In this story, fat is good for you. About 4,000 years before cleanliness and health were associated, animal fat was valued as the basis for soap. According to ancient Roman legend, soap was discovered fortuitously when rain washed together spilled animal fat and wood ashes. The result was used to wash clothing and skin. But it wasn't until the late 18th century that bathing was widely regarded as a healthful regimen (albeit annually or monthly), and soap became a treasured household item.
Modern soap makers -- who are equal parts chemist, nutritionist, and perfumer -- make complex bars to suit skin-care and aromatherapy needs.
Colonial and pioneer women alike stirred up annual batches of crude and caustic stuff that was great for scrubbing stains from clothes and satisfied a range of household uses, but was typically harsh on skin.
The industrial age changed the nature of soap making as well as the product. The factories of giant manufacturers took over the hard work of making soap and turned it into an automated process that used synthetic ingredients and petroleum derivatives. The early cakes of Ivory and Cashmere Bouquet gave rise to deodorant bars and laundry soaps. More recently, liquid soaps evolved for the sake of convenience, while antibacterial products address modern sanitation concerns. "Soap making has journeyed full circle through history, from individual production to mass production and now it's returning to individual production," writes Sandy Maine, the author of The Soap Book (Interweave Press, 1995) and a soap maker for 20 years.
During its colorful history, soap has been an oddity, a luxury, and a necessity. Generations have shared the wisdom that soap and water work together to clean in a way that water alone cannot. All soap results from the chemical reaction between animal fat or plant oil and an alkali, such as lye (sodium hydroxide). But soaps differ, depending on how they're made and the quality of their ingredients.
Considerable creativity goes into crafting soap for sophisticated consumers and their skin types. There's more demand than ever for all-botanical bars rich in vegetable oils, fragrance, and nutrients for the skin.
Lately, the choices in specialty soaps have multiplied so vastly that you could easily select a different bar each day of the year. Soap options can get complicated depending on whether you aim to wash hands or body, bolster health or beauty, or simply derive pleasure.
Savvy soap makers combine oils and other ingredients with the qualities of a finished bar in mind. For instance, palm oil makes soap harder, and coconut oil produces big bubbles, but these ingredients can dry out skin. Combining these oils with olive oil, an emollient and humectant, results in a better product. Soap makers add other enhancements and essential oils to their soaps to address different skin types -- they even make unscented bars.
How do you select the best soap for you? "Use your instincts," says soap maker Cynthia Mayer, creator of Cynthia's Soap in New York. "Smell it, feel it, and check out your emotional reaction to it." Read the label for information on ingredients or how the soap was made.
Gourmet GoodiesModern soaps are much less crude and caustic than ingenerations past.
Sandy Maine, a leader of the soap renaissance, began her SunFeather Natural Soap Co. in Maine 20 years ago with what she describes as a "perfect" batch of soap: "The cakes were creamy white; they lathered beautifully, rinsed off easily, and left my skin feeling exceptionally soft and supple."
Now, demand for once-scarce, all-vegetable-oil soaps has spurred a resurgence of homemade products. Handcrafted soaps are widely available in grocery stores, department stores, and boutiques. The latest development: fast-growing chains of hip soap delis. They tempt you to buy slices of delicious-sounding soap from bulky loaves that boast ingredients such as yogurt, fresh fruit, exotic essential oils, and aromatic spices.
Whatever Makes You Happy
In an increasingly competitive industry, soap makers have turned ingredients into selling points. Like her contemporaries, New York soap maker Cynthia Mayer caters to demand for all-botanical soaps with wholesome ingredients, such as rich cocoa butter, skin-healing aloe vera, and wrinkle-fighting vitamin E. Her Cleopatra Soap includes goat's milk and honey, both enriching and soothing components that appeal to her customers with eczema (dry, red skin patches). Her Sea Spa Soap, a popular treatment for oily skin and acne, has a dual purpose: It contains seaweed and minerals for gentle cleansing, and it offers an invigorating blend of basil, eucalyptus, and mint essential oils.
No longer marketed as gifts for others or luxuries for special occasions, gourmet soaps provide an everyday skin treat for those who appreciate the careful blends. At $4 to $5 a bar, handcrafted soaps may cost more because their ingredients are more costly. While exquisite packaging may entice you, make sure you're paying for quality soap, not just wrapping. "Quality soap looks good, smells great, and feels wonderful," Maine says.
Each of the ingredients in soap gives the finished product special qualities.
Animal fat (from cows, pigs, and horses):
Hard to the touch, mild to skin; small bubbles
- Olive oil: Humectant, emollient (draws moisture into skin, holds it there); mild; hard; lathers quickly, profusely; long-lasting
- Coconut oil: Hard, drying; good partner for olive oil; rich lather; big bubbles
- Palm oil: Very mild but drying; luxurious, long-lasting bubbles
- Apricot kernel oil: Adds vitamins, minerals; skin-softening; good for sensitive skin
- Avocado oil: Contains vitamins, proteins, other nutrients; benefits dry skin, eczema
- Sweet almond oil: Adds vitamins, protein; skin-softening; gentle
- Glycerin: Natural byproduct of the soap-making process that remains in many soaps -- other bars contain mostly glycerin; soothing, emollient
- Aloe vera: Plant gel; beneficial for chapped skin, eczema, burns
- Cocoa butter: Rich emollient; adds stability, hardness to soap; creamy lather; softens skin
- Milk (goat's milk, buttermilk): Makes creamy, rich lather; skin-smoothing, softening; good for eczema
- Botanicals (herbs, flowers, seeds, fruits, vegetables): Add texture, fragrance; provide nutrients, promote healing
- Earth products (clay, pumice, oatmeal, bran): abrasives
- Essential oils (pure essences of plants): Aromatherapeutic effects (enhance health, well-being); differ from synthetic fragrances