Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Dirt on Soap

AUGUST 2, 1999:  Imagine it: You're living in the Mediterranean region some couple of thousands of years ago; you're hanging near a place called, say, Mount Sappo. And there's been a big sacrifice to the local deities the night before: high priests making with the Hellenic juju, vestal virgins capering hither and yon, animals being roasted in sacred fires, and, of course, all manner of hearty partying -- before, during, and after.

And now it's the next morning, and everyone's got one Hades of a hangover, including you; but you're the one who has to do the laundry. So you drag your burdened carcass down to the river -- which is swollen due to the rains that eventually doused last night's celebrations -- and you start pounding the shit out of a bunch of half-submerged togas. And after a while you notice that the water's kind of, well, frothing while you pound these togas. And when you're finished washing, the togas are all ... well, by Zeus, they're cleaner than they've ever been!

And you look around, kinda scoping the scene, trying to figure out, basically, what gives. And you notice that, just a few yards upriver, there's this sort of oily runoff coming from the sacrificial altar at the top of the hill ... and this runoff is going into the river and ... you suddenly remember your friend Mia, who had to do the laundry the time before last, saying that she'd noticed the exact same thing -- the morning after sacrificial rites had been rained on. And a light bulb goes off in your head -- which you don't actually get, since light bulbs haven't been invented yet -- and it occurs to you that the runoff from the altar and the cleanliness of the laundry might be somehow linked.

So of course it's your older sister Cleo, the one who always wins at everything, who figures out that the melted fat of the sacrificed animals has mixed with the lye leached from the fire's ashes to form a substance that does to dirt what that Hercules jock did to the Augean stables.

Thus, soap.

And as the methods of soap production are refined throughout the ages, it turns out to be a True Good Thing. It gets stuff clean, and one of its main components -- glycerin -- moisturizes skin, and its uses seem almost endless, hygienewise. And particularly after a French physician named Pasteur raises the alarm concerning germs and the diseases they can spread, soap moves from a luxury item to a downright necessity -- especially among those who'd rather not die from the attack of some pathogen that could've been lathered away. And not only will these clean people be less likely to croak, their skin will smell fresh and feel baby-soft.

At least, it would have.

But then, sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, a certain American Mr. Procter (or perhaps it's Mr. Gamble -- it's easy to get these guys confused) develops an easy way to remove the glycerin from the soap. And it's an evil thing to do, really, since without the glycerin, the soap tends to dry your skin toward itch and constant flakiness. But these Procter & Gamble gents, you see, they've discovered that they can squeeze higher profits from soapmaking by selling the glycerin separately -- to manufacturers of moisturizers and skin creams and so on. And, hey-hey, people will sure need to buy those moisturizers, now, their skins having been dried all to hell and back by the de-glycerined soaps they use in the first place! Woo-hooo, sayeth Procter & Gamble, this unbridled-capitalism stuff really rocks!

And of course everybody and their corporate sister jumped on the bandwagon. (In the history of the soap industry, you don't have to settle for conspiracy theories.)

And so it went.

Which is the main reason handcrafted soaps are so much better for you from the get-go: glycerin, baby. Until modern fashion enters some demented phase of alligator-skin chic, real unexpurgated soap -- whether it's made from animal fats or is completely vegetable-based -- is just what the dermatologist ordered. -- W.A.B.

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