For hundreds of years, women of West Africa – particularly in Ghana – made and used a vegetable-based soap to gently cleanse skin and hair. Known as African black soap to the West, locally it is called alata simena, sabulun salo, ose dudu, and anago soap.
Made with secret recipes passed down from generation to generation, there are several formulations of African black soap on the market today that may add in oats, honey, or aloe. But the core ingredients of traditionally made African black soap include native plants like plantain skins, cocoa pods, shea tree bark, or palm tree leaves. Once plant matter is collected, it is first sun dried and then roasted at a consistent temperature until it turns into ash. The ash is then added to water and various fats like palm oil, coconut oil, shea butter, cocoa butter, and palm kernel oil. This mixture is then heated and hand-stirred for a least 24 hours until it begins to solidify before it’s scooped out and left to cure for two weeks.
What Makes African Black Soap Special?
Here’s an overview of the core ingredients found in traditional African black soap, along with their benefits:
Plantain Peels – Cooking bananas (or Musa paradisiaca) are a good source of antioxidants, protein, folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, potassium, and vitamin C.
Cocoa Pods – Rich in antioxidants, cocoa pods – or the shells that house the treasured cocoa bean – also have strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Coconut Oil – A well-rounded ingredient indeed, coconut oil cleans and moisturizes the skin, and helps kick start collagen production.
Palm Kernel Oil – Obtained from the seed of Elaeis guineensis, palm kernel oil is rife with several types of fatty acids.
Palm Oil – Derived from the fruit of the palm tree, unrefined palm oil (known as red palm oil) is abundant in vitamin E, alpha and beta carotene and other antioxidants, as well as essential fatty acids.
Shea Butter – Also plentiful in beneficial fatty acids, shea butter is a prized ingredient for silky smooth skin. It helps repair damaged skin tissues and boost the body’s ability to generate collagen.
This mixture of plants and fats have been used for centuries for beautiful skin and hair. Here’s how:
1. Natural Skin Cleanser
Like any soap should, African black soap is an effective topical cleanser. The lauric acid in palm kernel oil and coconut oil creates a nice lather and is naturally antimicrobial. Due to the presence of shea butter and other moisturizers in African black soap, it will clean your face and body without stripping oils from the skin.
2. Good for All Skin Types
Whether you have dry skin, oily skin, or a combination of the two, African black soap works wonders for every skin type. Thanks to the addition of coconut oil, this soap counteracts dryness by deeply hydrating the skin. It’s excellent for oily skin too since it adds moisture to the skin, which helps to correct and balance an overactive sebaceous gland.
3. Gentle Exfoliation
African black soap is organic, unprocessed, and raw – which means that you shouldn’t be surprised if your bar comes with fine particles of vegetative matter inside. Aside from knowing you bought the authentic stuff, the grainy quality of this soap makes it a fantastic gentle exfoliator.
4. Fight Acne
In addition to the cleansing powers of lauric acid, African black soap also contains other nutrients and fatty acids that make it a robust acne fighter. Coconut oil is an excellent acne treatment since it is comprised of caprylic acid, capric acid, and vitamin E, which work in tandem to balance the skin’s pH levels and calm inflamed and irritated skin.
Likewise, palm oil can help prevent and heal acne breakouts since it is rich in beta carotene, oleic acid and linoleic acid. These fats also have anti-inflammatory properties that create an occlusive barrier that keeps moisture in, while vitamin A is an essential nutrient for all-round healthy looking and feeling skin.
5. Reduce Fine Lines & Wrinkles
Utilizing two ingredients that are frequently discarded as waste products, cocoa pods and plantain peels are both a rich source of antioxidants. Cocoa pods are composed of gallic acid, tannins, and catechins while plantain peels contain rutin, protocatechuic acid, and quercetin. Providing a diverse mix of phenolics and flanonoids that work in synergy with one another, African black soap can help fight free radical damage that contribute to the physical signs of aging.
6. Evens Skin Tone
Hyperpigmentation – or the darkening of an area of the skin – can be caused by sun damage, acne, inflammation, and other skin injuries that increase the production of melanin. Tyrosinase is an enzyme that helps regulate melanin; if tyrosinase is not functioning properly in the body, it allows melanin to increase unchecked. This can result in dark circles under the eyes, liver spots, and other patches of discolored skin.
Studies have shown that cocoa pods can inhibit tyrosinase activity, resulting in lighter skin tones. It also has the ability to naturally absorb UV light, offering some added protection from sun damage that causes dark spots to form in the first place.
7. Treat Eczema
Marked by dry, red, sensitive, and itchy skin, eczema symptoms can be swiftly treated with African black soap. Free of artificial chemicals that can irritate sensitive skin, African black soap is enriched with plenty of things that can counter inflammation and add moisture to the epidermis. Coconut oil, shea butter, and red palm oil, in particular, provide deep hydration while soothing the swelling and pain that often accompanies an eczema flare-up.
8. Minimize Scars & Blemishes
The unique combination of ingredients in African black soap also means it is excellent for reducing the appearance of acne scars, evidence of past skin wounds, and stretch marks. Shea butter is a well-regarded ointment for repairing skin tissue and boosting collagen production. Red palm oil is a good source of vitamin E, a crucial element for the maintenance of healthy skin. And lastly, the essential fatty acids in palm kernel oil, red palm oil, and coconut oil bolster the regeneration of skin cells to help scars fade away.
9. Clarifying Scalp Treatment
Dry skin, shampooing too often, using lots of styling products, and dermatitis can cause flaky dandruff on the scalp. Remove this flaky build-up with the African black soap clarifying treatment. For oily hair, dilute a small amount of soap with water and let it permeate the scalp for 10 minutes. For normal or dry hair, dilute with a conditioning oil like coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, or shea butter, and rinse away soon after massaging it into your scalp. African black soap is powerful stuff, so finish by rinsing with apple cider vinegar to help detangle and soften your tresses.
10. Naturally Anti-Fungal
Shown to be effective against several strains of fungus, you can use African black soap to treat athlete’s foot, nail fungus, ‘jock itch’, ringworm, and candida overgrowth. It can be used against household mold too.
How to Use African Black Soap:
Though there are many imitations, authentic African black soap should be organic, free of any preservatives or artificial additives, and be made in Ghana.
Despite its name, African black soap is brown in color, somewhat crumbly, and has an earthy scent. Raw and unprocessed, it is sometimes packaged as a whole block – just slice it to make bars of soap.
Because it is unrefined, some users report a burning or stinging sensation when applying the bar directly to the face or body. To avoid this, simply squeeze off a small piece of African black soap and create a lather in your hands before rubbing it onto the skin. Rinse with cool water. For best results, follow up with your favorite moisturizer afterwards. Store soap in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag.