Soap...a history! August 06 2014, 0 Comments


How was soap discovered? There are many explanations offered, but at best, they are just based on conjecture. Soap has been evidenced through history from as far back as 2800BC. As to how it came about was probably through an act of chance.

Man existed primarily as a hunter and gatherer of food for survival. If an animal was hunted and killed, every bit of the carcass was used as a resource- meat, organs, fat, blood, bone and skin. Nothing was wasted…economics and survival. Along the way, man discovered fire- which quickly augmented the practical use of the carcass. Bones and fat were boiled for nourishing broths.

There in lies an obvious possibility in my opinion and logic as to how soap was discovered…a boiled pot of broth was knocked over into the fire. On the top of the fated broth, the risen congealed layer of fat then fell into the fire ashes. Later, someone noticed an unusual fatty product that resulted- a transformed fat that created a slippery feel when moistened, and broke the surface tension and workability of the animal fat for lubricating and protecting animal hides…the dried blood becoming easier to remove etc.

Why do I believe this simple accident to be a viable notion? The simple chemistry that goes into making soap applies. Soap is made by combining a fat with a strong alkali…one of which is KOH/potassium hydroxide. What was one of the earliest sources of KOH? Potash- formed from boiling hardwood fire ashes. BOOM- that cooking accident caused soap to form in the fire ashes. I find this a far more viable explanation than those offered as to the history…but then I adopt a somewhat cynical attitude to historical overviews.

I remember listening to a glorified, artistic analysis of various exampled sculptures done by Michelangelo in Milan at the Castello Sforzesco- where Michelangelo’s last unfinished sculpture is displayed. Another sculpture had 3 rough figures emerging from a large block of marble, and the analysis proffered complex analogies of the artistic merit and creative expression attempted. Really? Were there any other examples of this type of expressive work done by Michelangelo, in such an unfinished and unrefined state…no. My simple explanation would have been that Michelangelo had to acquire his skills along the way. The exampled sculpture was probably a piece that he very simply stuffed up, and then used the block for further practice. Have you ever attempted sculpture? I think if you have, you’ll find my explanation very plausible. Three dimensional rendering is complex in translation of form.

It was also found that boiled animal fat- separated from any residual meat and gristle- lasted longer in storage. The intentional production of purified animal fat began…tallow. Tallow and soap production became industries- although soap over the centuries was used purely for functional cleaning. In countries where animal fats were not readily available, soaps were made using various locally sourced plant oils…primarily olive oil. In fact my father-in-law at one point worked in a factory producing olive oil soap from the olive pressing wastes, in his village in Italy. Olive oil soap has historically been known as the mildest soap produced.

It’s an interesting fact that Australia sustained a viable export trade of tallow with England in the mid 19th Century. A failing beef industry in a difficult economic period in our history was sustained through these exports…the meat became the waste product given to workers and used as pig feed.

The use of tallow in soap has continued through to modern times. Tallow was a cheap and readily accessible fat that was essentially accessed as a waste product. Most people made their own soap- collecting the animal fats from their cooking for this purpose.

It took the re-assignment of tallow as a resource during WW1, for a chemical alternative to be created out of necessity. BOOM- along came detergent…a synthetic emulsifier created from petroleum.

However, the use of detergents in commercial soap making did not come in to use until the further restrictions of resources during WW2. Commercially produced soaps were made from these detergent bases thereafter…a cheap accessible ingredient. ‘Soap’ produced from petroleum chemicals is technically not soap, but a ‘detergent bar’.

Soap, as historically known and produced, has become a product reserved to traditional soap makers- employing the traditional soap making method of cold-processing, and the use of tallow and plant oils for the superior qualities that they bring to a soap, over the harsh qualities of petroleum based detergents.

ilo ORGANICS select various organic plant oils for use in our soaps, because of their superior beneficial qualities offered to the skin. Our soaps are 100% Vegan safe- safe for use on both ethical and medical grounds. My body has never tolerated nor digested animal fats. The thought of tallow used in a soap sends shudders through my body- 100% pure animal fat…not for me! The skin, as the body’s largest organ, does absorb roughly 60% of compounds applied to it, as we’ve explained before- refer blog dated 09.07.14, “Where’s my suit of armour?”

Similarly, I do not agree with applying an animal fat or protein- like goat’s milk- to an unresolved or qualified skin rash or irritation. Logic says to me that that fat or protein will draw to it as a food source the same problem bacteria…my theories only- perhaps my doctor would argue the point otherwise.

I also suffer from Lupus. There is no way that I’d contemplate exposing the resultant oozing skin lesions to a bacteria attracting animal fat or protein, and compound the risk of infection. Logic tells me it’d be like adding wood to the fire…a bit like the old remedy of applying butter to a burn- we now know that the burn was amplified by this process.

My skin with a Lupus outbreak responds best to the gentle, soothing care offered by our organic soaps, and the healing qualities offered by soaking in a bath containing our pure mineral salts.

Our knowledge of the body and its interaction with the environment has expanded significantly- so too, our scientific knowledge. We have access to better soap making ingredients- we can analyse the structure of those ingredients to appraise the benefits that they offer the skin and the body. At ilo ORGANICS, we choose to use organic plant oils for our soap making- with the guarantee that they are of the finest chemical-free oils that we can source.

So there you have it…my somewhat twisted theories on the history of soap!