The Definitive History of Soap

The Definitive History of Soap

Soap—that vital part of your daily routine that helps you keep up on your good hygiene, fight off germs, and smell good doing it. Soap is available today in countless varieties. You can find soap in the form of bars, liquids, creams, scented, unscented, exfoliating, and much more. 

Where did it all begin though? How are the soaps we use today different from the types used in ancient times? Or are they more similar than we think? Let’s dig into the history of soap making and how it has evolved over the years.

What Exactly Is Soap?

First, let’s talk about what soap actually is. Soap is a combination of fats, oils, and lye (or “alkali”) which cause a chemical process called saponification. Through saponification, the ingredients become soap as we know it. A hard soap, which is a typical bar of soap, is created when the lye used in the ingredients is sodium hydroxide. To create a soft soap, or liquid form of soap, the lye used would be potassium hydroxide.

Through the years, there have been artificial chemical substitutes invented for these ingredients which are used to form detergents. These are different from what is truly considered a natural soap (we’ll get more into that later). True soap must be formed through the saponification process and there are a few different methods to achieve that.

Hot Process

The hot process is a soap-making method where the ingredients discussed above (fats, oils, and lye) are heated by an external source. Crockpots are commonly used for making hot process soap at home.

The ingredients and recipes needed for hot and cold processes are the same but they result in different finishes. A hot process soap will be a bit more textured and rough than a cold process soap. One benefit from making soap this way is that it can be used immediately after cooling, whereas classic cold process soap has a curing period before it can be used.

Cold Process

The cold process is a method in which soap is saponified at room temperature, without using any heat. Typically, the cold process results in a smoother bar of soap that lasts longer and is of higher quality. Cold process soap is also usually prettier looking because it is easier to adjust the design of the bar during the soap-making process.

In ancient times, crude versions of these processes were used before the official techniques were developed. Ashes, animal fats, and salts were clumsily combined to create soap-like products for cleaning. These probably smelled horrible and didn’t function as well as some of today’s innovations. 

When Was Soap Invented?

Evidence of soap has been found in different areas around the world, dating far back into ancient times. Although the true origin point is debated, we can discuss the various early versions of soaps that have been found in the remains of different civilizations. 

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of using soap that dates back to 2800 BC in Babylon. An ancient Egyptian medical document called “The Ebers” also describes how they learned to combine animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts to create a form of soap used for washing. 

The Sumerians used a combination of ashes and water to clean the grease off of wool before dying it. The oils in the grease on the fabric became soap-like by mixing with the alkaline in the ashes. These are just a few of the earliest found examples of what we know today as soap.

Soap for Washing Clothes

Since soap existed far before the time of the medical resources that gave us our knowledge of germs and bacteria, early uses for soap were focused primarily on cleaning clothes. In fact, during the Middle Ages, people hardly bathed themselves at all. During this time period, it was a widely held belief that bathing led to illness, which was probably a result of the unclean water shared in public baths. 

It took centuries for bathing with soap (as well as bathing in general) to be seen as an appropriate part of a daily routine and necessary for good hygiene. For this reason, soap was not a very common product that people sought out and the versions that did exist most likely smelled terrible.

Soap Makes a Comeback

After a long period of little to no soap usage during the Middle Ages, soap made a comeback around the 17th century. Early medical researchers began to see a connection between using soap and better health. Although it still took some time to convince people that bathing was necessary and good for their health. 

We now know that bacteria live on the oils of our hands and bodies and that hygiene plays a significant role in good health. The oils in soap act as a mediator between the dirty oils on our hands and the water we’re washing with in order to grab the germs and wash the bacteria away.

In its early years of being used regularly, soap gained popularity throughout Europe and was mostly used by the wealthier classes. This is because it was taxed as a luxury item and difficult for the poor to afford. It is also worth noting that during this time period there was no private indoor plumbing. Early bathing tubs were heavy and expensive. Poorer class individuals either attempted to make their own soap at home or just skipped using it altogether.

It wasn’t until 1791 when a man named Nicolas Leblanc invented a new, cheaper way to make soda ash from table salt that soap began to be more available to the general public. Soda ash is sodium carbonate that can be used in place of sodium hydroxide in soap making. His discovery was a big step for the soap-making world toward industrialization of the product and bringing it to the masses. In the 1800s after Leblanc’s discovery, soap became one of the fastest-growing industries in the West.

Soap vs. Detergent

As was the problem with many other resources during World War I and World War II, there was a shortage of animal and vegetable fats—which meant a shortage in soap. It was during this time that chemists invented synthetic chemical substitutes with similar properties to those needed for making soap. 

These chemical substitutes formed liquid detergents, which is what most of the hand, body and laundry soaps we are familiar with today are. Most people call detergents “soap” for the sake of simplicity, but it is important to know the difference. True, natural soap is the product that forms from the saponification process when fats, oils, and alkali are mixed.

Handmade, Natural Soaps of Today

The invention and introduction of chemicals allowed many products, including soap, to be made faster and cheaper. As we know now though, chemical additives do not always make a product better. 

Bubbly Belle likes to keep things natural with handmade, vegan soaps that only contain good-for-you ingredients. Essential oils and coconut oil are just a couple of our favorite things to use to create a high-quality product that is truly natural soap (not detergent). 

Bath Bombs

Our favorite part of the history of soap making is the evolution into modern-day products. 

Enter: the bath bomb. Bath bombs are soap’s cooler cousin. They offer the same benefits as a soap but in a fun, colorful, and amazingly aromatic way. Here are just a few other reasons why we love bath bombs and think they’re the best version of soap.

Nourishing Ingredients

A big improvement from the modernization of soap making is that we’re able to add ingredients that your skin will love. Essential oils and moisturizers like coconut butter are just a few examples of things you’ll find in a bath bomb. It’s not just about getting clean anymore (although that is important!). It’s about having a relaxing and fun time in the bath. 

Soak It Up!

Bath bombs make for a great soap option because they allow you to soak in all their luxurious goodness. Sit back and soak up the benefits of essential oils. You’ll come out of the bath super clean with glowing, moisturized skin. Much different than the soaps and bathing experiences of the Middle Ages!


Now that you know a bit of the history behind soap making, you can appreciate how far we’ve come the next time you’re soaking in a bathtub that’s bursting with scented bath bombs and soapy suds. We’re thankful the days of the Dark Ages are long gone!

Soap made through the process of saponification is different from the chemical, liquid detergents that are so common today. We think “old-fashioned” cold process soap bars and modern bath bombs are both a great way to appreciate the history of soap making while also enjoying a relaxing, luxurious bath experience. 


Soaps & Detergents History | Cleaning Institute 

The history of soapmaking - OpenLearn | Open University 

Dissecting the cause of the Black Death | Genome

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