When Did Soap Get So Complicated?

We used to be able to stay clean without strings of chemicals in our cleansers. What happened? 

May 21, 2015
Roman bath

Soap: It’s simple and has been around for thousands of years. Both Egyptians and Romans made it, and there’s even evidence of soapmaking in ancient Babylon.

making soap

At its most basic, soap has one ingredient: a vegetable oil or fat. An alkaline substance (like wood ash) is used to “saponify” the oil so that it can make suds in water and wash away dirt. The alkaline is then discarded. Unless you add a scent like peppermint or lavender, that’s it. 

Related: The Only 10 Things You Need To Buy To Make All Your Own Cleaning Products

old soap ad

In the 1800s, during the Industrial Revolution, chemists began to try to understand the process of saponification—why alkalis changed fats in the way they did. And they began to make and market soap on industrial levels.

soap factory

By the early 20th century, with the advent of the First World War, fats for making soap were in short supply, and chemists began creating and producing synthetic soaps, or detergents, by adding sodium laureth sulfate, decyl glucoside, PEG 120 methyl glucose dioleate, triclosan, as well as fragrances and dyes.

dial soap commercial

Companies found that detergents could be made much more cheaply and marketed them heavily to consumers, even after the wars ended.


Throughout the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, detergents like Zest, and even soap-detergent combinations, like Dove, were advertised as being better than soap because they smelled stronger and didn’t leave behind a soapy film. In the ’80s and ’90s, companies even took to adding antibacterial products to soap to market their “ultra cleaning” properties.

antibacterial soap

Unfortunately, synthetic detergents make it harder for skin to retain moisture. The chemical ingredients themselves have been shown to irritate mucus membranes and damage immune systems. Some ingredients were found to be carcinogenic. Even antibacterial components have a shadow side, killing off more beneficial bacteria than dangerous ones.

soap on a river

Sodium laureth sulfate and other surfactants often take a long time to break down in the environment and can do a lot of damage to organisms in streams and ponds.

castile soaps

But the earliest methods of making soap haven’t disappeared, and it’s possible to find products that hearken back to the that have worked for thousands of years. These products are better for you—and by avoiding excessive chemicals, better for the environment. Choose castile soaps with minimal added ingredients, such as Vegetable-based olive and coconut oils, as well as essential oils instead of fragrances or synthetic perfumes.