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Good clean fun - the truth about soap

Our soaps are made the traditional way with our own innovative twist, but have you ever wondered how soap is made or how it actually works? Find out now...

Soap has been a staple part of cleansing routines for as long as anyone can remember, but how it works and when it was created are still a mystery to many. But have no fear, because we are here to answer everything you could possibly need to know about soap...

How does soap actually work?

Soap cleanses the skin by enabling oil to mix with water, so that grease and dirt can be washed away. A soap molecule acts a little like a magnet. One half of the molecule repels water (sciencey folk call this hydrophobic), and attaches itself to the oils on the skin. The other half does the opposite and binds to water (hydrophilic to those keeping track). The oil is then suspended in the water, allowing it to be rinsed off easily, whisking dirt and grease away with it. This deep cleansing leaves behind that familiar ‘squeaky clean’ feeling on the skin.

"Soap destroys the integrity of bacterial, amoeba cell membranes and fungi cell walls. Imagine these as little jelly discs, with an outer layer that is the wall, which is made of oil," Lush Product Inventor and Cosmetic Scientist, Daniel Campbell explains. "When you apply soap to the walls, the component of the soap that likes oil, grabs hold of the oil in the wall and breaks it down by forming an emulsion with the water you are washing your hands with, ripping the bacteria, amoeba or fungi apart and destroying them."

What happens to the skin's microflora?

Microflora, the thin layer of friendly bacteria that covers the skin, keeps it protected from germs, infection and the less friendly bacteria that can cause illness. Washing with soap washes the microflora away as well. Research shows that when washing with liquid antibacterial soap, the skin is stripped of this natural protective layer leaving it open to germs and possible infection. Washing with solid soap is less disruptive and does just as good a job at cleansing on its own; an excellent reason to stick to good old solid suds.

Which is better hand-sanitiser or soap?

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between bacteria, which is a single cell organism, and a virus which is an intracellular parasite consisting of DNA/RNA, encapsulated in a protein coat that makes them more robust than bacteria. Its mission is to infect a host cell or cells; it needs to get into something.

Hand sanitisers are based on rubbing-alcohol or isopropyl alcohol which disrupt the cell membrane, making it difficult for bacteria to procreate. For viruses (such as the Coronavirus), the rubbing alcohol will help to disrupt the protein coat of the virus. This means that the DNA/RNA inside is more likely to be degraded reducing the pathogenic strength of the virus.

Soaps are highly alkaline which disrupts bacterial cell membranes and fungal cell walls, the alkalinity also creates a hostile biochemical environment for microorganisms. With viruses, the physicality of a solid soap along with the way in which it is used, ensures that the virus can’t stick to your hands (essentially it “bashes” the virus off) reducing the risk of transference via contact, hand sanitiser doesn’t have this benefit.

When did humans start using soap?

Soap has a long and chequered history with mentions stretching through the Old Testament, ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire, with the earliest soaps being simple mixes of oils with fire ash, clay or sand. Although soap making developed gradually, it has remained largely based around the same process: boiling oils and fats with an alkali to produce soap and glycerine. Historically, the fats used were mostly beef or sheep tallow, with olive oil, palm and coconut joining the list later - though animal tallow remains a common source material even today. This type of soap has two main functions: it decreases the surface tension of water and it binds to dirt, grease and bacteria.

By the late 18th century, advertising campaigns in Europe and the United States promoted popular awareness of the relationship between cleanliness and health, which lead to universal use of soap. However, until the industrial revolution soap making was conducted on a small scale and the product was rough. This changed in 1886, when James and William Lever bought a small soap works in Warrington, and founded what is still one of the largest soap businesses, formerly called Lever Brothers and known today as Unilever.

Due to food shortages during the first world war, oils and fats used for soap making were in limited supply which lead to the development of the first chemical alternatives. These ‘modern’ liquid soaps, also known as detergents, were created from artificial surfactants and additives and by the 1950s, sales had completely outstripped those of traditional solid soap.

It has only been in recent times that we have been obsessed with liquid soaps, especially those with added antibacterial ingredients promising to kill almost 100% of bacteria. There are fears that overuse could increase antibiotic resistance, with scientific evidence suggesting it’s an unnecessary ingredient as soaps are inherently antibacterial by nature. What's more, liquid soaps tend to be over-packaged in non-recyclable bottles where bacteria can hide. With 12.7 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year, perhaps it’s time to lose the bottle and fall back in love with bars of soap.

How are Lush soaps made?

Lush co-founder Mo Constantine first started making soap for Constantine & Weir, the natural beauty company, founded in 1977, using both hot and cold methods. At Lush today, we either use a soap base bought from a supplier, made from a combination of rapeseed oil for a gentle creamy feel and coconut oil which makes the soap lather, or using our in-house, soap base manufacturing facility, which allows us to make a soap base from any oils we want, these bases are referred to as a gourmet soap base. For these we use a pure argan oil soap (used in Ro’s Argan Soap), pure olive oil soap base (used in Olive Tree Soap), or a super blend of cocoa butter, castor oil and coconut oil, we call this the ‘universal soap base’, which give a firm, creamy soap that lathers well. We’ve also experimented with sunflower oil and wheatgerm oil. 

With whatever base we choose to use, we then mix that with a humectant (a substance that helps to retain and preserves moisture in the skin), which is usually either palm-free vegetable MPG, or glycerin or a sorbitol solution or combinations thereof, along with water. Next a flurry of natural ingredients with skin benefits are tumbled into the mix. For example, poppy seeds will help to exfoliate and add texture, while fresh oranges and lemons add a burst of citrus. Scrub up with sand, cleanse with charcoal, get down and buff with sea salt and even soften with seaweed. All of these, and more, can be added to help cleanse the skin in their own unique ways. 

The essential oils making up the fragrance are chosen carefully and blended to match the mood of that soap. “Everything is thought about," says Queen of Soaps and Lush co-founder Mo Constantine. "From blending our own perfumes to establishing long-term relationships with ingredient growers and suppliers around the world, combine that with the expertise of our product chefs at the factory and creativity of the inventors; it’s taking the best bits of everything we do to create the ultimate range of soap."

Once mixed, everything gets heated up until it becomes a liquid, when it is then poured into moulds. It's left to cool and set, then cut and sent to stores and our customers' doors. The shapes are designed to fit perfectly in your hand and stand up on their edge waiting for you to pick up next time. They’re so appealing you may find your guests, grandchildren, and anyone lucky enough to be using your facilities spending more time washing with them!

Depending on which fresh ingredients, infusions or essential oils we add in, we can create everything from Outback Mate, full of menthol-goodness, to the super-creamy and moisturising Sultana of Soap. If you suffer with dry skin try soaps that have high humectant, like Honey I Washed The Kids which has loads of honey. Also look to soaps with high amounts of glycerin or agave syrup. One of the benefits of Lush soap is that they lather, they clean your hands but because of the humectant qualities, they are able to maintain moisture in your skin too. 

Does Lush use palm oil in its soaps?

All but one of Lush’s hand and body soaps are Palm Oil free. Where we do use a sodium stearate, (Sodium Salt), we use a palm-free version. Fresh Farmacy Facial Soap* is the only Lush soap with Palm Oil, this is because it has sodium lauryl sulfate.

How are Lush soaps unique?

They’ve never tested on animals, they're palm free* (see above), and self-preserving, which means that the product preserves itself creating an environment where bacteria cannot grow, without the need of synthetic preservatives. They’re antibacterial and they'll dislodge viruses from your hands. They’re solid and naked, which means they don’t require any excess packaging. They have a high humectant and natural ingredient content, which brings more benefits to your skin.

And perhaps best of all... they smell really good and are fun to use! To check out the whole soapy range look no further than here.

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