let’s talk about soap… the history and the Marseille soap

To fully understand the differences between soaps and soaps “apparently” the same, the customer has to learn. It sounds like a joke, and in part it is, but it’s not. You need to know how a soap is made, with what it is produced and what distinguishes one soap from another. Soap can be produced “hot” or “cold”. The soap known as “Marseille soap” (actually born in Italy as can be found further on in the part dedicated to the history of soap) is produced with the “hot” proceeding.

The method followed for the processing of this soap is very ancient and yet still valid and used especially in the medium and small soap industry. For saponification to take place, FATS (which can be animal, vegetable, synthetic, petrochemical) and ALKALI (soda and caustic potash) are required. Obviously, other compounds such as active ingredients, perfumes, dyes, preservatives and / or antioxidants are also used to complete the production. Depending on the type of FAT used, the PROCESSING method and the QUALITY of the ingredients, DIFFERENT SOAPS are obtained. There are SYNTHETIC, PETROCHEMICAL AND NATURAL SOAPS. NATURAL soap can be ANIMAL fat based (eg inci: sodium tallowate) or VEGETABLE fat based (eg inci: sodium palmate, sodium palm kernelate, sodium cocoate); if the soap is made only with VEGETABLE fat, not only is it more precious for the skin, but it is also more expensive and increasingly appreciated by growing segments of the population who reject cosmetic products containing animal ingredients.

The fact that the soap is vegetable is not enough to make a difference, as it depends on what type of oil / fat is used; for example “recycled” or old fats, as an alternative to “virgin” fats give rise to a dark and smelly soap that the manufacturer can disguise with colors or whiteners (eg the TITANIUM DIOXIDE present on many industrial soap labels) and various perfumes. The quantity of fat then affects the richness of the soap and its potential aggressiveness: in fact the fat material gives the “cream effect” to the soap and neutralizes the alkaline part of the soap (soda) which, if present in free form, attacks the skin ( is firm !!!), therefore a soap WITHOUT FREE ALKALI is undoubtedly more suitable for personal hygiene. An extra toilet soap must have around 80% FATTY ACIDS and a percentage of VEGETABLE GLYCERINE.

All these “details” can be identified by carefully reading the ingredient list of the soap. Another method is obviously the visual and tactile one: a soap that in the light – if white – becomes translucent is certainly produced with good quality fats and if the use does not dry the skin, lather abundantly and does not cause dryness and itching is equally considerable well-made. All the active ingredients added during the production phase obviously contribute to the success of a soap, but are complementary.

Furthermore, all Cibe Laboratories products respect animal rights ethics, as they are produced without tests on animals (finished product and raw materials according to the 1998 International Standard) and appreciated by ecological organizations.

The origin of Soap dates back to the 2nd century AD. Its discovery is attributed to the Gauls, who nevertheless used it as a hair pomade or for medicinal purposes and not as a detergent.

The dates and places of birth of hard Soaps and soft Soaps as we know them today are also different: soft soaps have an older origin than hard ones and are a typical production of northern countries, supported by the presence of numerous textile mills. As for hard soaps, according to Ligurian tradition (also mentioned in French sources), instead, the wife of a Savona fisherman obtained soap for the first time in a completely serendipitous and “homemade” way, by boiling some lye of soda in a pot containing Olive Oil: soap is a “salt” obtained from the chemical reaction of an alkali (soda, potash, lime) with a fat (vegetable, mineral or animal oils).

The growth of the soap industry in the coastal cities of the Mediterranean (Savona, Genoa, Venice and Marseille) was therefore aided by the presence of Olive Oil and natural soda obtained from the Ash of Sea Plants (and replaced starting from 1792 by artificial soda thanks the process discovered by the French chemist Leblanc). The first soda soap factories were then established in Liguria and precisely in Savona, where saponification became a flourishing business as far back as the 15th century. In the 17th century, due to the blockade of Italian trade linked to the frequent invasions of the peninsula, the leadership in the soap trade turned to the French: Colbert, minister of Louis XIV (the sun king), summoned the Ligurian soap makers and had soap factories built in Toulouse and Marseille.

Hence the very close bond that still today links soap to Marseille, although, as mentioned, the origins of this noble and ancient product of nature are decidedly closer to us and also… do you think that the assonance between Savona and the French word for soap “savon” is a coincidence?

Reading the history of soap makes you see why the term Marseille has come, over the centuries, to stand for Soap and more broadly, for a natural product for personal and household hygiene.

But in addition to soap, Marseille also brings to mind the typical fragrances of the Provençal tradition: Lemongrass, Lavender, Rosemary and Verbena. Lemongrass, or rather, Lemongrass Essential Oil is indeed the main aromatic ingredient of what used to be commonly referred to as “laundry soap” until a few years ago, while today it is rightly recognised as the natural detergent par excellence: Marseille Soap, recommended by many dermatologists for the personal hygiene of people intolerant to common industrial soaps. In actual fact, over the centuries the production of soap has undergone several changes, especially in the choice of raw materials: natural alkalis derived from marine plants replaced by Leblanc soda in the 18th century and above all the use of noble and virgin Vegetable Oils with a wealth of properties such as Olive, Coconut or Almond Oil, superseded by the more cost-effective introduction of regenerated oils and fats, made possible by the new industrial techniques.

With regard to our production of so-called Marseille soap, we only use new Vegetable Oils as fat, which make it possible to obtain a naturally white soap (therefore titanium dioxide does not appear in the INCI), slightly translucent, without free alkali, with fatty acids around 78-80%. With regard to pH, traditional soap is naturally basic. Thanks to its alkalinity, however, soap hinders the growth of bacteria and moulds. The pH of synthetic soaps (or syndets), on the other hand, whether solid or liquid – more appropriately defined as surfactants – can be set by the formulator, but they are made up of bases that are aggressive for the skin to varying degrees and exert a far more degreasing – hence irritating – action than traditional soap.