“Castile Soap” has become very popular lately as people search for kinder gentler soaps to wash with. But what is it?
- Originally, it was the soap produced in the Spanish city of Castile beginning between the 11th and 12th centuries. Although soap making has been around for millennia, Dark Ages and Middle Ages Europeans did not regularly make or use it. The Castilians based their method of soap making on Middle Eastern methods that called for laurel oil. Laurel oil was hard to find in that region, but olive oil was abundant. The product caught on and was exported all over Europe during the next few centuries. It makes a very gentle on the skin but tough on dirt product. It doesn’t lose its efficacy after months (perhaps years) of storage. Olive oil is less prone to rancidity than animal fats, extending shelf life significantly.
So, what about the Castile Soaps on the market today?
- The definition of Castile soap has been extended to include any soap made with plant based products. Some soap makers maintain that only soap made with olive oil should receive that label. I myself stay out of that debate, but to save myself some grief, I only label olive oil soap as “Castile Soap.”
- Generally speaking, although there is no labeling requirement to confirm this, products labeled “Castile Soap” retain their glycerin. One of the reasons that so many commercially made soaps are so harsh (despite claims to add in moisturizing cream) is that companies often remove the glycerin that naturally occurs in soap making so that they can sell it separately. Hand made soap generally still has the glycerin for a couple of reasons. One, it’s not easy to remove in a small scale operation. Two, why would you want to? It makes your soap nicer.
Why do we like to use this today?
- Its gentle treatment of the skin stands out. I’ve made soaps with other fats such as shea butter and coconut oil, yet keep coming back to pure olive oil for my soap.
- It is safe for babies. It may not be “tear free” but even tear free soap isn’t really tear free. Those often have additives to fool your baby into thinking the soap isn’t so bothersome. For some people this is worth it. I prefer more natural products. Sometimes we think of something safe and gentle enough for babies as not being strong enough to combat grown up dirt. Castile soap is very tough on dirt.
What about the lather?
- If it’s made from 100% olive oil, it won’t have a particularly foamy and light lather. It will have a dense lather that can take some adjusting to. Commercial soap companies have us fooled into thinking that a light foamy lather is a sign of effectiveness. It’s just not true. This low foaming action makes it great for laundry as it won’t ruin modern HE washers. It’s an important part of my laundry detergent recipe.
How can you tell what kind of soap is in your home?
- Check the label. Chances are that if it lacks ingredients and the company can’t or won’t tell you when you contact them, it’s not very natural and it has had the glycerin removed. Small companies and a few reputable larger ones that cater to the natural products market will tell you just what is and is not in their product.
What is that “lye” stuff you see listed on many soap labels? Isn’t it dangerous?
- It was originally made by filtering water through fire ashes. When you mix lye with fat, it turns to soap. Today, most of us rely on commercially produced lye so that we know exactly how much we are using. We want to do this because it is, in fact, a dangerous substance and can cause some nasty chemical burns. Natural is not the same as safe. Fire is natural, but it can still hurt or kill you. Lye falls into this category. It is a great thing and very helpful when used safely. It comes in two main forms, sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. Don’t let those official names scare you. It’s like calling water dihydrogen oxide or H2O.
What do I use in my Castile Soap? Here’s my recipe. It can be used for either hot or cold process methods. If you’ve never made soap before, be sure to do some research on how to make it. Whenever trying a new soap recipe, double check the lye calculations. I like this calculator. Essential oils are optional and can be mixed and matched to your preference.
- 4 pounds olive oil (I find regular as opposed to extra virgin makes a harder soap.)
- 20 ounces water
- 4 ounces sodium hydroxide lye
- 3 tablespoons lavender essential oil (optional)
- 1 tablespoon peppermint oil (optional, omit if intended for an infant)
Don’t want to make it yourself? You can buy mine here.