African black soap has been used for generations in western Africa. It has also been used by people of color in the United States, but in recent years, because of its myriad skincare benefits, black soap has been increasing in popularity in the U.S. and Europe. When a product becomes the Next Big Thing, there can be imitations and meet the demand, inferior production results. So how do you know if the African black soap you are buying is the real thing?
When it comes to black soap, most say that the fewer ingredients, the better. The pure and raw traditional African black soap is from western Africa. The raw soap doesn’t look like regular bar soap. Traditional black soap, even when it's cut into bar form, is rarely smooth or uniform in shape. African black soap comes in different shapes, colors, and sizes depending on the mixture. The texture of the soap should be soft and at times, it is a bit crumbly but never hard like regular bar soap.
Natural raw black soap doesn’t have artificial fragrance. It is described as having an earthy scent. Some soap could have a faint chocolate scent because of the cocoa content. In addition to not containing artificial fragrance, the soap doesn't contain artificial coloring or preservatives. One retail website claims that the soap is also free of lye, which is not accurate. Soap actually can't be made without lye, but African black soap has naturally occurring lye found in the plantain or wood ashes.
Black Soap Is Black, Right?
While it is called black soap and can get very dark in color, it is never actually pure black. Black soap varies from light brown to deep black in color, depending on the ingredients used and the method of preparation, but the raw form is probably not going to be uniformly black. In the process of creating black soap, plantain leaves are sun-dried and then burned into ash. The longer the plantain is roasted, the darker the soap will be. The use of different oils in the recipes, which also vary by region, can also result in color variations.
There are some who warn that if the soap is jet black in color, it has been dyed and is probably not natural and therefore doesn’t have the same benefits.
Nubian Heritage and Shea Moisture African Black Soap both come in regular bar form and are black but contain natural ingredients. Some companies purchase natural black soap from West Africa, break it up into smaller chunks to slowly re-melt it, add other ingredients like argan or almond oil or aloe leaf juice or gel, then remold it. These soaps and other bar soaps like Dudu-Osun are perhaps more aesthetically pleasing and contrary to some reports, also share the same benefits.
How to Buy Black Soap
Buy African black soap from a trusted and reliable source. It is natural, but some natural things shouldn’t be in it. One online customer complained about finding a lot of hair in the soap, and it wasn’t hers. While that's pretty disgusting and seemed to be a rare occurrence for that particular brand, it is apparently common to find debris like tiny pebbles or splintery wood pieces in the raw soap. When buying black soap, especially in its raw form, read several customer reviews.
If the soap is truly a fair trade product, meaning that the women who make the soap are paid at a fair rate, it supports women’s cooperatives and village communities. Some companies that sell black soap and work to support African communities are Sundial Brands (SheaMoisture and Nubian Heritage), Shea Radiance, Alaffia, and Tropical Naturals.
Lin A, Nabatian A, Halverstam CP. Discovering Black Soap: A Survey on the Attitudes and Practices of Black Soap Users. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol. 2017 Jul;10(7):18-22.