What is soap, where did it come from & how is it made?

We never want to bore you with too many details, but soap (and our love for it) has an interesting history, originating in Ancient Babylon! You may also want to learn a bit about the differences between soaps and detergents, the latter being quite drying and damaging to our precious skin and hair!

Ancient times

The earliest recorded evidence of the production of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in Ancient Babylon (the remains of which are found in present-day Iraq). A formula for soap (although they didn’t call it that yet) consisting of water, alkali and cassia oil was written on a Babylonian clay tablet around 2200 BC. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks (about 1500 BC) bathed regularly and combined animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a soap-like substance.

Roman times

Along with many wonderful inventions, the Romans also gave us our name for soap – from the Latin sapo, which simply means “soap”. Apparently the Germans and Gauls (around 300 AD) made the best soap from tallow (beef fat) and ashes (which you can still do today if you’re so motivated!)

Medieval times

By the 6th century, the Italians and Spanish were getting into the soap-making act and soap-makers even were members of guilds. Chemists produced the first soaps made from vegetable oils (such as olive oil), aromatic oils (such as thyme oil) and lye. From the beginning of the 7th century, soap was produced in Palestine’s West Bank and in Iraq. The soap was perfumed and colored; some of the soaps were liquid and others were solid. They also had special soap for shaving.

15th-20th Centuries

By the mid-1500s, France was commercially manufacturing soap in the Provence region (there were two factories in Marseille alone), and the British began to manufacture it in London. Finer soaps were created using vegetable oils (such as olive oil) rather than animal fats. A popular example is “Castile” soap, which is all, or nearly all, olive oil.

Before the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, soap-making was done on a small scale. It was a relatively slow and difficult process that usually yielded soaps of low or varying quality. That all changed when modern chemistry and machinery were finally developed to make soap on a large scale. Also, advertising campaigns in Europe and the U.S. during the Industrial Revolution began to make us aware of the connection between cleanliness and health. This created an industry for high-quality soaps and, along with it, came our obsession with soap and bathing!

The trend continued, so that today in the U.S. there are literally hundreds of different types and brands of soap available. Although there are alternatives, soap remains the most popular skin-cleaning product. However, since the development of detergents, soaps are no longer commonly used for washing hair, dishes, laundry, or general housework.

Making of Our Blue Mountain Soapworks’ Soaps

First of all, sodium hydroxide (NaOH or lye or caustic soda) is a necessary ingredient for making soap, but none of it remains in the final bar. By definition, soap consists of natural animal fats and/or plant oils combined with some form of lye, usually sodium hydroxide (which is a white, water-soluble, solid, caustic compound sometimes known as caustic soda). No lye = no soap!

Handmade soap is quite different from, and much kinder to our skin than, industrial or commercial soap because more fat is used to totally eliminate the sodium hydroxide, and the natural glycerin is not harvested out of the soap (as is done by commercial soapmakers). This is how we create our naturally moisturizing skin-friendly soaps.

The process we use at Blue Mountain Soapworks, and the most popular soap-making process today, is the cold process method, where fats such as olive oil react with lye. Cold process soap-making is a combination of an art and science. We scientifically calculate the proper amount of lye to be used with our fats to come up with a wonderfully nourishing and skin-conditioning soap. Depending on the oils used, the soap can have great lather (coconut oil has excellent lathering properties), be incredibly mild (olive oil is renowned for its gentle qualities) or be very moisturizing (with the addition of oils such as shea butter, cocoa butter or hemp oil). The possibility of combinations is endless!

Oils are heated, or melted if they are solid at room temperature, and combined with a solution of lye and water or other liquid. The mixture is combined with a variety of herbs, botanicals, oatmeal or other nourishing additives of the soap-maker’s choosing, along with essential oils or fragrances, if desired. The batch is then molded and cooled until “saponification” is complete (or until we have soap). Then we cut it into bars and cure and harden the bars until no lye remains. It can take 3 to 6 weeks to produce our perfect soaps!

Rest assured that these handcrafted cold process soaps are true soaps as defined by the US Food and Drug Administration, where a fatty acid from vegetable or animal origin is reacted with an alkali to produce a sodium salt that we know as soap. The alternatives are the mass-produced bath or beauty bars which are actually synthetic (not real soap)!!

Detergents & Commercial Soaps

Most detergents contain totally synthetic formulas, although a few are now being made with naturally-derived compounds. They are very effective for our cleaning needs but contain phosphates, carbonates, silicates, amines, zeolites, sodium EDTA, and sodium sulfates. Do any of those sound “natural” to you?! Tiny quantities of metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic can also be present. And then there are emulsifiers, brighteners (compounds able to make items appear whiter), bleaching agents, suds-controlling compounds, perfumes, and dyes. See what we’re doing to our skin and hair??!!

Commercial soaps are typically made in huge batches from solid detergents and fillers. Interestingly, the natural glycerin is usually removed, refined, purified and re-sold. (FYI, it’s now being used as one of the new bio-fuels; I’m sure it’s more valuable to them for that purpose than to leave it in the soap!)

Then additives (such as oil, lanolin, glycerin, aloe) are put into the formula for conditioning or moisturizing. And those cute, clear “glycerin” soaps are also synthetic! The glycerin is actually added to a detergent base. Other ingredients such as honey, exfoliants, botanicals and even decorative elements such as silk petals or miniature toys maybe added. These are not true soaps as per the FDA but are considered cosmetics and regulated accordingly.

Most of those commercial soaps are harsh and dry & irritate your skin if you use them for any length of time. Most commercial body care products are full of synthetic chemicals we would all be better off not putting on our skin every day. We believe that when you try our handmade soaps and other body products you will agree they are worth the time, care and attention we put into making them. Our natural soaps are gentle to sensitive skin and make a luxurious lather – without drying out your skin.

So, feed your skin and delight your senses today with products from Blue Mountain Soapworks!!