Old-fashioned Savon de Marseille is making a comeback as people turn to it as the ideal soap to wash away Covid-19. Nearly all soaps are effective in cleaning the virus from hands and surfaces, as the fatty outer layer of the virus does not survive contact with soap. But it is Savon de Marseille, and the related liquid savon noir which really benefited.
Trusted for generations
Julie Bousquet-Fabre, who, with sister Marie, runs Marius Fabre, founded by their great-grand-father, said: “People are washing hands more often, and wish to do so with a product they trust, and Savon de Marseille has been trusted for generations. “It is a soap with few ingredients but made with a lot of skill and know-how, and people are returning to more natural products like ours.” Before World War Two, most soap in France was made in Marseille from vegetable oil, in a process dating to Roman Empire soap factories in Syria.
It involves heating oil and caustic soda, formerly made from plant ashes, then washing soda out with salt water. After 10 days of heating, washing and refining, a paste forms that cools into the green or brown soap cakes with a characteristic smell that may be disguised with essential oils. Savon Noir is made in a day with a similar oil mix, but with potassium, not caustic soda.
In Marseille, olive oil was used from early days, but soap-making only became a major industry during the 17th century wars of religion. In 1688, a Louis XIV edict set standards specifying olive oil as the fat and a summer halt to work to maintain high quality. Before the Revolution, Marseille had 49 soap businesses, with 600 workers, plus another 1,500 prisoners used as labour.
The olive oil rule was relaxed in 1820 and chemical caustic soda, known as lye, brought in. These soda factories laid the foundation for today’s chemical industry in Marseille. Demand collapsed after 1945, due to washing machines and oil-based detergents, and today only five traditional soap-makers remain. Some cheap Savon de Marseille in Provence markets is Chinese or Turkish.
The five now have a loose marketing plan, emphasising Made in France and ecological benefits of using local soaps, especially solid soap. “A bar of soap lasts a long time, and does not require a plastic bottle and a pump,” said Ms Bousquet-Fabre, a graduate in sustainable development. “We have a lot of liquid soaps, but Savon de Marseille, which has been around for centuries and has again proved its worth in the latest crisis, is the future.Once people start using it again, they seldom go back to others.”
To buy real Savon de Marseille, she says to buy by brand or by checking the ingredients – there should be only seven.