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African Black soap is made from the ash of locally harvested plants and barks such as plantain, cocoa pods, palm tree leaves, and shea tree bark. First the leaves and bark are sun-dried and then roasted in a kettle or pot at an even, constant temperature, which is important to ensure color, texture and smell. Then water and various oils – palm oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil (including shea butter and cocoa pod powder) – are added to the mixture and stirred for at least a day. After that, the “soap” is left to set for two weeks to cure.
Oftentimes the soap is made by women and is fair-traded, though not always. Black soap is traditionally made in west Africa, typically Ghana, from secret recipes. Different tribes and communities have adopted their own specific (secret) blend of oils and cooking techniques, which can be seen in the different color variations among black soap. The ash itself was often used to heal cuts. Varieties of black soap actually made in Africa tend to be pure, while soaps made in Europe or the United States sometimes have added artificial ingredients.
The plantain skins give the soap Vitamin A & E, and iron. Because the soap has the highest shea butter content of any soap, it purportedly also offers UV protection. Some people with caffeine sensitivities may need to test out soap that contains cocoa pods as there is some evidence that the caffeine can be transmitted through contact with the skin.