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.