Slippery History: How Soap Works

From ancient Babylon to Ma Perkins, soap has a rich and frothy past.

The basics of how soap works

5000 BC
Clay cylinders in ancient Babylon are inscribed
With instructions for boiling fats with ashes

4000 BC
Hebrews write on clay tablets about purifying of oils
Ash and lime-stone

1000 BC
Soap Gets the name from Mount Sapo, a sacred site where animals
were sacrificed during Roman rituals.
Women come from all around to bathe in melted animal fat and wood ash
Found in the Tiber river at the base of Mt. Sapo
Soap is formed when an acid, derived from the fats and oils of plants and animals, is combined with an alkali. Today most soapmakers use commercially available alkali such as sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) or potassium hydroxide (caustic potash). When the fats and the alkali are combined, a chemical reaction called saponification occurs. And there you have it: soap.
And how does it work? Water has a property called surface tension. This tension is created as water molecules at the surface are pulled toward molecules at the bottom. Soap molecules have a head that is attracted to water and a tail that is attracted to dirt. The tail embeds itself in the dirt, and the head pulls itself toward the water, breaking the surface tension. When you rinse off, you wash away the soap molecules along with the dirt their tails are clinging to.
Clean ingredients
Even though they aren’t required to list ingredients, natural soapmakers such as Joshua Onysko of Pangea Organics generally do because they’re proud of them. Pangea soaps, for example, are made from a base of olive oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, and hempseed oil; naturally formed glycerin, herbs, flowers and spices; and essential oils.
What you put on your skin could be absorbed into your body, so it’s important to read ingredients. Seeing the word “organic” in a soap manufacturer’s name doesn’t guarantee all the ingredients are organic. Many people in the personal care industry believe that unless an ingredient is certified organic in California or another state with strict certification standards, it doesn’t mean much. “Coconut oil can be certified organic in SriLanka, but they still use DDT there, so I’d be concerned,” Joshua says.
Soothing, simple soaps
To make this soap, first purchase a solid, translucent glycerin soap base (available from Sun-Feather Natural Soap, (315) 265-3648). Melt it gently in a double boiler over medium heat. Add soothing botanicals, fragrant oils, and any other ingredients that please you, and stir. Then pour the thick liquid into a plastic soap mold or a plastic food storage container and let it cool.
Lavender and Rosemary Soap
3 cups glycerin soap base
1/4 cup infusion* of lavender flowers and rosemary leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons lavender oil
1/2 teaspoon rosemary oil
1 teaspoon pulverized dried rosemary (optional)

1. Combine melted base and botanicals. Stir until blended, then pour into molds and cool.
*Make an infusion: Infusions are delicate teas made by pouring hot, steamy non-chlorinated water over fresh or dried plant parts. Three tablespoons of dried or fresh herb per cup of water, steeped 10 minutes, will suffice.
Reprinted with permission from Soothing Soaps by Sandy Maine (Interweave Press, 1997).


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