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Can African Black Soap Help Acne?

African Black Soap Is Very Similar to Regular Soap and Therefore Is Very Unlikely to Help with Acne

By: Dan Kern, Acne.org Founder & CSO
Last updated: June 01, 2019

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 U.S., West African soaps are most popular and most widely distributed.

Although African black soap has a centuries-old reputation as a folk remedy for various skin conditions in some African cultures, there is no hard evidence showing its efficacy in acne. In fact, soap in general is a bad idea when it comes to acne-prone skin because it can wash too aggressively, damaging the skin's barrier and leading to more acne. Since people with acne already tend to have an impaired skin barrier, soap, including African black soap, should be avoided. 

The Science

What Is African Black Soap?

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 has many names in local languages: 

  • Nigeria: Dudu osunor sabulun salo 
  • Ghana: Alata samina
  • Morocco: Saboun beldi1

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.

African black soap is very unlikely to help with acne because soap does not help with acne, and using it may actually damage the skin's barrier and make it harder to stay free of acne. To understand why soap, including black soap, does not help with acne, and may even make acne worse, let's have a look at why we use soap and what it is made of.

Why Do We Use Soap? 

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. Since people with acne tend to already have a weakened skin barrier, only the gentlest of cleansers should be used and soap should always be avoided.

The Main Ingredients in All Soaps, Including Black Soap

All soaps contain two ingredients, that when combined, will effectively wash: 

  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:

A fat or an oil:

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

An alkali:

Ashes of various agro-waste products constitute the alkali. Examples of such agro-waste products include:

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

For instance, producers of traditional Nigerian dudu osun use palm oil or shea butter and sun-dried and roasted plantain skins or cocoa pods, whereas producers of Moroccan saboun beldiuse primarily olive oil and potassium hydroxide (an alkali).

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. 

Ingredients That May Clog Pores

How Soaps May Harm the Skin and Promote Acne

The topmost layer of skin provides what is called the skin's barrier function. It acts as an armor against bacteria and viruses and keeps water from escaping. When it comes to acne, it is also important to have a strong, intact skin barrier since people who have acne tend to have an impaired skin barrier. 

Soaps are normally so powerful that they also wash off some of the fats that are a part of the skin's barrier. If a soap disturbs the skin in this way, it can lead to irritation. Anything that irritates the skin can potentially lead to more acne. 

All Soaps Can Disturb the Skin's Barrier

Regardless of the variety, black soaps are still soaps, and, therefore, they likely impair the skin's barrier, just like other soaps.

Scientific Evidence of African Black Soap in Acne Is Lacking

All we have to date is limited to just one survey, in which the researchers asked 100 black soap users about what they use it 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. 

Although the numbers may seem to favor African black soap, a closer look at the participants' background data tells us that such encouraging results can be largely dismissed. 

Almost two thirds (65%) of the respondents were people of African heritage, which is unsurprising--Africa is the birthplace of black soap. It seems that the tradition of using black soap for medicinal purposes is still going strong in the African-American community.

Furthermore, 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, a survey is an unreliable source of scientific evidence and cannot be considered a 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. 

The Bottom Line

Despite African black soap being a traditional acne remedy in some African cultures, the evidence of its efficacy is solely anecdotal. Until we have clinical trials to support the claim, we have no reason to believe it helps acne in any way. In fact, since it is a soap, it is best to avoid it.

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).
  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).
  3. Taiwo, O. E. & Osinowo, F. A. Evaluation of various agro-wastes for traditional black soap production. Bioresour Technol 79, 95 - 97 (2001).

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