Soap: Extraordinary Ordinary Things

I remember as a child my parents always insisted I wash my hands with soap before sitting down to eat. I have never forgotten this, and sometimes get odd looks because of it.

In a restaurant, I always go wash my hands before the food is delivered even though no one else at the table does. Worse, when I visit friends in their homes, I do the same thing. I imagine they must think I have some kind of mania about cleanliness on a par with Lady Macbeth: “Out, out, damned spot!” While the good lady does not explicitly mention soap, there is a Lady Macbeth soap on the market anyhow. I don’t have a cleanliness mania. But I do have due consideration for the advice I received from my parents—and continue to receive from the medical community.

Soap is such a mundane commodity, at least in most parts of the world, that it is hard to imagine being without it. In fact, no one would imagine being without it because it is so much part of our environment. But this wasn’t always the case. The evolution of soap (what we call soap today is quite different from what was called soap in the past) in a very real sense is one of the key drivers in the development of modern society. And if ever removed would probably spell the end of modern society. This is why I believe soap, from the humble hand soap to washing detergents to industrial cleansers, very much deserves a place on the list of what I like to call “Extraordinary Ordinary Things.”

What Is Soap?

You may be surprised to learn that fundamentally soap is a salt of a fatty acid. A fatty acid! Yes, but don’t be shocked.

  • Soap is called “fatty” not because they are necessarily greasy, but because it is soluble in fats as a means of storing energy in living cells.
  • It is an “acid” because in a solution it liberates free hydrogen ions (H+) which, as you will remember from elementary chemistry, is the definition of an acid.
  • Lastly, it is ae called a “salt” because in a dry state the compounds are made up of two groups with opposite electrical charges such that the total electrical charge is zero. When put into a liquid, notably water, the two parts separate and act independently. For example, NaCl (sodium chloride) or common table salt separates into Na+ and Cl-. HCl (hydrochloric acid) separates into H+ and Cl-. H2SO4 (sulfuric acid) separates H2 + and SO4-.

You will also know from daily life that different types of soap have a wide variety of uses beyond washing hands and the rest of the body. Around the house, soaps act as “surfactants,” i.e. emulsifying agents that trap oily deposits and allow them to be washed away with water. In industry, they are indispensable as thickeners, ingredients in certain types of lubricants, and precursors to catalysts. In short, soap is all around us in plain sight or hidden in other products.

Since soap per se is not found in nature, it has to be made. The earliest known evidence of man making soap dates back to ancient Babylon, where a formula for a soap-like substance consisting of water, alkali, and cassia oil was discovered on a Babylonian clay tablet dating back to around 2200 BCE. Some researchers believe soapmaking probably began several hundred years before this.

The Ebers papyrus (1550 BCE) gives evidence the ancient Egyptians bathed regularly using a soap-like substance made from animal and vegetable oils combined with alkaline salts to cleanse the body in their sometimes elaborate ablutions (remember Cleopatra). A recipe for a soap-like substance to clean the stones of Egyptian palaces dates back to the reign of Nabondus (556-539 BCE), consisting of ash, cypress oil, and sesame seed oil.

Like the Egyptians, the Romans were also known for bathing. The remains of ancient Roman baths are still highly frequented tourist attractions wherever the Romans roamed.

The modern word soap quite likely derives from the word sapo, the Latin word for soap. However, sapo may have been derived from an early Germanic language more related to the Latin word sebum, meaning “tallow.” Today, the word sebum refers to the secretion the sebaceous glands of the skin. Sebum (consisting mainly of triacylglycerol, wax esters, and squalene) is the source of blackheads, those unsightly plugs of oxidized sebum on the skin that drive teenagers (and some adults) to distraction.

In Rome, soap was made from tallow mixed with ashes. Its first mention appears in Pliny the Elder’s book Naturalis Historia published in 79 CE. However, it was not used for cleansing the body but rather as pomade for the hair. The Romans preferred means of cleaning the body was to massage oil into the skin, then scrape away both the oil and any dirt with a special instrument called a strigil. It was only after first cleaning the body that the Romans (along with the Greeks) immersed themselves in their luxurious baths.

Galen (129 – c. 216 CE), the revered Greek physician, surgeon, and philosopher in the Roman Empire, described soapmaking using lye (sodium hydroxide or NaOH), which he said should be used to carry away impurities from the body and clothes. Perhaps under his influence, in the 2nd century CE, the use of soap for personal hygiene became increasingly common.

Soap and soap-like substances, such as detergents ,were also being made and used outside of Europe. A “detergent” is a cleaning agent that helps remove dirt and grease from porous surfaces such as fabrics, clothes, non-treated wood, and non-porous surfaces such as metals, plastics, and treated wood. A detergent is similar to soap, but is stronger and dissolves more completely in water. Soaps are a principal component of most detergents along with other ingredients (surfactants) to increase its cleansing effect when dissolved in water.

A detergent similar to soap was manufactured in ancient China from the seeds of Gleditsis sinensis (Chinese honey locust), a species of flowering plant native to Asia. Another traditional Asian detergent was a mixture of pig pancreas and plant ash.

Development of soapmaking made great strides in the Middle East during the Islamic Golden Age (8th-14th century), a period of unprecedented cultural, economic, and scientific flourishing.

Hard bars of pleasant-smelling toilet soap (from the word “toiletry”) became increasingly common during this period. Soap was generally produced from the interaction of fatty oils and solid fat with an alkali, often with some kind of pleasant-smelling scenting ingredient added.

In Syria, soap was produced using olive oil together with an alkali (derived from the Arab word for “ashes”) and lye. Syrian soap was exported to other parts of the Islamic world as well as to Europe. By the 13th century, soapmaking in Islamic countries had become a veritable industry, a precursor of what would happen later elsewhere around the world.

In the 8th century, soapmaking was already well known in Italy and Spain. England appears to have taken up soapmaking around 1200, but there appears to have been some confusion about who was doing it. Soapmaking is mentioned both as “women’s work” and as the product of “good workmen” on a par with craftsmen such as bakers, carpenters, and blacksmiths.

Soap in the 9th century Europe was produced from animal fats and had an unpleasant smell. Apparently lacking the knowledge of how to do it themselves, Europeans resorted to importing pleasant-smelling hard toilet soaps from the more advanced soap makers in the Middle East.

In case I may have misled you earlier, Lady Macbeth’s vain attempt to wash away that “damned spot” apparently was only with water; Shakespeare never mentioned the use of soap. However, soap today being so closely associated with cleanliness, modern soapmakers have had no compunctions about manufacturing and marketing Lady Macbeth brand perfumed toilet soap, even though the play provides no justification for it. The popular quote “Out, out damned spot!” is also somewhat misleading. What the good lady actually says is “Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!” It works well within the play, but as a common expression “Out, out damned spot!” seems to work much better.

Starting in the 16th century, soapmakers began abandoning animal fats as the basis for their products and started using vegetable oils, and in particular olive oil. Many soaps originated in this era—produced both industrially, semi-industrially, and by small-scale artisans—are still with us today. The modern Castile soap, named for the Castile region of Spain, is an example of vegetable-only soaps derived from the older “white soap” of Italy. The popular modern Palmolive brand conceals within its name its two principal ingredients: palm oil and olive oil.

Full industrialization of soap making began taking off in the 18th century, spurred by advertising campaigns in Europe and America capitalizing on increasing public awareness of the relationship between cleanliness and health.

Sometime in the 19th century, manufacturers found another reason for using toilet soap. Frequent use of popular brands of soap was proclaimed to enhance feminine beauty. For example:

  • “Keep that schoolgirl complexion” (Palmolive Soap)
  • “Now they whisper to her not about her” (Cashmere Bouquet Soap)
  • “Preparing to be a beautiful lady” (Pears’ Soap)
  • “Take a bath in the dark tonight and let the water make love to your skin” (Lavin Perfumes & Soaps)
  • “The skin you love to touch” (Woodbury Soap)
  • “You are in a beauty contest every day of your life” (Camay Soap)
  • “You’ll look a little lovelier each day, with fabulous pink Camay” (Camay Soap)

Soap manufacturers also turned their attention to body odor.  Perhaps the most memorable advertising slogan from that era is: “Even your best friend won’t tell you” (Lifebuoy Soap). Just so no one would miss the message, Lifebuoy also informed the masses that its product “Stops body odor.” Rather more subtle, but still memorable was, “People who like people like Dial.”

Soap does not always have to be in a hard cake form; for many uses a liquid works much better. For example, washing clothes, cleaning floors, sanitizing bathrooms fixtures, and a whole host of other applications. Nevertheless, liquid soaps are a very late invention in the long history of soap, dating back only to 1865. In that year, William Shepphard (New York City) was issued a patented for this discovery: A small amount of conventional soap could be mixed with large amounts of spirit of ammonia to create a soap with the consistency of molasses. His invention was quickly taken up for industrial and public sanitation purposes, but was not readily available for use by the general public.

In 1898, B.J. Johnson introduced a liquid soap for home use derived from palm oil and olive oil (Palmolive). In the early 1900s, other companies began developing liquid soaps for home use under brand names such as Pine-Sol and Tide.

Today, there is an almost endless variety of liquid soaps for personal and professional use: dishwashing soap, shaving foam, shampoo, shower gel, pre- and post-surgical wash-up, industrial floor and wall cleaning, and hospital disinfection.

My all-time favorite application of liquid soap is for making bubbles. Remember those childhood toys consisting of a small hoop on a handle that you dipped into a bottle of liquid soap, and then blew through the hoop to make bubbles? I do, and my memories are extremely fond because doing so was such a joy.

However, a team of songwriters created an enduring hit by positioning the act of blowing bubbles as a sign of bad luck or failure. The song is “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” The music and lyrics were the combined effort of James Kendis, Jame Brockman, and Nat Vincent. It made its debut in the Broadway musical “The Passing Show of 1918.” Since then, it has been recorded by just about every vocalist or orchestra of renown you can think of. It is virtually obligatory to hear the tune in animated cartoons whenever bubbles appear, and has sometimes been sung by beloved cartoon characters. Tweety Bird (Tweety Pie) sings it over and over again, almost as often as he says, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat. I did! I did! I taw a puddy tat!”

The lyrics go like this:

I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
I'm dreaming dreams, I'm scheming schemes,
I'm building castles high.
They're born anew, their days are few,
Just like a sweet butterfly.
And as the daylight is dawning,
They come again in the morning!

(And the lament continues.)

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that my parents were strict about making me wash my hands with soap and water before every meal. They were less strict about every morning taking a shower. Showering before breakfast seems to be an American fetish. You will see reference to it in many U.S. sitcoms and motion pictures.

My parent’s laxity in this regard was less due to a break with tradition but with logistics. There were three children in my family. Taking a shower every morning would have meant five people laying claim to the bathroom every morning. In the U.S., the bathroom and the toilet (WC in British) are generally together in the same room rather than separate as they are many other countries. Imagine the chaos of five people seeking to use this single room all at the same time, particularly when the need of one or more of the five is a call of nature and not simply a call to hygiene and health!

This raises the vexing question: Does showering with soap and water every morning really promote good health? This is not a foregone conclusion. 

According to Dr. Robert H. Smerling of Harvard Medical School, “People may choose to shower daily for a number of reasons . . . [but] when it comes to concerns about health, however, it’s not at all clear that a daily shower accomplishes much. In fact, a daily shower may even be bad for your health.”

Why? Fundamentally, normal healthy skin maintains a layer of oil, and a balance of “good” bacteria and other microorganisms. Washing and scrubbing remove these propitious contributors to good health, especially if the water is hot.

As a result:

  • Skin may become dry, irritated, or itchy.
  • Dry, cracked skin may allow bacteria and allergens to breach the barrier skin is supposed to provide, allowing skin infections and allergic reactions to occur.
  • Antibacterial soaps can kill off normal bacteria, upsetting the balance of microorganisms on the skin and encourage the emergence of hardier, less friendly organisms.
  • The body’s immune system needs a certain amount of stimulation by normal microorganisms, dirt, and other environmental exposures in order to create protective antibodies and “immune memory.” Frequent baths or showers throughout a lifetime may reduce the ability of the immune system to do its job.

Perhaps we should return to the apparently more cavalier attitude toward personal hygiene that prevailed during the time of Elizabeth the First of England (1535-1603). It was said she “bathes once a month, whether she needs it or not.” This makes it sound as if she and her contemporaries had little concern about corporeal cleanliness. However, this is a canard.

In Elizabethan times, water in London was far from pure. Therefore, totally immersing oneself in water was thought to be dangerous because impurities in the water could enter your body and make you ill. However, if you could get pure water from a fresh spring, and mix it with certain expensive herbs, then totally immersing yourself in a warm bath would be quite enjoyable and beneficial. Such luxury was of course available only to the wealthy. Thus, saying that the Queen “bathes once a month whether she needs it or not” was not being critical of her attitude towards cleanliness, but rather an envious comment on her extravagance and high living.

Soap and Computing

In the computing world, soap has nothing to do with hygiene. SOAP is an acronym for Simple Object Access Protocol. It is an XML-based protocol for accessing web services over HTTP, which is how web services talk to each other or talk to client applications. It was developed as an intermediate language so that applications built on various programming languages could easily talk to each other and avoid the extreme development effort.

One method to overcome this complexity is to use XML (Extensible Markup Language) as the intermediate language for exchanging data between applications. Since every programming language can understand it, XML was used as the underlying medium for data exchange. However, there are no standard specifications for using XML across all programming languages for data exchange.

SOAP is designed to work with XML over HTTP and have some sort of specification which could be used across all applications. Further, it is designed to be both platform independent and operating system independent. Thus, the SOAP protocol can work in any programming language-based application on both Windows and Linux platforms. Since it works on the HTTP protocol, which is the default protocol used by all web applications, it doesn’t require any kind of customization to work on the World Wide Web.

SOAP was created for Microsoft in 1998 as an object-access protocol by Mohsen Al-Ghosein, Bob Atkinson, Don Box, and Dave Winer. The specification was not made available until it was submitted to IETF in September 1999. Since the internet draft failed to reach RFC status, it is not considered a “standard” as such.

Version 1.1 of the specification was published in May 2000. Since this new specification failed to reach WSC Recommendation status, it too cannot be considered a “standard.” Version 1.2 of the specification, however, became a W3C recommendation in 2003. The SOAP specification was maintained by the XML Protocol Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium until the group was disbanded in 2009.

Subsequently, SOAP became the underlying layer of a more complex set of web services based on WSDL (Web Services Description Language), XML schema, and UDDI (Universal Description Discovery Integration). XML Information Set was chosen as the standard message format because of its widespread use by major corporations and open-source development efforts.

In financial messaging, SOAP was found to result in a 2–4 times larger message than previous protocols such as FIX (Financial Information Exchange) and CDR (Common Data Representation).

The generally recognized advantages and disadvantages of SOAP include:


  • Neutrality characteristic makes it suitable for use with any transport protocol, e.g. HTTP (most common application), SMTP, JMS, message queues, etc.
  • When combined with HTTP post/response exchanges, it easily tunnels through existing firewalls and proxies, thus avoiding the need to modify the widespread computing and communication infrastructures already in place for processing HTTP post/response exchanges.
  • It can take advantage of all the facilities of XML, including easy internationalization and extensibility with XML Namespaces.


  • When using standard implementation and the default SOAP/HTTP binding, the XML infoset is serialized as XML
  • When relying on HTTP as a transport protocol, and not Web Services Addressing or Enterprise Service Bus, the roles of the interacting parties are fixed. Only one party (the client) can use the services of the other.
  • Verbosity of the protocol, slow parsing speed of XML, and lack of a standardized interaction model has led to the field being dominated by services using the HTTP protocol more directly.

There is another link between computers and soap that is more closely associated with the traditional meaning of soap.

One of the major boons computers brought to daily life is the checking feature of word processing programs. This facility ended the tedious (and error-prone) procedure of proofreading a text for spelling and grammar mistakes. However, such programs generally only flag potential errors. It is up to users to say yea or nay if it actually is an error. If so, users decide how they want it to be corrected.

Enter TextSoap. According to the marketers, this suite of software programs makes the checking procedure virtually hands-free; no decision-making is required.

But that’s just the beginning. For example, email clients use different formatting, such as HTML and plaintext. If the client you are using converts incoming emails to plaintext,  it may leave odd control characters behind. For example, if the sender typed “I’ll” you will see I=93ll. To print the email, you have to manually make corrections. First you work your way through with a text editor, convert those control characters to the correct originals, and then print. However TextSoap does this for you.

There are other such programs on the market. But to my mind, none whose brand name seems quite so tantalizingly appropriate.

Finally, purveyors of anti-virus software often tout their products as “hygiene for your computer.” If you keep the software up to date, you can’t be infected. Although they don’t explicitly say anti-viral “soap,” the idea is well and truly there.