Many people would argue that there's nothing particularly exotic about soap.
Yet, give the concept a moment's thought: at some time long past (around 2 800
BC, historians believe), people started making the seemingly unlikely
combination of animal fat and ash and used the resulting goo to clean their
clothes. Indeed, the word ‘soap' is said to come from the name of the Roman
landmark Mount Sapo, a place where animals were ritually sacrificed. Legend has
it that the fat mixed with the wood ash from the pyres and was washed
downstream, where women discovered that this soapy substance made cleaning
Oddly, soap was not a popular choice for personal hygiene at first: instead
everyone from the Egyptians to the Romans used it as a hairstyling aid, akin to
hair gel. Soap only came into it's own with the advent of the Roman baths
(around 312 BC), then fell into disuse during the Dark Ages, only to be
‘rediscovered' in the 1700s.
The word ‘soap' is said to come from the name of the Roman landmark Mount
Sapo, a place where animals were ritually sacrificed
Oil and water
While your mother may have threatened to wash your mouth out with it and you
probably use it daily, there's a pretty good chance you don't know how soap
actually works. What happens is a simple process of emulsification. Negatively
charged alkaline soap molecules group into spherical structures called micelles.
Their negative charge keeps them dispersed in water and separate from each
other. The oils and fats in the soap attract grime and dirt. The micelles suck
the oil, together with any dirt it may hold, into the center of the micelle
structure, so that it can be washed away.
What about the ring in the bathtub afterwards, then, you may ask? Soaps are in a
surprisingly delicate chemical balance. When water is too acidic or alkaline,
the soap molecules are broken down and clump together to form a
greyish scum that can coat the tub, your hair or even clothing after
repeated washes. Not all soaps leave a ring in the bath, though. Because they
aren't really soaps…
The secrets of beauty bars
While trying to improve soap recipes, soap manufactures discovered detergents.
These hardy chemicals compounds range from mild to harsh, are great cleansers
and don't react to acidic or alkaline water in the way that soaps do.
Consequently, many ‘soaps' contain either a mild detergent, or are a combination
of detergent and soap. The label ‘detergent' is reserved for household cleaners
and washing powders – the strong stuff.
You may also have noticed that some soaps create lots of bubbles, while others
are decidedly difficult to work into a lather. It usually boils down to how much
sodium lauryl sulphate (a mild detergent) your soap contains. This ingredient is
also responsible for making most toothpastes and shampoos lather. In soaps that
don't contain sodium lauryl sulphate, the amount of coconut oil in the bar
affects how well the soap lathers.
If you live in a hard-water area, where your kettle regularly gets gummed up
with mineral deposits, you'll know that the water hardness can also prevent
soaps from lathering well. Naturally occurring calcium and magnesium in our
water supply react with the chemicals in soap, stopping it from lathering and
cleaning as quickly as it would in ‘soft' water.
A clear choice
Gorgeous, jewel-like glycerine soaps are a popular
choice nowadays, because they're beautiful and very mild. Glycerin is a sweet,
thick, yellowish liquid that can be extracted from vegetable sources such as
coconut and palm kernel oils, or from beef and port tallow. If you have a bar of
glycerine soap in your bathroom, surreptitiously give it a lick (trust me on
this). You wouldn't want to eat a whole bar, of course, but it does taste almost
sweet-like. Don't tell the kids.
While all soaps contain some glycerine, a proper glycerine soap is 15 to 20
percent pure glycerine. Bars are either opaque or clear and the glycerine makes
them much softer than regular soaps, which means you use more with every wash.
They also absorb water from the atmosphere, so they may be slightly moist to the
touch, even when you haven't used (or licked!) the bar recently. These absorbent
properties make glycerine a top-class skin moisturizer, so glycerine soaps are a
good pick if you have sensitive skin, or for children's delicate skin. Glycerine
soaps are popular with soap-making enthusiasts, because the mixture is extremely
malleable. Clear bases are also the prime backdrop for creating patterns or
inserting interesting seaweed sponges or other skin-enhancing (or novelty)
Drop for drop
If bars of soap aren't your thing, liquid soaps or body washes (yep, they're
soaps too) are the solution. They're particularly handy for the shower, when a
bar may ‘melt' under the barrage of water, or for the gym, when carting around a
soggy bar of soap simply isn't an option. Liquid soap was first patented in the
mid-1800s but didn't catch on until the germ-conscious 1980s. The first company
to produce liquid soap for the masses – the Minnetonka Corporation in the US –
cornered the market by buying up all the liquid-soap dispensers!
Skincare in a bar
While some may remember their grandmothers mixing tallow and lye to create soap
so harsh it seemed to remove a layer of skin with the grime, modern formulations
are a different story altogether. Apart from its cleansing action, soap has been
embraced as a skincare essential, a delivery system for moisture, vitamins and
minerals for skin on the face and body. Dry skin benefits from added vitamin E
and moisturizers. Problem, oily skin can be treated with soaps that have
antibacterial, deep-cleansing properties. Active individuals can opt for an
antibacterial formula that combats the beasties that cause body odour. Fragrance
and colour-free variants are ideal for babies and people with sensitive skins.
The type of oil in the bar also affects the hardness of the soap and how it acts
on the skin. Olive oil is very mild and palm oil (also referred to as vegetable
tallow) is mild and is often used in hand bars of soap. Coconut oil is crucial
to make the bar lather well, while sweet almond and jojoba oils, and coco and
shea butters have deep-moisturizing properties.
If you're a stalwart Lifebuoy user (incidentally, the makers coined the term
‘BO' for ‘body odour' in their first marketing campaign), chances are you'd
recognize the distinctive scent anywhere. Scented soaps are not to be sniffed
at: they make you and your home smell delicious and bring added aromatherapy
benefits to the cleansing package. If you're looking for an aromatherapy
experience to match your mood, choose citrus or marine scents for an
invigorating shower, lavender and vanilla for a relaxing soak. However, if you
have sensitive skin or you're pregnant, check the list of ingredients carefully:
essential oils are not suitable for everyone, as even small quantities can have
So next time you feel in need of a little TLC, treat yourself to a new bar of
soap – it's more exotic than you thought!