Ancient Syrians knew how to make green soap used by Queens Cleopatra of Egypt and Zenobia of Syria. It’s a timeless method that abounds today.
Some scholars say the first soap making techniques began in the Levant region, a geographical area that included the eastern Mediterranean. From Greece to Cyrenaica, the eastern Libyan coast, crafters knew how to make green soap using olive and laurel oils. The Crusades brought knowledge of how to make bar soap back into Europe, where the traditional olive oil recipe gained the name “Castile,” from a region in Spain of the same name.
Though Castile soap recipes have lost the laurel oil originally used, renamed “Aleppo soap” contains both laurel and olive oils. It’s also traditionally made in that same Levant region; Syria, in particular.
Traditionally made via hot process, since it burned off impurities and allowed for imperfect lye variations, Aleppo soap is still made in the same vat locations. In-ground and lined with bricks, the huge vat had a fire beneath, which was constantly fed and stoked so olive oil could boil for three days until the lye activated and turned it into a thick liquid soap. Then oil from the laurel fruit is added, which gives the soap a deeper green hue. Afterward, the mixture is poured into a huge soap mold lying on the factory’s floor, where it’s allowed to cool and harden for a day or so. Soap makers strap wooden planks to their feet and tread upon the soap, smoothing it and creating an even thickness. The soap is then cut using a huge rake-like object pulled by three people, creating rustic and imperfect lines that add to the product’s beauty. Individual artisans stamp their own names and logos into individual bars. Then the soap is stacked and staggered, like green bricks with air spaces in between, in subterranean stone-walled chambers. For six months, moisture evaporates, the external color turns a pale gold with a dusting of soda ash, and alkaline content lessens. The final product, a hard and long-lasting bar, is then exported or sold within open-air markets.
With recent conflict, traditional Aleppo soap is threatened. BBC published an article which looks into the life of Syrian soap maker Nabil Andoura, who struggles to keep the industry alive. His business thrived until fighting made it too dangerous to even travel to his factory.
Where Aleppo once had a growing trade controlled by five main families, with about 45 smaller factories within the province, now crafters have a difficult time transporting soap out of the city and into markets. Laurel trees, also known as bay trees, are also threatened, with may groves damaged or demolished; lately, 80% of oil used in the soap was imported from Turkey. And then there are the imposters, those adding pigments to lower-grade soaps, undercutting costs of true and traditional recipes.
The Benefits of Green Aleppo Soap
Since laurel oil has antibiotic, anti-fungal, and anti-itching properties, it’s been used for millennia as a treatment against insect bites, dermatitis, acne, and even inhibiting the growth of carcinomas. It’s gentle enough for bathing infants or to be used as shaving cream or a face mask. And soap makers even claim it prevents hair loss and aids in the recovery of skin diseases.
Olive oil, known for centuries as a healing product both nutritionally and externally, is a deep penetrating moisturizer. It softens and regenerates skin tissue. All beneficial properties of traditional Castile olive oil soaps are enhanced with the addition of laurel oil.
But those benefits are often conditional on how much laurel oil constitutes the bar’s recipe. Bars can contain from two to 30% laurel oil, and higher concentration means a higher cost. Most bars that have at least 16 % are exported from Syria to wealthier regions in Europe and Asia.
How to Make Green Soap: A Modern Twist
Though not an easy soap recipe for beginners, Aleppo green soap is easier than goat milk soap recipes because there are no sugars to burn. The only ingredients are olive and laurel oils, lye, and water.
Deviate from traditional four-day hot process methods and try cold process for a smoother bar. Modern crafters in Syria have also started using cold process because it allows them to add other herbs and essential oils.
To make the traditional recipe, purchase olive oil, laurel berry fruit oil, lye, and distilled water. Always read labels.
Less-expensive olive oils can be a mix of olive and other oils like canola and grapeseed, which is dangerous for soapmaking because you need to know the exact amount of each different oil to calculate in a safe amount of lye. Extra virgin olive oil makes a lighter-colored soap but many experienced crafters say the lower-quality greener oil is better for soap making anyway. Use whichever you want. But if you use “olive oil pomace,” you must choose that option within the lye calculator. It has a different saponification value than olive oil.
Also, be sure your lye is 100% sodium hydroxide; some newer drain-cleaning brands also contain aluminum to make it more active in pipes. Distilled water is important because it’s least likely to contain impurities which might ruin soap or at least give it an unsightly soda ash patina.
Expect to pay at least $25 for sixteen ounces of laurel berry fruit oil, and beware of cheaper solutions which may be diluted with carrier oils. As long as it’s 100% laurel berry fruit oil, you can go for less-expensive thick, green, opaque products. Do not use bay laurel essential oil; it’s from the same plant but it’s not the same thing.
Now, create your recipe. No, really…it’s perfectly safe as long as you:
- Use between 2-30% PURE laurel berry fruit oil (more or less may depend on your finances)
- Use 100% olive oil in whatever quantity makes 100% after considering laurel oil
- Use pure sodium hydroxide and pure distilled water
- Enter your values into a soap calculator every time you start
If you don’t want to play with recipes, use this Aleppo soap recipe published by The Nerdy Farm Wife: But still verify the values with the lye calculator because typos happen.
If you do want to make your own recipe, go to Soapcalc.net and use the lye calculator.
Additional fragrance is optional but not traditional, as are skin-soothing ingredients such as oatmeal. When choosing fragrances, keep in mind that the laurel berry fruit oil already has a green-medicinal fragrance which will fade during cure time but will still be there. It would be best to make the first batch without additional scents, so you can judge for yourself before purchasing expensive fragrance oils. Scents and oatmeal are all added at “trace,” the point where you lift a spoon or stick blender out of the soap batter and it leaves a visible trace of liquid at the top.
From there, follow standard cold process soap making techniques, mixing lye into water in one pitcher, allowing it to cool, and heating oils up in the soap pot until both mixtures are the same temperature. Add the lye-water to the oils, then stir and agitate with a stick blender until the green mixture reaches trace. Stir in oatmeal or fragrance, if desired, then pour into soap molds. Place molds in a warm (but not hot) location for at least 48 hours, until it undergoes a full gel stage then cools and hardens. After removing soap from the molds, and cutting if necessary, let it sit in open air for at least six weeks. An excellent cure location is the top of a bedroom closet, on brown paper bags, uncovered so air can flow.
Since Aleppo soap has such a high concentration of olive oil, and true olive oil soaps can take six months to a year of cure time for best quality, consider leaving this soap in the closet for a while longer. It’s worth the wait.
If you want to see the true beauty of the traditional product, enter “Aleppo soap” into an Internet image search. But to experience the benefits without searching the market for an endangered product, learn how to make green soap in your own home.
Do you know how to make green soap? Let us know your experiences!
These values are taken from The Nerdy Farm Wife’s blog and use 0.65oz lye and 1oz water: