Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

The Secret Life of Soap

Written by Tricia Curtis

After learning the art of soap making, I’ve discovered the many differences between regular soap and what I now call real soap. Real soap is great for cleaning your body, your face, and even your hair. Yep that’s right, your face and your hair! Commercially mass-produced  soap, the soap you buy from your local store, is pushing the boundaries to even be labelled as soap. Technically it isn’t soap. It hasn’t been through the organic process of saponifaction, where disparate ingredients are brought together and in a natural chemical reaction, form a new substance we call soap.

This process is a reaction between an alkali and various fatty acids. Simply put, you have a strong alkali (sodium hydroxide/caustic soda) which you bring together with fatty acids (animal fats or vegetable oils/butters). This combining of molecules creates soap (chemically classified as a salt) with freed up and available glycerol molecules (glycerin). The soap is then left to cure. This can take between weeks and months. Curing is often dependent on the oils that are used. For example pure olive oil soaps should be cured for minimum of eight weeks.

Many people are under the misconception that soap dries out your skin because of the alkali component. Hand-made soap-makers will decrease the amount of alkali used so that there will always be an excess of unsaponified fatty acids left in the finished soap. Hence the skin softening and moisturizing effect of real hand-made soap. The irritating and drying out effect is a consequence of the  synthetic chemicals and cheap additives used in mass-produced bars.

People with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis are most often  unable to use regular soap. Us gals are told never to use soap on our faces as it will dry out and prematurely age our skin. We purchase 'simple' soaps for sensitives and babies. You can get cheapish 'natural' soaps from health stores, but unless you are choosing something genuinely hand-made you are not really buying soap at all. You are purchasing a soap-like product that seems to clean the skin while leaving a residue of unwanted gifts.


Profit margins and mass-production are the main considerations within commercial manufacture. With this in mind ingredients are chosen for low cost  over quality, purity, health-enhancement, ecofriendliness, and sustainability not to mention basic cleaning and conditioning capabilities. Most of the ingredients used in commercial operations are waste-products of the food industry, especially meat production. These low-grade products are manipulated and combined with a plethora of synthetic additives (usually petro-chemically derived)  to somehow create a product that resembles soap. Any glycerin is removed from the natural fats and oils and may be added later as a marketing point. The oils are "purified," in other words deprived of any of their natural goodies. So we have used the cheapest ingredients, deprived them of any health-supporting attributes they may have contained and now we add a whole lot of synthetic stuff to make it look like the real thing. Perfumes, colouring agents, lubricants, sudsing agents etc. Now we 'clean' ourselves with this stuff once or twice a day, as well as routine handwashing.

In real soap making, the quantity and combination of oils and butters are carefully chosen and balanced to create a desired effect of hardness, cleansing, conditioning, lather, and creaminess. Nothing extra is needed to create any of these attributes. In a good hand-made soap, the glycerin is intact and available. The oils or fats may include olive oil, coconut oil, rice bran oil, avocado oil, almond oil, apricot kernel oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, castor oil or (organic) animal fats, among others. In the choosing of quality ingredients, soap-makers can not only make choices that enhance our health but also those that care for the environment.

The extras added during the soap making process are preferably pure essential oils (not synthetic parfum or fragrance) for scent, clays and natural oxides for color and/or softening or exfoliating effects, natural beeswax for color and hardness, herb teas, honey, milk, spices, and flowers all can be added for their own special qualities. After manufacture, the soap is left to cure. This can take months, and a good hand-made soap will only improve over time. There is no use by date.

Real natural hand-made soaps don't cause any reactions in people with sensitive skin. Real soap isn't the problem, the problem is the commercially produced products that pass for soap. They are in effect just a fusion of mainly synthetic and altered substances that are known to dry and irritate skin. Our skin is our first barrier against the world. We should be looking after it in a more conscious way. Instead of supporting the skin with life-enhancing products, we weaken the system by toxic overload. Soap is just first base. Usually we then apply creams and lotions mostly manufactured using  petrochemicals.   

Most people are under the misconception that detergent-based  shampoos and conditioners are necessary for hair care. This is simply not true.  Real-soap shampoo bars clean and condition your hair in one.  They lather up beautifully and don’t strip hair of their natural oils. With the initial switch to shampoo bars, it may take two weeks for hair to get rid of the residues from the previously used synthetic shampoo and/or conditioner.  A vinegar wash as a last rinse detangles hair as effectively as any conditioner but leaves hair without feeling slimy. One tablespoon cider or white vinegar to a cup of warm water is poured over the hair. The smell of vinegar passes quickly and the hair is left feeling soft, silky, and tangle free.  

Doing a small thing like changing over to real soaps and shampoo bars lessens the toxic load to our- selves and to mother-earth.  There’s less plastic junk contributing to landfills, no synthetic toxins going down our drains into the waterways, and no chemical  junk to be absorbed by our bodies. This can and does make a difference. It’s ironic that our cleanliness obsession is polluting our water-ways at the speed of light. Let’s all make the change to stop using nasty chemicals.   

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