October 26, 2018 Julie Fanning

So…What’s in Your Soap?


From the Soapbox

So…What’s in Your Soap?

Cooler temps are approaching, and with it comes the beginning of cold and flu season. Hand washing is something we’ll do more frequently to keep everyone else’s cooties from attacking our systems, wreaking havoc and causing all kinds of sickness.

A lot of people are into different detox diets and cleanses, as well as using more earth-friendly house cleaners. But let me ask you: Do you really know what’s in mass-produced soap that’s readily available to clean skin? Sure, their marketing and labels may say “natural” or “pure,” but do you really know what’s in there? And worth noting: Organic is regulated by the USDA, but the term “natural” is not regulated at all.

Most commercial soaps contain chemical hardeners, foaming agents and poor-quality (ie: cheap) ingredients. In all actuality they are not soap, but detergents. One of the main reasons I got into soapmaking was because my husband and I had perpetually dry, red, itchy skin and all things pointed to what we used to cleanse our bodies. 

I’ve collected some information (numbers in parenthesis point to resources at the bottom) that can enlighten you to see if the product you’ve been buying to wash your skin is as legitimate as what is advertised. I am not shaming a particular soap brand, either, but have chosen one that many people swear is a moisturizing and “natural” soap and compared its contents with a bar of Simplí soap. Ingredients are listed with an explanation of what each one contributes to the final product.

It’s not even called “soap”!

Check out the soap aisle the next time you’re in the store. Many products (particularly made by large manufacturers) substitute natural oils with cheaper petroleum products and other synthetic ingredients. The result? You will not see the actual word “soap” on their packaging. Seriously? Yup. I checked a few brands, too. They use descriptions like beauty bar, facial/body wash, cleansing bar, moisturizing bar or just the word bar. These products are a detergent, but not soap. And they can be very irritating and drying to skin.

Some may argue that the term “fragrance” is something to avoid in soaps and body products. However, artisan soapmakers can make the decision—and fully disclose—whether their scents are phthalate-free, skin-safe and from a reputable supplier. Simplí products often incorporate essential oils, which I love to use, but they can also fade over time. Thus fragrance oils are also used in some products for scents not found in nature/organically and are of high quality. NONE of the fragrances used in Simplí products incorporate any petroleum, parabens or phthalates whatsoever. And ALL product labels clearly state what is included, so if you want unscented or only essential oils for scent look for it in the ingredients list.

And a final clarification ie: fact. There is no such thing as soap without lye (otherwise knows as sodium hydroxide). Soap is the salt of fatty acids (1). Chemically speaking, soap is the process of liquid (typically water, milk, tea, etc) plus an acid (fat, such as animal and vegetable fats, butters and oils) plus an alkali (lye/sodium hydroxide). No lye remains in the final product after saponification and curing. Additionally, Simplí only uses food-grade lye. Yes, food-grade…the item used to also make pretzels, black olives, hominy and yellow Chinese noodles (2).

Undesirable (ie: Yucky Skin):

Parabens: Chemical preservatives which can upset hormone function (among other things) and are not good for you (3)

Phthalates: A family of chemicals found in a wide range of items, from fragrances, to plastics, medical tubing, wood finishes, insecticides, etc.  (4)

Mass-produced: Large-scale factories, often using lower-quality ingredients, fillers and chemicals (more on that later). Worth mentioning, however, is that these huge production facilities often use tallow which is the cheap fat byproduct leftover from the commercial meat industry, and more than likely from cows injected with hormones and antibiotics who existed in not-so-idyllic conditions. I am not a vegan, by the way. I just choose to use vegetable-based fats in my soaps. There are plenty of artisan soapers out there who source tallow, lard and other animal fats from their local butchers and farmers and they make fabulous soaps.

Synthetic glycerin: Glycerin (aka glycerol) is a humectant—meaning it attracts moisture onto your skin—and is a natural byproduct of the saponification/soapmaking process. Commercial soap companies typically extract glycerin and replace it with a synthetic “glycerin” moisturizer instead (it’s added to the final product, so the term is added to the ingredient list). The natural glycerin produced is instead added to other marketable moisturizing products such as lotions, conditioners and creams.

Desirable (ie: Happy Skin):

Quality fats/oils (I choose to use vegetable-based, responsibly harvested and often organic): Oil/fat is needed to not only moisturize skin and help maintain the skin’s PH levels, but it is a necessary component to make soap.

Scents: Essential oils & FDA-approved/cosmetic-grade fragrances/phthalate-free/body safe scents

Natural additives & botanicals: Biodegradable ingredients that are harvested/produced/sourced and provide a variety of visual and textural benefits in soap. Examples include vegetable puree, honey, aloe, oatmeal, tumeric, paprika, clays, dried herbs & flowers, salt….

Handmade: Produced in smaller amounts with attention to detail such as quality of ingredients, seasonal and locally sourced ingredients and custom options. There’s also some love in there too. Just saying.

Natural glycerin: As stated above, glycerin is a natural byproduct of the saponification/soapmaking process when oils and alkalines combine.

Mass-produced Soap Sample

Here is one of the commercial “Sensitive Skin Unscented Beauty Bars” list of ingredients. (The term saponified means that the fats/oils/butters were used along with sodium hydroxide—aka lye—producing the “sodium” chemical byproduct. Thus, regulations state you don’t “have” to put lye on the label.) 

  1. Sodium Lauroyl IsethionateA mild synthetic detergent, used for cleansing. It adds to emulsification and degreasing, and may dry or irritate skin, especially sensitive skin.
  2. Stearic Acid—A fatty acid that acts as an emollient and thickener. Can be formed via saponification of tallow (beef fat, which has high concentration of stearic acid) as well as vegetable fats (which have a much lower percentage)
  3. Sodium Tallowate—Saponified beef fat, contributes to bar hardness and creamy lather
  4. Sodium Palmitate—Saponified palm oil, contributes to bar hardness and lather
  5. Lauric Acid—Surfactant and cleansing agent and occurs naturally in some vegetable oils (such as coconut and palm); too much can be drying
  6. Sodium Isethionate—Synthetic detergent and foaming agent
  7. Water—Wet 🙂
  8. Sodium Stearate—Stearate salts which are an emulsifier and thickener, but can strip the skin of its oils
  9. Cocamidopropyl Betaine—Synthetic foam-booster and surfactant. However it is known to irritate skin and is an allergen (5)
  10. Sodium Cocoate OR Sodium Palm Kernelate—Saponified coconut oil OR saponified palm kernel oil, to cleanse skin (gentle surfactant)
  11. Sodium Chloride—Essentially table salt; thickens
  12. Tetrasodium EDTA—Synthetic agent used as a preservative and chelating agent “to improve stability in air” (6) Also reduces soap scum formation
  13. Tetrasodium Etidronate—Synthetic agent, also known as Tetrasodium EDTA (so they have 2 chemical ingredients to do the same thing)
  14. Maltol—Technically not a fragrance, but it’s a “flavor-enhancer” used to add sweetness to foods and has a sweet aroma
  15. Titanium Dioxide (Ci 77891)—Contributes to white color

Simplí “Lavender Seas” Soap

(* indicates organic ingredient)

  1. Filtered Ocean Water—Salty water provides a creamy (not bubbly) lather and firmer bars. Sea salt is also rich in minerals.
  2. Olive Oil*—Gentle, moisturizing oil high in antioxidants, provides creaminess.
  3. Coconut Oil*—Cleansing, adds hardness to bar and generates high lather/bubbles
  4. Rice Bran Oil—Moisturizing, gentle oil rich in vitamin E and antioxidants
  5. Shea Butter*—Conditioning, adds hardness to bars, stable lather and provides vitamins and minerals
  6. Sodium Hydroxide (lye)—Alkaline that in conjunction with liquid (water) and fatty acids (oils/butters) saponifies to produce soap. Food grade used.
  7. Castor Oil—Conditioning, moisturizing and generates stable bubbles
  8. Essential Oil/Fragrance blend—skin-safe, high-quality, free of parabens, phthalates, petroleum and used in appropriate percentages
  9. Tupelo Honey—Antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. Natural sugars contribute to bubbly lather. Humectant and great for all skin types
  10. White Kaolin Clay—Withdraws toxins and excess oils from skin while retaining moisture
  11. Alkanet Root—Powdered root of the alkanet plant (Alkanna Tinctoria), provides natural colorant
  12. Oats—ground, mild exfoliant

So there you have it. I hope you’ve been enlightened a bit more about what is in soaps available to you in the marketplace. And if you have questions for me or other soap makers (particularly from those of us who make our products from scratch), please don’t hesitate to ask!

I WILL GET OFF MY SOAP BOX NOW. Thanks for reading. ~Julie


(1) Chemical process of soap:  Live Science
(2) Food-grade lye uses:  Modernist Pantry
(3) Parabens in cosmetics: Scientific American
(4) What are phthalates: WebMD
(5) Cocamidopropyl Betaine in cosmetics:  Wikipedia
(6) Tetrasodium EDTA in cosmetics:  Wikipedia

Reach out to me directly: CONTACT


Comment (1)

Comments are closed.