The Botany of Soap

I'm having a bit of a crush on the Indian Subcontinent at the moment, as you can tell from my last post and the one about night markets. This one is about soap from the Kerala and Tamilnadu regions in South India, the main regions that the local Indians originally hail from. I bought a few the other day not realizing that it would lead to a discovery of the complex botany of Ayurvedic herbal soap formulations and some thought on the green and ethical issues that they raise.

Take the Kayakalp soap for starters - it has 23 botanic ingredients. Interestingly the website description of them has clearly had a language makeover, the printed paper insert in the box I have raised a chuckle or two - for Myrrh which 'kills germs found in filth' and Acoras Calamus -'to dispel the offensive smell of perspiration'. Right on- because you want that in a soap.

Medimix, the one with the motif on it, has 18 (including the same one above for offensive smells). They are certainly interesting- Licorice, Neem, Coriander, Black Cumin, Cumin, Wild Ginger, Vetiver, Rose Colored Lead Wort, and exotic - Indian Bdellium, Himalayan Cedar, Bawchi, Daruharidra (Indian barberry), Jyotismati, False Black Pepper, Indian Sarsparilla,Bitter Oleander, and China Root.

Does one need 18 or 24 herbs in a soap? With properties that claim to provide actions from antimcrobial, antifungal to anti inflammatory and solutions to dandruff, psoriasis to presumably athlete's foot the logic is simple, head to toe cleansing and disease prevention - from a single product. This is revolutionary talk in the context of perceptions and practises in the modern world. Could we end the mountains of dumped bathroom plastic, prevent the ubiquitous use of antibacterial chemicals entering the planet's water supply (creating increasing antiresistant strains of bacteria) and the energy sap of producing multiple packages and marketing campaigns to sell multiple kinds of soap? A single product to wash your hair and body and combat disease and save the planet? Heresy.

Thulasi Herbal Soap is starkly minimalist by comparison, just Thulasi (also spelt Tulasi and Tulsi) or Holy Basil. Interestingly some googling reveals that it is a little controversial to have what is revered as a holy plant used in a product for the rather base act of bathing (see removal of filth and offensive smells above).

Chandrika is one I recognize as being fairly well distributed globally- you can probably find it in a health store or Wholefoods in the US. Just two ingredients Wild Ginger and Lemon Juice concentrate. The smell is is also fairly pleasant which brings me to the first stumbling block of these soaps- they smell more hmmm than mmmm. As a loyal devotee of Verbena soap almost entirely because of its smell, its hard to get past the lack of chemistry with how these soaps smell out of the box. Not unpleasant, but I don't love them. Oddly there seems to also be a standard color chart approach for a particular shade of 'ayurvedic green' a couple of them being a very unherbal 'approved color' or numeric one.

One ingredient consistent through all of them is coconut oil, and the couple I've started using have a rich, easy lathering quality with a soap that remains fairly hard. Love that. The marketing however focuses on the other aspect of coconut oil - this soap contains no animal fat- intended for a Hindu customer who does not want animal fats in their products, which also translates well for Buddhists and Vegans. If I didn't think about this before, that most soaps contain tallow or animal fats, I just had my awareness raised and my preferences retuned.

I can't tell if they all are, but a couple of them are handmade which makes their cost surprisingly cheap, in comparison to the higher end, hand made, boutique soaps that have become increasingly popular on the American high street and in the malls like Lush and a permanent fixture on Etsy. It's been a few days now and the smell is growing on me a little and I'm loving the easy lather. Without knowing the exact formulations, which part of the plants were used etc etc, its not known how robust the medicinal claims are but there's certainly enough pluses in other areas to warrant my continued custom. As soon as I finish my bottle of shampoo, I'll be doing the head to toe test. Wanna try them too? Thanks to the wonders of the internet you can via Amazon - I've put together a little selection here. Unfortunately, only two of the ones I have are available but there are a couple of other similar ones.

All Posts: