Black Soap - The Facts
By Sarah Villafranco, MD
Posted in Blog, on June 20, 2014
What Is It, Exactly?
When people search the internet for black soap, they are usually looking for African Black Soap. It’s an ancient, specialty soap, made using centuries-old recipes and methods passed through generations, from the hands of elders who have done it since their parents taught them. It is made mostly in West Africa, specifically Ghana and Nigeria. The “secret” is in the ashes of cocoa pods, plantain leaves, and palm fronds, in various combinations, which are mixed with honey, shea butter, and other oils, and then stirred in the African sun for several weeks in a slow soap-making process. (Doesn’t that sound romantic?) It is called dudu osun, or ose dudu. (Dudu means “black” in several West African dialects, an unfortunate coincidence for American marketing purposes.) An authentic piece of this type of soap looks like a lumpy piece of wood – brownish in color, with an earthy, fairly neutral smell. If it smells like perfume, or is perfectly pitch black, it isn’t the real African version – period.
So, what can this secret recipe do for you? There are lots of claims made about what African Black Soap (ABS) can do – some are probably accurate, and some likely aren’t. Most of the claims revolve around relieving dry or irritated skin, psoriasis, eczema, and acne. In fact, for those who believe in the benefits, there is almost nothing that this little, plain-looking bar can’t do!
And, there is some evidence to support it. So, let’s examine the reasons for some of the beneficial effects of black soap:
- Charred plantain skins contain large amounts of Vitamin A, Vitamin E, and iron, all three of which are fortifying and healing to skin cells.
- Most true ABS contains a high percentage of shea butter, which can also be healing to the skin, and has some inherent sun protection.
- Tropical honey is often used in the soap, and honey has been shown for ages to have moisturizing and healing capabilities, as well as mild antibacterial properties.
- A bar of real ABS, made in Africa by small, local manufacturers, is likely to have WAY more natural ingredients than the soap on the grocery store shelves – this is a benefit all its own, especially if you are concerned with decreasing the number of chemicals and toxins in your life.
(These points don’t even cover supporting the African community in which it’s made.)
Now, a couple small counterpoints, just to keep things honest:
- While the vitamins and minerals in charred plantain skins are undoubtedly beneficial, they are also readily available in other forms, which are just as natural in origin, such as clays and mud.
- While pure shea butter has an SPF of about 5-6, once it is incorporated into a bar soap, even at a high percentage like 25%, then used on the body and rinsed off, there is ZERO sun protection value in using the soap. As sun protection is incredibly important in caring for your skin, this is an important place NOT to get duped.
- While you can find real ABS online, several of the best-selling brands have some pretty ridiculous ingredient lists that would leave any soap-making, African woman shaking her head in disgust. Just because it’s called “black soap” doesn’t mean it’s truly what you are trying to find.
With A Modern Twist...
Now, Osmia’s black soap is different. It isn’t made by Nigerian women (though I am determined to see that process one day!). We make it, in our sustainably-built shop, in the mountains of Colorado, by hand, in batches of 66 bars at a time, using natural and certified organic ingredients. (That also sounds romantic!) We call ours Black Clay Facial Soap, so you know right off the bat that it's made with black clay, and that it's for your face. We don't want you to get confused and think you are buying ABS, because that's not what ours is. However, while it’s not the African recipe, it actually contains many of the same compounds, and has a similar profile in terms of its use and benefits.
Our Black Clay Facial Soap is made black by the inclusion of two things – Australian black clay, and pure Dead Sea mud. We chose these ingredients for many of the same reasons those wise African women use charred plantain skins. Black clay is 89% iron oxide, and mud from the Dead Sea is likely the most mineral and protein rich mud in the world. As with the iron-containing, charred plaintain skins, the minerals in our soap all act to draw water to the skin, and soften the appearance of flaky spots and fine lines by plumping up those little skin cells. The mud is also very finely granular, and acts as a mild exfoliant, keeping the top layer of cells vibrant. Finally, there is a small astringent effect of the Dead Sea mud, making it an excellent skin toner. (This may feel tingly in those with VERY sensitive skin – a patch test on the inner arm should be done first in that population.)
In addition, Osmia’s vegan black soap contains organic coconut milk, which is impressive in its ability to clean deeply, but very gently. The fat in the milk helps bind and remove dirt and oils, and the proteins prevent stripping of the top layer of skin. Coconut milk is very high in antioxidants, and has a mild antibacterial action as well. The gentle cleansing action and antibacterial effect are two of the qualitites that make honey an attractive ingredient in many ABS recipes - achieved here without animal products.
The plant oils in the soap, which ultimately get turned into soap molecules (see nerdy explanation here), are carefully chosen to nourish and balance facial skin. Mango butter, rich in essential fatty acids, and organic, cold-pressed avocado oil, high in Vitamins A, B1, B2, and E, are two of the specialty oils we use. (Also included are the following certified organic oils: extra-virgin olive, palm kernel, coconut, sweet almond, castor bean, and jojoba.) The mild, unisex scent is achieved by adding wild-harvested balsam of peru and atlas cedarwood essential oils, and organic, skin-lightening lemon and bergaptene-free bergamot essential oils.
Osmia's Black Clay Facial Soap has a growing collection of positive reviews from a diverse group of consumers, including acne-prone teens, mature (over 50) women, men who use the soap for shaving, and those with perioral dermatitis. (In fact, I initially developed the soap as part of my effort to create natural products that would help mitigate my own PD symptoms.)
So. Those are the basic facts about black soap, both the traditional African kind, and the Osmia kind. Both are excellent choices for normal or troubled skin, from acne to mild dermatitis to combination skin. The traditional version is appropriate for use all over, while Osmia’s version is more specifically designed for thinner, more temperamental facial skin.
Got questions? Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.