Lather, rinse, repeat!

One of the bonds that are said never to break is the bond of friendship. But this bond is not "that" clean, especially in the times when our lives depend on cleanliness. So with that superexcellent segue, let's talk about a bond that helps in cleansing. Imagine it is 2500BC. The construction of the Pyramids is just over. The workers (or maybe aliens...) are tired of working hours. All their blood and sweat has resulted in a monument that people will gaze in awe. They will wonder why and how was this made. With the sweat of the hard work, these people have to wash their hands. And that time they used only water to do so with the occasional addition of mud and sand. This was true until Babylon did the trick and introduced soap to the world.

It might be surprising, but the soap has been a very long time in the market. Research suggests that the global soap market will reach about 22 billion US dollars annually by 2022, and about 13 billion bars of soap are sold in the United States every year.1 Every year the use of soap has ebbed and flowed over the millennia based on both inventions and changes in the convention. The surprising history of soap deserves to be remembered.

Let's get into the element

If you don't like Chemistry… you can skip this section.

Chemically soap is the alkali salt of fatty acid most commonly made by mixing fats and oils with an alkali base in a chemical process called saponification. The unique properties of soap are derived from its molecular structure. A molecule that binds easily with water on one end while the other end bonds easily to oils. Because of this structure, soap cleans in a couple of ways. Many viruses have lipid membranes on the outside that protect the pathogen and contain proteins that allow the pathogen to infect cells. When you wash with soap and water, the ends of soap molecules that avoid water are attracted to oils embed themselves in these membranes, in essence, tearing the pathogen apart. But in water, soap molecules also form structures called micelles. These are tiny balls or bubbles that have ends that are attracted to water on the outside. The other side is attracted to oils. On the inside, these micelles surround grime like dirt, broken up viruses and bacteria which are then rinsed away in the water.

The exterior of the micelle is hydrophilic (attracted to water) and the interior is lipophilic (attracted to oils).

While there are some natural soap like substances usually plant substances that lather in water, they do not have the unique chemical properties of soap. There is a difference between soap and detergent, which is generally made by mixing chemicals in a mixer. While they are similar, detergent is made to be more soluble in water, especially hard water. This is done so that it is less likely to bind to calcium and create soap scum when used in a machine.2

Once upon a time

Now that you know how soap works (if you read the previous part) you will know that soap is straightforward to make. It isn't clear when humans came up with the secret to making soap, but it is a simple enough process, and it could have been discovered by accident. Wood ash is highly alkaline, and so soap might have been found when fat from meat cooking on fire fell into wood ash a drain, and you have soap. The concept of soap is so essential that it has remained almost the same throughout history.

The history of soap is majorly dependent on where you live. There are archaeological pieces of evidence of manufactured soap, found in clay jars in ancient Babylon as early as 2800 BC. A Babylon clay tablet dated 2200 BC provides a recipe for self-using water alkali and Cocina oil which will derive from the bark of an evergreen tree.3 But historians surmise that soap might not have been used for bathing but for the process of textile making. An ancient Egyptian papyrus dated to around 1500 BC describes the making of soap by combining animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts. It suggests the substance be used to treat skin diseases but also for washing.

Despite cultures that embrace bathing and cleanliness, the ancient Greeks and Romans did not generally use soap for personal washing. Instead, they rubbed themselves with pumice or clay and then applied oil. This whole layer then was scraped off with a scraper called a Stijl.4 There is some evidence that Greeks and Romans knew of soap. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder mentioned supo, the Latin word for soap. However, in 77 AD, the substance may not have been saponified and was described as a waxy substance used by Gauls in their hair. The Greek physician Galen may describe soap in the second century AD, including the process by which it was made from lye and suggested it for bathing. There are also references from the 4th century Roman-Egypt. There are many myths and theories about the origins of soap, and it changes with the locations. There is even a myth that soap was discovered in the Roman era when animal fats rendered from animals sacrificed on top of Mount Sapo mixed with ash in a stream, and local women found that the resulting water was better for washing clothes.

A soap for everyone

With the fall of the western Roman empire, the Mediterranean people started using oils in soap. Italy and Spain began to add Castile and olive oil as the oil in the soap that they made. The Indian Civilization used vegetable oils to make soaps. The Chinese and French used animal fats. But all of this being said, soap was still a luxury and only used by the Nobel and high-class people. The public usually bathed in public bathhouses or natural streams. The Catholic Church also supported cleanliness, and they build public bathhouses near the religious and pilgrimage sites.

The video above shows how soap is manufactured in the city of Mysore in India. Apart from the automation, the recipe to make soap has been the same as it was in medieval times. Soap production flourished in the same period in the middle east in the time called Islamic Golden age. They used vegetable and olive oils like others, but they also added scents like Laurel oil and salt. This helped to separate out glycerin. All this made the soap harder than the European soaps. The recipe of this soap was distributed in manuscripts, and people could make their own soap in their houses. These soap making recipes are said to be brought back to Europe by Crusaders. This became the backbone of the soap making process in Europe and led to soaps like Castile soaps and Marseille soaps. These soaps are still produced today.

The imperative for bathing declined in the late middle ages. Part of this is to do with the attitude towards public bathing, but it also represented changes in social norms. This was also the period which saw famines and plagues. The medical personnel in the period dictated that bathing may allow illness or miasma to pass into the body through pores. Soap, of course, was used to wash clothes, but cleansing was limited to the body parts visible after clothing. The extreme example of this was the French King, Louis XIV, who is said to be terrified of baths. He only took them when recommended by his doctors. There is a long-standing belief that he only took three baths in his entire life (which I think is an exaggeration.) He used many perfumes to cover his smell. However, he was very scrupulous about his clothing.

Let’s have a civil war

When soap reached England, it was taken with a big wave of satisfaction. But it, however, created a controversy there. Charles the first tried to raise money in the period of so-called "the personal rule." In this, he sold a patent of the process for making soap. Charles had married Henrietta Maria of France, who was already seen as "too Catholic" by the protestants in England. In addition to this, the royal patent was sold to a company which was overseen by Richard Weston. He was the first Earl of Portland and the Chancellor of the Exchequer which had Catholics on its governing board. The anti-catholic groups were appalled by this and labelled the soap as the "popish soap." Soap was allegedly accused of damaging linen and women's hands but also to scar the soul. Well, this was not the only reason that led to the English Civil war but is one of the starting points in it. This further led to the execution of Charles.

Bathing came back on track in Europe by the end of the 18th Century, but as history repeated, it ran into an obstacle again in England. In 1712, England introduced a soap tax, which mostly helped in the funding of the wars in North America. It produced significant revenues for the crown, but it also tripled the price of a bar of soap. This again made it a luxury item and unaffordable by the public. This tax came at the time when other taxes like the brick tax, the candle tax, the clock tax and the gin tax were imposed. These same taxes were also applied to the American colonies, which led to another costly war: the War for American Independence. The soap tax further drove out many manufacturers and led to smuggling of soap. This tax wasn't taken down until 1853.

Let the sales force be with you

Even after 50 years of the industrial revolution, soap was still manufactured by artisans in small batches using traditional recipes. In 1790 French chemist Nicholas LeBlanc developed soda ash and alcohol from common salt. This was later perfected by Belgian chemist Ernest Solvay. This paved the way for industrial manufacturing of soap and was caught up by the 1850s. Soap later-on became an advent of the industrial revolution and is also said to be the first product to be sold using marketing campaigns. The work of Florence Nightingale in hospitals during the Crimean War demonstrated the importance of hygiene. This popularised washing hands with soap. This was way before the germ theory was widely accepted. Handwashing became a vital tool during this time and was an essential weapon to fight the outbreak of Cholera. Using Nightingale's example, the US sanitary department set up marketing campaigns for handwashing and soap using stating that it can reduce military mortality.

This helped to build an empire of two brothers-in-law. Willaim Procter and James Gamble together got a contract to provide soap to the union. This further led to the establishment of Procter & Gamble, which is now widely known as P&G. When union soldiers went home, they brought the Procter & Gamble products with them, further increasing the marketing of soap and this company. P&G further refined the manufacturing process of soap making and eliminated the need for fats to be boiled together. This increased the speed of production of soaps.

The war of states (Solid vs Liquid)

In 1916, when World War I was in its full force, hygiene was vital. Soap used animal fat oils which went into shortage due to the stoppage of trade. Trench warfare led to the deaths of millions due to lack of hygiene. This made German scientists led by Otto Rohm, look for alternatives to make soap. They further discovered artificially produced, saturated fatty alcohol. This solution can be turned into a soap-like substance, but it was more soluble in water, especially hard water. This is what is not called: Detergents. Many of the soaps that we see today are mostly detergents but sold under a different name. The process to make detergents is still widely used because it is produced using petroleum byproducts. The advent of detergents further led to the popularisation of liquid soap. But it took until the 1990s for it to stabilise and be used as a household product. Soap dispensers led to the popularisation of liquid soaps and usage of it.

This further led to a polarization in people with the usage of soap. The video below can show what the opinion of people is regarding solid or liquid detergent.

Now your turn

Soap has been with us for millennia, but for much of that period, it was used sparingly, principally a luxury item. The widespread use of soaps is still a relatively recent phenomenon, and if you're one of the millions who's just now learning how to properly wash your hands while singing the happy birthday song twice, don't be too hard on yourself. The development of guidelines for washing your hands is a very new phenomenon. It wasn't until foodborne illness outbreaks in the 1980s that the United States Centers for Disease Control created the world's first national hand hygiene guidelines. Wash your hands before doing anything and stay safe in this pandemic.

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Reference links

  1. Liquid Soap Market Size, Share | Global Industry Report, 2019-2025.
  2. What's The Difference Between Soap and Detergent | cleancult.
  3. Poucher’s Perfumes, Cosmetics and Soaps.
  4. A history of Greek fire and gunpowder : J. R. Partington : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive


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