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A brief history of soap

We've been pioneering new methods in soap production from our beginnings...

Soap has a long and chequered history with mentions stretching through the Old Testament, ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire - the earliest soaps being simple mixes of oils with fire ash, clay or sand. Although soap making developed gradually, it has remained largely based around the same process: boiling oils and fats with an alkali to produce soap and glycerine. Historically, the fats used were mostly beef or sheep tallow, with olive oil, palm and coconut joining the list later - though animal tallow remains a common source material even today. This type of soap has two main functions: it decreases the surface tension of water and it binds to dirt, grease and bacteria.

By the late 18th century, advertising campaigns in Europe and the United States promoted popular awareness of the relationship between cleanliness and health, which lead to universal use of soap. However, until the industrial revolution soap making was conducted on a small scale and the product was rough. This changed in 1886, when James and William Lever bought a small soap works in Warrington, and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, formerly called Lever Brothers and now called Unilever. Food shortages during the first world war meant that oils and fats for soap were limited, which led to the development of the first chemical alternatives. Known as detergent, they were made from surfactants and additives. These ‘modern’ alternatives took off and by the 1950s detergent sales outstripped sales of traditional soap.

Over the last decade, liquid soaps have become increasingly popular - especially those containing antibacterial agents like Triclosan, which is currently being reviewed by the US Food and Drugs Administration to discover if it is effective - or even harmful. There are fears that overuse could increase antibiotic resistance - and scientific evidence suggests it’s an unnecessary ingredient as soaps are inherently antibacterial by nature.

Perhaps this explains why solid soap is slowly but surely making a comeback: A report by market research firm Mintel found that sales of soap bars increased by 4.7% in 2011, which is double the growth of liquid soaps and body wash.

The way that we make our soap has changed over the years. First we found a way to make it without animal fat, then without palm oil, and now without petrochemicals.

Lush co-founder Mo Constantine first started making soap for Constantine & Weir, the natural beauty company, founded in 1977 by Mark Constantine and beautician Liz Weir. By the 1980s Constantine & Weir was supplying The Body Shop with some of their most popular products. Mo had always been passionate about soap, so when she and Mark, along with Liz, Rowena and Helen, founded Cosmetics to Go in 1988, she began working with cosmetic chemist, Stan Krysztal, to develop some exciting new soaps.

There were two main methods of making the Cosmetics to Go soaps. The first was a traditional cold method, which involved stirring all the ingredients together into a paste, before adding heavy ingredients like fruit, pumice or even sand into the mix.

The second type of soap was made using a hot method. Mo and Stan worked together to develop a liquid soap mix that could be poured into moulds, and could hold ingredients like essential oils, decorations and various powders to benefit the skin.

Soap has a long and chequered history with mentions stretching through the Old Testament, ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire.

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