Legend has it that around 2,500 years ago, along the banks of the river Tiber, on the lower slopes of mythical Mt. Sapo, handmaidens would wash clothes. Upstream was a temple, the site of ritual animal sacrifice. On days following rain, maidens noticed the river water produced whitish clumps. When fabrics were rubbed with the clumps, the whites were whiter and the colors were brighter. Legend continues that upstream, rainwater mixed with ashes and melted fats from the sacrificed animals, forming a natural soap. The maidens were the unwitting beneficiaries.
Lye, fat and water give five parts soap, one part glycerin. Glycerin is a natural emollient and an important part of soap. In modern commercial soap making processes, glycerin is removed and sold as a by-product, leaving the resulting “soap” harsh and lacking the skin-softening character of natural soaps.
Soap requires but three ingredients: water, alkali and fat such as vegetable oil or animal tallow, combined properly in the natural process of saponification.
Alkaline lye leaches easily from wood ash. Combine with some fat and rainwater and making soap is as easy as falling off a mountain. Various cultures have been using soap-like salves for thousands of years.
Detergent or Soap?
Soap was usually made at home until the late 1800s. Specialty soaps were made in small batches by vendors and commercial soaps emerged later. But as we entered the Age of Petroleum and World War 1, oils of all kinds were valuable for war. That is when we started a trend toward detergents. Commercial soaps on the market today are usually more detergent than soap.
A detergent uses synthetic ingredients and the process includes acids, alcohols and benzenes. For decades, the detergent industry produced cleaning agents that were too harsh for skin and didn’t biodegrade at all. Now, however, most common household soaps are actually detergents; including the ones you bathe with. Ironically, high-priced luxury soaps have to have glycerin added to them to protect and nourish the skin.
One good thing about detergents is that they lather better than soap in hard water. Soap curdles minerals in hard water and leaves what we call “bathtub ring.” Modern housewives hated that, so detergents became popular.
Detergent actually works too well. Detergent can remove our natural skin oils but a natural soap can still get you clean without stripping away nature’s armor.
Less is more
Soap is simple. Read ingredients on a bar of Kirk’s Coco Hardwater Castile and you see soda ash (alkali), coconut oil (fat) and water.
Then take a look at the ingredient list for a bar of Dial hand soap (just to pick one brand) and find things like triclocarban, sodium tallowate, sodium palmate, sodium cocoate, palm kernelate; 2,6-Di-t-butyl-p-cresol, PEG-6 methyl ether, fragrance, glycerin, titanium dioxide, tetrasodium etidronate, pentasodium pentetate and other junk. Sure, we may have made some improvements over the years in how to produce soap. I’m just not sure that adding all those chemicals is an improvement; especially when it comes from a company that is ultimately concerned with the bottom line.
In addition to Kirk’s, an example of a simple soap that does a good job is the famous Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Castile Soap. Once again the ingredients are simple. The label, however, is not.
Dr. Bronner, who died in 1997, was a third generation master soapmaker from Germany who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s. His soaps are made simply and gained popularity with the hippie generation of the 1960s. Like so many natural products and practices of that era, they finally found respect from a generation of Baby Boomers looking for healthier habits.
Bronner’s philosophy was as simple as his soap. “All children of Spaceship Earth are One,” he wrote. The labels on his liquid soap bottles were filled with quotes exhorting customers to follow the “Moral ABCs” as he called them. Quoting from Jesus, Thomas Paine, Essene scrolls, Einstein and many others, his labels were a trip to read. They still are. What’s more, his soap is pure and multi-purpose.
Castilian influence Castile soaps are technically ones that are derived from olive oil as a base fat. In general use, however, it has come to mean derived from plant oils, not animal. They also retain the natural glycerin that forms in the saponification process. They have an emollient effect and are non-detergent. They spare the natural oils of the body while cleaning thoroughly. Added to the soap is pure, natural peppermint oil. Bronner’s also comes with eucalyptus oil, almond oil or other. The original style was as a liquid but bars are also available.
Bronner’s soap labels claim it can be used as everything from a body wash, shampoo, shave soap, massage lotion, tooth brushing and more. Always, he cautions to “Dilute! Dilute! OK!”
I must admit that there were some things I was skeptical of when I first started using Dr. Bronner’s. Since then, I have gone on to use it as a great shampoo and a multi-purpose soap around the house. The last challenge was when I forgot toothpaste on a camping trip. The label was right. A couple of drops on the brush and your mouth feels clean and fresh.
Natural soaps are real soaps and not a concoction of chemicals that leave your hands burning and smelly. They are usually cheaper, have far less ecological impact and are likely healthier for the user, too. In addition to Bronner’s and Kirk’s, there are small-batch handmade soaps that are all-natural. Choosing an alternative wisely will allow you to come clean without chemicals.
Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as a source of information, not as medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at www.HeartlandHealing.com