Soap. We use it daily. For cleansing our bodies. For hand
washing our clothes. For disinfecting our homes. To the
modern average North American, ‘clean’ means spending
quality time with a bar of soap at least once every day.
Many of us would recoil in horror at the thought that our
aristocratic 17th-century ancestors changed their linen
shirts daily, with only a quick dip of hands in water, and
nary a thought for the rest of their bodies.
This presentation opens with a brief history of soap. Next
we take a look at how the chemical composition of soap
works to get both our clothes and bodies clean. We learn
about different types of soap and close with two questions
on the small bar that is such an intimate part of our lives.
3. THE WORD SOAP
The first time a ‘soap’ word appears in
Roman literature is in Naturalis Historia.
The author, Pliny the Elder (23 -79 CE)
tells us the word sapo, borrowed from
the Gauls, refers to a mixture they used
to dye hair red. It was not used for
cleansing themselves or their clothes. In
fact, sapo did not take on the meaning
‘soap’ in Latin for another 1000 or so
4. SOAP TIMELINE
2800 BC: Amidst the ruins of Mesopotamia, archaeologists
uncover clay cylinders inscribed with the following recipe for
ashes (uhulu) + cypress oil + sesame seed oil.
1550 BC: The Ebers Papyrus records that the ancient
Egyptians bathed regularly and used vegetable and animal
oils (tallow) combined with alkaline salts to create a
1525 BC: The Bible refers to a form of hair gel made from
mixing ashes together with oil.
5. 175 BC to 150 BC: Citizens of Athens and Rome rub oil
over their bodies before scraping it off with pumice stones
or metal scrapers. The Gauls and Germans combine ashes
with animal fats and rub it in their hair.
2nd Century AD: Greek physician, Galen, recommends soap
for both medicinal and cleansing purposes on his patient’s
3rd Century AD: Arabs make liquid and solid soaps using a
combination of vegetable and aromatic oils to sell at markets
in Kufa, and Basra. They also start to use soaps for face
shaving. An Arabian manuscript describes a method of
making soap by mixing sesame oil with a potash, alkali and
some lime, before boiling the concoction, and pouring it into
6. 5th Century AD: After Rome falls in 467 A.D, bathing habits
go downhill. Lack of cleanliness leads to the devastating
plagues of the Middle Ages including the Black Death.
600 AD: Soap guilds begin to form in Naples, Italy. The
formula for soap in use today is created. Guild soap makers
use vegetable and animal oils with plant ashes and perfumes
to create body soaps, shampoos, and laundry detergent.
Italy, Spain, and France quickly become regions known for
soap production because of their wealth of olive groves.
800 AD: Charlemagne lists soap as one of the products of
an estate that stewards should tally.
1200 - 1300 AD: Soap manufacturing starts in London.
14th Century: During the Renaissance, Europeans start to
use soap for personal hygiene.
7. 16th - 17th Century: During the reign of Elizabeth the First,
soap consumption in England is the highest in all Europe.
Indeed the Queen herself bathed once a month "whether it
was necessary or not." But just as the soap industry was
growing strong in England, it became subject to crippling
taxation and tight restrictions.
1609: Sir Hugh Plat, gives a recipe for 'a delicate washing
ball': Take three ounces of Orace, half an ounce of Cypres,
two ounces of Calamus Aromaticus, one ounce of Rose
leaves, two ounces of Lavender flowres … incorporate all
your powders therewith, by labouring of them well in a
1682: King Louis XIV of France guillotines three unlucky
soapmakers for producing a bar that caused irritation to his
8. 1700 onwards: Better quality soaps made in Europe, such
as Castile soap, use olive oil instead of animal fats.
1725: In the United States, women make household soap
1789: The world’s first transparent soap is produced in
London by Andrew Pears.
Late 18th century: Industrialized manufacture of soap gears
up following crusades in Europe stressing the relationship
between cleanliness and health. Soap making methods
improve dramatically when in 1790, Nicholas LeBlanc,
discovers how to make caustic soda (Na2CO3) from table
salt (NaCl). This leads to a decrease in the cost of producing
soap because chemists develop a method for making natural
fats and oils react with caustic soda.
10. Saponifiication (the formation of soap):
Na O H
Na O H
Na O H
3 Sodium Hydroxides
For more than 600 years, Savon de Marseille has been made in Marseille,
France, In 1688, Louis XIV introduced the Edict of Colbert limiting the use of the
Savon de Marseille to soaps made in the Marseille area, and only from olive oil.
This law still applies, although the regulations have been relaxed to allow other oils
like palm to be used.
Traditionally, the soap is made by combining sea water from the Mediterranean,
olive oil, together with the alkaline chemicals soda ash (sodium carbonate) and
lye (sodium hydroxide). The concoction is then heated for several days, before it
is poured into moulds, cut into bars, stamped, and left to harden. Within a month,
the soap is ready to be used.
Castile soaps were first produced in the Castile region of Spain in the 13th
century and by 1567, importations of Castile soap through Antwerp appear in
the London port books, In his article, A Short History of Soap, John Hunt states
that barilla (an impure form of sodium carbonate obtained from plant ashes) was
boiled with locally available olive oil instead of animal fat. By adding brine to the
boiled liquor, the soap was made to float to the surface, where it could be
skimmed off, leaving the excess lye and impurities to settle out. This produced
what was probably the first white hard soap made of 100% olive oil.
Glycerin soap is a translucent soap composed of either fat or oil. The clearness
of the soap is due to an alignment of soap molecules which can be induced by
adding alcohol and sugar.
Traditionally, glycerine soap is made by melting and continuously heating soap
that has been partly dissolved in a high percentage alcohol solution until it
reaches a clear, jelly-like state. The mixture is then simmered with a sugar
solution until the soap becomes translucent. Modern glycerin soaps bases are
produced by combining glycerols and polyols with soap using a method similar to
that of traditional glycerine soapmaking.
21. What is the world’s most costly soap?
Ever wonder what is the world’s most expensive soap? Well ponder no more.
Plank, a high end producer of all things yoga, is the creator of the most luxurious
bar on the planet, Cor.
Listed amongst its lush ingredients are: chitosan to balance skin tone and oil
levels, sercin—a type of protein created by silkworms—to retain moisture and
provide UV protection and four types of collagen to maintain skin structure.
However it is silver, a mineral known for its antibacterial properties, which gives
Cor the honour of being the world’s most expensive soap.
Cor retails for $125 per 120 gram bar.
22. What is African Black Soap?
Over the past couple of years, numerous alternatives to commercially produced
soaps have become available to the consumer. Ingredients used in these natural
homemade soaps largely depend upon the area of the world in which the buyer
African Black Soap from Ghana is made with 100% natural ingredients including:
coconut and palm kernel oils, raw shea butter, cocoa pod ash and water. It is a
very mild soap and is used to ease the acne symptoms, eczema psoriasis,
dandruff, and ringworm.
African Black Soap is very soft because of its high glycerine content. High
glycerine levels cause the soap to absorb moisture from the air, so to prevent the
soap from becoming too soft, it must be stored in a cool dry place.