Pure and natural soap: buying good quality soap is good for us and the environment.
We all use soap these days, whether it's a hard opaque bar or a glossy, creamy liquid, soap is found in most people's bathrooms in one form or another. What is soap? How does it differ from detergent? How do we benefit from it? Are there any environmental concerns? And which soaps are best for health and the environment? This article tries to answer some of these questions.
A brief note about the brand "Pure and Natural" soap, made by Dial and on sale in the US: this page is not about the "Pure and Natural" brand of soap but many people like it and have contacted me about where to buy it. It appears to have been withdrawn from the range at Amazon as a bar soap. Instead they sell it as a liquid soap. It may be just as good but it involves rather more packaging, making it less desirable from a green perspective.
The Dial "Basic" soap range is similar to the original Pure and Natural soap - however there are concerns that they have added in talc to the ingredients. In my view it is better to seek out small manufacturers of hand made soaps; you are more likely to find a genuine product with simple ingredients.
Another option is to make it yourself: Click here for the best guide to making soap yourself at home
Soap has been around for a long time. The ancient Babylonians used it. There is even an ancient Babylonian text detailing how to make it. By 1550 BC some kind of soap was in use in ancient Egypt too. The Phoenicians also knew of it around 600 BC and yet the Romans, those conquering heroes, knew nothing of it! They preferred to scrape each others skin when bathing and apply oils and herbs afterwards. The Gauls and Germanic tribes around that time used a soap-like substance on their hair and the Celts probably made soap, too.
By the 7th century soap was being made in Nablus, Palestine and in Basra, Iraq.
In Europe the techniques of soap making emerged in Italy and Spain in the 8th century. By the 14th century France and Britain were producing soap, though as they used tallow rather than olive oil as the basis, their soaps were generally inferior.
In the late 18th century Andrew Pears began manufacturing a high quality glycerine soap and in 1885 the Lever brothers bought a small soap factory in Warrington, Lancashire, UK and started producing industrial soaps for a burgeoning market. The company they founded is still in existence today. Known as Unilever, it is now one of the largest manufacturers of detergents world-wide.
Simple soap is made by mixing an alkali such as potassium or sodium hydroxide (lye) with oils or fats. The resulting reaction - called saponification - produces a soapy substance which can then be refined to produce bars of soap. Potassium hydroxide is used to make soft or liquid soaps because of its greater solubility.
A lot of manufactured soap is made using animal fats such as tallow, (rendered beef fat) whereas many better quality soaps are made with vegetable oils such as olive oil. The higher quality soaps are made with extra fat (they are known as superfatted soaps) so that there is more oil and glycerine still present in the soap at the end. This is much kinder on skin.
There are many refinements to the soap making process. Essential oils, fragrances and other substances can be incorporated into soap. Some soaps are made using a cold process, others using heat.
Hand crafted soaps tend to be made by the slower cold process.
Soap is mildly disinfectant and so helps prevent the spread of infections.
A lot of commercial soaps are very drying to the skin as all the glycerine - a naturally occurring by-product - is removed. Glycerine has many uses in the cosmetics industry so manufacturers can make extra profit by selling the glycerine separately. It can also be used to manufacture nitro-glycerine...Hmmm. That's the explosive.
Hand-made soaps are particularly good because they are often made with any glycerine produced during the saponification process being stirred back in to the mix. The benefit of glycerine is that it softens and moisturises the skin.
Some soaps may contain sodium laureth sulphate (SLS) and other additives which can cause skin irritation in some people. See the article on hair shampoo for more on SLS.
Poorly finished soaps may be too alkaline and have a harsh effect on skin and fabrics washed with them. Small amounts of sodium hydroxide are left in the soap from the original reaction of saponification, causing the soap to be too alkaline. Proper finishing corrects this.
Some "quality" soaps such as Castile soap are too alkaline for some purposes - washing hair especially. Most commercial soaps are pH balanced to match human skin so they do not cause problems.Sequestrants in the soap also help prevent alkalinity.
Antibacterial soaps - popular in these paranoid times - may cause skin to become denuded of the friendly bacteria which live upon it. For most people, ordinary household and bathroom soap is a strong enough anti-bacterial agent to ward off any nasty bugs. (All soap is mildly anti-bacterial - these "anti-bacterial" soap products have more active agents such as triclosan added.)
Triclosan in particular may have wider health effects. There have been claims that it reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics by encouraging resistant strains. The jury is still out on that one. But there are also environmental concerns...
Soap breaks down harmlessly. It is some of the added ingredients which can cause problems. Triclosan for example, (an anti-bacterial additive to some soaps - see above) can react with sunlight and micro-organisms in water to form dioxins and other dangerous chemicals. Triclosan was found in the sediment of one lake. It had lain there for thirty years or so.
Some fragrances can also resist biodegradation and end up in places where they are not wanted such as waste water systems and surface water.
Commercial soaps may also contain preservatives, colourants and other synthetic additives which are not too great for the environment, either.
Tallow is still used as a major ingredient in most factory soaps. It has certain benefits, producing a hard white bar with good lather. But many people may not wish to contribute to the meat industry. Tallow is basically rendered beef fat.
If you are vegetarian or vegan you might prefer to buy vegetable based soaps, many of which are excellent.
Palm oil is a common ingredient in soaps and other cosmetic products. There are huge concerns about this because palm plantations are cutting a swathe through ancient forests in Borneo and other countries. See the links page for more on rainforest conservation issues.
Soap can cause some local environmental problems in the home in the shape of soap scum. This scum forms when soaps react with the calcium salts in hard water. The resulting deposits can be unsightly. For example, hard soap scum is deposited around baths and sinks and can be quite resistant to cleaning. Many modern chemical cleaning agents are able to shift these stains but many of these products contain environmentally damaging ingredients. (See Green Clean for more on this.)
However, vinegar does a reasonably effective job without further environmental effects. See here for tips on cleaning with vinegar
Good quality soaps which are kind to skin and not harmful to the environment can be found. The best quality soaps are undoubtedly hand made cold process soaps containing only high quality oils and vegetable ingredients.
There are many small independent soapmakers in the US and their numbers are growing in Europe, too. They typically leave plenty of glycerine in the finished soap so that it is gentle on the skin. And they use a high proportion of organic and ethically sourced ingredients.
Although these producers use lye (caustic soda) in the process the end-product is often a carefully-crafted pure and natural soap. Lye is used by almost all soap makers.
There are a few soapmakers making soap products from plants which naturally produce a soapy substances known as saponins. In Britain the plant soapwort contains such saponins. If you rub it between your fingers a light lather is produced. Papaya leaves and soap plant can also be used and some shampoos and soaps are made using these ingredients.
Watch out for "natural soaps" which are made from a commercial soap base with a few natural ingredients added. There may be other added ingredients such as artificial fragrances which are far from desirable.
Some independent soapmakers use melt and pour methods. That is, they buy their soap base from factory outlets and simply re-heat it, mix in any individual colours or natural additives such as honey and just pour it into their own moulds. This is not quite the real thing - but if the producer is good the resulting soap may be relatively pure and natural because the added ingredients are just that.
Detergents are just other surfactants made synthetically. (A surfactant is simply a chemical compound which makes water wetter and therefore dissolves dirt and other solids into it.) Other than that there is no real difference. Soaps, being traditional surfactants made from lye, have kept their separate name.
However, many commercial detergents are much harsher than soap and some have bad effects upon the environment.
What are the best ingredients for pure and natural soap?
Here are some of the common ingredients which quality soap makers use.
Castor Oil is extracted from the fruit of the Castorbean plant. It is valuable as a superfat that won't quickly become rancid - so the soap has a long shelf life.
Cocoa butter has a smooth texture and sweet scent and is one of the most stable of fats. It contains natural antioxidants so it is ideal for use in cosmetics and soaps.
Coconut oil creates lots of glycerin and makes big, soft, bubbly lather, so it has a luxurious feel.
Olive oil makes a creamier lather and contains antioxidants. The effect upon the skin is conditioning. The scent is mild and pleasant too. I use this soap a lot. In the UK you can buy a very pure, inexpensive olive oil soap at Holland & Barrett.
Palm Oil from the fruit of the palm tree also creates a hard bar. Palm oil is often in the news because ancient tropical forests are being cleared to make way for more palm plantations. Orangutans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra are under severe threat because of the increasing popularity of this oil. The clearing of tropical forests is also one of the leading causes of climate change.
Using products containing palm oil is not recommended unless the palm oil is from from sustainable sources.
There are now some sustainable palm oil plantations.
Shea butter has soothing, moisturizing and protecting qualities. Quite a lot of the natural fats it contains are unsaponifiable and it is full of vitamins so it has a rich, nutritive effect upon skin. It contains cinnamic acid which has a protective role against UV rays, so it is useful as help against too much exposure to the sun - no substitute for a good bit of shade, though!
So help yourself to pure and natural soap by finding products made with organic and fair-trade products, containing some of the above mentioned ingredients!
Dr Bronner's all-natural soaps have a dedicated band of followers. You can use the pure castile soap for many purposes, including washing your floor. These soaps are naturally high-lather and use only the purest natural ingredients, such as coconut oil and jojoba. You can even buy it in bulk to save money.
See the side panel, right, for a few other products from Amazon that appear to fit the bill of "pure and natural soap".
If you are curious to have a go at making soap yourself you can't do better than buy Anne Watson's book Smart Soapmaking. It has everything you need to know as a beginner and takes the fear out of making soap at home. It has lots of reliable and easy to follow recipes for pure and natural soap. Professional soap makers love it, too!
Making Soap from Scratch is also a good basic guide that is easy to follow with instructions for making small batches or bulk amounts. You can make pure and natural soaps that are quite inexpensive or opt for more luxurious recipes.