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Here at Byrdie, we're all about sourcing the best, most efficacious ingredients and products for our skin. But when we uncover something that's beneficial for all skin types, it makes sharing the news that much more exciting. Enter African black soap, a cherished ingredient in beauty praised for its ultra-healing properties. And while certain skin types may find it a tad drying (we'll dive into that later), others find it a miracle worker. Bottom line: how to use African black soap will vary according to your skin type. To gain some intel on the wonders of this soap, we reached out to board-certified dermatologist Purvisha Patel for some answers.
Meet the Expert
Purvisha Patel is a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare.
Before incorporating this skin staple into your routine, read on for everything you need to know about using black soap for the face, its benefits, and the safest way to use it.
What is African Black Soap?
African black soap is a type of natural, hand-made soap that may be ideal for those with oily or acneic skin types, though some may contain properties that are beneficial for severely dry skin. Patel notes that it's been used in Africa for centuries and is typically sourced from raw farm produce in West African regions. "African black soap is handmade and used as a shampoo, face soap, and body bar. Its black color is due to the ash in the product," notes Patel. "Usually black soap is a mixture of water and the ashes of plantain skins or palm leaves, cocoa pod powder, palm oil, coconut oil, shea butter, and honey." Unlike traditional soaps—which tend to be synthetic—black soap has a rough texture, making it excellent as an exfoliant.
What is African Black Soap?
African black soap is derived from plants native to Nigeria and West Africa and is most notable for its various skincare benefits.
But because plants don't grow the same every time, batches can vary, even if they're from the same brand. It’s possible that one batch could be fine for you, while another has more of an ingredient that could possibly cause a skin reaction. Everyone is different, and black soap can not only have varying proportions and types of ingredients, but depending on where you're getting your products, they can vary.
Benefits of African Black Soap
Patel notes that African black soap benefits are aplenty.
- It's antibacterial. The strong, antibacterial properties African black soap contains make it an effective cleanser and a natural alternative to others that may be filled with chemicals.
- It's anti-inflammatory. Patel notes that "the active ingredient in the ashes of the soap is sulfur, a potent antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent. The rough nature of the soap exfoliates the skin, and the sulfur kills bacteria and fungus on the skin. This works not only on the face, but on the body as well, thus helping with shave bumps."
Sulfur is a natural element that is an essential component for all living cells. Sulfur-based products tend to work best for mild-to-moderate acne, primarily whiteheads, blackheads, and papules.
- It's moisturizing. "The oils in the soap stop excessive water loss caused from bathing so water stays trapped in the skin, locking in moisture," says Patel. This, combined with its previously mentioned anti-inflammatory properties, may make African black soap effective for soothing irritation caused by eczema or psoriasis.
- It improves skin tone and texture. "The rough nature of the soap helps exfoliate the skin. Over time, it can help with exfoliating dead, hyperpigmented skin," says Patel.
- It helps with dandruff. "The antifungal and anti-inflammatory activity of the ash helps kill dandruff-causing yeast," explains Patel. "The oils can also help moisturize dry scalp."
Is African Black Soap Suitable For All Skin Types?
While Patel notes that using African black soap for the face gets a green light, the frequency depends on your skin type. Because raw black soap can dry out even the oiliest of skin, black soaps that include shea butter or other moisturizing ingredients are best for those with dry skin. "The soap is best used for combination skin (skin that's only oily in the T-Zone)," says Patel. "If you have dry skin, the soap may make you more dry and could cause irritation with its roughness." If you fall in this skin type, make sure to hydrate the skin after using the soap with a revitalizing moisturizer.
Patel advises that "it's very possible to be allergic to African black soap, especially in those with sensitive skin. Although the ingredients are natural, they are plant-derived and can cause allergies, especially the sulfur component." And, because fragrances are sometimes added as essential oils, these might be cause for an allergic reaction, too.
How to Use African Black Soap
The key thing to remember with African black soap is that a little goes a long way, and using too much will definitely be drying to already parched skin. Below, Patel outlines the sequential steps to using African black soap:
- Wet your face.
- Wet the bar until you get a lather.
- With the soap on your hands, wash your face in a circular motion for 90 seconds, avoiding the skin on the eyelids.
- Rinse off with cool water.
- For a deeper clean, rub with a wash cloth or exfoliating brush before rinsing off.
- If you have dry skin, apply a moisturizer.
Upon first use, even those with oily skin might notice that the skin feels dry and tight, which should last for a week. Some say, in theory, this is caused by the soap drawing out impurities and excess oils, and the pH levels of the skin will eventually balance out after a few days. The soap can also cause a tingling, sometimes burning sensation, leading to reddened skin. This also eventually resolves for most people, but before going full-throttle and using African black soap on your face, Patel recommends doing a patch test on another part of your body—such as your neck or arm—before using the soap all over.
Using African Black Soap For Acne
Patel recommends using African black soap if you're acne-prone. "The sulfur here is a win for acne," says Patel, adding that the benefits are three-fold. "The ash contains potent antimicrobial properties that kill off the microorganisms causing acne, the rough bar helps exfoliate the skin and open up the pores, and the honey and sulfur also help decrease inflammation." She adds that inflammation especially in skin of color results in hyperpigmentation or dark spots and says that this soap can help decrease said dark spots by decreasing inflammation.
Possible Side Effects
"Allergic reactions are common with natural skincare products, as they are not regulated on the amount of ingredients, purity of ingredients, lifespan of ingredients or sourcing of ingredients," explains Patel. "No one bar of soap has the same exact ingredient concentration as another." If the skin gets overly dry or red, or peels or itches, stop using the product and see a board-certified dermatologist. Also, if you have a chocolate allergy or are sensitive to caffeine, the high concentration of cocoa pods may pose an issue.
How to Store Your African Black Soap
Store it in a cool, dry place. When it's exposed to the air, black soap may develop a thin white-colored film—this is not mold. You might want to cut off a portion of the bar—or cut and roll it into small balls—and place them in a plastic bag. This will prevent the film from forming, and make day-to-day use easier. If you buy bulk amounts, wrap them in plastic and put them in a bag.
Because African black soap contains glycerin, it may soften and start to slowly disintegrate when left exposed. It also absorbs water, so keep it dry to prevent it from dissolving. Try placing the bar on a wooden soap dish with slats to allow the soap to drain before placing it back in a bag.
Glycerin is a natural occurring compound in the body; in topical skincare, it is derived from plants. It functions to draw water to the skin and continue hydrating it, making it a great ingredient for extreme dryness.
African Black Soap Products to Try
Below, find our top picks for products that feature African black soap as the star ingredient.
Patel recommends this African black soap mud mask, which helps refine the pores and balance oily skin.
This African black soap is in liquid form, giving it the look and feel of a cleanser but with natural ingredients like shea butter and coconut oil.
Made for oily skin that's prone to acne, this soap uses tea tree oil and tamarind extract meant to purify, mattify, and exfoliate the skin.
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