Soap is one of the most common and useful products in our daily lives, but do you know how it was invented and how it evolved over time? In this article, we will explore the origin and history of soap, from ancient times to modern days.
The earliest evidence of soap-like materials dates back to around 2800 BC in ancient Babylon, where a formula for making soap was written on a Sumerian clay tablet . The soap was produced by heating a mixture of oil and wood ash, the earliest recorded chemical reaction, and used for washing woolen clothing.
Soap-making was also known in other ancient civilizations, such as Egypt, where soap was made from animal fats and vegetable oils with alkaline salts. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used soap for personal hygiene and cleaning, but they preferred to use oil and a metal scraper called a strigil to remove dirt from their skin. According to a legend, the word soap comes from Mount Sapo, an Italian mountain where animal sacrifices were performed and the rain washed the fat and ash down to the Tiber River, creating a lathering substance.
Soap-making became more widespread and sophisticated in the Islamic world, where chemists experimented with different ingredients and methods. They used vegetable oils such as olive and coconut, as well as aromatic herbs and spices to create perfumed soaps. They also developed the process of saponification, which involves heating fat with alkali to produce soap and glycerin.
Soap-making spread to Europe through trade and conquest, but it was not very popular until the 17th century, when hygiene and sanitation became more important due to the plague and other diseases. Soap-makers in France, Italy, Spain and England began to produce finer and more varied soaps, using animal fats such as tallow and lard, as well as vegetable oils such as palm and olive. They also added colors, fragrances and shapes to make soap more appealing and attractive.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, soap-making became more industrialized and scientific, with the discovery of new ingredients and processes. For example, in 1791, a French chemist named Nicolas Leblanc invented a way to make soda ash from common salt, which reduced the cost of soap production. In 1823, another French chemist named Michel Eugene Chevreul discovered that fats are composed of fatty acids and glycerin, which led to the improvement of soap quality and variety. In 1853, an English chemist named William Hesketh Lever founded Lever Brothers, one of the first soap companies to use mass production and advertising techniques.
In the 20th century, soap-making continued to evolve with the development of synthetic detergents, which are derived from petroleum or plant sources and have better cleaning properties than traditional soap. Detergents are also more soluble in hard water and less affected by minerals that can form scum with soap. However, detergents can also have negative environmental impacts, such as water pollution and biodegradability issues. Therefore, some people prefer to use natural or organic soaps that are made from renewable resources and have less harmful chemicals.
Today, soap is a ubiquitous product that comes in many forms, such as bars, liquids, powders, gels and foams. Soap is used for personal hygiene, household cleaning, laundry, dishwashing, cosmetics and medicine. Soap is also a source of artistic expression and creativity, as some people make their own soap at home or buy handmade soap from artisans. Soap is not only a life-saving substance that prevents diseases and infections but also a life-enhancing substance that improves our comfort and well-being.