The Simple Miracle of a Soap Bar

Ever since I made my own scented soap as a perfumery trainee, I’ve been fascinated by the transformation that happens when oils and lye come together. How could such simple materials produce a shiny white bar? And how could the addition of aromatic essences transform an ordinary soap into a small luxury? This is the topic of my recent FT magazine column, Artisanal Scented Soaps.

I talk about my favorite fragrant soaps from brands like Marius Fabre, Claus Porto and Santa Maria Novella.

When exploring artisanal soapmakers, I would be remiss not to include one of Florence’s treasures, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. This venerable institution was founded by Dominican friars around 1221 as an infirmary for the monks. Eventually it began producing a range of balms and medicines for the general public. Today, Santa Maria Novella is a cosmetic and perfume house reputed for its simple but elegant formulas.One such example is its iris-scented soap Sapone Fior d’Iris. The fragrance is of iris roots and it lasts on the skin well after a shower, making this soap a perfect companion to an iris perfume like Santa Maria Novella Acqua di Colonia Iris or Chanel 28 La Pausa. To read the full article, please click here.

What is your favorite scented soap?

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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80 Comments

  • Anne: I’ve been wanting to try the iris soap from SMN. I’m looking for something to layer with 28 La Pausa. May 18, 2018 at 9:13am Reply

    • Victoria: It lingers but maybe not so much that it will make La Pausa last longer, if that’s your intention. But all in all, it’s an excellent soap. Perfect for scenting laundry too. May 18, 2018 at 9:48am Reply

  • Maria: Hi Victoria! My love of soaps started during pregnancy, when I couldn’t stand perfumes. A perfumed soap give me an infinite but delicate pleasure, even now I have a significant perfumed soaps collection, but I’ve reduced my number of full bottles to just three.
    I love SMN iris soaps on drawers, the smell lingers very well on clothes. I also love Chanel soaps (No 19 and No.5) and I’m in love with Oriza Legrand soaps. L’Erbolario iris soaps are a good option too, as well as Lorenzo Villoresi. But in winter, when I need something gentle on skin, I always use Aven Cold Cream soap. May 18, 2018 at 9:47am Reply

    • Victoria: It’s true. It’s a noncommittal way to enjoy scents, and there is such a variety of soaps out there.

      I forgot about L’Erbolario and their soaps. They also have a great muguet soap. May 18, 2018 at 9:50am Reply

  • Emilie: I quite like diptyque soaps. I wish the Eau Rose soap was available all year and not just around Valentine’s.

    There is an Australian brand called Vice & Velvet who make great soaps with different seasonal scents. My autumnal favourite is supposed to smell of tonka bean, lavender, warm milk, honey and rum… and it does! May 18, 2018 at 9:51am Reply

    • Victoria: I love the idea of seasonal soaps! May 20, 2018 at 1:38am Reply

  • RMF325: I have a 12 year old niece who has always loved scented soap. I buy her bars often; inexpensive things at places like TJ Max and Cost Plus that she loves, or similar things when I’m in Europe. When she’s a bit older, I’ll step up the quality. She is so happy and excited whenever I give her a new bar. Personally, I’ve always been fond of Chanel soaps; great in the lingerie drawers. May 18, 2018 at 9:53am Reply

    • Emilie: If Chanel ever make a No.22 soap bar then oh my gosh, I will be so happy! And my lingerie will forever smell divine 🙂 May 18, 2018 at 10:04am Reply

      • Victoria: Or Chanel No 18! May 20, 2018 at 1:40am Reply

        • Emilie: Yes! That would be wonderful! May 20, 2018 at 2:12am Reply

    • Victoria: Same here. They keep their scent for a long time. May 20, 2018 at 1:39am Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: I have been a soap maker since 2000 when I learned the trade from a woman in rural downeast Maine. I absolutely love everything about it. I have a recipe from an old book that has been out of print for eons. Fellow soap makers try to worm it out of me, cajole it out of me, beg it out of me…but, as I tell them, “If I tell you the recipe, I’m gonna have to kill ya.” So, it remains my secret. Not to break my arm patting myself on my back but it is the best cold process soap ever. Organic oils, pure essential oils and food grade lye all mixed up in an enchanting bath accouterment!!! I have to insist to the people I give it to to USE IT. Don’t just let it sit there smelling gorgeous! LOVE soap. May 18, 2018 at 9:59am Reply

    • Anu: Hello Lynn Mar, you just sold me your soap!!! Do you offer them for sale? I would love to try some. May 18, 2018 at 11:03am Reply

      • Lynn LaMar: Hi Anu! Usually yes! But I’m in NYC for a total of 2 and a half years (helping with the grandkids while mama finishes Grad school…) so I haven’t been in any production mode since all my (huge) inventory of raw materials is safely tucked at home in the dark of my Florida closet!! I go home 2 or 3 times a year and each time I’ll make 1 recipe (2-1/2#) for personal use. When I go home for good this August, I’ll be going into several 5# block modes! I’d be happy to send you some.!!! Now, to remember this…lol May 18, 2018 at 11:47am Reply

        • Sandra: me too! sign me up May 18, 2018 at 12:07pm Reply

          • Lynn LaMar: You’re on Sandra!! When I get home in August, I’ll post it somewhere here if Victoria doesn’t mind. I’ll send everyone a sample!! I always end up giving my soap away because I want everyone to enjoy it!!!! May 18, 2018 at 12:23pm Reply

            • Lynn LaMar: While I’ve been here I’ve been experimenting with scents using my diffuser. I’ve come up with a couple of outstanding fragrances that I can’t wait to try in the soap!! May 18, 2018 at 12:24pm Reply

            • Sandra: I really appreciated it when my father in law helps with my two little ones, you are doing good work. My kids love grandpa! May 18, 2018 at 12:25pm Reply

              • Lynn LaMar: These two precious babies are the only reason I am here…I love them so much and what a privilege to be able to watch them grow up day by day for these couple of years!!! Thank you Sandra. I always appreciate a little encouragement!!! lol May 18, 2018 at 12:31pm Reply

        • Gabriela: Oh, I’d love to try your soap! May 19, 2018 at 4:45am Reply

        • Anu: Thank you! Can’t wait! 😀 May 19, 2018 at 8:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: It sounds like a beautiful bar! May 20, 2018 at 1:39am Reply

    • Cheryl G.: Count me in! I’m happy to buy a bar, or two, or ten! May 21, 2018 at 12:42am Reply

      • Lynn LaMar: Ok Cheryl!!! You’re in!!! Look for an update about mid september. That will be the end of the cure, once I get home. I’m also taking suggestions for fall based scents… May 21, 2018 at 9:19am Reply

        • Cheryl G.: Orange Clove always gets my attention. May 21, 2018 at 9:29am Reply

          • Lynn LaMar: Sounds lovely!!! I have been wanting to use clove… May 21, 2018 at 10:55am Reply

            • Cheryl G.: Apple too! May 21, 2018 at 7:30pm Reply

              • Lynn LaMar: The only thing that holds me back from some creations is that I will only use essential oils. I have used fragrance oils from time to time but I don’t like the fact that most of them have alcohol or some other non-desirable ingredients within it’s composition…I’ve been thinking about exploring fragrances again since it’s been many years since I’ve looked into them. As long as I would be rest assured that the FO’s are perfectly safe for skin and personal well being, I’d use them…Ergo; apple!!! May 22, 2018 at 10:33am Reply

                • Cheryl G.: If you are able to make an apple, I beg you to PLEASE not not add cinnamon! I halfway apologize for that drama. May 22, 2018 at 6:59pm Reply

  • Nancy Chan: I love the violet scented soap from the Claus Porto range, which has a lovely sweet scent like those of the Parma Violet sweets. Another favourite is from Gamila which produces soaps scented with essential oils, the rose scented being my favourite. May 18, 2018 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I have to try those soaps. May 20, 2018 at 1:40am Reply

  • Iuliana Necula: A lovely article (but what’s new? they all are :-))! My favourite scented soaps are Roger & Gallet, and in particular the Oeillet Mignardise soap, which I discovered through another one of your articles. I place them around the house in drawers and wardrobes and they last for years… Looking forward to discovering Claus Porto and could not agree more about the scented Marius Fabre, upon which I stumbled in Provence a few years ago.
    Have a wonderful weekend! May 18, 2018 at 10:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you. 🙂
      Marius Fabre makes such good soaps, especially given the price. They also last for a long time. May 20, 2018 at 1:41am Reply

  • Trudy: I’ve loved bar soaps since I was a teenager when I would buy Yardley’s lavender and other drugstore brands with my humble earnings. As an adult I still enjoy bar soaps for my drawers as well as in the bath/shower. SMN are lovely as are soaps from Tocca. One of my very favorites soaps is Mistral’s Lychee Rose. Just a beautiful fragrance that scents the entire bathroom. Thanks to this article and the comments here I have some new ones to try. I must try a Chanel! May 18, 2018 at 10:37am Reply

    • Victoria: So many ideas of new soaps to try. May 20, 2018 at 1:41am Reply

  • Sandra: Lovely article Victoria!

    Right now I am using a black seed soap that I bought off a foundation that benefits Syrian refugees and the soap is handmade. Its very good and I love when the window is open and in the bathroom and the wind blows the smell into the hallway…

    A simple not expensive soap is Kiss My Face olive oil soap. Also a great smell…

    Saponificio Artigianale Fiorentino soap in Lavender.

    Dream Soap from Aruba..the smell is divine..aloe vera is great for the skin.

    Honestly..sometimes good old Dove soap has a nice lingering smell..

    Those small egg white soaps..can’t think of the name..they come in a cute box. I use it on my face and body… May 18, 2018 at 11:10am Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, the Belgian egg white soaps. I also enjoy them very much.

      The Aleppo soap is excellent. May 20, 2018 at 1:42am Reply

  • Filomena: I love the article and the photo of all the beautiful Claus Porto soaps. I only use scented soaps when I bathe or shower. Claus Porto and Santa Maria Novella are the ones I use. May 18, 2018 at 11:39am Reply

    • Victoria: Those are the soaps I bought in Marseille. The peach colored one is scented with anise. May 20, 2018 at 1:43am Reply

  • Amelia: Years ago I came to the Santa Maria Novella store in New York following a remembered whiff of muguet on a chic college friend who had come back from a year in Italy, but left the store with the dream of ginestra/scotch bloom clinging to my mind. That clear, woody floral drove me toward Nesti Dante’s Dei Colli Fiorentini Broom Soap- which cost a coin at the time but seems more widely available now.

    On other opportunities I have to get down to NYC, I like to treat myself to the wrapped soaps, like a luscious orange and fennel, from the beauty section at Eataly- their fragrance and texture compositions are a refreshing change from the usual. And as daily pleasures go, the oat and honey soap from Trader Joe’s has such a nice light fragrance and soft skin feel, it’s my go to soap bar in the shower.

    My other gentle indulgence is the Herbs de Provence bar made by South of France available at Whole Foods. The clear herbal scent has a nice astringent zing that pops in the shower, but what I really love is the avocado green color of the bar- it is so retro. It makes me think of the kinds of practical, half-used bar soaps that grandmothers have always seemed to have in their bathroom soapdishes since the beginning of time. And it always holds together until the last slip remains- the edges never fray!- so it stays smooth until the end. It’s such a small pleasure but the emotional gratification I get from its beauty and practicality is somehow so satisfying 🙂 May 18, 2018 at 12:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more with you. A bar of soap is a a delight. May 20, 2018 at 1:45am Reply

  • Margot: Wonderful article, I have such a soft spot for soaps. In fact I’ve just returned home with a rose soap from the Dutch Werfzeep. Love their artisanal soaps, and also the fact they don’t contain palm oil.
    A little soap shop closeby has the porto soaps, I’ll go and sniff them sometime soon. May 18, 2018 at 12:19pm Reply

    • Victoria: They have a big collection, and the scents are very well-done. May 20, 2018 at 1:43am Reply

  • Cyndi: Really enjoyed your article, Victoria. I loved perfumed soaps years ago, but I switched to body wash and have not purchased any bar soap in quite a while. Your article has inspired me to use them again. I would so love a bar of Chanel #5 soap. I have the bubble bath and body cream, and I think the soap would be a luxurious addition to a perfect bath! May 18, 2018 at 12:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: I keep my Chanel No 5 soap to scent the linen drawer. Its scents lingers nicely. May 20, 2018 at 2:02am Reply

  • Mariann: I enjoy the smells of Andy Tauers soaps. Havent brought myself to use it yet though. Im happy to have it scent my closet. May 18, 2018 at 4:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: Which soaps have you tried so far? May 20, 2018 at 2:01am Reply

  • Connie: As a person who makes soap, I can tell you I have a deep, deep love of the process. The fragrances, the herbs and flowers that go in. I use a lot of my dried organic flowers and herbs in my soap, its my thing, so to speak. So of my favorites, are Frankincense & Myrrh, La Vetiver, and Faery Rose. Soap making is such a satisfying craft, I love to just look at soaps online and in my Studio. Each one is precious, and has a name unique to its type. Such a great article to point out the beauty of soaps! Long Have I known their beauty and the craft has taken over my life and business. May 18, 2018 at 5:43pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s great to hear your perspective too, and your soaps sound wonderful. May 20, 2018 at 2:00am Reply

    • Lynn LaMar: Amen Connie. I feel the same way as a soapmaker…Such an amazing craft!!! May 21, 2018 at 9:39am Reply

  • Janine Yasovant: Hello from ChiangMai , Bois de Jasmin May 19, 2018 at 12:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Hello, Janine! You live in one of my favorite cities in Thailand. 🙂 May 20, 2018 at 2:00am Reply

  • John: I love lavender soaps, and regularly use Dr. Bronner’s castile lavender soap, which is a very straightforward presentation of lavender. My favourite, however, is the cube-shaped lavender soap bar by l’Occitan…About three years ago, I was packing in a hurry to go to New York City with my wife, and I found it in a drawer (still wrapped from receiving it as a gift months earlier) and packed it as an all-purpose shaving soap, body bar and fragrance. That trip turned out to involve our stumbling across the old Caron boutique, and the discovery of Pour un Homme, which has since become my signature… A wonderful coincidence. May 19, 2018 at 2:47am Reply

    • Victoria: I miss that Caron boutique! They also had soaps, by the way. May 20, 2018 at 1:59am Reply

  • faith: ahh what a nice thing to think about at the moment….soap! the first two that spring to mind are both from Lush #1 Karma, very heavy on the patchouli. # 2 Figs and Leaves, honestly i suppose it smells like figs, but really it smells to me like something from childhood i can not quite place. both will smell up the place [in a very very good way]……another two i discovered after reading articles here are…#3 Mysore sandalwood soap. highly scented, very inexpensive…..#4 olive oil soap from Aleppo. super slippery, lightly scented. i like using it with a nail brush at the sink, because it’s a little unwieldy and it looks good to me, sitting there in it’s rustic way…..i would love a geranium scented soap, if anyone has a recommendation. May 19, 2018 at 11:35am Reply

    • Lynn LaMar: Faith…geranium is one of my favorites to make. Geranium, pink grapefruit and patchouli is to die for… May 19, 2018 at 2:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Neal’s Yard has Geranium and Orange soap. May 20, 2018 at 1:59am Reply

  • Anne: Pentagon’s Elenisia, Artemisia, and Lily of the Valley scented soaps. Also, Mysore sandal soap, good old-fashioned Castille soap, and a lovely creamy/frothy soap powder simply called Face Wash from the Japanese company DHC. May 19, 2018 at 1:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, the Mysore sandalwood soap is excellent. May 20, 2018 at 1:58am Reply

  • Anne: over-aggressive spell checker…..Penhaligon’s. May 19, 2018 at 1:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: 🙂 Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Pentagon to switch onto making soaps… May 20, 2018 at 1:58am Reply

      • faith: yes! make bubbles not war! May 20, 2018 at 5:03am Reply

  • Lynn LaMar: You’re in Gabriela. As I said, it will be awhile once I get home in late August then another six weeks for curing. I’m not sure how to contact you ladies to send a sample but my email is
    lynnlamar@gmail.com. Maybe send me a little note and I’ll keep your email in my contacts. Figure in time for fall,so perhaps I’ll plan on making a fall scent…ummmm…birch tar, bergamot …cinnamon… May 19, 2018 at 2:06pm Reply

    • Lynn LaMar: suggestions????? Fall soap. May 19, 2018 at 2:07pm Reply

  • Kate: Genuine Aleppo soap is a remarkable product; made of olive and laurel oils, it’s very pure.

    Sadly the production of this soap has almost collapsed because of the catastrophic, violent conflict in Syria. I think some of the main producers have shifted production to Lebanon. May 19, 2018 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: My aesthetician’s mother lives in Aleppo and has a small soap business. She used to live in Brussels, but she returned to Syria in February. She says that many small businesses are trying to continue, since it’s the only source of income for them. The logistics of shipping abroad are very complicated, however. I can buy genuine Aleppo-soap from a Syrian shop in Brussels, and over the past year it has become more available. But the war is far from being over. May 20, 2018 at 1:57am Reply

    • Sandra: I agree, Aleppo soap has is gentle on my sensitive skin and it’s the best. May 21, 2018 at 7:31pm Reply

  • Monica: The Zum soaps from Indigo Wild are amazing. I also like the handcrafted BoyGoat soaps. They are fantastic. Both brands are really worth a try. May 20, 2018 at 1:46pm Reply

    • S: The Zum soaps are my favorite! Particularly the sandalwood-citrus and the patchouli-mint. I lather them up onto a loofah in the shower and my skin loves them. Which scents do you like? May 20, 2018 at 9:10pm Reply

      • Monica: I like most of the soaps that I have tried from the line. However, I love the Frankincense and Myrrh, Lavender-Lemon and Frankincense- Lavender. They are all great soaps. May 21, 2018 at 9:54am Reply

    • Victoria: I haven’t tried these two, but I also like finding new small brands. May 22, 2018 at 6:45am Reply

  • Silvermoon: Thanks for this article on soap, Victoria. I absolutely love soaps. As a first-thing-take-a-shower in the morning person, my soap kicks off my day (like coffee for many). So, perfumed soaps give me such pleasure whether in the shower or my linen drawers. Among my favourites are Nesti Dante (especially the Romantica and Dolce Vivere ranges), Crabtree & Evelyn’s Jojoba Oil soap (the shell shape adds to its charms), Mistral, Barr-Co, Marseille style organic soaps, Roger & Gallet, Mysore Sandalwood Soap, Maja, and Indian sugar soaps.

    Victoria, do you know the posh Indian brand Forest Essentials? They have beautiful bath and body products, especially soaps. Best are Bengal Tuberose and Nargis (daffodil). May 20, 2018 at 5:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like Forest Essentials very much, and I ask my friends coming back from India to bring me their products. Their jasmine toner is my favorite, but I haven’t tried the soaps. May 22, 2018 at 6:46am Reply

      • Silvermoon: Haven’t tried the toner, so next time will check it out. The body cream is lovely, especially Nergis – instead of daffodils, I smell an almost curry like tuberose (it’s much better than it sounds). A completely Indian interpretation of the flower. The soaps are sugar soaps, smell beautiful but don’t last long. All the same, a pleasure to use. May 22, 2018 at 8:56am Reply

        • Victoria: It does sound very good! May 23, 2018 at 2:14am Reply

  • Marge Clark: Hsve any of you tried Andy Tauer’s soaps? now, glycerine based are not my favorite, but the fragrances are lovely. May 20, 2018 at 9:46pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’ve smelled them, but I haven’t tried them. The scents are excellent. May 22, 2018 at 7:16am Reply

  • Aurora: Such an original article, I remember Claus Porto soaps in the US, I’ve never seen them in the UK so far. Pacifica Gardenia Soap is a favorite, it smells so good and almost any soap offering from the markets in Provence, honey scented ones being particularly appealing. May 23, 2018 at 1:35pm Reply

  • Aurora: Oh, and Maison du Savon de Marseille is also excellent. May 23, 2018 at 1:38pm Reply

  • Joy Erickson: I don’t know how I missed this article, Victoria, but it is wonderful. I love soap and have used many of those listed. Now I have more to look for. I always pack my own bar of soap when I travel, so no matter where I am, I can have a more luxurious shower experience even in a budget hotel.
    When I travel I always stop in at small grocers to look at their soaps and purchase a few bars. It is a budget way to experience a different place and recall a country or city. May 24, 2018 at 9:50pm Reply

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