The (Liquid) Gold Standard of Oil: OLIVE

It’s hard to deny that olive oil is the end all, be all of oils—utilized today and throughout the ages in soaps and salves, food and fuel, and immortalized in literature and tradition.

Olive-gathering Vase, 520 BC
Antimenes Painter, Scene of olive-gathering by young people. Attic black-figured neck-amphora, ca. 520 BC.

Pick up one of our products: Chances are olive oil (we use extra virgin) is either the first ingredient or one of the top ingredients. Why? Its chemical make up has a lot to do with it. Olive oil is comprised mostly of oleic acid (60-80%) and this particular fatty acid lends desirable qualities to both soaps and products that moisturize, such as our hand salves and lip balms.

The “salt” form (the soap) of oleic acid is gentle, perfect for sensitive skin. However, it can be tame as far as lather is concerned, more “creamy” than bubbly. For this reason, you won’t find many (if any) 100% olive oil soaps at the grocery. Believed to originate in the Castile region of Spain, the all-olive oil soap, aka Castile soap, is not something most people today like. If you see a product named “castile” at the grocery, check out the label. It’s likely that it isn’t a true Castile as the term has been accepted to represent any vegetable-based soap. Either way, by itself or formulated with other oils in order to impart other qualities (like more bubbles or a thicker lather), olive oil makes for great soap, which is why we’ve committed to making it a top ingredient in ours.

As far as cosmetic use, olive oil’s conditioning effects are unquestionable, again in part to the oleic acid which penetrates outer layers of skin and does double duty as a moisturizer and a barrier against the elements. It’s not only us makers of handmade soaps and salves who love it too; the “big guys” (the commercial manufacturers) are hip to it as well. (Except, when they use it, olive oil and/or oleic acid is buried in a sea of unpronounceable additives.)

But none of this is new, and we can thank the ancients for discovering the power of the olive. Per archaeological evidence, civilizations of Israel, Egypt, Greece and Rome had methods for extracting the oil, enjoying it as part of diet and beauty and hygiene regimens, and utilizing it in lamps as fuel and in ceremonies. The Egyptians—who traded with Crete for olive oil—used it as part of the mummification process. Ancient Greek athletes were anointed with ἔλαιον/élaion (el’-ah-yon) before the Olympic Games. Hippocrates, the “father” of modern medicine, dubbed it the “great healer” and the poet Homer praised olive oil as “liquid gold”. And if you’re a fellow English major and/or Classics nerd, you’ll know there are several references to the oil’s healing powers and sensory pleasures in the Iliad and Odyssey.

The always innovative Ancient Romans developed a technique for crushing the olive fruit (sparing the bitter-tasting pit), producing the finest grade of ŏlĕum, separated from the mash before a second pressing was performed. No doubt directly related to this ability to create different grades of oil, the Romans were able to expand use of the product. In addition to the tried-and-true food, fuel and cosmetics, the oil was applied in machinery as lubricant, and in medicine (specifically pregnancy, childbirth and disease prevention) as described by Soranus of Epheseus, a Greek physician who practiced in 2nd-century Rome.

Fast forward to modern day. And back to this blog. As much as I’d like to be enjoying a bowl of olives on the Mediterranean shore, I’m at home, indoors on a dreary, rainy winter day, sussing out the production schedule post-Christmas rush. I did make some soap earlier today, but I had to cut it short. I’m out of…you guessed it…olive oil. So, while I’m in a holding pattern until tomorrow, here are a few of our products of ours that feature olive oil as a prominent ingredient. Choosing these was hard—as mentioned before most of our products fall into this description—but I’m making a point to feature a few that have little in the way of essential oils (or no essential oils). Infused with soothing herbs and made with beeswax and honey, and other ingredients available to the ancients (Calendula is grown nearly year round in parts of the Mediterranean thanks to the mild climate), I’d like to think these three products would be similar to what you’d find used in, for example, a Roman bathhouse or referred to in an antiquated medical text.

Humble Bee Hand Salve
Oatmeal Bar Soap
Lavender Liquid Soap