Aleppo soap is named for the city in which it was first made – Aleppo, Syria. The first documented production of Aleppo soap dates back to the 8th century, though many say that it existed well before that and some say that it is the oldest soap in the world – a veritable soap forefather, if you will. The city of Aleppo lies in the northwest corner of Syria, and for centuries, was a bustling trade center, nestled between China to the east, Africa to the south, and Europe to the west.
Like castile soap, Aleppo soap is a hard soap comprised of olive oil and sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), but its unique ingredient is laurel oil, made from laurel trees (from which we also get bay leaves). Once plentiful in the humid Mediterranean, the presence of laurel forests have greatly decreased as the Mediterranean climate has gotten drier.
Traditional Aleppo soap is made through a "hot process." The olive oil, lye, and water are mixed in a large, in-ground vat, in which the ingredients are boiled and mixed for three days, during which time the oil reacts with the lye and water to become a thick liquid soap.
At the end of this process, the laurel oil is added and then the mixture is poured from the vat over a large sheet of wax paper on the floor of the factory. The large, green mass is allowed to cool down and harden.
The soap is then cut – a rake-like cutting device is dragged through the soap to cut it one way, then again the other way until the whole mass is cut into individual cubes that are stamped with the soap artisan's name.
The cubes of soap are then stacked in staggered racks to allow maximum air exposure. Once they have dried, they are aged for about seven months. During this time, the outside of the soap turns from green to its trademark yellow or brown color.
Freshly made Aleppo soap stacked and ready for aging in a factory in Aleppo, Syria. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Generally, the laurel content of Aleppo soap ranges anywhere from 2-40 percent. The higher the ratio of laurel oil, the more brown the soap gets. A soap with a high laurel content usually costs more too, since it is more expensive to make.
Because it's natural and chemical-free, Aleppo soap has withstood the test of time and continues to be sought after today. The olive oil acts as a moisturizer and the laurel oil as a cleanser. Together, they can help to calm inflammation, irritation and redness. Some say that using laurel oil can help treat and manage skin conditions like eczema, seborrheic dermatitis, and acne. Indeed, Aleppo soap is often tolerated by those with even the most sensitive skin.
Today, many industrial soap-makers market Aleppo soap, but their soap may contain other additives such as fragrances and essential oils, and even chemicals to tint their soap the desired color. For this reason, many consider traditional Aleppo soap made in Aleppo to be the gold standard. Indeed, some Aleppo soap makers have been using the same family recipe for hundreds of years. Production has slowed and even halted completely for some companies in recent years, rendering the future of authentic Aleppo soap uncertain.
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