If you ever hear us refer to soap at Anato, we refer to it as ‘cold process soap’. That’s because it is milder on the skin than other soaps which can cause irritation. At Anato, we use the ancestral method to produce soap.
My first experience making soap...
...was back in 2014. I’d just finished my undergraduate studies in Plant Science and wanted more hands-on experience in agroecology and permaculture that I’d had a taste for at University. I set off to Portugal to complete my permaculture diploma. During the course we stayed in tents under an oak overstory. It was the end of summer in Portugal yet the temperature remained so pleasant under these wise trees. My tent was pitched on a bed of oak leaves and I walked barefoot to the large wooden tables where we sat for meals. The course was about learning to live off the land — learning to observe the surrounding ecosystem, plant & harvest local plants, build a house with earth and straw etc. At the beginning of the course we made a big batch of soap with cold pressed olive oil from a grove up the street, making it ‘Savon de Marseille’ style which is distinctive in the Mediterranean region. The soap was hand-stirred and very simple with no added essential oils. It smelled of olive oil and rendered a soft bar of soap with medium lather (that's where coconut oil comes in handy in our black cedar soap!)
My second experience making soap was in 2016, while a resident farm-hand in Devon, UK. This was a little different in that the farm produced soaps commercially so we used larger equipment and stamped the soaps with the farm logo. The olive oil used to make this soap was also infused in aromatic herbs from the farm, and to it, was added lavender essential oil.
How exactly is soap made?
To understand how soap is made, let's turn to a historical legend. According to the Romans, soap was named after Mount Sapo, an ancient site of animal sacrifices. After an animal sacrifice, rain would wash animal fat and ash, that collected under the ceremonial altars, down to the banks of the Tiber River.
Roman women washing clothes in the river noticed that if they washed their clothes in certain parts of the river after a heavy rainfall their clothes were much cleaner. Thus the emergence of the first soap – or at least the first recorded use of soap.
Cold process soap as we know it today consists of mixing oils and lye without heat. The reaction that occurs between soap and lye is called saponification. The result is soap and glycerin:
Oil + Lye = Soap + Glycerin.
But this process is long and requires four to six weeks at minimum depending on the type of oil used. This waiting period is referred to as ‘curing’.
Because of this slow process, no ‘big brands’ on the market produce soap in this manner because the curing period is not economical. Large industrial groups are able to accelerate the process, using what is known as ‘hot process soap.’
In this accelerated process there is also an elimination process that gets rid of the glycerin in the soap to sell it to other cosmetic industries. That's why you see ‘glycerin’ as an ingredient in creams, gels etc. Because of the removal of glycerin, industrially made soap is very harsh on the skin and drying.
Of course, this large-scale industrial soap is made with ultra-refined oils and often embellished with synthetic fragrances.
Why is cold process soap better?
Cold process soap is the only method that allows us to maintain the vegetable glycerin from the plant based oils (coconut, olive and castor) we use in our soap. Glycerin is referred to in cosmetics as a ‘humectant’ meaning it can counterbalance the stripping and drying aspect of soap.
Moreover, since we don’t heat the oils while making ‘cold process soap we’re able to conserve the beneficial properties of the perennial plant oils that we use.
How to recognize whether or not your soap is cold-processed?
We know it's difficult it is to evaluate the authenticity of natural cosmetics, and more importantly, how to avoid getting 'greenwashed' (aka mislead with 'green' claims). That's why we created the non-toxic beauty guide— to help you navigate labels, certifications and claims.
To recognize whether a soap is as gentle for your skin barrier as possible (cold-processed): refer to the INCI ingredient list. If it’s industrially made you’ll see ingredients such as:
SODIUM PALMATE (from Palm oil) followed by SODIUM PALM KERNELATE. Or SODIUM TALLOWATE (from animal tallow) followed by SODIUM PALM KERNELATE or SODIUM COCOATE.
There will likely be a list of synthesized preservatives (yep, even in soap!) like Sodium benzoate, MIT, CMIT … dyes, as well ‘fragrance’ which refers to synthetic scents.
And, if you want to evaluate your soaps at home, just like any natural cosmetic, a cold-process soap made with high quality oils goes rancid after a couple years and looses its aroma. As opposed to industrial soap that seems to smell of perfume for decades (if you’ve ever brought home a hotel soap you know what I’m referring to!).
So look for the words 'cold-processed' or 'saponifié a froid'
What makes Anato soap even better than cold-processed?
⬥ Our soap has two key added ingredients. First, local hand harvested charcoal (we do not buy ‘bamboo’ charcoal from Asia used by other skincare companies) because, as sad as it is, charcoal is a byproduct of burnt forests right here in our home turf of California. Its purpose in the soap is to draw out impurities and gently exfoliate the skin, making our black cedar soap excellent at dealing with 'stinky pits' and ingrown hair.
⬥ The second thing that we add at the very end of the process is forest-harvested essential oils — making our soap 100% from trees, following our ‘Forest to Face’ ethos.
It must be said that over-washing the skin with soap, whether or not it is a cold-process, superfatted soap like ours, can be very disruptive to the epidermis. It can be overly drying for dry skin types, OR overly stripping for oily-skin types causing the sebaceous glands to produce excess sebum (oil). So use it wisely, and read more about skin-barrier supporting practices in our microbiome blog post.
My ‘Zero Waste Voyage’ took me to Peru where I learned about a cool plant: Sacha Paraqay, used by Peruvian women to wash wool fibers before dying them with natural dyes. The root that is grated into the wash water and mixed to create a foamy lather. Soapnuts, soapwort, horse chestnut, yuca… are other plants high in ‘saponins’ also capable of producing a foamy lather. I have tried washing laundry with soap nuts but unfortunately it’s not detergent enough! Perhaps better suited for a delicate rug or handwoven tapestry.
Want more tips about how to navigate non-toxic skincare?