What Is Natural Soap?

Savon de MarseilleThe market for solid soaps has grown over the past years and it has become increasingly popular to have a decorative and natural-looking soap in the bathroom. But how do you know that the soap you buy truly is good for the skin? How do you distinguish a good, skin nourishing soap from the ones that dries out your skin? What should you look for when you choose a bar of soap?

Olive oil soaps have been produced for many centuries in the regions surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and been widely famous for their gentleness and rehydrating properties. During the 20th century, soap making became more and more industrialized. The production process was altered to cut the costs and the ingredients were changed for cheaper alternatives, to the extent that in the 70s and 80s, soap got a bad reputation. Instead, liquid hand washes was introduced and sold with the argument: "Does not contain soap". But the new liquid "soaps" were considerably more dehydrating for the skin than a real, traditional soap.

Today there are three types of soap productions, the industrial production that dominates the market, a limited number of manufactures of traditional olive oil soap and small local producers of artisan soap. The mildness and moisturizing properties of a soap depends on several things. Most important is the type of fat used to produce the soap. Fats like palm oil and tallow, common in many industrial soaps, are rich in lauric acid, which result in a very hard soap with lots of lather, but that cleans so effectively that it washes away the skin's lipid barrier. Other things that affect a soap's mildness are if the glycerin formed during the soap production is removed from the soap or not and if the soap is produced with more fat than is converted to soap, so-called superfatted soap. Artisan soaps are usually superfatted and the glycerin is left in the soap, which makes them immensely milder than industrially produced liquid "soaps" without soap.


How Soap Is Made

Soap is made through a chemical reaction between oil or other fats and lye (sodium hydroxide). The reaction is called saponification and results in sodium salts of the fatty acids present in the oil, which are natural surfactants. Additionally in the process, moisturizing glycerin is released. In principle there are three different methods to produce hard soap; traditional, industrial and artisanal.

Saponification of oil

Soap Traditionally Boiled in Cauldron

Original soap such as Marseille soap from France, Castile soap from Spain and Aleppo soap from Syria were made from pure olive oil, or alternatively olive oil + laurel berry oil and boiled in big cauldrons. After the saponification finished, the soap mass was washed with salt water to get rid of remaining caustic lye. Then the soap was poured out on big floor surfaces to set, cut into pieces, stamped and left to dry for long periods. In northern Europe, soap was traditionally made from available fats, most often tallow, i.e. beef fat, which made for a harsher soap than olive oil. Even today, tallow is one of the most common ingredients in industrial soap (INCI name: sodium tallowate).

Real Marseille soap, Veritable Savon de Marseille, is still boiled in cauldrons. However, the olive oil is nowadays always diluted with up to 30% coconut oil. In fact, there are only a few producers still making Marseille soap the way it should be made. Most producers are mixing in cheap palm oil into the soap and use various techniques to shorten the production time. The soap is often pulverized immediately after production to dry quickly and pressed into molds afterwards. More about how to recognize a Veritable Savon de Marseille later.

Real Aleppo soap, on the other hand, is still produced according to traditional methods, from cold-pressed olive and laurel berry oil. The amount of laurel berry oil can vary between 0-40%. Laurel berry oil is considered to have special antibacterial properties and the higher the content, the finer and more precious the soap. Aleppo soap is left to dry for 9-10 months after the production before it is sold, which makes it very gentle to the skin. In fact, it continues to grow milder with age and a 10-year-old Aleppo soap is therefore highly regarded.

Traditional olive oil soaps are mild mainly due to the high content of olive oil. Saponified olive oil is a much gentler cleanser than saponified tallow and palm oil, which are so efficient that they clean away the skin's protective oil barrier and therefore dries out the skin. On the other hand, the traditional soaps are not superfatted and contains only trace amounts of glycerin since most of it is removed with the salt water wash. Marseille soap was traditionally used not only for personal hygiene, but also for laundry and cleaning. Real Marseille soap should not contain unsaponified oils.


Industrially Processed Soap

Today's industrial production of hard soap is not really saponification in the classical sense since the oils are first split into fatty acids and glycerin with the help of high steam pressure. The glycerin is valuable and therefore removed from the process and used for other things. The fatty acids are purified and neutralized with sodium hydroxide to form soap surfactants. The whole process is continuous to save time and decrease losses. The leftover sodium hydroxide is recycled back into the process. After the formation of soap surfactants, the usual process is the formation of soap chips. The soap chips are then milled, mixed with various additives and pressed into different shapes to form regular soap bars.


Modern Handcrafted Artisanal Soap - Cold and Hot Processed

Handmade organic soap-on-a-rope
Cold processed soaps on a rope from Malin i Ratan.

Natural soap is made by hand on a small scale and either by cold or hot process. In both processes, fats and oiIs are mixed with the lye and vigorously stirred, usually with a stick blender, until the mass thickens and emulsifies. After that, cold processed soap is directly poured into molds, left to set for a day or two before it is cut in slices and then left to cure for 4-6 weeks for the saponification process to finish. Hot processed soap is slow cooked for several hours before it is poured into molds, but after it has set for a day it is more or less ready to use, even if it could use a couple of days to dry properly.


How Do You Recognize a Natural Soap?

There is no easy way to be certain a soap is natural. You have to look at both the appearance of the soap, such as its shape and color, as well as the ingredient list. The fact that a soap is organic does not say anything about how it is made. A non-organic handcrafted soap is a much better product than an industrially produced soap made from organic ingredients.

The Content

A natural soap generally has fewer ingredients than industrially produced soaps, though they can be described in one of two ways. Either with the INCI names or by naming the original oils the soap was made from. The content in a soap made from canola oil, sunflower oil and olive oil without any other additions can thus be described as: 

  • Sodium Canolate, Sodium Sunflowerate, Sodium Olivate, Glycerin, Aqua
  • Saponified canola oil, Saponified sunflower oil, Saponified olive oil, Glycerin from the saponification, Water

Which Fats and Oils is the Soap Made from? 

Even if it is possible to make handmade soap from tallow or palm oil, it is unusual, so be attentive and avoid soaps which content lists starts with any the following ingredients:

  • Sodium Tallowate
  • Sodium Palmate
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate

More Names of Saponified Oils, INCI

Soap SurfactantOriginal Oil / Fat
Sodium Almondate Almond Oil
Sodium Apricot Kernelate Aprikot Kernel Oil
Sodium Arganate Argan Oil
Sodium Avocadate Avocado Oil
Sodium Babassate Babassu Oil
Sodium Boragate Borage Oil
Sodium Canolate Canola Oil
Sodium Castorate / Ricinoleate Castor Oil
Sodium Cocoa Butterate Cacao Butter
Sodium Cocoate Coconut Oil
Sodium Cornate Corn Oil
Sodium Cottonseedate Cotton Seed Oil
Sodium Emuate Emu Oil
Sodium Grapeseedate Grape Seed Oil
Sodium Hempseedate Hemp Oil
Sodium Hazelnutate Hazelnut Oil
Sodium Jojobate Jojoba Oil
Sodium Lardate Lard
Sodium Laurelate Laurel Berry Oil
Sodium Linseedate Linseed / Flaxseed Oil
Sodium Macadamiate Macadamianut Oil
Sodium Mango Butterate Mango Butter
Sodium Mustardate Mustard Oil
Sodium Olivate Olive Oil
Sodium Palmate Palm Oil
Sodium Palm Kernelate Palm Kernel Oil
Sodium Peach Kernelate Pech Kernel Oil
Sodium Peanutate Peanut Oil
Sodium Ricate Rice Bran Oil
Sodium Rose Hip Seedate Rose Hip Oil
Sodium Safflowerate Safflower Oil
Sodium Sesamate Sesame Oil
Sodium Shea Butterate Shea Butter
Sodium Soybeanate Soybean Oil
Sodium Sunflowerate Sunflower Oil
Sodium Tallowate Tallow
Sodium Walnutate Walnut Oil
Sodium Wheatgermate Wheat Germ Oil


Other Ingredients

Non-natural soaps
At first glance, these bars of soap in soft colors might seem genuine, but take a closer look and you see that they are individually molded or pressed and not cut. The color seems opaque and above all, the content list reveals that these soaps are made from Sodium Palmate and Sodium Palm Kernelate and a long list of other additives such as Tetrasodium EDTA, Tetrasodium Etidronate and Titanium Dioxide.

Handcrafted soaps are most often superfatted which makes them amazingly moisturizing but also reduces the shelf life since the non-saponified oils eventually go rancid. While a Savon de Marseille or Aleppo soap only gets better and milder with time, a cold or hot processed soap has best before date of 1-2 years depending on the oils used in the soap. Additions of natural antioxidants such as rosemary leaf extract (Rosemary Oleoresin) and grapefruit seed extract, prolong the shelf life.

Glycerin is always left in a cold processed soap. The same is true for a hot processed soap that has not been washed after the saponification. However, you cannot tell the production process from the presence of glycerin in the list of ingredients. In industial soap, glycerin is sometimes added back to the soap afterwards and, even that is not the case, it is usually listed among the ingredients since the soap contains trace amounts of glycerin from the production.

Industrial soap generally has a very long list of ingredients and maybe the easiest way to tell if a soap is natural or not is from what it should not contain:

  • Tetrasodium EDTA
  • Tetrasodium Etidronate
  • Titanium Dioxide 
  • Tetrasodium Glutamate Diacetate
  • Potassium Sorbate
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • BHT
  • Chemical colorants

Additives in natural soap can be essential oils, herbal extracts, natural exfoliators, clays and unsaponified fats and oils.

The Shape

Naturally colored soap
Handmade cold processed soaps from Malin i Ratan and Savonnerie Canola, naturally colored with calendula leaves, indigo and red clay, respectively. Note the straight, sharp edges and that one side is irregular and rugged, typical for soaps made in loaf molds and cut in slices.

Handcrafted soaps are most often, but not always, made in loaf molds and sliced, leaving one side irregular. Sometimes though, they are made in separate molds or in a grid mold but usually still have one irregular side and almost never have round sides all around like bar soaps from Dove or Palmolive.

The Color

A handmade soap is almost never completely opaque and snow-white but slightly transparent if you hold if against the light. The natural color varies between different shades of creamy yellow, light brown and olive green but are always a bit muffled. Very bright colors is a warning sign that the soap, even if it is hand-made, might contain unnatural colorants or colored Mica. Is the soap colored, read carefully and check if the colorants are natural. Natural colorants can be indigo and woad (blue), turmeric, calendula flowers, annatto seeds (yellow, orange), chlorophyll and spirulina (green), clay (red, green, yellow, brown, blue, pink or purple) activated charcoal (black) or powder of various vegetables such as paprika, red beets and carrots.

The Consistency

Artisan soap is normally softer than both industrial and traditional soap and has a slightly greasy feel when you touch it. This is due to the superfat level and high glycerin content. 

The Packaging

Soap on a  market in Marseille
Brightly colored soaps on a market in Marseille. A card states that the soaps are made from 100% vegetable oils. Otherwise, there is no information regarding content or production method, which makes you suspect that this most likely are soap chips soaps.

Remember that artisan soap makers are proud over their soap and its content and readily points out the production method with words like handmade or cold processed on the packaging and are clear on the ingredients. 

If you have a hard time finding information about the production method and the content, for example on soaps sold on markets without packaging, usually something is not right. Then it is likely soaps made from cheap soap chips from China. 


How Do You Recognize a Veritable Savon de Marseille or Genuine Aleppo soap?

Savon de Marseille

Marseille soap from Savonnerie Marius Fabre
Veritable Savon de Marseille from Savonnerie Marius Fabre, here as the classical 400g cube with stamp marks on all sides.

Marseille soap is not a protected name and does not even need to be made in France. Not many traditional makers of genuine Marseille soap (Veritable savon de Marseille) are left today. Unfortunately, most producers have cut the costs in the production by mixing in palm oil and other additives and by pulverizing the soap to speed up the drying process. Especially watch out for Marseille soaps claiming olive oil on the label but in the contents lists Olea Europaea, the INCI name for olive oil, far down among the ingredients. It means the soap is not made from olive oil at all but that a small amount of olive oil has been added to the final soap the fool the customers. 

The ingredients in Savon de Marseille should be these and nothing else: Sodium olivate, Sodium cocoate, Aqua, Sodium chloride, Sodium hydroxide

Marseille soap should contain at least 72% oil but contains today besides olive oil up to 30% coconut oil (out of the 72%) but should under no circumstances contain palm oil, preservatives, EDTA etc.

The color is a pale olive green and color variations from soap to soap is a sign of genuineness since the color of olive oil vary by season.

Marius Fabre is one of few savonneries (soap makers) that still makes Marseille soap according to traditional methods. But check the content, they also make cheaper soaps. Another interesting savonnerie is Alepia, although not localized in Marseille but outside of Paris. They make so-called antique Marseille soap, entirely from olive oil using altogether traditional methods.

Aleppo soap

Aleppo soap
Genuine Aleppo soap has very sharp edges with a sunk in middle and is always stamped with the soap makers name in Arabic letters. The color is brown but the shade can vary depending on the drying time and from batch to batch. If cut in the middle it should reveal a brightly green inside.

Genuine Aleppo soap can be hard to find as many soap makers have been forced to flee the war in Syria. Aleppo soap is the origin of all the European olive oil soaps and the content is very similar to a genuine Marseille soap.

The ingredients should be: Sodium olivate, Sodium laurate, Aqua, Sodium hydroxide (sometimes also mentioning Sodium chloride and Glycerin)

Genuine Aleppo soap has a brown shade, darker the higher the content of laurel berry oil. If you cut it, the inside should be bright green. The long drying time of 9-10 months makes the Aleppo soap shrink in the middle which gives a particular look with curved edges. It should also bear a stamp on one side with the soap makers name in Arabic.

Najel makes traditional Aleppo soap in Syria with control over the whole production process, from growing of the olives and laurel berries to final soap. Alepia both sells imported traditional Syrian produced Aleppo soap as well as has their own production in France, traditionally made by a Syrian soap maker, forced to leave Syria because of the war. Marius Fabre sells imported Aleppo soap containing 3% and 30% laurel berry oil, traditionally made in Syria by a Syrian soap maker, but they also sell their own non-traditional olive oil and laurel berry oil soap containing palm oil and palm kernel oil, so be careful and always read the list of ingredients.

Read more about Soap and other Surfactants