Marseille Soap: A Natural Product Against the Virus

Experts have been telling us to wash our hands as often as possible since the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic. Faced with shortages of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, more and more people are turning to traditional, natural soap from Marseille.
© Philippe Petit/Paris Match/Getty Images

Marseille soap, or savon de Marseille, is presented as a pale-green, brownish or white 400-gram cube or bar bearing the stamp “72% extra-pure,” and has become a Provençal icon. Traditionally used for washing linen, the rustic little block has made its way from the aisles of household products in supermarkets to our bathroom cabinets, driven by a taste for wholesome products. While industry players often quarrel over its origin, the recipe has remained unchanged for centuries.

Almost all French grandmothers have once used savon de Marseille to remove persistent stains from bed linen, or to bathe delicate skin. This particular soap is biodegradable, hypoallergenic, nourishing, imperishable, moth repelling, antibacterial, and free from colorants and artificial fragrances. As a result, it was one of the French hygiene products that contributed to the drop in infant mortality rates and contagious diseases during the 19th century. In Provence, France, some say it has quite extraordinary properties. A bar of Marseille soap placed at the foot of a bed will supposedly prevent rheumatism and cramps…

Ancient Expertise

Driven by consumer tastes for wholesome products, Marseille soap is said to be overtaking shower gel, which is now seen to contain too many chemicals. This renowned little soap was a pioneer of the organic trend long before its time… Its creation dates back to the 15th century in Massilia (the Latin name for the city of Marseille). Soap makers began to prefer using olive oil instead of animal fat, which explains the faintly green shade we know today.

Buoyed in 1688 by the French Minister of Finances, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who issued an edict imposing the use of pure olive oils, the Marseille soap industry boomed. It was further reinforced by the invention of caustic soda in 1789, which enabled a higher oil content, and the advent of palm, groundnut and copra oils in 1840, which gave the soap a white color and boosted foaming properties. The later use of flax then lent the soap a slightly yellow color.

In their heyday in 1913, some 90 Marseille soap workshops were producing 180,000 tons of soap per year. But the arrival of powder detergents after the war, followed by the washing machine, sparked a crisis in the industry. Around ten small factories are left today in the city and the surrounding areas, without forgetting the multitude of soap artisans.

Made in Marseille, Really?

Marseille soap also bore the brunt of competition from cut-price copies from Asia, Turkey and Italy, which flooded France with soaps bearing the false stamp “from Marseille.” As the soap has no AOC, or regional trademark, the name savon de Marseille does not refer to the territory but rather to the methods used to make it. The soap is crafted in a cauldron using only vegetable oils and must guarantee an oil content of at least 63%. Despite its name, savon de Marseille can in fact be produced anywhere. For example, the company Savonnerie de l’Atlantique produces 4,000 tons of soap according to traditional methods every year, and is based in the suburbs of Nantes! This situation has been deplored by Marseille-based soap makers, who demand a Geographical Indication label reserved for the coastal city and its region.

There are also disagreements between master soap makers. While they all support a label for a traditional savon de Marseille, made using vegetable oil and caustic soda, some of them tolerate a number of additives, including fragrances. This is nothing short of heresy in the “traditionalist” camp, which makes up the Union of Savon de Marseille Professionals and forbids any addition of fragrances or “fanciful” forms. You can forget about those beautiful, colorful soaps shaped like fruits or animals, wafting scents of lemon trees, honeysuckle, lime trees, or sweet almond.

The Paris Court of Appeal recently denied the protection as a Geographical Indication of savon de Marseille. This did not prevent the famous bar of soap to become the subject of a museum, Musée du Savon de Marseille (MuSaMa), which opened in 2018 in the city’s Old Port neighborhood. A great showcase for this natural product made in France. As for the renowned French brand, Le Petit Marseillais, sold at outlets such as Target and Walgreens as perfumed shower gels, it is in fact produced by… the American multinational Johnson & Johnson.

How to Recognize Real Savon de Marseille?

While 95% of Marseille soaps are not authentic, a few clues will help you recognize when it’s the real deal. The soap should be in a cube or bar shape, either brownish-green or white, bear a stamp on all six sides, and not contain more than six natural ingredients. There is one handy tip to check its authenticity: The oil content of Marseille soap makes it float! Simply put it in water, and if it floats, it’s genuine!