Marseille Soap: uses, recipes, and why bacteria are essential for wellness

This is a post about soap and also why exposure to dirt is important. I’ve been really appreciating the versatility of Marseille soap lately. Marseille is about 2 hours away from where we live, so I consider it a “local” product! It’s an olive oil-based bar soap, and there is quite a bit of tradition and regulation surrounding it, keeping the quality high and pure. I buy the whole bars as well as the soap flakes (note: you can totally grate bars of soap using a cheese grater). I love that the bars come with no packaging, and that I can get the soap flakes from a bulk bin, thus reducing my waste.

What we use Marseille soap for + basic recipes:

  • BODY wash -

    • …as needed, which in all honesty is pretty infrequent! Soap is disruptive to our skin’s natural, beneficial flora and pH. It can be overly drying, and frankly isn’t always necessary! I like to use salt scrubs (just mix oil and salt) for a good scrubbing all over, and use my homemade facial cleanser to wash my pits—shop here. I also love taking baths (usually with clay and salts), which is naturally detoxifying and cleansing—no soap needed. Okay, soap rant over :)

  • washing all our DISHES -

    • We hand-wash as we don’t have a dishwasher. Mostly, we just lather up a sponge using a bar of soap. It works really well (hot water is necessary for oily dishes). I also make a liquid soap for when you want to soak a bottle or baking dish. (Recipe below)

  • liquid soap for HANDS / dishes / laundry etc. -

    • Bring 1 liter water to a boil. Add 50 grams soap flakes or grated soap bar. Let it cool slightly, stir to mix well, and once they’re all dissolved add to your soap dispensers. Sometimes I add a few drops of lavender essential oil, but I LOVE the smell of plain Marseille soap. You can play with the concentration by adding more or less soap flakes/water. I think it might be the temperature, but now that days and nights are warmer, the liquid soap is more of a runny consistency, whereas in the winter it was more of a gel. Works the same though!

  • STAIN remover -

    • Slightly wet a bar of Marseille soap, and rub it on the fresh (or old) stain, covering it well. Let this sit and dry completely before running it through the wash, or washing the stain out by hand. This has worked well for wine/oil/tomato sauce stains (and all 3 at once? Haha…)


    • Add a splash of liquid soap in place of your regular laundry detergent. We cold-wash all our clothes, and this works great. I also use the liquid soap for all of my delicates, including wool, silk, and linens.

  • MOTH repellent / garment freshener -

    • I have little bags of the soap flakes hanging in our closets to deter moths from eating our lovely wollens! I also keep a bag with some of my more precious wool yarns, and bags in my underwear & sock drawers—a sweet habit I’ve had since childhood for some reason… (you can also use bags of lavender or other aromatic herbs for your garment-fresheners)

  • all-purpose CLEANER -

    • Toilets, tubs, sinks, surfaces… Either with the liquid or lathering up a sponge or rag with the bar soap. I also use citrus-infused vinegar for an all-purpose cleaner. I’ll use these two interchangeably according to my in-the-moment preference, or whatever I happen to have on hand.

Some things that feel connected:

Thyme Herbal recently shared a study showing that children who grow up in homes without a dishwasher tended to have less allergies and stronger immune systems. Hand-washing meaning more exposure to dirt and “germs.”

In an episode of the Michael Pollan ‘Cooked’ mini-series I mentioned a few days ago, a nun-scientist-cheesemaker (pretty rad combo) learned how to make a traditional French raw cheese in a wooden barrel. The woman who taught her told her the wood aspect was very important. When a food inspector wanted her to change to all stainless steel equipment, she decided to do a little experiment and found that E. Coli soon were present in the stainless steel batches and NOT the wooden barrel batches. Upon closer inspection, the wooden barrel was populated with lactic acid bacteria from the milk (what we use to make “lacto”-fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut). The lactic acid bacteria were able to eliminate (or prevent overgrowth of) the E. Coli. I could cry right now just thinking about how we must have evolved so carefully with these wise bacteria beings… how do they know how to eliminate “bad” bacteria (bad for humans) while maintaining “good” bacteria (for humans)??? It’s incredible and awe-inspiring.

In the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon, I read a similar account of using wooden cutting boards vs. plastic cutting boards. The wooden cutting boards are much less likely to harbor pathogenic bacteria than plastic ones! (She does recommend using a separate cutting board for vegetables/fruits and meats).

In a time when hyper-vigilant sanitizing and washing and sterilizing is in the spotlight, I think it is DEEPLY important and wise to keep in mind that “bacteria” (to broadly classify it) are often not only beneficial but absolutely essential for vibrant wellness. Some fascinating things to consider:

  • our bodies contain more microorganisms than human cells—we’re outnumbered 10 to 1!!!

  • depending on an individual’s body weight, that’s anywhere from 2 to 6 POUNDS of bacteria

  • bacteria in the gut help us digest food, absorb nutrients, and communicate with the brain, affecting mood and all sorts of vital processes… this is just scratching the surface

It’s been shown that rolling in the dirt, eating dirt, being exposed to (***healthy & respectfully raised***) farm animals and pets, hand-washing dishes, growing up in homes without harsh cleaners, eating plenty of bacteria-rich foods (fermented foods), breast-feeding and the bacterial wash of vaginal births… all these build healthy, strong, vibrant, bodies and immune systems.

These things are important to keep in mind in this time—to hold alongside all the new requirements and beliefs around sanitizing and sterilizing and isolating and the messages coming from everywhere saying that exposure to germs is bad and dangerous. I believe that it is important to remember to keep the bacteria parts of our bodies just happy and healthy and well-fed as the human parts.

How can we be respectful of other people’s beliefs and wishes, and maintain the vibrant flora & essential microbiome of our glorious, miraculous bodies?

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