What is a Marseille Soap?
Since as early as the ninth century, master soap makers in Marseille have created exquisite, gentle soaps using native olive oils and the alkaline ash from marine plants of the Mediterranean.
A Marseille soap or Savon de Marseille is a traditional hard soap bar that originated in Marseille, France, using only olive oil and hot processing (the cauldron).
Inspired by Savon d’Alep (the Aleppo soap) the authentic Savon de Marseille is manufactured according to a very precise technique and dosage.
Marseille Soap Manufacturing
Inspired by the Aleppo soap, a traditional Marseille soap originated from Marseille, an olive oil-producing region. It is originally made using only olive oil (like a castile soap) and using hot processing method (the cauldron).
In 1688, thru the Edict of Colbert under Louis XIV, a Savon de Marseille was regulated as soap with no artificial additives, no colorants, no perfumes or fragrances, no animal fats, and must contain at least 72% olive oil. The law has since been amended to allow other vegetable oils to be used i.e. at least 72% vegetable oil.
Traditionally crafted using ‘The Marseille Process‘ (a hot process method) using at least 72% olive oil, soda ash, and a mixture of seawater. This emulsion is heated for several days while being stirred continuously.
Once ready, the mixture is then poured into a mold and allowed to set slightly.
While still soft it is cut into bars, stamped, and left to completely harden. The whole process can take up to a month.
Manufacture of Marseille Soap
Dispute on Definition of Marseille Soap
Marseille soap was originally made with seawater, olive oil, and soda ash, but for decades olive oil has given way to palm and coconut oil. Even the traditionalists now use some palm or coconut oil in their olive soaps.
Today, there are two main types of Marseille soap, a greenish-hued variety made with added color and a white one made of olive oil, or a palm and coconut oil mixture and the ‘official recipe’ for a Marseille soap is in dispute, even within French soapmakers.
With cheap Chinese and Turkish soaps flooding the French market, manufacturers want Marseille soap to be granted a “geographical indication” (GI) so consumers can tell the difference between the real thing and cheap imports.
But a dispute over how “true Marseille soap” should be made has the producers themselves at each other’s throats.
The Association of Makers of Savon de Marseille, which has asked the French government to establish a “geographical indication” for the soap to distinguish it from cheaper versions made in China and Turkey, is making the case that additives such as palm oil or copra oil should be acceptable additions to the traditional recipe. But AFSM, which represents large companies, including the cosmetics retailer L’Occitane, has run into resistance from a group of master soap makers who want to preserve product purity.
Their view is supported by the Union des Professionnels du Savon de Marseille, which has established its own set of criteria for verifying the integrity of the soap, including a requirement that it be produced by soap makers in the city of Marseille—while ASFM currently represents makers in a larger region.
The purist approach appears to have won the public’s favor: A Change.org petition seeking a narrow definition of Savon de Marseille has received nearly 125,000 signatures.
While we can only wait for the dust to settle before a verdict is made on the dispute, Marseille soaps are highly recommended by dermatologists for sensitive skin and are iconic in France as household staples for generations.
In France, it has been trusted for generations to cleanse everything from linens to little faces. A Savon de Marseille is said to be totally biodegradable, requires little packaging and manufacturing is environmentally friendly.
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By Simon A. Eugster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,