African Black Soap

Cleaning shea nuts in Mali.

Woman cleaning shea nuts in Ouelessebougou, Mali.

Traditionally produced in areas across West Africa, especially Ghana and Togo, African black soap is a multi-purpose cleanser that can be used on the entire body. It’s been used to remedy everything from acne (and its attendant scarring), to allaying the discomforts of eczema and psoriasis, alleviating dandruff and itchy scalp, and reducing fine lines and wrinkles.

This soap has been around for centuries, and like most other soaps, it’s essentially a mixture of lipids (fats, waxes, and fat-soluble vitamins) and ashes. But unlike other handmade soaps, this stuff doesn’t require the use of lye — or, as it is more sinisterly known, caustic soda. The absence of lye makes African black soap much softer overall, and almost putty-like when wet, with a crumbly and uneven surface. Incidentally, real African black soap is never uniformly black, and if you spot one that is, it’s probably not the real deal. Real African black soap varies from brown or beige to gray.

A bunch of ripe plantains

A bunch of plantains.

This distinctive color and texture is rooted in the way the soap is made, which starts with plantains, a more robust version of a banana. Plantains are rich in essential nutrients and oils — in particular vitamins A and E — which are great for your skin. To begin, the peels of the plantain are dried under the sun, and the desiccated skins are then roasted in a clay oven. From this foundation, various recipes can include cocoa pods, shea tree bark, or regular banana leaves. Usually, water and a combination of palm oil, coconut oil, and shea butter are then added and stirred for at least a full day. The mixture is filtered and set aside to cure, eventually hardening into a black soap.

While these basics of producing African black soap are mostly known, specific recipes differ according to whoever is making it, with over a hundred identified formulas. Traditionally, the recipes are closely guarded and highly proprietary. As a result, there is a huge spectrum of size, shape, and color — sometimes even from the same vendor — when shopping for this stuff. But beware: African black soaps that are sold on the mainstream market in the United States often contain only a small percentage of pure black soap, with additives that debase the natural, organic properties of the original recipe. Derivatives such as liquid black soap and shampoos also likely only have a fraction of pure black soap in them. Many European and American companies also add black dyes to deepen the color (which, again, just indicates that it’s fake).

Shea butter being made in Togo, West Africa

A woman makes shea butter in Togo, West Africa.

Fortunately for the soap-smiths out there, the greatest thing about the formula for African black soap is that it requires no lye, a caustic substance that burn your skin and make you blind. As such, this soap is a great initial foray for those looking to make their own. While we noted that a traditional recipe for true African black soap is hard to come by, thanks to (duh) the Internet, it is possible to cobble together an fairly accurate version. We’ll help you with the first step. Happy suds!

Ingredients:
Cacao bean pods
Plantain skins
Coconut palm oil
Shea butter

1.) Remove the cocoa beans from the pods and burn over low flame until they turn to ash.
2.) Burn the plantain skins to ash.
3.) Add water to the cocoa bean and plantain skin ashes.
4.) Place the coconut palm oil in a double boiler.
5.) Add the ashes and shea butter to mixture.
6.) Cook over low heat, stirring until mixture becomes smooth.
7.) Soap should start to solidify and float to the top of liquid. Use a spoon to scoop it out.
8.) Place the soap mixture in a mold of your choice.
9) Allow two weeks for soap to cure before using.
10) Take a bath and enjoy.

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