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The History and Future of Soap: From Ancient Civilizations to COVID and Beyond

It’s safe to say that most people have taken soap for granted. We use it every day in multiple forms, relying on it to keep us clean and healthy. Before the global pandemic, most of us probably didn’t give soap too much thought, besides what brand or scent we preferred!

Now, though, soap is getting a lot of attention. We’re thinking more carefully about our hygiene, the things we touch, and the way we wash our hands. 

On top of that, for the first time in most of our lives, soap is hard to come by! 

This is the perfect time to take a look at soap’s past, present, and future. Soap has changed quite a bit over the years to match society’s needs and demands. Read on to find out how soap has changed and what changes we might see in the future. The history of soap might just surprise you!

Soap in Ancient Civilizations

Soap wasn’t always the pleasantly fragrant substance we use today. Ancient civilizations did produce soap-like substances, but not only did they look (and smell) much different than they do today, they weren’t even used for the same purposes.

Originally, soap was never intended to be used for personal hygiene. The first soaps were made as early as 2800 BC. The Mesopotamians formed those soaps from rendered animal fat mixed with water and lye. This process produced a pungent oily substance that removed dirt and grime. The soap-like substance was used for washing cloth and wool. 

After that, civilizations continued to produce soap primarily for laundering purposes for centuries. The Ancient Egyptians used soap created from animal fats and alkaline salts for washing cloth and for medicinal purposes. 

Rome, Legends, and Laundry

In the Roman Empire, history saw its earliest pipe plumbing system. Bathing was more than just a hygienic practice; it was also an important social activity. Even so, they did not use soap as part of their bathing process. While the Romans did use scented oils in their baths, soaps were still used for cleaning laundry and cooking utensils.

Roman legend has it that soap was actually named for mythical Mount Sapo. Romans told tales of the mountain, a site for animal sacrifices. As rain would pour down the mountain, it would carry animal fat into the clay riverbank, forming a substance that women used to help with cleaning. 

After the Roman Empire crumbled, baths fell out of style as people began to believe that water helped spread disease. Soaps were still used for laundry, but were now essentially a luxury item for the European elite. 

In America, colonists began making their own versions of soap. They would gather grease and fats throughout the winter and mix them with lye for spring cleaning of underclothes. The process of making soap was time-consuming and complex.

Science, Hygiene, and Soap Change

The first major soap shift happened in 1791 when French chemist Nicholas Leblanc discovered a method of using salt to make soda ash. Scientific advancements continued to make soap production easier and more practical. 

But it wasn’t until the Civil War that soap was first used for personal hygiene. The war effort brought a renewed need for cleanliness, and the idea of using soap to wash skin and wounds first started circulating.

Soon enough, the soap industry split into two facets—detergents for laundry and soap for hygiene. Soap production rose to meet demand, providing scented soaps made from a variety of oils. 

The Civil War wasn’t the only war that changed the face of soap production. World War I and II brought shortages of oils, and with it, a need for change in the soap industry. Companies rose to the occasion by developing synthetic materials to replace fats and oils. After that, synthetic materials remained popular in the industry, providing a cheaper and simpler way to mass-produce soap. 

Soap for Modern Needs

As society advanced, bathing shifted from an as-needed activity to an everyday expectation. Hygiene became part of our social contract, a need in both our professional and personal lives. Soap shifted from a luxury to a household staple.

Over the years, soap started to meet additional needs as consumer expectations increased. It provided a way to keep our bodies clean, prevent the spread of disease, and make us feel and smell good. 

Some people turn to soap for relaxation purposes, wanting lathering soap full of lavender and soothing oils. Others look for natural soaps, free from irritants, chemicals, and fragrances. In addition to keeping us clean and healthy, soap can solve skin problems, from oily to dry skin, give us our signature scent, or provide an ideal gift. 

The idea of soap has even sparked heated internet debates about whether we should be washing our legs

COVID and the Future of Soap

Soap has a long and rich history, and for the first time in a while, we might be on the verge of another major soap shift.

COVID-19 brought shock to the world on many levels, changing the need for hygiene products almost overnight. A combination of heightened concern about hygiene and a surge of people bulk-buying to prepare for quarantine sparked a shortage of many items, including cleaning products, hand sanitizer, and soap. The demand isn’t likely to decrease anytime soon.

What does that mean moving forward? If you already offer soap and other hygiene products, now is the time to expand production, increase your offerings, and take advantage of the demand surge. If you don’t already offer these products, consider adding them to your repertoire. 

It’s hard to know what the future of soap will look like. Will even more powerful soaps hit the market, designed specifically to attack diseases like COVID-19? Will small businesses providing natural soaps thrive, filling the void left by supermarkets that can’t keep enough soap on the shelves? Or will the answer be something we haven’t even thought of yet? 

What we do know is, now is the time to lean in and provide solutions. You might just be the company that changes the soap game for good!

If you have a beauty brand and want to learn ways to stand out right now, our proven branding agency is here to help!