One of the fun things about being a soap maker is that it’s the most mundane of products. Soap, the bar of soap, is an everyday thing. What it is for us, how we use it, we hardly think about it. And yet, it’s a product of intimacy, of the body, of hygiene and therefore of the backstage… And simultaneously, its use, its representations related to hygiene are always social, cultural and historical.
Yes, you understand that with us, soap is the alpha and the omega (What? No, we are not excessive!). In fact, if we retrace its history, we see that what is played out between you and your little piece of soap every day is the history of humanity. That alone, yeah!

The soap maker’s triptych: fat, water, alkali

Already because soap would have been discovered in prehistoric times. Perhaps even in the Périgord by a Cro-Magnon cooking a small leg of lamb in rainy weather: fat, ash and water, the trinity of the soap maker! This is what Roger Leblanc* imagines in his book. Because if we don’t really know how things worked out, prehistorians did find substances similar to soap during their excavations. However, to find some more tangible traces, we have to teleport to Mesopotamia, 2800 years before Christ.

It is thus on a Sumerian tablet in the region of Babylon that we find the first handwritten indications of soap making. The Sumerians evoke more precisely a kind of soap paste, composed of water, alkali and cassia oil. It is not really a soap reserved for hygiene. It is used to clean and treat wool and cotton.

It is thus on a Sumerian tablet in the region of Babylon that we find the first handwritten indications of soap making. The Sumerians evoke more precisely a kind of soap paste, composed of water, alkali and cassia oil. It is not really a soap reserved for hygiene. It is used to clean and treat wool and cotton.

Papyrus Eber savon égyptien

We find other mentions of soap in the writings of Pliny the Elder. He mentions the existence of Cepo galliarum in Gaul. It was a mixture of tallow, lard and edible oils mixed with ashes. If it is used for body hygiene, it is also used for hair, especially to color it.
Strangely enough, the Romans, like the Greeks, known for their very fine body care traditions, did not use soap until later. They used to wash themselves by « abrasion »: some used powders to rub their bodies before coating themselves with oil, others coated themselves with oil before removing it by rubbing a strigile, a kind of scraper. It was not until the 2nd century that the Greek physician Galen recommended the use of soap for both therapeutic and hygienic purposes.

Plant powders, clays, minerals as well as oils, steam or even frictions and wraps are juxtaposed, precede or complete the use of products strongly resembling the soaps we know today.

Mythical soaps

If the techniques of the body differ according to places and times, they are universal. Soap has a predominant place in them. Some of these legendary soaps are still made.

On the African continent, it is the black soap that is described in the literature. Based on palm oil, shea butter, cocoa butter mixed with ashes of plantain peels, palm and/or banana leaves, cocoa kernels, there is a multitude of recipes. It seems that the Yoruba, originally from what is now Ghana, were the first producers and allowed its diffusion first in West Africa and then throughout the continent. This solid black soap would be the ancestor of the black soap paste of North Africa. It is still a famous soap.

Three other solid soaps are legendary: the soap of Aleppo, the soap of Castile and the soap of Marseille. The first one is precisely detailed in the most famous Arab medical treatise of the Middle Ages, TheKitab al-Mansouri fi al-Tib (The book on medicine dedicated to Al Mansur). Dedicated to the governor of present-day Iran, it was written by Al-Razi, a Persian physician, naturalist, philosopher and alchemist. In this work, copper cauldrons are described in which a mixture of olive oil, soda and laurel ashes and water are boiled. The soap blocks are then dried for 12 months in the sun. It is from the Arabic language that the term alkali, Al-qali, comes.

The dense relations between the Arab world and the south of Europe allow the massive diffusion of Aleppo soap and its codified manufacturing techniques. Historical upheavals slowed down this trade and encouraged the main olive oil producing areas in Europe to produce their own soaps: Italy, Spain, southern France, Greece.

This is the quasi-official appearance of olive oil soap, which will gradually become Castile soap. This soap certainly already existed, as there were soaps made from animal fats in northern Europe. The Castile soap has the particularity that it is made cold and that it contains only olive oil, no other fat. Very low foaming but very soft, with a light smell, it is very popular. The so-called Marseille soap is also developing. It is made at high temperatures, with an excess of soda, and is manufactured throughout southern Europe.

The Middle Ages were the time of the « étuves », public baths accessible to the wealthy. For the others, there are still the waterways. And people hurried to them. Contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages were a time of hygiene and body care.

Etuves Moyen Âge hygiène

In 1371, documents attest to the official presence of a soap maker in Marseille. However, the guilds of soap makers had been established throughout the country for a long time. A text drawn up by Charlemagne, as early as 800 A.D., requires that soap manufacturers be properly established throughout the territory and, in passing, that 2/3 of the production be reserved for him. Because soap remains quite expensive. Moreover, in public baths, it is possible to use soapwort flowers if one cannot afford a piece of soap.
The end of the Middle Ages was quite different. It was considered that water carried miasmas. This is the « theory of humours ». And, in times of plague, this belief had a certain effect. It is a partly true belief. Streets act as public latrines. Animal, human and chemical pollution all flow into the waters. Tannic extracts poured by the dyers, blacks from the blacksmiths’ boilers, etc. are mixed with human fluids and waste. The people stop bathing, they wash with moderation, preferably without water. They prefer alcohols, most often perfumed. They rub it on themselves and then powder and perfume themselves, a lot. During the Renaissance, the dirt became a natural protection, a barrier to the infections that abounded.

It was in the 18th century that water regained its purifying status. Baths multiplied until the arrival of the hygienists in the
19th century. Soap continued its evolution, discreetly.

From industrialization to soap… without soap

Its production has been industrialized. Alessandro Giraudo* recalls that in 1786, in Marseille, 49 soap factories and their 600 workers produced 76 000 tons of soap. To meet the needs, convicts could even be « loaned » by the Arsenal of the galleys to increase the workforce. Chemistry also played its role. First in 1791 with Nicolas Leblanc who patented a process for manufacturing soda on a large scale. It worked, but it was expensive and polluting. Etienne Solvay then improved the process. At the same time, the invention of electricity and the installation of large factories increased production possibilities.

This is the golden age of soap making. Little by little, soap, heavily taxed until very late in the 19th century, became cheaper. It was produced in large quantities, and its use was recommended, or even mandatory, during hygiene and public health campaigns.

The first world war stopped this expansion. At the end of the war, there was a shortage of raw materials. Too few fats were available, and soap was becoming scarce. In 1916, in Germany, the first synthetic surfactant » appeared. This was the forerunner of what we now call synthetic surfactants. The Second World War forced even more innovation. New synthetic surfactants were developed. They were inexpensive, required few noble materials, were easy to manufacture
and assemble, and were mass-produced. In the 1950s, they replaced soap.
They are even preferred by consumers. It must be said that soap has become self-degrading. The industry has learned to separate the glycerin to sell it to other industries. Soap is over-industrialized, produced with low-end oils, and sold without glycerin. It dries out the skin. Ironically, synthetic surfactants are softened with the glycerin sold by the soap industry.
However, traditional soap making remains. It is discreet, reserved for purists, sometimes considered as folkloric or even old fashioned. It is also learning to defend itself. When industrialists decided to advertise and praise the merits of « soap without soap » (in short, synthetic surfactants), soap makers were up in arms. The war will be long but the name « soap without soap » will finally be withdrawn.

And, little by little, the traditional soap industry is attracting interest again. Shower gels are finally irritating, the smells and colors aggressive, advertising and marketing exhausting; saturation of bodies, minds and senses.
A new moment in the relationship to oneself, to hygiene and to the world.
 

Passionate about soap, clean and dirty? It’s this way:

Behind, on the side, very small on the front of the package, but always there, and for good reason, it's mandatory: the list of ingredients!

At the regulatory level, it is called the INCI (pronounced INKI): International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. This list is often obscure. It requires the use of English and/or Latin terms. Its objective is to be understandable throughout the world, regardless of the manufacturer, the place of production or marketing of a product. It is a bit like the global language of cosmetics.

To make it clearer, here are some basics:

An international language for cosmetics

Beyond the rules of order, there is a whole language, mixing Latin and English. In general, natural extracts (plants, oils, ...) keep their Latin name followed by an English term specifying the part or the compound used.

For example, olive oil becomes Olea europea fruit oil, true lavender essential oil becomes Lavandula angustifolia oil while true lavender flower water becomes Lavandula angustifolia flower water.

It gets even more complicated when we saponify the oils. Olea europea fruit oil is transformed, under the effect of saponification, into Sodium olivate when soda is used and into Potassium olivate when potash is used. The same applies to all saponified oils and butters. Among the surprises, castor oil is called Ricinus communis seed oil but turns into Sodium castorate when saponified (here with soda). Nothing to do with the small animal builder/deconstructor, the castorate refers to the English name of castor oil: Castor oil.

You will also find, depending on the composition of the products, names of molecules, usually in English. Like Glycerin for glycerine, Sodium bicarbonate for baking soda, etc.

The fragrance compositions are found under the generic term "perfume". The disadvantage is that the term perfume is valid for compositions based on essential oils as well as for synthetic compositions. That's why a precision is often brought as for the natural origin of the said perfume. Sometimes, the use of a natural composition induces the presence of potential allergens, naturally present in essential oils. They must be indicated. They appear at the end of the list, their percentage being very low.

Depending on the products you use, you will find "CI lotsofnumbers", that is to say dyes, coded by five digits according to the Colour Index (hence the CI). If the dyes have no cosmetic use, they are harmless. It is sometimes their production method that is questionable. You can also find acronyms like PEG, SLS, EDTA,... the list would be too long. Again, they can be good, very good, bad, very bad.

If you have a doubt about an ingredient, many databases exist and can be consulted, especially on the net. The only one that is legal in Europe is the CosIng database. At first sight, it's not the most attractive... But it's formidable. It lists all the regulatory texts, studies on the components, lists all the ingredients with individual sheets, specifies their function, and above all, it is official, updated and free.

A grammar of cosmetics to tame

It was stated that the INCI reads in descending order. Does this mean that the ingredient at the end of the list is just for show, or that if the first ingredient on the list is water, you are being sold water disguised as a cosmetic?

No. But sometimes yes.

It all depends on the products, their overall composition and what they promise you. We know that these details will not help you much...

Let's imagine, you buy a moisturizing cream. The first ingredient is water. This is normal. Of course, it could be floral water or aloe vera juice, which are more precious but also more active. However, perhaps your cream already contains many active ingredients, or aims not to over-stimulate a sensitive skin. In short, the formulation has a balance. And as everywhere, the best is sometimes the enemy of the good.

Similarly, in our beard oil, bisabolol is at the end of the list. It is a very active extract whose percentage in a formulation is limited by regulation. If you exceed this limit, your product will fail the toxicological evaluation. This example applies to many products "with extract of" or with powerful active ingredients. Depending on the type of active ingredient and the type of product, it is normal (or even mandatory) that this active ingredient comes at the end of the list because, in principle, an active ingredient is very active! It must be carefully dosed.

However, if you are promised a product based on argan oil and argan oil is at the very end of the list, there is a problem. It is also problematic if the majority of the formulation is composed of very dubious ingredients and that appears at the end of INCI the natural extract so praised on the packaging. It's not the positioning of the extract that is problematic, it's its place in a formulation that doesn't do it justice. An honest cosmetic formulation is about balance and consistency.

Practical work: the Wolf soap

Last line, we put into practice! Let's take the example of one of our soaps, the Wolf. At the beginning, its composition is relatively simple: vegetable oils and butter partly saponified, coal, chestnut flour and essential oils.

In INCI, it gives this:

Sodium olivate, sodium cocoate, sodium shea butterate, aqua, glycerin, sodium sunflowerseedate, sodium rapeseedate, sodium castorate, castanea sativa seed flour, perfume, olea europea fruit oil, butyrospermum parkii butter, cocos nucifera oil, helianthus annuus seed oil, brassica campestris seed oil, ricinus communis seed oil, charcoal powder, geraniol, limonene, linalool.

It contains saponified olive and coconut oils, saponified shea butter, glycerin produced naturally during saponification and water that remains after saponification. Then there are the saponified sunflower, rapeseed and castor oils, the chestnut flour and the essential oils whose mixture is modestly called "perfume". Then come all the oils and butter in their "unsaponified" version. That is to say that they were all introduced in surgras and remain in suspension in the soap: olive, shea followed by coconut, sunflower, rapeseed and castor. They are the same as those at the beginning of the list, it is just that we put more than necessary, so that the soap is ultra-soft.

And finally, come the charcoal and further on the compounds of essential oils potentially allergenic. Charcoal, which is highly active, is at the end of the list in terms of its power. Putting more of it in the soap means going from detox to polishing. Allergens are far behind but the INCI, in order to protect the formulas, does not allow to specify the percentages of the listed ingredients.

The INCI remains a mandatory list of ingredients, useful, informative but also indicative. It tells you what is in the product, informs you a little about the proportions but leaves enough vagueness and room for maneuver to the manufacturer to protect his formula. In short, the INCI, if you can decipher it, gives you the philosophy of a product. All you have to do now is buy a magnifying glass!

Under a strange name, it is simply the only soap manufacturing technique that allows to preserve all the properties of the raw materials used while ensuring an eco-friendly manufacturing process.

Cold saponification of soaps, an artisanal process

Cold saponification is a process that is very difficult to industrialize. It requires raw materials of excellent quality (nothing can be hidden in a cold process soap) and a long, long time. It takes an average of 5 to 6 weeks for the soap to be usable. The soaps made with this method are by principle artisanal. There is also a cold process soap charter to determine the essentials of the method and to offer a common framework to soap makers.

What is the difference with hot saponification?

In the soap industry, when soap is produced in large quantities, hot saponification is used. In principle, manufacturers heat the soap paste up to 120°C in order to accelerate the chemical reaction, which is normally quite slow. The soap paste often comes from "bondillons" (soap noodles : a kind of small rolls of soap made under heat) which are remelted and reshaped in plodders. Yes, that's what it's called!

Soaps and/or soap noodles are often made from palm oil, sometimes from animal fats or from the bottom of vegetable oils tanks, to which many synthetic additives can be added: EDTA, propylene glycol, sodium laureth sulfate, chelating agents… Also, the soap is often separated from its glycerin. In the end, the epidermis can be dried out, even sensitized by the additives.

And to make a long story short, we will avoid talking about shower gel, what it is and what it really does…

On the contrary, cold saponification is an artisanal method which allows to produce solid or liquid soaps rich in vegetable glycerin.

What is the manufacturing process of cold process soap?

ecause at the beginning, soap is quite simple: it is the mixture of a fatty substance (vegetable oils for example) and an alkaline agent (soda or potash). This gives, in chemistry, soap and vegetable glycerin. With this traditional method, the soap paste is not heated, which preserves the properties of vegetable oils. It also allows the introduction of essential oils (sensitive to heat), mineral or vegetable pigments, and active ingredients such as honey or milk.

As the soap paste is not heated, the saponification process follows its natural rhythm. It lasts at least 4 weeks, most often 6 weeks. The soaps are then in a "curing" phase, which is similar to the maturing time of good cheeses. A cold process soap is often "surgras", which means that a quantity of vegetable oil has been introduced in excess. At the end of the reaction, this excess remains in suspension in the soap, giving it nourishing and antioxidant qualities. The glycerin that forms naturally during the saponification reaction is retained in the cold process soap and moisturizes the skin.

Be careful! Hot saponified soaps can also be very good soaps. This is the case of "real" soaps from Aleppo or Marseille. But they must be elaborated with quality oils, without chemical intervention and following longer processes than industrial soaps.

Nos produits sont naturels : sans huile de palme, sans parabens, sans EDTA, sans huile minérale, sans parfum synthétique, etc.
Tous les produits sont fabriqués par nos soins, dans notre savonnerie, située dans les Cévennes (sud de la France).
L'enjeu environnemental est notre priorité. Les matières premières utilisées sont issues de l'agriculture raisonnée.
Pour assurer une livraison rapide, toutes les commandes effectuées sur le site sont traitées et livrées en 3-4 jours (France métropolitaine).
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