Health and Beauty

African Black soap and its benefits

You already know I am a big fan of Moroccan black soap, a soft soap made with olive oil. But I had never tried its cousin, African black soap, made with shea butter. Shea butter comes from the nut of the Shea tree, that grows mainly in West African countries, particularly Ghana and NIgeria. It is very popular in Western countries now, and it is frequently used in cosmetics. However, the quality can be lacking. Unrefined shea butter should be white or creamy in colour, and have a nutty scent. For the best quality African soap, choose one that is preferably organic and unrefined. It comes with varying degrees of solidity, depending on the recipe used, but essentially it is made with Shea butter, plantain leaves and oil (either coconut or palm kernel).

Shea butter and nuts

Why is African Black soap good for you?

First of all, because unlike supermarket shower gels, it is made from natural ingredients and doesn’t contain harmful chemicals such as parabens and sodium lauryl sulfate, the two main culprits, but also perfumes that can irritate the skin. You might also come accross ingredients that are downright dangerous, such triclosan and phtalates. Secondly, you can find it in all types of containers and buy a big batch of it, so it is less plastic in your bathroom. It lasts for a while so it will probably end up saving you quite a bit of money too. Another important aspect to consider is that black soap is often made traditionally and sold by women working as independent traders. I would much rather my money goes to them than big brands or supermarkets!

Benefits for the skin and hair

Shea butter is one of my favourite ingredients for soap-making, because it is just so nice to work with. It’s creamy, it’s rich, it’s deeply moisturising and it has a slight nutty scent, unlike coconut butter than can be a bit overpowering. Shea has been used for skincare for centuries across Africa, and in many families, children are lathered in it daily, leaving their skin soft and protected. It contains a large variety of vitamins and nutrients, most importantly vitamins A and E.

African Black soap

Black soap thus ticks the boxes for me: very moisturising and gentle on the skin, no fragrance nor artificial ingredients so great for the whole family. It also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which can make it useful for people suffering from candida or skin infection , and it also seems to help with eczema in some cases.

African Black soap can also be used on the hair, although I have to admit I haven’t tried it yet. My hair is quite thin and generally reacts pretty badly to any hard or handmade shampoo, so I have gone back to using organic bottled shampoo for now, until I find better!However, curly ladies seem to have great results with black soap, as it moisturises the scalp and adds curl definition. You simply need to dilute the soap with a bit of warm water, and you can add a few drops of oil for extra care.

Health and Beauty

A pink soap with calendula-infused oil

I will admit that pot marigold (calendula officinalis) has never been my favourite flower. I am more of a peonies type of girl. However, after studying the really amazing properties of these orange blooms, I had to admit that they really are a superior kind of flowers. They are packed with so many benefits it is hard to list them all, and they actually taste pretty good as a tea as well.

Calendula is particularly recommended for skin issues: wounds that won’t heal, scars, skin infections, eczema, or more generally dry skin. It can be taken as a tea (and it actually tastes quite nice), or you can make a little infused oil or balm to use directly on the skin. It has antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, and it is a herb for a gently, moisturizing soap.

As I had some dried calendula flowers, I thought I would try making a soap out of them, infusing calendula-infused shea butter as a base for extra gentleness and moisture. Adding herbs or flowers to your soap can be very useful because it adds a health dimension. Many herbs lend themselves pretty well to the soap-making process: lavender and chamomille are quite common as they are soothing, relaxing plants, but you can also use more original combinations. Nettle for instance is an interesting choice as it is astringent and helps relieve acne.

It is my 1st time using calendula infused oil and I am quite taken by it. The soaps turned out really pretty and I am quite pleased with them, so I am sharing my recipe.

Recipe for 4 medium sized soaps

Soaps ready to cure!
  • 190g Shea butter (I had about 150g left after infusion)
  • 2 tablespoons of calendula (marigold flowers)
  • 100g olive oil
  • 3 teaspoons of pink clay
  • 30 drops of palmarosa essential oil
  • 43g of potassium hydroxide
  • 75-80mL of water

First of all, melt your shea butter, add the dry calendula flowers and let infuse. There are several ways to do this: you can use a crockpot on the lowest setting, or use a double boiler, which is what I did. You want very gentle heat, so I got my shea butter to melting point then switched off the fire to let the butter infuse gently. I repeated this a few times over 2 days. Alternatively, you can also leave your oil in a sunny spot for a few days. I then drained using a fine sieve (or a piece of muslin). You will lose a bit of oil at this stage and that’s completely normal. You could also actually leave the flowers in the soap, but I preferred to take mine out this time. This is your infused oil, and it is packed with properties from the flower; it is a very potent ingredient.

Once you have drained the butter, make sure to weight it again as you need precise measurements for soap making! Use the sage lye calculator for reference.

I then added 100g of olive oil and mixed well.

To make the lye, I used 43g of potassium hydroxide for about 75mL of water. Again, use the sage calculator to check how much lye you need, as you can easily go wrong with soaps. Add the potassium to the water, never the opposite way. Make sure to wear gloves and safety glasses for this part. The lye will heat up; leave it to cool down for a while until it is pretty much room temperature. Don’t rush it: if the lye is too hot, your soap will reach trace much faster and it might impact its texture. I added my pink clay powder straight into my lye after it cooled down, to make sure I didn’t end up with clumps.

Add the lye to your oil mixture. You can also add your additives at this point: here, I used palmarosa essential oil. You only need a little (less than 1% overall) as essential oils are very concentrated. It’s better to avoid if you are making soap for children, or if you have very sensitive skin. Blend thoroughly, ideally with a stick blender. After 5-10 mins, your mixture should start thickening up to a thick custard consistency. This is what we commonly call the “trace” stage. You can finally pour your mixture into clean, dry molds.

Trace stage

This is what is known as cold-process soap making, therefore your soaps will need to be cured for a while in a cool dry place. First of all, take your soaps out of their molds (or cut them to desired shape) after a few days, and put them in a dry place, out of direct sunlight (mine are in a cupboard). Curing allows the moisture to evaporate, and it makes the soap harder and longer lasting. It varies according to the composition of the soap: the minimum is 4 to 6 weeks, but castille olive oil soap is frequently left to cure for 6 months to 1 year. This process also depends on the conditions where you leave: temperature, humidity…. This is a longish process but it can’t be rushed, because this allows the lye to fully saponify. If not fully cured, the pH of the soap will be too high to be used on the skin.

Since this recipe does have a large percentage of olive oil, I am aiming to leave it cure for about 3 months in the dark place, until it is completely hard. They already smell divine and I really can’t wait to try them!

My new molds!