November 3 – In the battle against the coronavirus, we’ve all been advised to handwash regularly with soap to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But have you stopped to think about what soap actually is, where it comes from, and how it’s made?
Click through the following gallery for a fascinating look at the origins of this vital cleansing product.
Soap as an antibacterial substance
Handwashing with soap is critical in the fight against coronavirus. We’ve been advised to scrub all surfaces of the hands for at least 20 seconds, and carry out this procedure several times a day.
What is soap?
Of course, we’ve always used soap, but what is it, where did it come from, and how is it made?
A cleansing agent
Soap is essentially a cleansing agent created by the chemical reaction of a fatty acid with an alkali metal hydroxide. Put more simply, it’s made by mixing fats and oils with a base (for example, clear glycerin).
Soap in antiquity
Humans have used soap for millennia. Ancient writings suggest it was known to the Phoenicians as early as 600 BCE. Apparently, the Romans used it too. But evidence also exists of the production of soap-like materials around 2800 BCE in Babylon.
By the 8th century, soap was being made throughout the Muslim world, and exported from the Levant to Europe. Pictured is the historical part of the soap museum in Sidon, Lebanon.
Early production methods
During these times, soap was made by boiling tallow (an animal fat) or vegetable oils (typically olive oil) with alkali containing wood ashes. Aleppo soap (pictured), still manufactured in Syria today, originally employed this production method.
Arrival in Europe
The Middle Ages saw Europe begin to clean up its act. Soapmaking was already known in Italy and Spain, and by the 15th century the semi-industrialized professional manufacture of soap was taking place in France, notably in Toulon and Marseilles.
Only for the wealthy
Small scale and costly methods of production, plus a negative social attitude towards cleanliness, made soap a luxury item affordable only to the wealthy until the late 18th century.
French chemists Nicolas Leblanc (1742-1806) and Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) are credited with refining the process of soapmaking. This made soap production less expensive and, as people began to take personal hygiene more seriously, soapmaking emerged as an important industry.
The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain prompted large-scale soap production. Low-priced, good quality soap quickly became available.
In 1886, William Hesketh Lever and his brother, James, bought a small soap works in Warrington, Cheshire, and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses in the world, formerly called Lever Brothers and now known as Unilever.
The advent of Lever Brothers and other soap manufacturing businesses ushered in the age of large-scale publicity campaigns. This advertisement for Sunlight household soap recommends it to the housewife by claiming it would make life easier.
Liquid soap wasn’t invented until the 19th century, when a patent was issued in 1865 by William Shepphard for a liquid version of the soap bar.
In 1898, B.J. Johnson developed a soap derived from palm and olive oils; his company, the American B.J. Johnson Soap Company, introduced the “Palmolive” brand soap that same year. It became so popular that he renamed the company Palmolive.
Meanwhile in Europe, companies like Claus & Schweder, founded in 1887 by two Germans living in Portugal, were busily manufacturing soap and perfume. Known today as Claus Porto, the company is present in 50 countries.
Proctor & Gamble
Candlemaker William Procter and soapmaker James Gamble founded Proctor & Gamble (P&G) in 1837. P&G was one of the first soap brands to sponsor radio broadcasts and advertise its products. These took on the form of “soap operas.” Pictured: a P&G advertisement for White Naphtha Soap.
These White Naphtha Soap-sponsored radio broadcasts were later developed into television shows. Today, this format is still referred to as a “soap opera.”
Liquid soap dispenser
In 1978, American entrepreneur Robert Taylor developed the liquid soap dispenser. Later, the Minnetonka Corp. introduced SoftSoap, inspired by Taylor’s pondering the mess that bar soap makes in a dish.
African black soap
Made traditionally from the ash of locally harvested African plants, this soap has become a popular toiletry product in North America due to its benefits on oily and acne-prone skin. It’s often exported through fair trade groups. Pictured: Dudu-Osun, a brand of African black soap. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Made today in a style similar to that originating in the Castile region in Spain way back in the Middle Ages, Castile soap combines 100% pure olive oil with lye and water.
Similarly, Marseille soap or Savon de Marseille is a traditional hard soap made from vegetable oils that has been produced around Marseille, France for about 600 years.
Renowned for its soothing and relaxing properties, chamomile when used in a soap gently nourishes and cleanses the skin.
Floral scents have been used in bath and hand soaps for centuries, and the fragrance of rose is especially timeless. The flower is a classic symbol of love, romance, and beauty, and essential rose oil in soap adds a wonderfully light and romantic touch that is both beguiling and inspirational.
A citrus-scented soap (for example, infused with lemon, orange, or grapefruit) has excellent lather, perhaps because of the sugar in the juice they are made with.
Sandalwood soap is gentle on all skin types, and is known to treat dry and dull skin. It’s also a great moisturizer.
Lavender is one of the most popular fragrance oils used in soap. A delightful scent used for centuries in aromatherapy, perfumes, and medicine, lavender is known for its calming effect on the body.
Charcoal soap is known to be highly beneficial in the treatment of acne. Indeed, soap with activated carbon will also adsorb toxins and remove skin impurities and oils on and below the skin.
Coconut oil soap is an excellent moisturizer for both the skin and the hair. Refreshing and creamy, it contains antibacterial properties that help rid the skin of impurities.
Back to basics
A soap from Portugal, azul e branco (blue and white) soap was popularly used to wash linen, carpets, and floors. Commercial demand for azul e branco has increased recently as the coronavirus outbreak tightens its grip. (Photo: Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Source – Stars Insider