fashionable today: Castile soap and Savon de Marseille, which takes up to two weeks to prepare by hand. With five generations of soap making expertise, Dr Bronner's Pure Castile Soap is widely known for its old-world quality and its versatility, which makes it the number one selling natural soap in America.

From the late 1800s onwards, bathing became fashionable and the commercialisation of soap became possible with the availability of sodium hydroxide where common salt was no longer needed in order to create firm soap. Soap powders could be produced cheaply. This became a profitable market for soap makers such as Andrew Pears, and William Hesketh Lever who founded the company Unilever. Both remain major, global household names.

Bars of handmade soap
Photo credit: Vanessa Yvonne

Unlike the few dedicated natural soap products by companies such as Simply Soaps and Bentley Organics that champions, the majority of the soaps available today are far different from the time-honoured soap making process. Instead, global brands use cheap detergents created from petroleum based products, or ingredients that, while found in nature, have been dramatically altered by energy intensive processes.

The craft of handmade cold-processed soap is more eco considerate as it does not require as much energy and heat. It's a simpler and cleaner method, and keeps the production to nature's own time. This is true soap making which provides an outlet for artistic expression. Handmade soap also usually has a wonderful blend of other exotic oils, organic herbs and spices, and pure essential oils.

To create an exfoliating bar, oatmeal or fruit peel and even flower petals can be added. Jojoba, cocoa butter and shea butter may be added as additional moisturising benefit.

Artisan soap
Photo credit: necrocake

Compared to commercial soap, handmade soap is particularly beneficial due to the glycerin that is contained naturally within the oil used. A natural colourless liquid by-product of the soap making process, glycerin is not removed ensuring it is a far more moisturising soap. Glycerin is a humectant, meaning that it attracts moisture to the skin and is particularly good for children. Clearer soaps tend to have high glycerine content.

Mass-produced soaps often remove glycerine so it can be utilised in lotions and potions that make more money, as well as for the manufacture of dynamite (from nitroglycerin)! This means these soaps are more likely to dry the skin.

There are plenty of oils and fats that can be used within soap making, including coconut oil which provides a lathering effect, hemp oil and the somewhat contentious palm oil.

Our verdict? Go for the more natural, traditional option of cold-processed soap making, with naturally high vegetable glycerine content and organic ingredients.