History of Bar Soap
We as people take personal hygiene with pride, whether it takes you three hours to get ready each morning or you simply hop in and out of the shower. Whatever your routine may be, soap should be an integral part of your day-to-day.
Have you ever stopped to wonder how it got here? Is the soap you hold in your hand the same as the soap used thousands of years ago?
You may be surprised at how rich soap’s history is. In this short guide on the history of soap making, we’ll go over soap’s storied past, from its earliest beginnings to the present day innovations that go into our own vegan Natural Bar Soap.
Origin Of Soap: When Was Bar Soap Invented?
What is bar soap made of? The modern soap recipe needs just two ingredients: lye and oil. However, the earliest recorded recipe for soap was found on a tablet in ancient Babylon, dating from 2200 BC. It consisted of three basic ingredients: water, an alkali and the oil of Cassia.
That’s right—some of the very first soap recipes also contained aromatic oils!
A more recent Babylonian recipe dating from 556-539 BC contained ash, Cypress and Sesame oil. Soap was also mentioned by the ancient Egyptians in their texts dating from 1550 BC and appears in the Bible in Jeremiah 2:22 and Malachi 3:2.
With all of the information archaeologists have uncovered, it is assumed that soap was invented in the Middle East.
Soap In Ancient Rome & Europe
Much later in the second century AD, the Roman Empire had not adopted soap as their main method of cleansing. The Romans preferred to soak in oils, which they then removed by scraping off before bathing in water.
However, there is some evidence that soap was already on the horizon. Ancient Greek physician Galen recommends “sapo” over oil to:
Whether this sapo included lye and fat or actually referred to sodium bicarbonate (closer to baking soda) is lost to history. Either way, the needle of progress was moving mankind closer to modern-day soaps.
However, soapmaking did not take off in Europe until around the seventh century.
Italy and Spain were some of the primary soap producers of Europe, making their soaps with alkali and goat fat. Much of the world at the time used alkali and vegetable oils.
The common sentiment was that European soaps had an unpleasant aroma. Thus, soap was often imported from the Middle East. There, essential oils and other perfumes gave the soap a pleasant aroma.
It would be centuries more before soapmaking took over the world.
The Rise Of Soapmaking In England
In England, soap was somewhat foreign in the middle ages. A 12th-century British chronicler from this time, John of Wallingford, recorded that he disapproved of immigrants who bathed, combed their hair and changed their clothes every day. Needless to say, bathing was not as popular as it is today!
Other British chroniclers record the emergence of soapmakers in Bristol in 1192 and later in 1562-1642.
The need for cleanliness in England eventually became critical due to a lack of sanitation, rampant disease and unclean water.
Once it was understood that hygiene played a large part in preventing disease and general health issues, soap became a commodity.
The emerging success of the soap industry was noticed by Queen Anne in 1712, who placed a tax on soaps. It wasn’t until 1852 that the soap duty was disbanded as even greater concern was placed on cleanliness.
One of the first major soapmakers was Andrew Pears, who created a clear glycerin soap that had the aroma of an English garden.
Other prominent soapmakers of the time and even to this day were the Lever Brothers, who would later change their company name to Unilever.
Soon, with the rise of global trade, soap expanded into almost every home in every corner of the world.
By the beginning of the 20th century, soap production and soap manufacturing processes made it easier than ever to produce safe, consistent lye that could be mixed with fats of all kinds—animal fats and vegetable oils—to create moisturizing, fragrant soap.
It wasn’t until the first surfactant was created during World War I that soap had a real competitor. Synthetic surfactants, aka synthetic detergents, are an artificially produced cleaning product.
To this day, the FDA defines soap as made from lye (alkali). If you want to learn more about what lye is used for, check out our guide called What Is Lye.
Soap Making Methods
Soap can be made through two methods:
Hot process soap – An external heat source is applied to a mixture of lye and fat to speed up the chemical reaction.
Cold process soap – Lye and oil are mixed at a cold temperature. This way, the heat won’t degrade the oil or any additives like volatile essential oil.
These ingredients combined haven’t gone out of style for thousands of years, which is why we kept the integrity of soap history intact by choosing to make our natural bar soaps with the same ingredients. We “superfat” our soap and store it for several months to ensure the lye solution in our handmade soap is fully processed and that no trace remains in the finished product.
Why has this simple formula been so successful throughout the evolution of soap?
Perhaps it was the way that natural soap cleans dirt and grime so much better than simply rinsing in water, or the effect that soap has on the skin that made millions of people for thousands of years choose to use soap before they even understood the science behind it.
Whatever the reason, the next time you wash with solid soap or even liquid soap, such as detergent or body wash, you can thank your soap maker ancestors for choosing to make homemade soap.
We hope you enjoyed these fun facts about soap as much as we did!
- Draelos, Zoe Diana. Cosmetic Dermatology: Products and Procedures. John Wiley and Sons, 2015.
- Pearse, Roger. “Galen on the Origins of Soap.” Roger Pearse, 12 January 2015, https://www.roger-pearse.com/weblog/2015/01/12/galen-on-the-origins-of-soap-and-the-perils-of-hearsay/
- Whittock, Martyn. A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages. London: Constable & Robinson LTD, 2009.
- Hunt, John A. “A Short History of Soap.” Pharmaceutical Journal 1 December 199. https://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/opinion/comment/a-short-history-of-soap/20066753.article?firstPass=false