Soaps are making a huge comeback in skin care, and for good reasons: they are much more eco-friendly than liquid body washes, and some of the traditional soaps contain ingredients that can work wonders for the skin. Today Amalia from Amalia's Log talks in-depth about the making of and her experiences with the different traditional soaps of the Mediterranean and middle-east cultures.
I got talking to Eternal Voyageur when I first contacted her for the beauty around the world series, and to my surprise the thing that excited her the most, was what I took for granted; soap.
Or soap making to be specific. You see I had parents from different areas of the world, and the one common factor between both was how "mum" for one, and how "dad" for the other made soap at home. Hence why it was 'no big deal' for me. Just a labour of love for those who have the patience to make it.
When I got into the world of cosmetic making, first because I realised the truth behind the false marketing about the dangers of some products and benefits of others. And later simply because I realised that true knowledge is what will save our skin and health, and soap making was a natural follow up. After all it runs in the family.
After years of making and knowing about the traditional soaps of some areas of the world, thanks to parents that also travelled and lived all over the place, I am convinced soap making is what unites the world. And who knows, keeping people occupied with this hobby does seem a more peaceful use of time than other things.
Now here are some of the soaps of the world I had the pleasure of trying, and the laundry one simply seeing but not trying ...yet.
Castille Soap:My absolute favourite of the lot. No it doesn't foam as much as others, and if you are a new soap maker that tried your hand at 100% olive oil soap after hearing about the benefits of olive oil to the skin, you may be feeling cheated that I listed this as my favourite.
But then if you only tried this as a new soap maker you probably did the hasty thing of using this soap before 6 months have passed, and ended up with one slimy mess.
Now, traditional cold pressed soap (the process of making soap without heat) needs 4-6 weeks to be ready depending on the oil mix in them, but the best Castille soaps are those which have been left to cure and the water evaporated of them the longest.
I was one of these new soap makers years ago, and luckily I didn't throw my batch. So when I found a few bars of it some 3 years later, I could not stop using it. The initial slimy bar had turned into a solid block, that was the most conditioning soap I had ever used.
Of course the old soap makers of Spain never measured their lye content properly and a few of their new made bars used to be sold right away, not for skin cleaning, but to wash clothes and the like. Then the older bars were sold for human consumption, after it was a given that the lye content had neutralised to the right PH to make it safe for use on skin (that is a year or two... or three later)
One more thing, though this soap is credited to Spain, hence the name, a lot of Mediterranean countries had their own version of 100% olive oil soaps. Italy's "white soap" does come to mind.
Marseille SoapA very popular soap for good reason. Traditionally, it was made of olive oil and sea water from the Mediterranean sea, along with ashes and lye. These days the oils can vary. However that this soap is usually cooked and stirred for days was reason enough to why these soap makers in this city thrived faster than other soap makers. The long cooking time simply meant the soap would be ready and safe to use faster than other soaps. A month was enough usually, while other soap makers were still waiting for their soaps to be less caustic in a few months time.
You can use this for everything from body washing to stain removal on your laundry. And thanks to shops like L'occitane, Marseilles soap is easier to find than some of the other soaps listed here.
Moroccan soap pasteNow this wins for soap that gives you the most "soap using experience" than anything else, as it is used in the traditional Moroccan bath.
More a paste than anything else, it is easy to make for the experienced soap maker who happens to have an old crock-pot, some old pitted olives and some potassium hydroxide lye, rather than the sodium hydroxide. That is the lye used in cream and liquid soap making too.
As you noticed from the above this soap is unique, in that it is made from the crushed black olives themselves, not any oil.
Also you don't use this like traditional soap, instead you steam yourself for a bit, apply this soap on your damp body. It will be like spreading a jelly (that you then realise is more of a butter more than a jelly) on yourself. Then you just sit in the steam again for a few minutes, and only after some ten minutes, do you wash it off well. Wait another five minutes, then use the Moroccan bath mitt known as a Kissa to scrub off the dead skin which is now easy to scrub away. I have to credit the Moroccans for knowing how to turn a bath into a real fun and relaxing and still functional experience.
Aleppo SoapThis wins for the most intriguing soap I have ever used, and just one more reason to wish and pray for peace in the country it came from.
This soap is unique among all Mediterranean soaps in that it doesn't settle for just olive oil. No, someone a few thousand years ago decided to add laurel berry oil to it, and what a clever addition it was. You must also love any soap made in a big black cauldron, and then left to cure and dry for at least eight months.
The soap is bemusing to use. It is brown on the outside, then as you keep using it you find it green on the inside. And as time passes the green just becomes greener and brighter.
When I found it and used it, what was surprising, is I did use it as a mask like the seller recommended, and yes it made my skin squeaky clean, yet not tight. Something most oil drawing masks fail to achieve.
But where this soap really shone, was when using it as a shampoo. My hair was clean manageable and conditioned! No mean feat for hair as thick and as rebellious as mine. Anyone I know who bought this soap also started their addiction to it, the moment they used it to wash their hair. Sadly this old soap is becoming harder and harder to find, as I cannot imagine a single sector of an economy that doesn't get destroyed in a war like that. But you could try looking online and may find a reputable source for it.
* The laurel oil content of Aleppo soaps varies, if your skin is oily or impure pick one with up to 40% laurel oil.
Nablus SoapFor some reason this soap from the West Bank is much easier to find in the middle east during church bazaars around Christmas time, than any other time. An incentive to buy it is knowing that it gives the people something to do that helps them economically and keeps them busy with a good thing, it is a step forward towards peace. I had also been told the money mostly goes to women who make it rather than anyone else.
Like most soaps from around the Mediterranean countries, olive oil makes up the bulk of this soap. The unique thing about this soap, which dates back to the tenth century, is the lye used. The ashes of a saltwort plant, which grows along the banks of the river Jordan, are mixed with lime and salt, and the lye this produces is added to the olive oil. Again this is left to cure for a few more months despite it being made via the hot process method; that is heat is used while mixing the oils and lye to speed up the saponification process.
The result is an extremely gentle bar that is great for cleansing the whole body from head to toe. And while all the soaps I listed so far, have the strange smell of a newly opened can of poster or liquid paints, this one is completely scent free... or at least the single bar I tried was.
African Black SoapAnd now we head towards one of the most mysterious soaps out there; African black soap.
But first let me tell you there is no single item which is African black soap, and what we refer to when we say this, is the many soaps that mostly come from West African countries. Each one uses a different name and slightly different ingredients to make their soap.
And whether you call it Dudu Osun or Anago or Alata or Simena soap, I love this stuff.
Made with the most ancient technique in which we know soap was made; that is the seeds and pods and skins of beneficial plants are burnt into ashes and added to a mixture of heated oils and hard oils, the results are spectacular.
The soap is more of a kneadable material than a hard bar, and with common ingredients being burnt plantain skins, coco pods, cocoa seeds, (activated charcoal anyone?) along with shea and cocoa butter, and sometimes locally sourced palm oil, the benefits to oily skin are unquestionable.
It has a lovely creamy foam, but also an odd scent if it is fragrance free.
I do find it a bemusing mystery how unmeasured amounts of oils and lye (as this is what the ashes produce when mixed with the oils and beat) can end up making a product with such beneficial results. If you or someone you know has acne and everything else has failed let them give this soap a try. Mind you though this is not the soap to use if you have dry skin!
Kabakrou SoapNow I know many may have heard about all the aforementioned soaps, but may be scratching their heads on this one. This soap comes from the Ivory Coast, and is used for laundry. It totally deserved a mention here, as the young people of some villages in The Ivory Coast have taken to making this soap from their self made lye and adding it to palm kernel oil, to earn their own livelihood. The makers range from old woman to young girls and men, all determined to move forward in life and past the challenging past few years their country had gone through. The palm oil, comes from sustainable sources.
The soap is made, then less than a day later before it has hardened and before it is even safe for a human to touch it, the soap is shaped into balls and then left to cure after that till it is safe to be sold. When people want to progress in life through their own efforts, I think it is cool to support them, so I mentioned this soap here, despite never having used it... not yet anyway.
Now keep in mind the PH of these soaps is usually high, anywhere from 8.5-10, so if you use them to clean your face, always follow up with a toner, whether it is store bought or just unprocessed apple cider vinegar.
To end this post here are some fun tidbits for you as I had not mentioned any American Soaps.
What did the Native American tribes use before the settlers arrived? You may find it fascinating to know some plants naturally contain saponins inside them and will foam when added to water and agitated. For the longest time after the white settlers arrived to California, the natives refused to use their soap, and instead continued using the crushed bulb of the California Soaproot (always making sure to leave the bottom part of the root to make sure the plant sprouts again) to wash everything from their clothes to hair.
Yucca roots, cleaned chopped and blended, were the other 'soap plants' people all over the Americas and West Indies also used.
If you are in Europe, you are due to have a grandma or grandpa who may have mentioned the benefits of soapwort as a cleansing agent to you.
And this isn't a country, but more about cleansing soap plants from around the world -- due to its fragile nature, historic material in museums is cleaned with only one thing... soap nuts!
I hope this was an interesting read, and do wish to learn more about the many traditional soaps which I am sure I have missed out on here, but do hope that I have also managed to wet someone’s appetite to learn more about soap and the soap making traditions from around the world!
PS if you want more, Amalia has written about soaps of northern Europe over on her blog. Check it out if you want to know what does soap have to do with seduction and Nordic men.
Photo credit: Alain