Soap: A History and Definition


You’ll be surprised to learn that many of the ingredients that go into soap making are already in your kitchen. Soap is the end-result of mixing oils, lye and water. Whether you pull it off the supermarket shelf, buy the melt-and-pour soap from your local craft store or make it yourself from scratch, all soap begins with this process which is know as saponification.

During the excavation process of ancient Babylon, clay cylinders were found with a soap-like substance inside. This shows evidence that the process of soap making was around as early as 2800 B.C. The cylinders had inscriptions describing the process of boiling fats with ashes (a primitive form of soap making).

Records reveal that the ancient Egyptians bathed on a regular basis. The Ebers Papyrus, a medical document dated around 1500 B.C., describes combining alkaline salts with animal and vegetable oils to form a soap-like substance to be used for washing.

The story that sticks out in my mind most is the Roman legend of Mount Sapo (which, by the way, gave soap its name). Women noticed that washing their clothing was easier when done in the Tiber River which was directly below Mount Sapo, where ritual animal sacrifices took place. After a rainfall, a mixture of animal fats and ashes made its way down the mountain, turning into a crude form of soap along the way.

Later, early soap makers used potash, which was leached from wood ashes as their alkali base for soap making. Its results were often-times unpredictable, sometimes unpleasant in smell, and created soap that was more utilitarian than luxurious.

In the 1700’s, A French chemist named Nicholas Leblanc, invented a process for making an alkali using common salt.

During the 1800’s, a Belgian chemist named Ernest Solvay, discovered a process in which ammonia helped to extract the soda ash from salt efficiently. It soon became more readily available and its superiority, in turn, increased the quality of soap making.

In the 1940’s chemists discovered how to change the molecular structure of some naturally occurring substances. What they discovered was called “detergent” (to differentiate it from soap). The big advantage to detergents is that they work well in hard or cold water and can be formulated to clean specific types of dirt and stains. Modern detergents (known as syn-dets, or synthetic detergents) have become quite sophisticated and are seen in many, many forms. In fact, the majority of the cleaning products on the market are actually detergents of some type or another. Even commercial bar soaps commonly contain all or part detergents. As a result, there is a new, common definition of soap. The common definition of soap now refers to any product that bubbles and cleans, particularly if it is in a bar form.

This seems to have created the confusion regarding what real soap actually is. Hardeners, whiteners, lather boosters, chemical fragrances (sometimes with as many as 500 separate chemical components to create their unique scent) are often found in “over the counter” store-bought, “soap” or detergent bars.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “oh, but I can’t use lye soap on my sensitive skin.” Let me reiterate something one more time: ALL soap begins with lye (or something just like it) and don’t let anyone try to tell you differently. The chemical name for lye is sodium hydroxide. When you read the label on a bar of soap, this is appears to be a bit disguised. Sodium Tallowate is the main ingredient found in most commercial soaps. What they are actually saying is that sodium hydroxide (lye) has been mixed with tallow (rendered from beef fat) and, in mixing these ingredients together, they have created a brand new word for you, the consumer — sodium tallowate. How clever.

So, what is the difference between making your own soap at home and the lye soap that our great-grandmothers made? There is a big difference. Most people I have encountered usually mention this is conversation, saying, “My grandmother used to make lye soap and it would rip your hide off.” That may be true but granny didn’t have a digital scale, back then, did she? Today’s modern soap maker has greater access to a wide range of quality ingredients. Granny did not have help from modern technology to let her know exactly, down to the gram, how much lye she was supposed to use in her combination of oils. Furthermore, dear Granny’s oils may have consisted of anything from beef fat to a whole season’s worth of saved-up bacon grease drippings.

In my book, MAKING SOAP FROM SCRATCH, this is what I cover – how to make all-vegetable, cold-processed soaps that are gentle to the skin without the addition of unnecessary chemical fillers. Wondering if you will be able to make good soap? This is what I tell people all the time, “If you can cook, you can make soap.” Gregory.

Purchase MAKING SOAP FROM SCRATCH from aromaG’s Botanica here, or from here.