A Natural Clean

by Kathy White • Photography by Jenna Northcutt

Beginning in the 1970s, skin care experts and advertisers alike advised that “oil-free” skin cleansing products were best for people with oily, sensitive or acne-prone skin. This is ironic, because the primary ingredient of quality soap—real, natural soap that cleans and nourishes the skin without irritation—has always been oil. But processes and ingredients changed over time, and our skin suffered for it. Today, more and more consumers are rediscovering the benefits of cleansing with natural oils, and giving the ancient recipes and pure ingredients newfound respect.

The earliest recorded reference to soap dates back to 2800 B.C. in ancient Babylonia, and soap was used for bathing in Egypt around 1550 B.C., but actual soapmaking (primarily performed in Italy and Spain) didn’t become well known until the 8th century. By the late 18th century, advertising campaigns in Europe and America promoted awareness of the relationship between health and cleanliness, and the first industrially manufactured bar soaps became available to the public (although daily bathing, as practiced today, really didn’t become the accepted standard until private homes were built with indoor plumbing). A shortage of vegetable oils and fats during both World Wars, though, resulted in soap manufacturers turning to more readily available (and cheaper) synthetic surfactants, detergents and petroleum products to make cleansing bars. As a result, the art of soapmaking languished and almost completely died as handmade soap came to be regarded as old-fashioned and primitive.

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Today, the demand for natural skin care products of all kinds has steadily risen, and many consumers are actively choosing to avoid harsh synthetic ingredients (the worst offender being synthetic fragrance). Skin care product manufacturers are taking notice, too—expanding their lines to include products derived from common but highly beneficial natural oils, such as coconut, olive, castor and macadamia nut, as well as more exotic oils, such as argan, tamanu, moringa, sea buckthorn and camelina. In fact, some prestigious cosmetic companies now sell facial serums made primarily from exotic botanical oils and extracts. (La Mer’s “The Renewal Oil” retails for $240 per ounce, which seems like a bargain compared to the price of Chanel’s “Sublimage L’Extrait,” which rings up for $650—for a half ounce.) But cleansing the skin with natural, plant-based oils doesn’t have to be overly complicated or costly. In fact, it’s easy to make your own cleansing products right at home. Here are a few simple recipes to get you started.