According to the World Bank, diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of child mortality. A child succumbs to diarrhoea every 30 seconds. The Bank research team estimated that forty-eight percent of the diarrhoea cases can be controlled which roughly translates to over one and a half million children. Poor hygienic conditions and not washing of hands after defecating helps breed germs, making it a fertile breeding ground for diarrhoea.
Taking a cue from this, Unilever, the makers of Lifebuoy Soap, launched the ‘Swasthya Chetna’, Health Awakening campaign. In 2002, Lifebuoy brand team undertook a 5 year plan, with an estimated target population of 200 million Indians, to teach them to wash their hands with soap and water after defecation. It was arguably one of the most ambitious projects undertaken by a multinational company ‘Unilever’ as part of their corporate social responsibility. It impacted the hygiene practices and the health of a sizeable rural populace in a way that had not been done before.
The point to be noted in that soap can make that vital difference to the health and hygiene of a population and curb many fatal diseases; diseases which require a certain amount of cleanliness as a preventive measure.
Soap is therefore no longer only a thing of luxury; it is a necessity to keep oneself clean and fresh. With the advent of so many brands entering the market, the cleansing properties of soap are not the only factor that is upheld. Instead now the spotlight is often on fragrances, moisturising capacities and ability to impact, even change skin colour to a fairer tone. Those that position themselves as brands that actively aim at eradicating germs, even those that cannot be seen with the naked eye, are Lifebuoy and Dettol. Some soaps are known by their fragrances. For example, Liril is known to have a lime and lemony fragrance and imparts freshness to the user. Similarly, Lux is soap associated with beauty and is marketed as a luxury item.
 Working of a Soap
A soap enables water to emulsify and draw out the oily sibstances from the skin surface long enough for water to wash it off. Hence soap, in combination with water helps in cleaning the skin surface. Certain substances that are known to be toxic or are known irritants to the skin are often suspended in an oily base. These can easily be washed away with the help of a soap. Soap is an external aid to cleanlines and does not work on impurities that have entered the body.
 Origin of the soap
Keeping oneself clean with the aid of water is a concept that was not alien to mankind since the prehistoric times. However the use of soap as an aid to cleanliness came in at a later date. The first evidence of soap was found in clay cylinders during excavations of ancient Babylon. The cylinders had inscriptions on them dated as early as 2800 B.C. Fats were boiled with ashes and made into soap.
Egyptian records in the 1500 B.C. have revealed the use of soap for treating skin disorders. These were made of oils from animal and vegetables to which alkaline salts were added. This gave the soap cleansing as well as medicated properties.
Greeks used clay, sand and ashes to clean themselves. Then they used fragrant oils. This mixture was scraped off with a metal instrument called the strigil. This procedure seems close to the modern day masks that are used to open pores, increase blood circulation and clean the skin.
None of the above however point towards the detergent properties that these above mentioned concoctions had. In the absence of this important point, it is not sure that these concoctions were soap or mixtures used for other purposes.for example, a similarly brewed mix was used by Gauls to dye their hair.
The Romans are credited with the invention of soap. There is an interesting legend behind it. Legend has it that the temple of Goddess Athena was on the Mountain Sapo. The sacrificial materials mostly made their way down the mountain. Women who washed their clothes in this water found that their clothes became whiter. They traced the phenomenon back to the river and concluded that the sacrificial materials mixed with the water cleaned their clothes and made them brighter and whiter.
However the above legend being the genesis of ‘soap’ is contested by analysts for its historical authenticity. Analysts believed that the sacrificial materials would have come down in a diluted form and hence would not have produced the declared results. Soap making required the concentrated fat and the diluted form of the fats which was more likely to be found in the river would not be able to produce soap like cleansing properties.
In India the presence of soap existed since a long time, albeit in a form different from what are produced these days. Since it was mandatory for Hindus to bathe at least once a day, people relied on mud, clay, scrubs made of kitchen ingredients such as rice, pulses and flour for their daily bath. There was also an extensive use of oils and waxes. Today, most formulas that are herbal based, borrow these time tested ingredients in their product.
Muslim history is also replete with accounts of the usage of soap. In the 7th. century, soaps that were perfumed with aromatic oils were sold in Palestine and Iraq. The Persian chemist Al Razi is said to have given a recipe for soaps.
 Materials used in Soaps
Roots of the Soap Plant (Chlorogalum Pomeridianum) were crushed and dissolved in water. Since it helped water to lather due to the presence of a compound called saponin, it was used to cleanse the body of grime and sweat. It was also used as a shampoo. Other plants used were soapbark, soapberry or soap nut and soapwort. Thus it is established that one of the main ingredients that make a soap is the compound saponin or its equivalent which helps the soap to lather and draw out dirt. Saponin creates a product that is 75 percent soap and 25 percent glycerine. The glycerine acts as a moisturizing agent.
Saponified compounds were then created by boiling fats made from animals or plant sources, with ashes. The alkali in the ashes reacted with the fat to produce sodium stearate or potassium stearate. This was a saponified compound and was hence used to make a rough home made soap.
Soaps are today made out of a mix of oils like olive oil, coconut oil, palm oil and other such oils along with sodium hydroxide, also called lye. These form soap bars that lather, but they are also hard. In addition they are also resistant to dissolving in water when left in a soap dish. One such example is Sunlight Washing Bar.
Of all the oils used olive oil makes the softest of soaps and is a much preffered option as it moisturizes without interfering with normal functioning of the skin. Coconut oil is also very good as it provides hardness to the soap and also contributes to its lathering abilities. It is moisturizing provided it is used in the proportion mentioned. Soyabean oil and canola oil are also used to make a softer soap.
The saponification process is a long process and continues long after soap bars are made and cut. Various fragrances, dyes are included in the stage the oils react with lye. After this, the entire mass thickens like a pudding. Soaps are cut in various shapes and sizes.
 Super fattening
Soaps are often super-fatted by adding more fatty oils during the saponification process. This soap in more easy to cut, is much smoother, easy on sensitive skin and does not dry skin. An example of this would be the soap ‘Dove’.
Polyethylene glycols as PEG-6 methyl ether is added for a variety of purpose; as a surfactant since the glycols can react with the surface effectively draw out the grime. It is used as a detergent for its cleansing properties, it can be used as an emulsifying agent so that the dyes and other additives can blend easily or it can take the place of a thickener. Hence the polyethylene glycol has multifarious uses in the soap making procedure.
Glycerine is also added in soaps because it locks in skin moisture very effectively. Another compound called Sorbitol is added along with the glycerine to make glycerine soap as ‘Pears soap’ transparent. Titanium dioxide is used to make the soap have a pearly opaque look. Water softeners are also added as also compounds that eliminate reaction of other compounds and mixes with the dyes and fragrances that are added. An example of this would be Pentasodium pentetate, tetrasodium etidronate and tetrasodium EDTA (www.sci-toys.com).
In addition preservatives are added to prevent the soap from going stale and letting out foul smell. This is especially true for commercially produced soaps which need to have a longer shelf life.
Since a lot of plant or animal fat is often used, bacterial growth may break out leading to more skin infections. This is the reason for the use of anti microbial in the soap formula.
 Herbal Soaps and Natural Soaps
Herbal soaps are made by combining lye with certain oils. In soaps that are not herbal, synthetic fragrances and oils are relied upon which leaves the skin dry. In herbal soaps, good quality herbal blends are used like neem and Soapnut which have natural antiseptic and antibacterial properties. Oils from cinnamon leaf. Lavender, lemongrass, lemon, orange, peppermint, ylang-ylang, vanilla, coconut and various others are used. Some of these oils have de-stressing qualities and are hence sought after by the soap production houses.
Fairness soaps are the current rage in the soap market today. These soaps are akin to all other soaps with a small difference, they have a melanin suppressant content added to it. It is this which supposedly leads to a fairer skin tone over a period of use. So far the efficacy of these claims is yet to be tested. However companies selling these soaps have recorded huge sales largely owing to the discriminatory mind set of the people who are yet to outgrow their fascination for fair skin.
 Soap- A changing face
The fundamental reason for the usage of soaps is to keep oneself clean. In this respect, ‘multani mitti’, reetha or soapnut, rice powder, chick pea flour all help in cleaning the body and are locally available. They are also free of any side-effects. Yet they are not very sought after.
The very appeal of soaps lie in the fact that it not only keeps the body clean, but it also produces lather, is accompanied by a good fragrance and makes the entire bathing experience a pleasurable one.
With the advent of so many soaps into the market, the consumer finds it difficult to pick one. Brands too vie with each other to get the larger share of the market. So what is it that makes one choose a certain brand over another? Today the ‘cleans-like-the-others’ dictum does not go very far with the consumer who are already high on the hedonistic graph. With cleansing not the only property that is coveted, it is things as fairness soaps or soaps that help de-stress or soaps that have sun protection factor included or those with an exotic perfume or those with a better germ fighting ability are those that ultimately emerge as faster moving than the others.
- Kitchen Doctor