Savon de Marseille

There’s a lot to like about savon de Marseille, the French soap made in Provence. Its history dates back nearly 600 years and in 1688 an edict came into effect under Louis XIV that standardized what savon de Marseille was; a soap with no artificial additives, no colorants, no perfumes or fragrances, no animal fats, and must contain at least 72% olive oil, which accounts for its natural green color. It took me almost two decades to move to the “72% percent side,” but now that I’m there, I’m not going back.

Like many things in France, there is the original, and there are copies. Everything from Laguiole knives to camembert and brie is based on the originals, but they’re not necessarily made the same way or are of the same quality. At one time, there were nearly a hundred soap-makers in and around Marseille but nowadays there is only a handful of “official” producers of savon de Marseille. The soap is said to have fallen out of favor when washing machines came into use and a large square of soap wasn’t compatible with a newfangled machines à linge, as the soap was when everyone was hand-washing their frocks down by the Seine. Nowadays, with many people aching to go back to where we were a few decades ago, if you want to use savon de Marseille for laundry, it’s sold in copeaux (flakes) and you can find the recipes here and here if you’d like to use it for washing your duds.

Savon de Marseille comes in green and white versions. The newer white version contains other oils in them, including palm oil but the green must be made with olive oil, and only olive oil, and also contains ash and local seawater. The 72% amount of oil is stamped into each cube and each block is part of a process that takes three weeks, which includes aging the soap in the open air. You can watch the process here:

I’m not ready to lug my laundry down to the Seine to handwash it, and since I discovered Vanish gets those stubborn stains out that used to have me turn stained clothes into household rags, I skip the white bars. (Which some people swear is the best for getting out stains, so perhaps I’ll give it a try.) But I now use the green savon for bathing, and the bars seem to last forever.

Admittedly a blocky 300-500 gram (3/4- to 1-pound) cubes are hard to handle in the slippery shower, so I cut mine in half with a bread knife. The olive oil keeps the soap moist so it’s easy to cut. Savon de Marseille is biodegradable and is also sold in bars for bathers who don’t have bread knives, as well as slabs on ropes, in lemon-shaped ovals for soap holders, and long 2.5kg/5 1/2-pound bars that you can slice and use as you wish. For fans that want to go even bigger, Fer à Cheval sells a 16,5kg (35-pound) block of soap through their website, which they advise cutting up while still fresh. From the looks of it, you may need a band saw.

Brands that make traditional-style savon de Marseille include Fer à Cheval, Savonnerie de la Licorne, Savonnerie du Midi, Savonnerie du Sérail, Grand Savonnerie de Marseille, Rampal-Latour, and Marius Fabré. Be aware that there are sound-alike brands, such as Le petit Marseilles, which is manufactured by Johnson & Johnson.

At market stands and some shops in France, and elsewhere, you also may come across similar-looking bars, which are made outside of Provence or France. (Savon de Marseille is indeed inspired by savon d’Alep, which is also wonderful soap made with olive and bay oils. Beware of copies of that as well.) Similarly, you’ll often come across shops with colorful (and scented) bars of soap lined up by size and color, usually in tourist-heavy areas, which aren’t the true savon de Marseille, which has no scents or colorants added.

As someone with sensitive skin, it can be a challenge to find unscented products in France, where even toilet paper is sometimes colored and perfumed (and hypoallergenic, including baby products, are often perfumed too), but “sans parfum” products have been more available in recent years, so I don’t need to bring shaving cream back from the States anymore. But the high calcium content of the water can wreak havoc on one’s skin, so the fewer irritants in the soap, the better. And as a cook who washes his hands about six hundred times a day, I once made the mistake of buying hand soap that I had to throw away because of the heavy scent; the last thing I want in my kitchen is scented hand soap. (Yes, I’m the guy in the supermarché aisle opening all the bottles of soap and detergent to make sure they’re not scented.) I like to smell the foods I’m cooking, not flowery hand soap.

(As a reader pointed out in the comments, there’s also a belief in France that if you put a piece of savon de Marseille in your bed by your feet you won’t get leg cramps. I’m not sure of the science of that, but just putting that out there.)

There’s a French penchant for organizing and naming things (with a slew of accompanying rules) but there’s hasn’t always been an official designation for Savon de Marseille. The debate in France rages on, but in 2015 the UPSM, the Union des Professionels du Savon de Marseille (the French also love acronyms, and organizations) was set up by a few soap makers to standardize production and keep the quality up. In short, savon de Marseille should be a cube with a round stamp, with no colorants, preservatives or fragrances added, but the full list of criteria is detailed here. (In French.)

A favorite place to get mine is at Bio Bazar in Paris, where they sell the La Corvette and Fer à Cheval brands, which cost around €3,5 ($4) a cube. Biocoop stores in France sell organic savon de Marseille, and Marius Fabré has its own shop in Paris too.

Interestingly, we were in Burgundy last summer and I saw the exact same soap at a touristy shop branded by a French television personality, whose store was loaded up with real, and some faux French antiques, to make people feel like they were living in vintage France. (Also interesting; the store was filled with French people.) The shop was selling blocks of savon de Marseille for a très cher €12 a bar. It’s not cheap in the States either, making it something you might want to bring back with you on your trip to France. (I didn’t notice any locals picking up blocks there either.) Even if you have to pay a bit more, though, it takes me a year to go through a block, which I use daily, so I consider the soap a bon marché, or a “good deal.”

[Note: I didn’t link to places where to get savon de Marseille online because availability and prices can vary so it pays to shop around and also read the information carefully. I listed brands of traditional savon de Marseille in the post to check out, but also note the size before you order: The soap is available in 200 to 500 gram blocks, so if comparing prices, compare the sizes as well. If you’d like, you can check out my post How to Find French Foods and Other Items Online.]

Savon de Marseille

58 comments

  • Jacquelyn Cohen
    September 24, 2021 3:02pm

    This a different and interesting newsletter. As one who cannot tolerate scented anything, I will certainly look for this soap. I recall when I was a young girl how my mother rubbed stains with and shaved Fels Naptha soap into a wringer washer. Apparently, that soap also is still being produced. Reply

    • Carol
      September 25, 2021 4:26am

      I cut Fels Naptha soap up and add hot water to liquify it, and spread it on stains with a plastic basting brush. It is the best stain remover for everything except wine (use Wine Away for those!) Reply

    • jane
      September 27, 2021 8:38pm

      I tried it based on comments like yours and found it to be one of the most obnoxiously perfumed products I’ve encountered. In 2021, there are better stain removers. But it is definitely personal preference – many obviously buy it. Reply

  • Sandra Myers
    September 24, 2021 3:21pm

    Olive oil has so many benefits for us that the list you could create would be very long. On 2 different trips to Israel, our group stopped at a company and olive grove. We saw some very large —(one growing inside the building built around it!) —and ancient olive trees!). We got to see where and how they pressed the olives into that they processed the oil into soaps, oils, creams and a wide array of olive oil products. The purity was also mandated. It’s quite interesting to see in person and to know how much is derived from such tiny fruit. Reply

  • September 24, 2021 3:23pm

    I sell Fer à Cheval in my boutique in Brantôme, it is a high quality soap and people come from all over the region to buy it since it is such an old brand (since 1856). It is a trusted “Maison”. Reply

  • Lindsey
    September 24, 2021 3:29pm

    Thank you for this informative post and video. I very much enjoyed reading and watching Reply

  • Lori
    September 24, 2021 3:34pm

    I just purchased a few big blocks online of the Marius Fabre olive oil soap (400 gm). I’m excited to try this or my dry sensitive skin. Reply

    • Barbara Ridley
      September 25, 2021 4:19pm

      Hi David, What a coincidence! I just arrived in Uzes from Bonnieux in the Luberon. One of the first shops I saw today has the 72% savon de Marseille in the large bar. I’d never seem that before. I had just read your letter and then….I was tempted, but it’s pretty heavy and I had succumbed to a bottle of Narancia, orange wine, from a young couple who made it. Hoping to get it back to Canada in my suitcase. Reply

  • Carol
    September 24, 2021 3:38pm

    I so enjoy reading about your life in France and learning about another culture. Reply

  • Madeleine
    September 24, 2021 4:01pm

    When my parents came to visit me in the States, my mom always brought her savon de Marseille with her, and gants de toilette. She also kept a sliver of savon de Marseille at the bottom of the bed under the sheets to keep leg cramps away at night. Another French thing, like courants d’air giving torticollis! :) Reply

    • Enrique
      September 24, 2021 4:15pm

      Yes! Here in Uruguay, we can confirm that ” courants d’ air give torticollis !!!” No doubts! And I can confirm I am in love with Provence! Reply

    • September 24, 2021 4:41pm
      David Lebovitz

      I’ve heard that about the soap but never got a definitive answer about how a piece of soap near your legs can keep cramps away. I guess it’s better than I thought! Reply

  • marilyninMontreal
    September 24, 2021 4:09pm

    I’m so excited to learn that I can purchase this soap in the same shopping complex where I’m going to pick up the latest Anderson Cooper book! Just love this blog! Reply

  • Alison, Unscented
    September 24, 2021 4:51pm

    Ha, I’m the woman in the supermarket aisle sniffing all the allegedly “unscented” soaps! I’m fortunate that I found a local soapmaker who turns out lovely unscented bars (her scented stuff is tolerable, too) but I’d had Savon de Marseille on my mind since you mentioned it in an earlier blog. Now I have the info I need to find the real stuff, thanks! Reply

    • September 24, 2021 5:16pm
      David Lebovitz

      It definitely has an odor but it’s natural and not icky, like so many scented products are. I’m now a fan of it for life! Reply

  • Natalie
    September 24, 2021 5:06pm

    I love Savon de Marseille for washing the dishes. I just rub a dish brush directly on the cube and it cuts through grease, rinses cleanly and reduces plastic waste. A 400 gram cube lasts about three months. I’m in Canada and I can buy Marius Fabre from a certain large online retailer for about $19 CAD.

    Thank you for all your interesting articles and great writing! Reply

  • Carolyn
    September 24, 2021 5:15pm

    What an interesting post! I love learning about a product more in depth. I too have been searching for a kitchen soap that doesn’t dry out my hands since I wash them a million times while cooking and cleaning up. Thank you Reply

  • September 24, 2021 5:34pm

    I learned so much and I’ve been buying this soap for decades. We also really liked the olive oil soap in Greece and purchase it online in US. Thanks for a very interesting article! Reply

    • Lori
      September 24, 2021 6:15pm

      Heidi, where do you get the Greece version from? I’m I ordered the French one that David spoke of (Marius Fabre), and am interested in trying the one from Greece, and comparing the two. Reply

    • Claudine
      September 25, 2021 6:05pm

      Can you buy the soap on line ? Thank you . Reply

      • Caroline Bolf
        September 27, 2021 9:09pm

        Yes, Etsy shop MaisonCigale sells the Marius Fabre soap. Reply

  • Thea
    September 24, 2021 6:33pm

    Cutting down on plastic use here. With a French goods shop down the block from which to buy, I’m using approved soap for dish washing–takes a bit of getting used to–and for laundry stains. Going well so far. I’m now an enthusiast! Reply

  • Erin
    September 24, 2021 6:34pm

    Being someone extremely sensitive to added fragrances, I’ve also long loved savon de marseille. (The entire time I lived in Grenoble, I couldn’t find a laundry detergent that wasn’t scented—so I made my own using grated Marseille soap and homemade washing soda, and it was lovely!)

    But outside of France, the absolute cheapest way to obtain a salt-water, olive-oil-only soap is to make it. Here’s a recipe: https://www.soapmakingforum.com/threads/zanys-no-slime-castile.72620/ . You’ve got to run it through a saponification calculator to get the amount of lye (relative to oil) right. There are tons of free calculators out there, like soapcalc.net . Observing lye safety is a must, so if you haven’t made soap before, read about the basic process: https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/cold-process-soap-from-scratch-516814 . I promise it is not hard! And doing it enough times, you’ll end up with *exactly* the soap you want. You can even cut it into rectangular bars if you don’t like cubes (:

    Note that (as is Castile soap), Aleppo soap is similar, but Aleppo soap isn’t made from bay leaves—rather, from the oil squeezed out of berries & seeds from the tree that grows bay leaves (the bay laurel—Aleppo soap is made from seawater, lye, and laurel berry oil with optional olive oil).

    Cheers and happy soaping! Reply

    • September 24, 2021 8:48pm
      David Lebovitz

      Thanks and good to know! In France they just say laurie which usually refers to the leaf, but I updated/edited. Reply

  • Elise
    September 24, 2021 7:29pm

    Hi David! The last time Guy and I were in Marseille Guy bought several cubes of this soap. When we brought them home to the US he promptly sliced them up, because apparently, that is what one does to make them easier to handle. I love this soup! I didn’t realize that it had olive oil in it (mine is green), but now that I know that, that’s even better, since olive oil is magical for the skin. Thanks so much for this post and explanation. Reply

  • Steve Hall
    September 24, 2021 7:33pm

    So glad to see this and have the names of all the real makers. I’ve been buying Le Serail for years now from Amazon. I also keep a bar in the kitchen and use on hand-wash dishes and stems because it rinses so easily. I do stock up when we travel to Paris. Reply

  • Karen
    September 24, 2021 7:39pm

    Really like your blog and all the interesting information.
    What I find I don’t like (this is recent) are the 12 cm television ads on either side of your blog.
    I get that bloggers need advertisers, but nearly 1/4 of the screen? Reply

    • September 24, 2021 8:50pm
      David Lebovitz

      When I saw those this morning I’d sent a message to the ad network to remove them, so they should be gone. In the future there is a button underneath each ad that you can use that says “Report This Ad” which sends them a message directly. Reply

  • Susan
    September 24, 2021 7:43pm

    Oh, a memory near forgotten. Years (and years!) ago we used to vacation in St.Martin and I would always visit the pharmacy to buy this soap. My favorite has always been the Cannelle l’orange. I just love that smell! Thanks David Reply

  • Marilyn
    September 24, 2021 7:43pm

    I am hyper sensitive to perfume and soaps used in public restrooms are often scented which means I cannot wash my hands. Airlines, restaurants, etc use obnoxious scents which stay with me for hours. France is particularly difficult. We spend 3 months every year in Paris so I’ve learned to bring my own soaps and shampoos from the States. You would understand if you saw me at Monoprix reading every label looking for laundry and bath soap! Thanks for this posting! Reply

    • September 24, 2021 8:53pm
      David Lebovitz

      It used to be impossible to find fragrance-free detergents and soaps in France and I would bring some from the US, or go to the natural foods stores which had Ecover, which I think comes from Germany. Even hypo-allergenic products often have perfume in France so you always need to check the list of ingredients. Thankfully you can now find unscented laundry detergents in France, but you need to read the labels carefully. Reply

      • K Grasty
        September 25, 2021 7:44pm

        How do you all use this soap? To wash your hands or to wash your
        body in the shower? Reply

        • September 26, 2021 3:32pm
          David Lebovitz

          I use it for total body showering, including my hair. Reply

  • September 24, 2021 7:51pm

    Mine was the authentic soap and my cat particularly liked the olive oil. Caught him licking the soap! (UGH crazy cat) Reply

    • David
      September 27, 2021 2:11pm

      Interesting. My cats love it too. It’s like catnip for them. Reply

  • jane
    September 24, 2021 8:48pm

    My mother uses an American version of this soap exclusively – in the shower and in the soap dish and she also cuts it in half for convenience. If you keep it on a good soap tray it stays dry between uses and lasts for ever.

    I would love to send her the 2kilo block on their website for Christmas – which would both make her happy and make her laugh – but the site does not appear to have a shopping cart even though it says it has online shopping.

    I don’t expect you to know anything about that but FYI for other US readers. Reply

  • Mardell McCombs
    September 24, 2021 9:07pm

    I don’t recommend Fels Naptha. It has a strong horrible fragrance.

    In the US you want a bar of Zote. It has natural lemon oil for fragrance and it’s very light. You want the blue and white label. Try the big box stores or amazon.

    1 14.4 oz bar Zote soap grated fine on microplane grater

    3 cups Arm & Hammer Washing Soda ( not baking soda, washing soda in the laundry aisle)

    3 cups 20 Mule Team Borax also found in laundry aisle

    Mix together in large bowl, good idea to wear a disposable mask. We all have those now, right?

    Store in airtight container. Works fine in cold water. Takes about 1/4 cup for a large load. Pour white vinegar in dispenser for fabric softener.

    Clean, bright and nontoxic! Reply

  • c nelson
    September 24, 2021 10:40pm

    I 100% agree about 72% MF soap! Marius Fabre soap is wonderful! I discovered it and Savon d’Alep in a French farm supply store last year, stuffed an entire suitcase full of soap and hauled it back to the US. A big block of the 72% still sits next to my kitchen faucet. Other bars reside in each shower and bathroom soap dish. Even though they last forever, I will stuff another suitcase full when I visit Paris next year. Just to make sure I never run out.
    Thanks for the great newsletter! Reply

    • Caroline Bolf
      September 27, 2021 9:12pm

      Just order on Etsy…MaisonCigale. Reply

  • Cara
    September 25, 2021 1:29am

    Marseille soap most likely originated from Aleppo soap that had come to France via traders. Olive oil Aleppo soap has been made in Aleppo, Syria since at least 300 AD and is still made the traditional way today. I spent 3 weeks in Lebanon in 2016 and went to the soap khan in the Tripoli souk, where olive oil soap has been made since the 16th century, and went a little overboard with the soap buying. The other well known olive oil soap, made in Nablus in the West Bank, was one of the largest businesses in the city, with the industry’s 30 soap makers supplying soap for almost half of Palestine in the 1920s. Unfortunately, only 2 manufacturers remain, still creating Nablus soap the traditional way. It’s sad that so many industries that survived for hundreds of years have either died out or are on the brink just in the last 50 years alone. Reply

  • Rachael
    September 25, 2021 2:35am

    I think I bought this soap at L’Occitane shops here in the US many years ago. At least, I hope it was the real thing…it cost as much! Reply

  • Linda Ravden
    September 25, 2021 2:52am

    Another GREAT post David…so interesting to learn about these soaps. I have seen the soap on trips to Europe but thought them rather too large, heavy and unwieldy for practical use. Now I will buy them and slice them up as you suggest. Thanks for the great tip. Reply

  • September 25, 2021 8:50am

    This is a fantastic article and thank you very much. Although I’ve lived nr Paris for 12yrs I never fell in love with this ‘real’ soap. I probably will however now buy it, so many important and relevant details!
    As for stain removal, I use for decades a ‘pure savon végétal au fiel de boeuf’, in E an ox gall soap. It’s amazingly effective and it seems to really take out any stain one can think of. I have a husband who is forever bleeding somewhere, so I hold the ‘offending’ fabric under cold water, then rub this very dense soap on and rub it ‘out’ or leave it soaking in the cold water. Et voilà. Can also be used for stains in rugs, upholstery, etc. Reply

  • A
    September 26, 2021 9:39pm

    Thank you for another wonderful newsletter. Reply

  • Hal
    September 27, 2021 1:51am

    Perhaps a 35# block of soap would be more appropriate for a Oliver Twist orphanage. ‘Please, sir, I want some more…soap.’ ;) Reply

  • Susan Riggs
    September 27, 2021 7:16pm

    Interesting post, thank you! Reply

  • Carrie Bolf
    September 27, 2021 9:07pm

    This soap is wonderful! It truly does get most any stains out of clothing. I just wet it and use an old toothbrush to gently massage the stain. My French son-in-law sells this very same soap on Etsy. His store is MaisonCigale. He is located in the United States and offers free shipping! I cannot recommend this soap highly enough. Thanks David! Reply

  • Caroline Scott
    September 27, 2021 10:04pm

    These soaps are sold online, and in their two local stores (Brookline, MA and Dedham, MA), at Boston General Store. I recently discovered them and have been very favorably impressed! https://www.bostongeneralstore.com/. Reply

  • Lori
    September 28, 2021 10:42am

    David is a lifestyle blogger. Not just a food blogger, from what I understand. I thoroughly enjoy his posts about life in France, regardless of whether they are food related. Reply

  • Karen
    September 28, 2021 8:03pm

    David,
    Thanks for taking care of the ad situation; much better!
    I tried to reply to your post, and it wouldn’t let me.
    Thanks,
    Karen Reply

  • October 1, 2021 4:42pm

    A lovely and informative post done with your sly sense of humor! We used to carry both the white and online ones in the shop. Wish I had known about the soap flakes. Reply

  • Michelle
    October 1, 2021 7:12pm

    I have had Marius Fabre in my bed for years and while I still get leg cramps, well, at least I’m trying! PS some day mean to ask if your family came where my family did. Not that many Lebovitz (es) in the world. Reply

  • Janis
    October 3, 2021 5:04am

    Thanks so much for this recommendation..I went ahead and bought it the next day and I am so pleased…I have washed my face and there is no tightness..I also washed lingerie, but best of all it is the only soap that can get the lipstick stains out of my masks.. nothing else did, not even bleach… Reply

  • October 3, 2021 4:56pm

    I didn’t read in your article but the soap on twill loop is for hanging in closets to repel moths (according to shopkeeper at Marius Fabre factory store in Provence. They also had small gum pack size that was to used for brushing teeth, it works great! Reply

    • October 6, 2021 1:59pm
      David Lebovitz

      Good to know the soap-on-a-rope is to repel insects! However I’m not sure I’d brush my teeth with the soap ; ) – but would be interested in hearing if anyone out there does. Reply

  • Gavrielle
    October 4, 2021 12:18pm

    I was tutting after reading in your newsletter that people were alarmed on the internet about soap, then I read your soap article and became alarmed on the internet:). What a lovely post with gorgeous photos, and I only wish I could get my hands on the green bars, but I wouldn’t go near the white bar with palm oil in it and I’m disappointed they use it. Don’t they like orangutans?

    Feelin’ you on the unscented kitchen hand soap. These days I simply fill my kitchen soap dispenser with dishwashing detergent – there’s nothing like it for getting grease off your hands quickly. However, I don’t need to wash my hands as often as you do and I’m guessing it might be too harsh for very frequent use. Reply

  • October 4, 2021 1:51pm

    Yes to the soap, but I FEEL YOU ON THE TOILET PAPER. We used to bring all of ours with us in the car from the UK every time we were at the Brittany house… Reply

  • minoti
    October 9, 2021 4:21am

    have been using the olive oil savon de marseille for a few years now; so good on my sensitive skin. my kids are also used to this soap. mostly buy the olive oil one.
    since the EU is stricter with what they allow in creams, makeup etc, i mostly buy stuff made in Europe Reply

Leave a comment

A

Get David's newsletter sent right to your Inbox!

15987

Sign up for my newsletter and get my FREE guidebook to the best bakeries and pastry shops in Paris...