Soap 101: How Is Soap Made & How Does It Work?

Time to Unravel the Mystery That Is Soap

Not a soap expert? That’s okay…we are! Before you buy another bar, let us give you the low down on where soap comes from and how it works its magic.

Soap is actually the result of a pretty amazing chemical process that happens spontaneously when you combine a fat with an alkali. The process is called saponification, which literally means “turning into soap.” Yes, it’s really that simple.

But who discovered this rather mysterious and magical transformation? Well, it’s easy to imagine that thousands of years ago, the first soap was probably made by accident by a group of people gathered around a campfire.

A bit of fat likely dripped into the ashes (the alkali), saponification occurred, and someone took notice. Or, maybe it started raining and people became interested by the bubbles forming near the fire. Either way, word spread about the new discovery, and the fad caught on. Soon enough, clean hands became de riguer for dining.

For several centuries after, folks tried improving soap by combining particular ashes and fats, stirring it all together in a kettle, and forming little cakes. Even today, the underlying process soap makers use is basically the same. We have, however, mostly moved beyond animal fat and ashes, to palm and coconut oils mixed with a purified alkali.

But beyond how it’s made, there’s one other question you may have asked yourself while scrubbing away in the shower. How does soap work? It’s something people don’t typically think about but rely on every day to stay clean and healthy.

If pressed, you might say, “Soap has tiny ninja-like components that chop bacteria to bits.” Or to save face, you might say, ”Only scientists and dermatologists know the details.” But it’s really not that involved.

You see, the power of soap lies in its slipperiness. Soap makes the skin slippery, so dirt slides off, and that’s that. Its magic is in its simplicity. 

Stay tuned for the next blog entry in our soap education trilogy, Soap 201: Why Are There So Many Different Kinds! What’s the Difference?


loofa soap assortment with seaweed and olive oil

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