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The word sapo, Latin for soap, first appears in Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis, which discusses the manufacture of soap from tallow and ashes, but the only use he mentions for it is as a pomade for hair; he mentions rather disapprovingly that the men of the Gauls and Germans were more likely to use it than their female counterparts.
The Romans' preferred method of cleaning the body was to massage oil into the skin and then scrape away both the oil and any dirt with a strigil. A popular belief claims soap takes its name from a supposed Mount Sapo, where animal sacrifices were supposed to have taken place; tallow from these sacrifices would then have mixed with ashes from fires associated with these sacrifices and with water to produce soap, but there is no evidence of a Mount Sapo in the Roman world and no evidence for the apocryphal story.
By the 13th century, the manufacture of soap in the Islamic world had become virtually industrialized, with sources in Nablus, Fes, Damascus, and Aleppo.
The Carolingian capitulary De Villis, dating to around 800, representing the royal will of Charlemagne, mentions soap as being one of the products the stewards of royal estates are to tally.
Zosimos of Panopolis, circa 300 AD, describes soap and soapmaking.
Galen describes soap-making using lye and prescribes washing to carry away impurities from the body and clothes.
Sodium soaps, prepared from sodium hydroxide, are firm, whereas potassium soaps, derived from potassium hydroxide, are softer or often liquid.
Historically, potassium hydroxide was extracted from the ashes of bracken or other plants.
The insoluble oil/fat molecules become associated inside micelles, tiny spheres formed from soap molecules with polar hydrophilic (water-attracting) groups on the outside and encasing a lipophilic (fat-attracting) pocket, which shields the oil/fat molecules from the water making it soluble.
In the Middle East, soap was produced from the interaction of fatty oils and fats with alkali.
In Syria, soap was produced using olive oil together with alkali and lime.
Such soaps are also used as thickeners to increase the viscosity of oils.
In ancient times, lubricating greases were made by the addition of lime to olive oil.
Soap was exported from Syria, to other parts of the Muslim world and to Europe.