A short history of soap in the Pre-Petroleum Age & how to make your own biodegradable plant soaps

Sally Mittuch
Tuesday, 8th January 2013

Sally Mittuch uses her background in archaeology and anthropology to research, source and supply natural resources for washing and cleaning. Here, she shares her experiences of using primitive soaps.

Even the most ardent eco warrior will sometimes admit to using chemicals for cleaning, particularly for the most dreaded of cleaning tasks - the oven or toilet bowl. Even washing up seems to demand that we buy a special product formulated for that task. 

Hygiene is important to people everywhere and always has been. Simply put, good hygiene is one of the foundation stones of good health. In the ‘social evolution’ branch of psychology, cleanliness is associated with attractiveness and the fitness to parent children and nurture grandchildren - the bearers of our genes.

Cleanliness is also a factor influencing mate retention. Cleaning and cleanliness are deep-wired in the human brain. How did the human race manage to survive without specialized cleaning products?

Did people clean in the past?

One possible answer is that people did not bother much about cleaning in the past. However, cleaning is essential for brewing, food production and preservation as well as for the care of textiles. The most probable answer is that in the past, as cleaning products were fully biodegradable, they have left little, if any, direct archaeological trace. 

Most commercial cleaning fluids and soaps today are made by combining something from the world of plants with something from the petro-chemical industry. These commercial soaps do not easily biodegrade, heavily polluting the earth and water. Only in the  Pre-Petroleum Age were soaps fully biodegradable and completely safe to use.

Make soap directly from saponins rich plants

One family of historical soaps was made by infusing, simmering or mashing ‘saponin’ rich plants in water. If you have seen frothy puddles on the road near chestnut trees you have got the idea. Plants produce saponins as part of their immune system to deter insect attack and to act as natural anti-microbials, protecting their life bearing seeds. Hunter gatherers still exploit the soap-bearing plants for their medicinal properties and for cleaning. 

Grow or gather your own soap bearing plants

Several British plants will yield a water based soap, such as grated or pounded horse chestnuts Aesculus hippocastanum, soaked and boiled bracken root Pteridium aquilinum or fern root Dryopteris felix-mas, snowberries Symphoricarpos albus and soapwort saponaria officinalis. Of course we are not as well trained as hunter gatherers these days.

Chestnuts are difficult to process, especially when you need to remove the shell first.  Fern or bracken roots can not be collected from the wild and snowberries are best left on the plant as vital winter food for birds. Soapwort, our best known soap bearing plant is certainly worthy of its name and the whole of the plant can be used. However, because it is classed as herb, it can be expensive to use for cleaning unless you grow your own. If you have a damp, light and shady soil, sow your soapwort seeds or root sections this spring!

While you are waiting for soapwort plants to flourish, you might consider using soapnuts fruits. Soapnuts are a wild gathered tree fruit from the Himalayan foothills. I have collected several soapnut seeds if anyone wants to try to grow a soapnut tree. You would need a sheltered spot, with high rainfall, preferably at high altitude and /room for a 20 meter tree. 

Using soapnut fruits for cleaning clothes

Most people know about using soapnuts for doing their laundry. If you haven’t tried them yet, you can use 3-5 of the dried fruits per machine wash load. Tie the soapnuts up in an old sock so they don’t get lost and place it in the drum with the laundry. Reuse them 3-4 times, depending on the water hardness, wash temperatures and load size. It only costs about 3-4p per load. Either hang the soapnut sock out to dry with the clothes or reuse it if you are doing consecutive loads. The clothes come out clean, and soft. Once the clothes are dry they have a fresh aroma.

When using soapnuts, the effluent from the washing machine biodegrades rapidly in the sewers and it is suitable for septic tanks and most reed bed systems. It is very low-impact washing. You can also use soapnuts in a dish washer, two at a time in the cutlery tray, renewed each time. Clear vinegar can be used as a rinse aid if needed.

The adventure really begins when you start making up your soapnut liquid

1/ Place two handfuls of soapnut fruits in a medium saucepan, half filled with water (about 1.5 – 2 litres of water).

2/ Simmer your fruits gently for 5-10 minutes. Don’t let them boil over.

3/ Strain off the liquid and bottle it.

4/ Place the soggy soapnuts on a dinner plate to dry for further brews.

5/ Once the soapnuts liquid has cooled, place the bottles in the refrigerator and leave some out for use. The bottles will keep for a week or so when refrigerated. You could add a natural preservative such as grapefruit seed extract to prolong the life of the soapnut liquid. Normally, I use one brew per week, so I haven’t felt the need to use preservatives so any feedback about preservation methods would be gratefully received.

This liquid will clean your dishes when washing up by hand. Feel free to try it without rubber gloves. Just add a splash to the bowl of hot water or apply it to the dish cloth of natural sponge. It cleans lime scale splatters from the shower screen; the worktops; windows; and even a vehicle - removing insects and brake dust. Soapnuts are also used in Ayurvedic medicine to treat skin conditions and for washing the skin and hair, so while it is mean to dirt, it is kind to us. 

The family of saponified soaps

Enter our second family of soap: This is soft soap made with lye water and plant oil. According to written sources, the manufacture of soft soap took off in Britain in the 12th century, although Pliny, the famous Roman writer credits the Celts with making soap, so our British history of soap making may extend back much further. Production ceased in the 19th century when commercial soaps and very foamy bars of soap were marketed to the masses. 

Lye was originally formed by percolating rain water through potassium rich plant ash and several native British plants yield oils that are suited for soap making. The process of soap making calls for steady heat and lots of stirring. Gradually, the oil and water based lye are saponified that is, split and recombined into soap and glycerine. 

Soap making was widespread in settled communities, where cleaning was given a higher priority than that accorded it by hunter-gatherers. Soft soap, also known as black soap is mentioned frequently in British Medieval medical texts. At first, it was made with hemp oil and then much later, linseed oil. Soft soap used to form the basis of liniment, udder wash and other preparations, although the bulk of the soft soap production was destined for cleaning and industrial tasks. Again, as with soapnuts, traditional soft soaps are safe for people who can’t or don’t want to get along with conventional cleaning products. 

Our hemp oil soft soap, a recreation of the original 12th century British soap, is made from British grown and produced hemp seed oil and lye water. I will admit that I don’t stand outside stirring a pot on a campfire all day and I don’t make my own lye. The old methods introduce too many variables for successful batches and I wish to remain friends with my neighbours!

Saponified soaps cope with the most difficult cleaning tasks

Our British hemp oil soap will clean anything which the soapnuts find daunting and I have found over 1200 uses for soft soap. In the past ‘soap was soap’ and there wasn’t all of this product specialization. Soft soap handles the most dreaded of cleaning tasks - the oven, the sticky grease on the tops of the kitchen cabinets and extractor fan, under the refrigerator, the washing up bowl and sink, traditional flooring, any long neglected corners and the toilet bowl. It is also a premier shaving soap and it can be used on the body. It is especially good for grubby nails and hands and for exfoliating dead and dry skin.

As a soft soap, it has a gel like consistency. This means it can be easily dissolved in hot water and turned into a liquid soap of any consistency. For cleaning, this soap can be used neat and allowed time to work on the most resistant dirt. It can be diluted in boiling water to form either a liquid soap consistency suitable for pump dispensers (dilute soap to water at 1:2.5 or 1:3), or more diluted still for tasks like washing floors, walls and skirting boards (5-20g per bucket). Which soap to use for which task soon becomes second nature. Once a traditional soft soap comes into contact with the soil, the soil bacteria will break it down in one day. Both of the soaps discussed are acceptable for grey water recovery systems and can be re-used in their diluted form after cleaning for watering dry soil. 

Living with primitive soaps

Each family of soap, whether made directly from the plant, or made with oil and lye has its own particular virtues. With both at our disposal, there isn’t anything we can’t clean in our home. 

After having lived with these plant based soaps for several years now, I might have become complacent to the fact that I can clean with these soaps without rubber gloves. I have noticed that cleaning has become more spontaneous and that my skin and nails stay in much better condition. My husband enjoys cleaning with these simple soaps too and he often calls me over to wonder at the results.

Perhaps because we can clean without harming the environment our whole attitude to cleaning has been transformed: Cleaning with primitive cleaners, gives us great pleasure and because we are handling such simple soaps. We can now manage all of our household tasks with these two biodegradable cleaning products, with no cheating. Challenge us with your most dreaded cleaning task!

For more valuable information on natural cleaning and health or to see the superb products, visit www.naturalspasupplies.co.uk

If you would like more techniques on soap making, Permaculture Magazine issue 74 (also available as digital PDF) contains a 'How to Make your own Soap' article.

Nicola Didsbury |
Thu, 10/01/2013 - 00:33
I would love a soapnut, I live in the lakes, plenty of rain to try and grow a soapnut tree...
Sally Mittuch |
Sat, 12/01/2013 - 13:01
Hello Nicola, could you email me with your address? It would be great to see how the trees grow and fare over here. The email address is on my website.
lunacosmo4444 |
Wed, 16/01/2013 - 13:44
hi I also would like to try my hand at growing a soapnut, I live in northumberland, high up but not too exposed ...
Sally Mittuch |
Thu, 17/01/2013 - 12:44
Yes, you are welcome. Please keep me updated on your seed, seedling, tree, fruiting tree etc! Photos of the progress would be really welcomed!
skerryc |
Wed, 30/01/2013 - 22:12
Don't suppose I could get a few seeds as well? Have you tried the soapnuts in those new HE laundry washers? I know they say you have to have a particular soap that doesn't get sudsy. Also, do you think Olive or Sunflower oil would work? Thinking of getting one of those oil extractors and growing some sunflowers. Thank you!
Sally Mittuch |
Thu, 07/02/2013 - 15:53
Yes, I have a few left. Could you send me an email from my website with your name and address please? Olive oil should work, I haven't tried sunflower oil. Yes I have tried an HE washer. It didn't get anything clean. I returned it and brought a secondhand Hotpoint Aquarius which I think is great. I can even fix these Hotpoints myself - having recently installed new brushes! So I managed to fix my broken machine for £10.00, the cost of the brushes on Norwich market!
Maria Angeles Martinez-Muñoz |
Fri, 08/02/2013 - 20:47
do you deliver seed within the UE? Thank you. I find your articles to be very useful and educational
Sally Mittuch |
Sat, 02/03/2013 - 14:16
Hello Maria, I have run out of seeds at the moment. I find them in the soapnuts that I use for my own cleaning. The seeds are removed from the soapnut skin, because they contain very few saponins and they are very heavy. As they last such a long time, I don't get through masses, I don't find that many. However I reckon that I find one seed still hiding in the dried fruit every other packet. You might be lucky if you get some! I can send them anywhere, just not the Antarctic!
Sally Mittuch |
Sat, 02/03/2013 - 14:22
I washed my hair in soapnut liquid today, following instructions from my customer Lakshmi who got the info from her dad who grew up with them. Soap nut liquid can be mad as a cold infusion. For long hair soak 12-15 soapnuts in some water (I used 12 soapnuts and 200mls of water) for 1-1/2 hours (I did this overnight). Squeeze the soapnuts for a minute or so to release the soap. Remove the soapnuts and dry them on a plate. Use the liquid. In fact I only used 100mls of this soapnut liquid shampoo for my long hair. I used a small sponge to sponge it onto my hair, rubbed my scalp a bit, them combed the liquid down the shaft of my hair. I didn't leave it on for very long, just a few minutes, then I rinsed thoroughly. I am very pleased with the results. I didn't need a conditioner. I will carry on testing through the week to see how many cold infusions I can get from these soapnuts. I will place updates on the Natural Spa Supplies Facebook page. You can find out more about soapnuts and get them from http://naturalspasupplies.co.uk/shop-2/soapnuts-for-planet-friendly-clothes-and-dish-washing/ I am so excited with this new experiment!
John66 |
Mon, 18/03/2013 - 10:52
Now-a-days, it has become much easier to fulfill the prerequisites of soap making because of the easy availability of online to <a rel="dofollow" href="http://soapsuppliers.co.uk/">soap making supplies</a>. Now, you can choose the quality and quality of products, add them to your shopping cart and recive your delivery without any hassle.
Sally Mittuch |
Mon, 15/04/2013 - 19:53
Following the success and fun of making cold infused soap soap nut liquid, I have created a blog to tell you how to do it: http://naturalspasupplies.co.uk/make-your-soapnut-cleaner-in-cold-water/ Make your biodegradable soap with Zero Energy Less Aroma More Fun
Quirkas |
Sun, 18/08/2013 - 09:07
Hello I would love to grow a soap nut tree, do you have any spare seeds? I have been reading up on the process though it is probably better to start it next year, what do you think? Also I make soap and would love to make some Hemp soft soap do you have a recipe and process. Kind regards Angela