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Aleppo Soap: origins and benefits for hair and skin

What is Aleppo soap? Originating in the northwestern Syrian city of Aleppo, Aleppo soap has been made for more than 3500 years, making it one of the oldest soaps in the world. We do not know its age or its exact origin.

Despite this, it is known that Aleppo soap is probably the ancestor of all soaps. Used throughout the Middle East, its artisanal manufacturing method has been passed down from father to son, remaining unchanged over the centuries. It is said that the beautiful Cleopatra washed herself with Aleppo soap, and that some Arab princesses would have done the same.

Its oriental aura and cosmetic properties make it a highly appreciated product, which continues to be in demand despite the war.

Aleppo Soap

Traditional Aleppo soap: history, composition and manufacture

Aleppo soap: a whole story

Quoted in Sumerian tablets, in Egyptian papyri, among the Assyrians and Romans, soap is talked about in many ancient documents.

The oldest mention of a soap dates from Babylon, and it is a soap made of oil, soda and water... according to a recipe similar to Aleppo soap. Egyptians use products that look like soaps made from animal and vegetable fats. There are mentions of potash in the Bible, among the Hebrews.

The same manufacturing process for all old soaps

All these ancient soaps are described according to the same manufacturing process: saponification from vegetable oil and plants reduced to ash that provide sodium carbonate. These plants contain saponin, the ingredient that lathers soap and gives it its cleansing and foaming properties. Among these plants, we find the samphire, used for Aleppo soap, salsola, or the famous saponaria. These plants were used for centuries until plant-based soda was replaced by industrially manufactured caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).

Although the recipe is very old, it is only from the eighteenth century that the use of soap becomes widespread. Thanks to improved hygiene conditions, disease transmission and mortality are contained. At that time the industrial production of soap was in full swing.

Liquid soap today

It was not until the nineteenth century that we invented the liquid soap that dethroned the hard soap in our bathrooms. Yet liquid soap requires product additions, including preservatives and petroleum derivatives, as well as packaging, the famous plastic bottle that we are now trying to reduce our consumption.

Aleppo soap, the ancestor of Castile soaps

Aleppo soap would be the ancestor of all soaps, especially those called "Castile", obtained by the saponification of olive oil and soda including the well-known "Marseille soap" which was born in the fifteenth century.

The method of making the so-called Castile soaps dates back to the beginning of our era. Practiced by the Romans and Greeks this method of manufacture exists throughout the Mediterranean basin even if its name puts Spain in the spotlight. One of its ancient names is sapo hispaniensis, "Spanish soap". Castile actually produces soaps that it exports to Europe and the Americas. But Spain is far from the only one to produce olive oil soap.

The original method of making Aleppo soap would have spread in Europe after the Crusades in the eleventh and twelfth century, in Italy and then in France and Spain mainly. The method also travels to North Africa, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Europe and North Africa were already familiar with the saponification process, but production did not develop until that time, following this contact with the Middle East. The soap factories of Naples, Venice or Alicante take up the traditional manufacturing processes brought back by the Crusaders.

Aleppo, a city conducive to merchants

In Aleppo the traditional production of soaps on a large scale dates back to the seventh century although the manufacture of soaps is older. City of souks, caravanners and spice and silk merchants, Aleppo was a place conducive to the development of soap factories. There met the merchants and the Know-how Kurds, Bedouins and Armenians. The culture of the hammams was very much alive. At that time the small workshops were transformed into large soap factories. These acquired their modern size in the sixteenth century. It is considered that about half of Syrian soap production came from the Aleppo region in the 80s[1]. Aleppo soap is made there according to a composition and process that has remained unchanged for centuries.

Composition of Aleppo soap

Aleppo soap is made from olive oil (first or second pressure), laurel berry oil and vegetable soda.

Olive oil
Olive oil is preferably first cold pressed for the best quality. There are also soaps made from second-pressure olive oil.

Samphire soda or caustic soda

Originally, soda came from desert samphire ash. This small dry shrub contains soda and potash carbonates. The Bedouins went to fetch the samphire, which they incinerated in the ground to sell the ground ashes to soap factories. Samphire soda was gradually replaced by caustic soda at the end of the nineteenth century, then definitively in the fifties, when the Bedouins ceased the trade in samphire soda. Syria then imported caustic soda mainly from Europe.

Laurel berry oil

Laurel berry oil is obtained by boiling the berries of the noble laurel after pressing them. Aleppo soap may contain more or less laurel berry oil. The more it contains, the more expensive it is, because this oil is precious.

Aleppo soap: the result of a wealth of raw materials

There is no shortage of affordable raw materials in the Aleppo region: Olive oil (zayt zaitun in Arabic) is produced in the nearby mountains, in the Afrin Valley, in the Idlib region, or still comes from the Mediterranean basin. The soda comes from Palmyra, and the laurel berry oil (zayt gar) comes from the coast. The laurel comes from the regions of Latakia and Antioch, Syria or Turkey. All these raw materials were originally transported on donkey or mule before the modernization of techniques. The oils are now transported in barrels.

Artisanal manufacturing process of Aleppo soap

The preparation of soap is the result of several months of work. To make Aleppo soap, vegetable soda, water and olive oil are heated in a large tank for several days to obtain saponification.

A copper tank is usually used in the ground placed above a wood fire.

Traditionally, fire could be powered by olive stone coal. Currently, these methods have modernized, and the cooking fire is usually fueled with oil. The ingredients are boiled from 24 hours to three days, at about 140 ° C. The mixture should be stirred regularly, and rid of unsaponified soda. The master soap maker must monitor this cooking closely in order to decide when the dough is ready.

At the end of this process, laurel berry oil is added to the mixture, always stirring the mixture. Then the mixture is allowed to sit for a day before pouring and letting it cool. The dough is sometimes washed with salt water to get rid of glycerin, and then spread on the ground to dry. The pulp is covered with wooden planks, on which one walks to compact the soap.

Allowed to dry until the dough reaches the right consistency. It is necessary to wait up to two days of drying before cutting. Then the loaves are cut into cubes using a wooden rake and stamped.

The seal of the craftsman attests to the provenance and quality

Traditionally, workers wore some kind of skates, made of blades attached to wooden planks. Plastic boots have replaced these skates in many soap factories, although some manufacturers continue to wear them. Stamping is done as one mints money. Each manufacturer shall affix his seal, which shall include his name, the place of provenance and an indication of the quality.

A long aging process before being sold

The process does not stop there, because the soap is then aged for several months or even years. The loaves of soap are arranged in towers, away from light and sunlight.

This system of staggered towers allows better air circulation. Traditionally, soap should be aged for at least nine months. Some soaps are aged up to three years. The soap hardens and its smell becomes more refined over time. It will keep very well following this process.

Aleppo soap does not need any preservatives or additives, it is a natural and environmentally friendly product. It also has great cosmetic qualities, moisturizing the skin and hair.

Cosmetic properties of Aleppo soap

A superfat soap

Traditional soaps have not always had the coast, because of their drying effect. These classic soaps are too aggressive because they attack the hydrolipidic film of the skin, which protects it and maintains its level of hydration. Hence the need to moisturize the skin afterwards. Aleppo soap does not have this defect of drying the skin because it is mainly made of oil, making a soap called "surgras". This type of soap respects the hydrolipidic film of the skin. It is therefore of course washing but also moisturizing and it is suitable for all skin types.

Properties of olive oil

Aleppo soap is mostly made of olive oil. A key ingredient in Mediterranean gastronomy and cosmetics, the many benefits of olive oil are well established, and its reputation for being associated with longevity is well established. Rich in essential fatty acids (omega-6 and 9), antioxidants and vitamins, it nourishes the skin in depth. Softening, it is also useful in the care of scars and wrinkles. It is an oil appreciated for its "anti-aging" effect on the skin, thanks to the antioxidants it contains: polyphenols, phytosterols, squalenes, vitamin E, chlorophyll .... It softens the skin, gives it radiance and heals it. It is also useful in the care of hair, which it nourishes and shines.

Properties of laurel berry oil

But the key ingredient of Aleppo soap is laurel berry oil, obtained from the berries of the noble laurel (laurus nobilis). Precious and rarer, this oil has soothing, antiseptic, astringent and healing properties. Laurel berry oil heals small cuts, such as those left by an early shave. It soothes bites and reduces acne. It soothes and disinfects the skin and restores the hydrolipidic film. Purifying, it cleanses small wounds and calms itching and redness. It helps skin cells to regenerate. It is the active ingredient of Aleppo soap that makes it a care in addition to a cleanser and moisturizer.

Uses of Aleppo soap

Aleppo soap can be used by the whole family. It is above all a good soap for the body and face. It is suitable for the skin of babies and children. But in addition to being a good soap, it is also a shampoo, a face mask, a shaving foam and a soap for washing clothes.

Shampoo

Aleppo soap is used as a shampoo, wash and moisturizer. We lather the soap in our hands and then wash our hair with the foam. No need to use a large amount of soap, a little foam is enough. Olive oil nourishes the hair and makes it shine. Its use is particularly recommended against dandruff. Thus, it is an excellent transition to wash your hair without industrial shampoo.

Face mask

Aleppo soap can be used as a face mask to let the oils act. Lather the soap by applying it in small circles to the face, then leave for a minute or two and rinse with clear water.

Shaving foam

The healing properties of laurel oil also make Aleppo soap an excellent shaving foam, which leaves the skin healthy and hydrated, and small wounds disinfected.

For linen

Aleppo soap is also perfectly suited for washing clothes, especially for white linen, which will benefit from drying in direct sunlight.

Travelling

Aleppo soap is therefore multifunctional: soap, of course, but also shampoo, care, shaving foam and laundry, it is a very practical ally of backpack travel.

In care in case of skin problem

Aleppo soap can be used by anyone, but it is especially useful in the care of skin problems. Aleppo soap acts against acne, eczema, psoriasis, dermatosis, irritations...

It is recommended to gently wash the skin, moisturize and soothe it.

When choosing an Aleppo soap to soothe a problem skin, we turn to the soaps that have the highest content of laurel berry oil (up to 80%). The latter helps to heal and soothe redness and itching. Aleppo soap therefore provides a healthy alternative to more aggressive cosmetics that should be avoided in case of skin problems.

In case of skin irritation, it is recommended not to use laundry detergent, and you can also wash your laundry with Aleppo soap. Of course, Aleppo soap is not a drug against acne or eczema, which should be treated, but it is a gentle care that will reduce itching, and disinfect pimples.

Choosing your Aleppo soap: quality criteria

Provenance: traces of war

To choose a good Aleppo soap, first check its origin. Obviously, we will be pushed to look for an Aleppo soap from... of Aleppo. But Aleppo's soap production has been partially exported following the tragic events in Syria.

Local soap factories drop considerably

With the war, many soap factories had to go out of business. The number of local soap factories has thus decreased from a hundred to only a dozen in 2012. The delivery of soaps has also become very difficult with the conflict. The production of soaps has increased from about 20 thousand tons before the war to a few thousand tons today.

Traditional soap can be found elsewhere than in Aleppo

Aleppo soap continues to be in demand and Syrian artisans fleeing the war are settling in Paris, Turkey or Tunisia. Available stocks in Syria continue to sell out during lulls. You will be able to find handmade Aleppo soaps elsewhere than in Aleppo. They are often made by master soap makers from Syria who continue to apply all their know-how. Aleppo soap "Orinko" is made in Turkey, on the Syrian border.

This war is not the first to change the face of the Aleppo soap market. Until the seventies, Syria exported large quantities to Iraq. The closure of the borders had a difficult impact on Syrian trade. Despite all these difficulties, the production of Aleppo soap resumed there a few years ago.

Syrians seem determined to continue producing their national soap, despite the surrounding chaos. In the words of Hisham Jbeili, Chairman of the Aleppo Soap Protection Commission of the Aleppo Chamber of Industry: "Aleppo soap is like chocolate for Switzerland or oil for Saudi Arabia, it will never stop being produced here!" [2]

If you want to be sure that your soap comes from Aleppo, there has been a geographical certification issued in Syria since 2016. Nevertheless, there is no protected designation of origin recognized outside Syria.

The seal

One of the guarantees of quality of Aleppo soap is its seal of origin. The arabic mention "Aleppo": حلب appears on soaps produced without the Aleppo region. In addition to the region of origin, the name of the manufacturer and an indication of the quality or percentage of laurel berry oil must be found on the seal. After a few purchases, we will sometimes recognize the name of the manufacturer, perhaps that of a large family of soap makers like Muqayyid, Fansa, or Sayyah...

Oil quality

The quality of the oils that make up Aleppo soap determines the quality of the soap. Not always informed, the quality of the olive oil, first or second pressure, and the quality of the laurel berry oil are important criteria. Then comes the percentage of laurel berry oil, which gives its most interesting cosmetic properties to this soap.

Percentage of laurel berry oil

The higher the laurel berry oil content, the more greasy the soap, the more cosmetically interesting it is and the more expensive it is. However, it is not necessary to use a soap with a very high percentage of laurel oil on a daily basis. It depends mainly on your skin type:

-Soaps with a very low percentage of laurel oil (5% to 15%) are cheap and are perfectly suited to everyday life for sensitive skin and dry skin. They are rich in olive oil and very moisturizing.

-With a low to medium percentage of laurel oil (15 to 25%), soap is suitable for combination skin for daily use.

-With a medium to high percentage of laurel oil (30-40%) soap is more suitable for oily skin, and against dandruff.

-Soaps with a very high percentage of laurel oil (40 to 80%) are recommended in case of specific skin problems. An 80% soap should be chosen in case of psoriasis, eczema or acne, or to tackle serious dandruff problems.

Aleppo soap is brown on the outside and emerald green on the inside

The color of the soap depends on the olive oil used and the drying time and therefore does not necessarily indicate the quality. Indeed, some olive oils are clearer than others... The color is also influenced by the rate of laurel oil. The more laurel oil there is, the more the color tends to brownish. Aleppo soap should be brown, more or less light or dark. When the soap is cut in half, the heart is dark emerald green, as the chlorophyll in the oil remains green away from sunlight but oxidizes on the surface of bars of soap.

Aleppo soap floats in the water

Take the test: put your Aleppo soap in a container filled with water. You will see that it floats – which is not the case with most soaps. A very good way to know if you are in the presence of a real Aleppo soap.

Avoid counterfeits

Some dishonest sellers use the name and fame of Aleppo soap to sell products that are not. Generally speaking, an Aleppo soap has a rough and irregular appearance.

Smooth, shiny soaps usually have added ingredients. If the list of ingredients includes something other than soda, olive oil, and bay laurel, you can go your way.

Authentic Aleppo soap will never contain palm oil, copra oil or animal fats. These oils are cheaper than the precious olive oils and laurel berries, key ingredients of Aleppo soap. They do not have the same properties at all. A genuine soap will also not have preservatives or dyes, other signs you have to deal with a counterfeit. In some of them, we find parabens, laureth sulfate, lauryl sulfate, cocamide DEA, EDTA etc ... also to be avoided.

So choose a soap with a natural and irregular appearance, brownish color, and which has a seal of provenance. Choose the percentage of laurel berry oil according to your skin type.

Where to buy it and at what price?

The price of a 200-gram bar of Aleppo soap can vary from €1.5 to €10 depending on the quality and content of laurel oil. Better of course to buy an Aleppo soap made by Aleppo soap masters, produced on the spot or in exile. 

Aleppo soap: A natural artisanal soap

Biodegradable and ecological

Aleppo soap is fully biodegradable. Unlike the soaps and liquid shampoos available on the market, which contain phosphates and chemicals harmful to fauna and flora, you can wash with Aleppo soap while camping or in nature without leaving a trace of pollution. Without plastic packaging and petroleum derivatives, it is a health-beauty alternative to shower gel and bottled shampoo, which no longer needs to prove itself.

A natural and economical choice

Natural, eco-friendly, biodegradable, gentle on the skin and hair of the whole family, convenient to slip into the travel kit to wash clothes on the way, Aleppo soap continues to be enjoyed as it has been for centuries.

Its content of moisturizing olive oil and soothing and healing laurel oil makes it a cosmetic treatment of choice. Despite the bombings, the aleppins were able to continue to support their traditional soap and export it around the world.

Aleppo soap can be kept for years without added products. Aleppo soap has a good shelf life and is therefore a more economical choice than liquid soaps. It is a soap with many virtues, healthy and ecological that connects us to an ancient tradition and our craftsmen.

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