Smaller than a deck of cards with a pale yellow color, the rectangular bar of soap is a far cry from its more artisanal and aromatic cousins sold in Cambodia’s boutiques and touristy establishments.
It won’t make your hands smell of lavender, but it will kill off parasites and mites.
“It’s a soap for the masses,” said Marc Hall, director of operations for the local NGO Resource Development International, which has been making the bars locally for about five years.
Hall said the organization first toyed with the idea of manufacturing soap as a treatment for the skin infection scabies and as a way to improve the general hygiene of villagers.
“We were getting scabies ourselves, so we knew it was a problem,” he said Wednesday. Moreover, those too poor or living too far from markets often make do by bathing with harsh laundry detergent, he said.
Hall said using the soap can also have some trickle-up effects on personal health. Besides killing off lice and mites, routine washing with soap can prevent illness caused by bacteria.
In 2008, Unicef declared Oct 15 the first Global Handwashing Day to underscore that the simple act of washing hands with soap and water is an effective and inexpensive way to stay healthy.
The organization says children younger than 5 who wash their hands before eating and after using the toilet see drops of nearly 50 percent in diarrhea rates and 23 percent in respiratory infections.
The soap, made at the group’s headquarters east of Phnom Penh, comprises a mixture of Cambodian palm and coconut oil. The oils are cooked together in crock pots and blended with lye, a caustic substance used to form the soap, and benzyl benzoate, a chemical compound used to treat skin conditions such as scabies.
The finished product is then sold for 1,000 riel (about $0.25) to townspeople or other NGOs. It takes about one week from start to finish to produce the soap, said Son Sothy, who has made the soap since 2004.
“We make it and some organization come to us to buy and distribute it to people in the rural areas,” she said, adding the product has been sold in six different provinces.
En Tiara, who works with the NGO on health issues, said most of the villagers she approaches are eager to buy a bar or two since the medicine available to them often is more expensive.
“It’s cheap and it can treat them,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)