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Can African Black Soap Help Acne?

There Is No Evidence That It Could. In Fact, African Black Soap Is Very Similar to Regular Soap and Should Be Avoided.

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: December 16, 2020

The Essential Information

African black soap, or simply "black soap," is an umbrella term for a variety of bar, liquid, and gel soaps traditionally produced in West Africa and Morocco that appear either black or brown/tan in color. Today, many brands of black soap are sold in specialty stores and online. In the United States, West African soaps are most popular and most widely distributed.

Although African black soap has a centuries-old reputation in some African cultures as a folk remedy for various skin conditions, there is no evidence showing that it helps with acne. In fact, soap in general is a bad idea when it comes to acne-prone skin because soap can damage the skin's barrier and lead to more acne.

Since people with acne already tend to have an impaired skin barrier, any soap, including African black soap, should be avoided.

The Science

African black soap is a popular type of soap originating from West Africa and Morocco. In Nigeria and Ghana, black soap has long been used as a folk remedy for numerous medical and cosmetic purposes, ranging from improving acne to preventing measles to evening out skin tone.1,2 Although people use it for various purposes, there is no scientific evidence that black soap has any special properties beyond regular soap.

Black soap goes by different names in local languages:

  • Nigeria: Dudu osunor sabulun salo
  • Ghana: Alata samina
  • Morocco: Saboun beldi

It is available in bar, liquid, and gel form. The color ranges from light brownish to black.

Although both West African and Moroccan soaps are called black soaps, it is usually the West African variety that is available in the U.S.

Why Soap (African Black Soap Included) Is Most Likely Bad for Acne

Soap is great at washing away oil. That's why it's so effective at things like washing dishes. Mixed with water, soap chemically reacts with oil and turns it into a lather. The water then washes the lather away, removing the oil, and any dirt and grime. This is welcome when it comes to washing dishes or, for instance, when a car mechanic needs to wash his grease-soaked hands. But when it comes to acne-prone skin, the problem is that soap actually works too well. Soap can strip the natural lipids (fats) that hold surface skin cells together, weakening the skin's barrier. People with acne tend to have an impaired skin barrier as it is, and anything that may further disturb the skin barrier should be avoided.

In addition, African black soap, just like other soaps, is alkaline--the opposite of acidic. Human skin, on the other hand, is slightly acidic. People with acne should use cleansers that are close to the natural acidity level of the skin to avoid irritating the skin. That means avoiding all soaps. 

All Soaps Can Disturb the Skin's Barrier

The Main Ingredients in All Soaps, Including Black Soap

All soaps contain two ingredients:

  1. A fat or an oil: This can be either of vegetable origin, such as palm oil, or animal origin, such as lard
  2. An alkali: This is a water-soluble substance with low acidity, such as potassium hydroxide

Soaps may also contain other ingredients, which vary from soap to soap.

Now let's look at black soap in particular. Ingredients in black soap vary by country in which it was produced, but, like any other soap, it invariably contains a fat or an oil and an alkali. In West African soaps, the commonly used ingredients include:

1. A fat or an oil:

  • Palm oil
  • Cocoa butter
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Shea butter

2. An alkali:

The alkali consists of ashes of various agricultural waste products. Examples of such agricultural waste products include:

  • Plantain skins
  • Palm leaves
  • Cocoa pods
  • Palm bunch
  • Groundnut shells
  • Sorghum shells3

For instance, producers of traditional Nigerian dudu osun use:

  1. Palm oil or shea butter 
  2. Sun-dried and roasted plantain skins or cocoa pods 

Whereas producers of Moroccan saboun beldi use primarily:

  1. Olive oil 
  2. Potassium hydroxide 

Black Soap May Contain Pore-clogging Ingredients

Aside from washing the skin too strongly and damaging the skin's barrier, some of the common ingredients in black soaps, such as coconut oil, palm oil, and cocoa butter, are highly comedogenic, meaning they tend to clog skin pores and cause acne.

Scientific Evidence: African Black Soap & Acne 

Scientific evidence on African black soap and acne is severely lacking. To date we only have one survey, in which researchers asked 100 American black soap users (65 of whom were African-American) about what they use the soap for and what are their attitudes towards black soap. Twenty-three respondents (23%) used black soap for acne. Nineteen of those 23 respondents who used black soap for acne said they were satisfied with the results.

However, this evidence is weak. First, the study was a survey, which is a relatively unreliable way to study something. Next, 74% of the respondents were introduced to black soap by a friend or family member. This means that 74% of the survey respondents were initially biased towards the product and more prone to believe in its health benefits because somebody they respect recommended them to use it.

In any case, this one study cannot be considered proof of black soap helping acne.

Expand to read details of study

Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology

The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology published a survey in which researchers asked 100 black soap users why they use it. They discovered that the majority (70%) used black soap for overall skin care. Relatively few used black soap for specific skin problems, including acne (23%), dark spots (20%), razor bumps (13%), eczema (7%), and fine lines (4%).

Of the 23 patients who used black soap for acne, 19 (82.6%) reported they were either "somewhat satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the soap. Only one person (4.3%) expressed dissatisfaction with the product. A whopping 91% of black soap users were generally satisfied with the soap for skin care.

The explanation of such positive results lies in the participants' background data. Two thirds of the respondents were either of African (38%) or Caribbean (27%) descent. African black soap was introduced to the U.S. by non-American immigrants of African heritage. Together with the soap, the immigrants also introduced the centuries-old belief in its medicinal properties. It is possible that this belief still lives within the African-American population and influences their attitudes towards black soap.

Moreover, people are naturally more predisposed to like a particular product if somebody they trust and respect approves it. The bias becomes even stronger after they have already made a purchase. As the authors of the survey admit, "high satisfaction for black soap use could be attributed to participants' bias of a product in which they have already invested money. In addition, most participants were introduced to the product through friends (34%) or family members (parent 30%, and sibling 8%), further influencing investment in product and satisfaction."2

Also, few respondents used the soap for acne or any other particular skin condition compared to the number of those using the soap for general skin care. This probably signals the lack of efficacy of black soap in any of these conditions.

Theoretically, the only way in which African black soap might be good for acne-prone skin is because it has some antimicrobial activity.5 However, any soap or cleanser has antimicrobial activity. Therefore, it's better to use a gentle cleanser that's made specifically for the face, and to always avoid soap.

References:

  1. Mongadi, M. G. et al. Analysis of the antibacterial activity of African black soap on some selected pathogens. ARPN J Sci Technol 2, 358 - 364 (2012). https://jomped.org/index.php/jomped/article/view/20/49
  2. Lin, A., Nabatian, A. & Halverstam, C. P. Discovering black soap: A survey on the attitudes and practices of black soap users. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol 10, 18 - 22 (2017). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29104719
  3. Taiwo, O. E. & Osinowo, F. A. Evaluation of various agro-wastes for traditional black soap production. Bioresour Technol 79, 95 - 97 (2001). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11396915
  4. Ikotun, A. A., Faboro, E. O., Kolade, A. S. & Owoseni, A. A. Studies on enhanced African black soap from Theobroma cacao (cocoa) and Elaeis guineensis (palm kernel oil). Afr J Biotechnol 17, 760-766 (2018). https://academicjournals.org/journal/AJB/article-abstract/02E067157424
  5. Ikpoh, I. S., Lennox, J. A., Agbo, B. E., Udoekong, N. S., Ekpo I. A. & Iyam, S.O. Comparative studies on the effect of locally made black soap and conventional medicated soaps on isolated human skin microflora. J Microbiol Biotechnol 2, 533-537 (2017). https://www.academia.edu/19962916/Comparative_studies_on_the_effect_of_locally_made_black_soap_and_conventional_medicated_soaps_on_isolated_human_skin_microflora

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