How Do Ashes and Grease Get You Dirty and Clean?

Pick up ashes from a fire after it has cooled down and what do you get? Dirty hands! Touch some grease from left over cooked meat and what do you get? Dirty hands!

But take some water and mix it with those same ashes and that same grease. Then rub it on your dirty hands. What do you get? Clean hands! The reason? What you have combined are the basic ingredients people have been using for over 2,000 years to make soap.

Ancient people cleaned their bodies with a mixture of olive oil, ashes, and the juices of various plants. Although this early “soap” was made in the home, archeologists digging in the ruins of Pompeii, a city which existed in the first century, discovered a soap-making factory that used methods of production very similar to modern ones.

Today, soap making begins with animal fats or vegetable oils, such as coconut or olive oil. These are mixed with chemicals called alkalis and are heated in huge kettles three stories high. The heating causes a “creamy soap” to form. Salt is then added, making the soap float to the top. The soap is next put into a huge mixer, where it is churned until it is smooth. Coloring, perfume, and germ killers are then added.

To make soap bars, the smooth mass is squeezed through a machine that forms it into one long bar, which is then cut into smaller bars and stamped with the manufacturer’s name. To make soap flakes or soap powder, the smooth mass is pressed into thin ribbons, dried, and cut into particles.