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David Fisher

African Black Soap & How (I've Learned) It's Really Different

By March 20, 2006

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Note: I wrote this post originally in March of 2006. No single blog post has generated more controversy and comment. If you look at just the ingredients, the two soaps should be pretty much the same. But (as I now realize) that's like saying that your mom's famous shortbread is just a mix of butter, sugar and water - and that any recipe using those ingredients will be the same. It leaves out the historical practice, folk knowledge, and just plain magic touch that these amazing soap makers in Africa have. They're also generally making their lye from the ashes of burned coconuts and cocoa pods. Just like making soap from lye made with hard wood is different than soap made with softer woods, soap made from lye made from burned cocoa pods is going to be different. Another notion is that the palm oil used probably also contains some oil from the kernel of the palm (palm kernel oil) which DOES lather really well. So the blend of palm and/or palm kernel oil used in that particular batch of soap would determine the lathering.
So, on that count...and many other counts...I stand corrected. As I continue to learn, African black soap is a wonder in and of itself...and while possible, would be really, really, really difficult to replicate outside of landscape  of (and without the raw ingredients available in) Africa.
My original blog post is below...as are the many comments from soap makers around the world.

I've used raw unrefined shea butter directly imported from Ghana for several years now. I get mine from Supplies by Star. Another interesting product of Africa is African Black Soap. Likewise, it is legendary for its wonderful, skin-loving qualities. This press release from The African Store not only talks about the healing qualities of African Black Soap, but also gives the procedure for making it. Now non-soapmakers might be enchanted by the (really interesting) process that involves burning cocoa pods and pressing palm oil - but us soap makers should be able to see that our soap process is pretty similar! (Or at least I hope you can.) What the steps that this press release describe are basically a palm oil (only) soap made through the kettle process. Palm oil makes a good bar of soap - some people call it "veggie tallow" for it's hard, stable lathering qualities - but it's otherwise unremarkable. It won't have the lather that coconut oil will bring, or the moisturizing that olive oil or cocoa butter would bring. The "softness" of the soap is caused by the lye-making process. By making your own lye solution with water and ashes, you make a combination of sodium and potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide is used for making liquid soap. The two mixed together will give you a soft soap. Now, don't get me wrong, even a single oil (palm oil) soap, made well, would be better than many of the bars you can buy in the grocery store. But my Grocery Store Recipe or any other Basic Soap Recipe that you create are good soap. Now if you want to imitate the black soap (just an imitation) you could add in some bits of ash or dark botanicals or burned plantain skin to your soap to give it some rustic qualities. But without the raw ingredients - the shea butter, the palm oil (some of which may very well be palm kernel oil - which DOES lather very well) and the lye made from cocoa pod ashes, you're never going to duplicate real African black soap.
But just like there are soap makers all over the world, there are soaps all over the world - each soap maker is unique, each batch is unique, each soap is unique.


June 25, 2006 at 9:46 pm
(1) Butterfly Samburu says:

Thank you for the confirmation! I read that same article today and followed with more research before I read your page. African Black Soap is no longer a mystery (with exception to recipes varying region to region). The myth is dispelled. I now will start a tradition and well guarded secret with my own version of ABS. Mine will be African American Black Soap :-) Truly, ignorance is not bliss!

Happy Soapmaking!!!

June 27, 2006 at 9:32 pm
(2) Aby says:

No one could ever truly replicate African Black Soap. And to say that anyone can make “their own” version of it is false. It is made using a tried and true method that makes it unique to any soap on earth. Yes, anyone can make their own soap, but you will never replicate African black soap no matter how hard you try. I think this article puts the process of making African Black soap down rather than enlighting people on the craft, and not only the craft, but the women who make it for Fair Trade.

“It won’t have the lather that coconut oil will bring, or the moisturizing that olive oil or cocoa butter would bring.”

I beg to differ. I have been using true African black soap all my life and the lather that comes from it is beyond remarkable. I think your article is very misleading and tries to put African black soap, TRUE African black soap down.

June 28, 2006 at 11:19 am
(3) candleandsoap says:

They do say that the Palm Oil, plantain ashes and coco pods are the “active” ingredients…it could be that there are “inactive” ingredients that would help lather and/or moisturizing. Certainly African Shea Butter is reknown for it’s skin-loving qualities. Thank you for your comment/addition/correction!

July 28, 2006 at 1:04 am
(4) Butterfly Samburu says:

The mentioned article noted that the African Black Soap is produced in several regions and that it is made according to the availability of and the abundance of product to those regions. Also the recipes will vary according to the tribeswomen and families.
Soapmakers are provided knowledge of the processes and the properties of the ingredients used, and the chemistry of soapmaking. Having read the article I was able to see through the myth and mystery of African Black Soap. This article and others try to maintain the integrity of this truly special product by keeping up the myth about how it is produced.
I would’nt dare attempt take anything away from the women who make African Black Soap because it is an age long tradition of sisterhood and a means of self sufficiency. While this is true I too want to make my own version of ABS. It may not have the authenticity of being ‘born’ from the ‘Motherland’, however, it will be made with all the love. care. spirit and attention that I’m sure anyone who loves creating will put into their work. I too want to start a tradition of my own. What we make comes from each of us individually, and can never be replicated identically, especially when the spirit of creating is involved. Soapmaking is a science, but truly it is more art and interpretation and inprovisation. No two people will make the same cake recipe identically, nor have I tasted the same guacamole dip at any festivity. My mom’s sweet potato pie tastes nothing like my sister-in law’s , but it’s still sweet potato pie. These are all good and authentic by the hands that prepared them.

Be glad that that knowledge frees us, thus providing more options and less limitations, which means choice.

April 19, 2007 at 7:21 pm
(5) Frumpom says:

I would like to say that, besides the obvious richness in vitamins, palm oil is better than coconut oil any day. And there is a reason why the wise ones came up with that recipe. Till today, I am yet to find someone unsatisfied with using black soap(made with unaltered recipe). Personally, I am yet to use one that is not rich in lather.

It is pretty obvious that the only reason you are using coconut oil is because it is cheaper and more readily available than palm oil. It is better to be quiet than try to market your product in the lines of “having more value”,and yes, even in terms of the richness of lather because the traditional black soap has VERY rich lather. I do not understand when you say that yours has more lather, may be you should have checked to make sure the other one you tried was traditionally made before jumping into such conclusions. You should know that just like you, so many people alter the ingredients they you to reduce costs. You really can’t fool every one you know. And in case you have not gotten a hint by now, stop making something so glorious look like its ugly compared to yours. You can’t just wake up one day and decided to write of the works of others as if it is not enough that you are actually making profit marketing your cheap product as “african black soap”

May 31, 2007 at 10:23 am
(6) A.M.C. says:

I enjoyed this article, though I don’t entirely agree with it. And thanks for the soap recipe – I’ve always wanted to try making my own soap.

African Black Soap has rich lather and I agree with you – it is not that moisturizing. I’ve been trying the soap samples from nasabb.com and there’s a honey soap that has shea butter in it, which is easier on my face. ABS does not have shea butter in it, but I think they are most often used together. But ABS is supposed to have medicinal qualities that go beyond moisturizing, like for eczema, pimples and rashes. I’ve just started using it for my summer heat rash with shea butter to take away the itch. I can’t see the effects of ABS immediately, but the shea butter does relieve itch instantly. The down side is that I am still itchy at night (and it wakes me up), which means I have to reapply after a few hours.

To respond to another commentator, coconut oil is not cheaper than palm oil. Check vitamin sites or tropicaltraditions.com. Palm oil is cheaper and I’ve used both for cookie recipes. Coconut oil tastes a lot better than palm oil, but palm oil has more vitamins A & E. Coconut oil also has antiviral and antibacterial properties.

December 6, 2007 at 9:31 am
(7) kaya isesajah says:

I found your blog, the recipe and your comments about African Black Soap inaccurate! You obviously do not know or understand the actual quality of REAL African Black Soap, of which I have been using for many years. Your ‘recipe’ cannot compare to Real African Black Soap, at all.

April 11, 2008 at 2:16 am
(8) katrina says:

I have used balck soap for the last couple of years, and I don’t mean soap that is dyed black, either. I just washed my face 3 hours agao and I can feel my face becoming mopist as I am typing this. I am a dark skinned woman, and sometimes we have the worst acne scars. This soap smoothes all the scars. I do not need to immediately moisturize with this soap. I do not need 3 tubes of anything for a regimen. I can rub my hand across the bar 3 or 4 times and lather my whole BODY! The clogged pores a lot of us have around our noses, release themselves with consistent use. I also saw on a website that a woman uses them to clean her paint brushes, and it keeps the bristles soft. I also, due to DHEA have facial hair – the soap makes the hair on my face softer! I can shampoo my hair with this also. I find the best products in the world are the ones that are rarely infiltrated by a CERTAIN group of people and markerted to the mainstream. Leave a GREAT thing alone. Give it props. Come up with ur own thing.

I am sure there are other great brands out there that I would LOVE to learn about, but presently I use DUDU OSUN. Let me know, I’m waiting to be furhter educated. Peace.

May 20, 2008 at 1:28 pm
(9) anna says:

I dont see the point of all these arguments…palmoil,coconut oil,sheabutter etc All are found in africa and have their respective benefits.It all depends on what precisely you are looking for.Whether for more skin firming,added moisture,protection from uv rays,skin suppleness,skin softness,skin repair and healing ,skin conditioning,skin lightning,smoothness,sensitivity,allergies,irritation…the list goes on .These are oils which have diiferent properties and uses.
To discredit a particular ingredient is not justifiable

July 22, 2008 at 1:39 am
(10) lilo says:

My question is, is Black soap made using lye or is it just a ‘mixing’ of various ingredients and curing?

January 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm
(11) blackeyes says:

I want to try this but I am almost certain it will not be like the soap from africa.

August 8, 2009 at 2:53 pm
(12) chika says:

there’s no way to duplicate african black soap if you’re not in west africa. why? the air, water, soil is pure. in the west, the air/water/soil is polluted and overfertilized. the tree barks used to make the soap in africa is rooted in RICH, PURE soil.

January 9, 2010 at 7:05 pm
(13) Suzanne says:

I absolutely swear by African Black Soap. There are healing properties in the ashes of those plants. THey each have a purpose and are not to merely authenticate it’s “rustic nature”. Raw black soap and raw shea butter (in its raw form) are the only things that I and my two year-old daughter can use that truly help our skin. For me, it’s clogged pores and acne that the soap as resolved. If I skip using it or run out, I go back to the large, deep pimples that become inflammed….then I apply the shea butter which completely heals. The black soap and the shea butter is the only thing that HEALS my daughter’s eczema. It’s the only items that do not burn her when applied (the so-called “eczema creams” from the pharmacy due! It causes her to scratch her skin until it bleeds). Raw shea butter, which she calls her cream, makes her smile. She in turn massages my feet with it:) I finally ordered a huge block of raw black soap off of Ebay and I am so excited because I love having clear smooth skin. And love being able to wash my hair, body, and baby with the same thing!!
Other soaps made here in the states are not the same….might be fine just as a general soap for cleansing but ABS is really a miracle soap. I haven’t had such clear skin in more than 10 years :)

July 5, 2010 at 2:26 am
(14) Anu says:

You people could never truly replicate African black soap. Not it’s methods of production, not it’s history, and certainly not it’s difference in tradition in the areas and people it’s produced by.

Thank you for your article, but I choose to support my people back home because I know they will always give me the original and the best. Not knockoffs and imitations.

July 11, 2010 at 8:40 am
(15) jane doe says:

your formula will work on skin types like yours and the majority of people in the us. but on people with skin similar to the people of Ghana it is a disaster.
Potassium hydroxide is a ingredient that will cause acne, scaring and uneven skin tone in brown skin. It would defeat the whole pupose of using black soap. because natural black soap evens out the skin tone and gets rid of acne using natural ingredients.
I just wish they had more of the authentic black soap around. because that grocery store recipe and regular store recipe is not good on my skin and the damage that ingredient (among others not listed in your article did on my skin is horrible .
I stop using soap with that ingredient and sulfates and it started clearing up

July 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm
(16) Elle Dee says:

People, please disregard this man’s article. Though, it maybe beneficial in the areas of general soap making, dyeing soap black with natural colorants will be no substitute for the therapeautic properties in true African Black soap. Anyone who is seeking the benefits of this soap, do not try to make it at home, especially not using these directions. You will not recieve the same results as someone who uses the genuine thing. Also, try to purchase this product fair trade if you can :) so much better for the people who work to make it. And every bar of black soap I have ever bought lathers beautifully.

July 15, 2010 at 1:23 pm
(17) candleandsoap says:

Elle Dee…thank you for your comments. Over the past 4 years I have edited this blog post a number of times as I’ve learned more about African Black Soap…and the soap making process in general. As you can see, people are really passionate about soap making…especially those who have experienced black soap. You (and the folks above) are right…it would be nearly impossible to duplicate black soap outside of Africa…but that’s o.k. Understanding more about how it’s made and why it’s different, makes it all the more interesting and special!

January 3, 2011 at 2:57 pm
(18) P.O. says:

@katrina and jane doe:
Alaffia and the African Fair Trade Society have fair trade black soap. I’m sure you could Google ‘fair trade, organic, black soap’ and find a lot of good companies. I have heard criticism and doubt about Dudu Osun because they add ‘fragrance’ to their soaps, but haven’t tried their products so I don’t know how they work.

Good Luck :)

July 27, 2011 at 12:49 pm
(19) wendy says:

I must be simple minded..i was just googling how to try making this soap and it is nearly impossible to find out! I am not an expert on soapmaking and the balance you would need to have of the ashes, water and oil, and how you can just put these ingredients in a pot and the soap floats and then you put that in molds for two weeks to cure…thats all I found out, lol. I still will try it(being a nature nut and mother of ten)just like to have hobbies..i did buy some ABS and love it! For everything! It is high in glycerine, so I tried treating a dirty saddle to some Africa! Haven’t found any google links on THAT! Lol

January 15, 2012 at 4:56 pm
(20) From Me To U Essentials says:

African Black Soap is the best. By trade, I am a licensed Esthetician and use this soap faithfully for my oily skin.

It simply is the best and beats out any so-called high end cleansing bar on the market. It is not pretty, but it works. No fancy packing, just a all around good product.

Buying this soap helps the women in the villages of Africa..what a bonus!

July 7, 2012 at 2:32 pm
(21) Moonblue54 says:

I have tried the Dudu Osun and the handmade African black soap. While the Dudu Osun is a great lathering and most pleasant smelling soap, I much prefer the handmade. I liquefy it, add some of my favorite essential oils and carrier oils to it, and use it both as a body wash and shampoo. In the hair, it produces the most luxuriant suds you will ever experience–almost like a thick, rich cream. I would love to make a shampoo bar with the ABS as a base, with the addition of marshmallow root, jojoba oil, shea butter, castor oil, and some essential oils. If anyone knows if this can be done or has used ABS as a base for soapmaking, will you please share your recipe?

March 5, 2013 at 11:29 am
(22) aircon_ear says:

I bought some African Black Soap (ABS) from a highly reputed seller on eBay. The soap was sold as 100% authentic, raw, organic, pure, and natural. I’m excited when the soap arrived and looks as good as it was claimed. I have been using them for more than 2 months now.

Actually, I started developing rashes and itch on my legs about 2 months ago and its gotten worse by the day. It had not occur to me that the soap could be a possible cause, and because of the claim that ABS alleviates rashes, I used it more hoping that it will help relief the rash and itch. How silly I was.

Then few days ago, it suddenly struck me that it seems I start developing the rash at about the same time I started using this African Black soap. So I did some research on google, and sure enough, I found way too many people who also had rashes and itchy skin after using the soap (from various brands and sources). So I stop using mine to be sure and I use my shampoo as body wash instead.

The effect is almost immediate. After I stopped using the ABS, my skin hasn’t itch much. Unfortunately, it will take longer for the rash to go away and my skin to heal completely. But for now, it’s great as I have not feel this good and comfortable for a loooong while.

I hope this writing serves to alert those thinking of trying ABS. Don’t jump in with blind faith like I did, believing all the marketing hypes, and had to suffer unnecessarily for 2 months.

Test out a small quantity first and monitor its effect on you.

March 17, 2013 at 7:28 am
(23) dawodu musibau says:

I can supply african black soap in large quantity to foreign buyers. Contact my e mail address dawodusenior@gmail.com.

July 20, 2013 at 11:25 pm
(24) lmtur says:

From the description of the recipe, it seems an adaption of the way soap was made years ago, using lye water made from hardwood ashes… only the African Black Soap makers keep the ashes in the lye water and upon adding the oil as it cooks the soap which rises to the surface is simply scooped off and placed in molds or pressed into bars. The only difference in this soap would be the ashes added to the bars. And I don’t know about you, but plantain skins or cocoa pods I don’t think qualify as hardwood, thereby the reason the soap would dissolve in water even in a short time. Couldn’t one do an adaption of this process using other ash sources more readily available and call the soap something else, like American Black Soap? Interesting idea I think.

October 10, 2013 at 6:21 pm
(25) teresa says:

I want to buy black african soap in ten or twenty lbs shippment
the real stuff
made from ashes

who knows the best quality?
thank u

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