What Is African Black Soap—And Why Does Everyone Swear By It?

There are plenty of trendy health and natural skin-care products on the market (hello, apple cider vinegar!) these days—and black soap (a.k.a. African black soap) is now emerging as the latest star. Purported to provide ultra-deep cleansing of the skin and praised by people with skin conditions like rosacea and eczema, black soap is quickly accumulating super-fans, with beauty experts extolling its virtues.

A quick scan of the beauty-care aisle will tell you that black soaps, like Shea Moisture’s Organic African Black Soap, contain a few leading ingredients: plant ash (such as cocoa pod ash), shea butter, and various oils. Each brand may carry products with slightly different ingredients, but it’s the ash that plays a core role due to its skin-cleansing abilities.

Originating in West Africa, black soap comes from something called agro-waste—or, parts of plants (ashes from shells, husks or barks of plantain, palm, cocoa pod, or shea trees) left out in the sun to dry. The ash from these parts is mixed with water, shea butter, and oils (like coconut oil or palm oil), and is then cooked, saponofied (made hard, like sap), and cooled.

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Though more conclusive studies are needed on African black soap’s seemingly magical skin-cleansing properties, research in the Journal of Bioresource Technology found that the ash in black soap, which gently exfoliates the skin due to its makeup from dried plants, offers “excellent solubility, consistency, cleansing, and lathering abilities.”

On top of its skin-cleansing properties, the shea butter in African black soap is lauded for its moisturizing abilities. “Shea butter can help soften cracked dry skin on heels, elbows, and knees,” says Brian Tanzer, Manager of Scientific Affairs at The Vitamin Shoppe. “It also contains essential fatty acids, along with vitamins A and E, which help maintain your skin’s elasticity and suppleness.”

The oils found in black soap, which can vary by the region in which the soap was made, are also highly moisturizing.

Who Should Use It?

Most people can use African black soap on their face and body for general skin cleansing. And according to a survey published by the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, people also use it for minimizing acne, dark spots, and razor bumps. This could be due to its deep-cleansing abilities, although more research is needed to validate its mechanisms and its effectiveness on specific skin conditions.