A short history of soap

A Short History of Soap

The strigil, perfumed oils, and fresh flowers or a soap, what do you prefer?

Beauty begins in the bath; no doubt about that. Millennium-old ritual herbal bathing in natural fragrances and perfumed oils, butters, and fresh flowers and using the strigil (a metal tool used to scrape the skin) was not just a soothing, cleansing, and cosmetic affair (just think about ancient Egypt, Greece, Roman Empire, Turkish baths, Moroccan bath); it was also very important therapeutic applications to their body skin and spirit. It was relief for people suffering from headaches, stress, and chronic skin problems. According to Dr. J.A. Hunt “There is no clear evidence that the use of soap for personal hygiene pre-dates the Christian era” (J.A. Hunt, The Pharmaceutical Journal; 1999). Dr. Hunt stated: “In classical times, perfumed oils were in extensive use for bathing and were combined with the use of the strigil, a metal implement used to scrape the skin free of oil and dirt. It is claimed that, for washing themselves, the Romans used a type of clay found near Rome called “sapo” from which the word soap is derived. An alternative suggestion for the derivation of the name is that the Romans learned the art of soap-making, using animal fats and plant ashes, from the Celts, who called it “saipo” (J.A. Hunt, The Pharmaceutical Journal; 1999).

According to the scientific literature, the use of soap in personal hygiene and cleansing does not appear to have been adopted by humans, until the second century, when Galen mentions its use for washing the body skin. Priscianus mentioned soap was also used as a shampoo (Wilson R.L., 1955). Early soaps, made from animal fat and crude alkali, were not attractive to the people . Probably, they smelled bad. There is almost no literature data about using soap in the Dark Ages. The 10 th century was the beginning of the period of our traditional soap-making, and that happened in the Mediterranean region, including Italy and France.

Interestingly, throughout a long history, the chemical process and manufacturing of soaps has not changed. Simply, carrier oils or animal fats were boiled with alkali in a reaction that produces soap and glycerin (J.A. Hunt, 1999). According to Dr. Hunt (1999) and Mitchel R.W. (1927), the plant salsola (Salsola soda L.) was burned to produce an alkaline ash, called barilla. First, soap-makers used ashes of burned plants as a source of alkali. Probably, the first white hard body soap was Castile soap, also known to apothecary masters as Sapo hispaniensis or Sapo castilliensis. Real castile soap is actually hard soap, not liquid. Literature data stated: “The plant slasola has great historical importance as a source of soda ash, which was extracted from the ashes of Salsola soda and other saltwort plants. Soda ash is one of the alkali substances that are crucial in glassmaking and soap- making. The famed clarity of 16th century cristallo glass from Murano and Venice depended upon the purity of “Levantine soda ash,”  and the nature of this ingredient was kept secret. Spain had an enormous 18th century industry that produced soda ash from the saltworts (barrilla in Spanish). Soda ash is now known to be predominantly sodium carbonate. In 1807, Sir Humphry Davy isolated a metallic element from caustic soda; he named  the new element “sodium” to indicate its relationship to “soda.” Before soda was synonymous (in U.S. English) with soft drinks, the word referred to Salsola soda and other saltwort plants, and to “sodas” derived from soda ash.” In Britain, soap production was based on animal fats, but later in the 12 th century, was modified by using oils for soap production.

After the 12 th century, soap production was a very good business, and its expansion still exists, even in our modern times.

Modern people take traditional baths rarely; it is simply forgotten. The shower is something modern people compensate for the traditional bath. In our modern time, usually the shower lasts several minutes, not more, but simply it is not enough. Do not do that. Take your time, relax, and try to visualize all your stress going to the drain. Modern people, since the beginning of the Christian era, use soap bars to clean their body skin, and that’s it. It sounds clear that the history of soap is short, compared with all other apothecary products (toiletries), cosmetics, skin care products, and even cosmeceuticals.

What is probably the best option for our modern times?

Having two or three soaps and bath products is the best option; rotate them often! I prefer and recommend a liquid form of any soap – Sapo castilliensis (it is made in the process of saponification of the natural oils with potassium hydroxide) as we live in modern times; it is simply more sanitary and hygienic, compared with the soap bars (made by the process of saponification by using sodium hydroxide). The choice of soap is optional. Shea butter soap will moisturize your skin; honey soap with crushed calendula/marigold petals will rejuvenate your skin and gently exfoliate your body skin. The goat or donkey milk soaps are also very beneficial for your body skin. I highly recommend our clients use Castille soap with a hint of fragrance oils. The body soap bars are good, compared with ancient strigils, but try Castille soap as shower soap scented with your favorite essential oil, such as mint and patchouli essential oil for stimulation or lavender essential for relaxation.

If you have time, use the original ritual bath by using hot or warm water (your preference), fragrance oils, perfumed oils, fresh or dry flowers, herbs, and botanicals. Here, Dr. Isidor Apothecary offers several DIY herbal baths. These herbal bath formulas can be packed into pure cotton bags, closed, and dropped into the bath water (you do not want to clog your drain). You will make an excellent bath infusion.


Relaxing herbal bath:

  • 2 parts fresh or dry chamomile flowers
  • 2 parts fresh or dry lavender flowers
  • 2 parts fresh or dry rose petals
  • 1 part fresh or dry linden flowers


Stimulating herbal bath:

  • 3 parts fresh or dry peppermint leaves or peppermint tea
  • 2 parts dry or fresh calendula flowers
  • 1 part bay leaves
  • 1 part fresh or dry rosemary leaves
  • 1 part fresh or dry sage leaves


Complex herbal bath formula: (each ingredient 1 part fresh or dry)

  • Rose buds
  • Calendula/ marigold
  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Red clover
  • Passion flower
  • Moroccan mint
  • Lemon balm
  • Ginger
  • Comfrey
  • Sage
  • Hops flowers
  • Basil


In the bath (directly), you can add 0.5 oz. or 1 tbsp. or 3 tsp or 15 ml of sweet almond oil apricot kennel oil and grapeseed oil for dry to normal body skin type; sweet almond and avocado oils can be used for normal to oily body skin. Optionally, you can add 2 tbsp. of raw honey.

This formula is the ancient formula, and it carries many benefits to your body skin, such as detoxifying, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and soothing effects, and prevents rapid skin aging by hydration and promotes regenerative processes, alleviation of stretch marks, and sagging. Honey is a marvelous cosmetic aid for the skin; it “brings” blood to the surface, removes impurities, and softens the skin. It is a natural humectant (it attracts moisture; honey moisturizes and cleanses the skin).

Bath formula

  • 5 tbsp. of sour cream or thick yogurt
  • 20 drops of sandalwood essential oil (therapeutic grade)
  • 20 drops of jasmine essential oil
  • 20 drops of lavender essential oil (therapeutic grade)
  • 1 tbsp. sweet almond oil
  • 1 tbsp. avocado oil


The choice is yours! Try all of them and observe what works best for you. Dr. Isidor Apothecary is offering signature products specifically tailored, designed, and formulated for your specific needs and preferences. So, contact us!

In our perfumery panel, we are offering aromatics. They are natural and organic perfume oils made of natural herbs, botanicals, resins, and flowers in organic carrier oil. They can be an excellent addition to your baths. We highly recommend our natural perfume oils, such as “Amber” (relaxing

formula, rich in honey, sandalwood, vanilla, frankincense and myrrh, and cedarwood), “Nella Fantasia” (relaxing formula, excellent for relaxation after stressful and hectic days, rich in ylang ylang, panel of beautiful roses – Bulgarian, English, burgundy, Maria Callas, gardenia, jasmine Mediterranean mimosa, and honeysuckle), “Mystic’s dreams” (stimulating formula, rich in the scent of star anise, tonka beans, mint, musk, sandalwood, apricot, patchouli, and fig), “White Owl” (stimulating formula, rich in cedarwood scent, black pepper, patchouli, apricot, eucalyptus and spearmint, fig, and plum), “8-3- 1” (beautiful stimulating formula, rich in amber scent, multiple forms of the musk, bergamot, tangerine, rosemary, cedarwood, saffron, and Indian sandalwood), “Marrakesh” (if you like mint, this is formula for you, rich in Moroccan mint, green and black tea, peppermint, and patchouli), “In the mist” (relaxing formula, rich in aromatics of white sage, green tea, amber scent, pomegranate, saffron and laurel leaves, hint of vanilla and black currant, and musk), “Caucasus Caravan” (stimulating formula of aromatics, rich in scents of European plum, apricot, almond, basil, nutmeg, saffron, bayberry, cardamom, clove, and thyme), “Scent of Royal Tokaj” (glorious scent of European apricot, honey, and honeysuckle; the formula is very relaxing), “Fairy’s dream” (beautiful female aromatics, rich in orange, roses, violet, pink grapefruit, tonka bean, vanilla, pear, plum, and mimosa), “Spring in Paris” (beautiful relaxing form or aromatics rich in amber, mimosa, cucumber, jasmine, gardenia, cotton blossom), “Eternal Love” (alive stimulating formula rich in jasmine, cherry and ylang ylang with hint of Mediterranean mimosa).

Do not be surprised, most of our aromatics, natural perfume oils, are used by hairstylists to treat customer’s hair after shampooing and rinsing.

Please do not forget; beauty begins in the bath! Get back to the custom of the ritual bath as our ancestors did. Nothing is wrong with using soap; just make sure you are using the right ones that do not leave traces of the soap on your skin! Soap has a relatively short history, compared with all other apothecary products, but apparently, it is very important, and for some people, it is the main option for cleaning, bathing, or showering.


Respectfully yours,

Dr. Isidor

Dr. Isidor Apothecary


Phone: (504) 233-8702

Ellijay, GA

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