|Soap has a long history that includes both truth and legend. This article discusses some of the highlights of the long history of soap making.
The best-known legend is how soap making began. It is said that the word soap comes from Mt. Sapo, which was the location of animal sacrifices by the ancient Romans. Rain washed the mixture of animal fat and wood ash from the fires upon which the animals were sacrificed down to the banks of the Tiber river, where local women would clean clothing. The women discovered that the soapy water cleaned their clothes much easier.
The ancient Babylonians are credited with recording the first soap recipe on a tablet back in 2200 B.C. The first mention of soap for personal hygiene was by the Greek physician Galen, around 2 A.D.
In the 13th century, the French began making soap from olive oil instead of animal fats. Around that time, Castile soap was produced. It is named for the Castile region in Spain where it originated. Castile soap is very mild and known for its soothing properties. It used to be that castile soap was 100% olive oil and no other vegetable oils or butters, but now that term is used more loosely, to include formulas that are mostly olive oil.
In the early 1700's bacteria was identified and the notion that cleanliness by using soap could help reduce or eliminate germs was gaining traction.
In 1791, the French chemist Nicholas LeBlanc patented a multi-step process to create soda ash from table salt. Soda ash is the alkali that is obtained from ashes and that combines with the fats to form soap. This new process eliminated the need for wood ashes. This process was eliminated around 1823 when a Belgian chemist, Ernest Solvay developed a shorter, less expensive and more environmentally friendly process to transform table salt to soda ash.
In 1832 the French chemist Michel Eugene Chevreul demonstrated that saponification was a chemical process that turned fat and lye into soap plus glycerin.
The development of factories and standardized formulas helped to create a booming soap making industry, which turned soap from a luxury item to one available to the general population.
World War I created a variety of supply shortages, one of which was animal fat. This led to the development of synthetic detergents to create cleansing bars. These detergent bars are what is commonly found on grocery store shelves today.
There haven’t been many changes in the industry since that time, though there has been a resurgence of the art of handcrafting soap. These handmade soaps are crafted with gentle oils, butters and herbs selected specifically for the benefits they have upon the skin. More and more are learning about the benefits of handmade soap and are turning to these natural cleansers to care for their skin instead of harsh, synthetic detergent bars.
Pat White MSN PMh NP-BC