Do You Know What’s in Your Soap?

Clean Hands

By Arlington County on Flickr

Handcrafted soapmakers have some choices about how they describe ingredients, but commercial soapmakers are bound by stricter conventions and must list the ingredients according to INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) regulations because many of them make cosmetic claims about their soap. As a result, consumers often don’t realize what is in their soap because they do not know the chemical names for the ingredients.

The FDA does not require labeling on soap. If a soap is marketed only as soap and makes no claims about other cosmetic concerns—for example, that it moisturizes or exfoliates—then technically the maker does not need to label the ingredients in the soap. It’s a good idea, however, as so many people have allergies and would appreciate knowing what they are putting on their skin.

Before I started making soap, I was a huge fan of Yardley’s English Lavender soap, widely considered to be a good soap. It smells wonderful—best-smelling commercial lavender soap, in my opinion.

Here is a list of the ingredients in Yardley’s English Lavender soap:

  • sodium tallowate
  • water
  • sodium cocoate
  • glycerin
  • fragrance
  • lavandula angustifola (lavender) oil
  • sodium chloride
  • titanium dioxide
  • tetrasodium EDTA
  • iron oxides

Ingredients are listed in order of amount—the first ingredient listed makes up the largest percentage of the soap, and the last ingredient makes up the smallest percentage. I am not going to take the usual tactic of pointing out that the names of the chemicals are unpronounceable and therefore bad for you. Everything is chemical and has a chemical name. Butyrospermum Parkii sounds horrible, doesn’t it? It’s shea butter, which is valued for its moisturizing properties.

So what exactly are these ingredients in Yardley’s English Lavender soap?

Sodium tallowate is the name for the chemical that results when tallow (beef fat) is combined with sodium hydroxide (lye). Sodium cocoate is coconut oil and lye. Glycerin is produced when the oils and lye combine. It is a byproduct of the soapmaking process, and many commercial soapmakers take it out of their soap, which is one reason commercial soaps can be more drying than handcrafted soap, which retains all its natural glycerin.

The fragrance is probably a synthetic fragrance oil. Lavender oil is also used for fragrance, which probably explains why Yardley’s smells so good—it has real lavender essential oil in it. Sodium chloride is just salt. Titanium dioxide might sound scary, but it’s just a natural white pigment that you will find in everything from food to sunscreen. Tetrasodium EDTA is a chemical that makes hard water softer. It helps make a stronger lather and reduces soap scum. There is some debate about how harmful it may or may not be, especially to the environment rather than to our skin, but the Cosmetic Ingredient Review evaluated tetrasodium EDTA and concluded it was safe in moderate amounts. Iron oxides, like titanium dioxide, are natural colorants. They are simply a combination of iron and oxygen. Rust is one form of iron oxide, but there are many kinds.

Yardley’s English Lavender is a pretty good soap. There are not really any scary chemicals or horrible carcinogens in it. Handcrafted soapmakers use most of the ingredients in Yardley’s (with the exception of tetrasodium EDTA). As commercial soaps go, it’s one of the best you will find.

What about Ivory soap? It used to be billed as 99 and 44/100% pure. What was in it?

  • sodium tallowate
  • sodium cocoate
  • sodium palm kernelate
  • water
  • sodium chloride
  • sodium silicate
  • magnesium sulfate
  • fragrance

Sodium palm kernelate is palm kernel oil and lye. Sodium silicate is commonly known as liquid glass. It makes soap last longer and increases its detergent qualities. Magnesium sulfate is an inorganic salt. It is often encountered in the form of Epsom salt. One could argue about whether or not some of the ingredients are necessary, but Ivory was essentially pretty good soap, too. Nowadays, Ivory may also contain palm oil, palm kernel oil, and tetrasodium EDTA. It is no longer labeled as “soap.”

What about Dove?

  • sodium lauroyl isethionate (a detergent that has actually been known to irritate or dry out skin)
  • stearic acid (a fatty acid common in animal fats and some vegetable fats, such as cocoa butter and shea butter)
  • sodium tallowate or sodium palmitate (palm oil and lye)
  • lauric acid (a fatty acid)
  • sodium isethionate (a synthetic detergent)
  • water
  • sodium stearate (stearic acid and lye)
  • cocamidoproply betaine (a synthetic surfactant) or sodium C14-C16 olefin sulfonate (also a synthetic surfactant)
  • sodium cocoate or sodium palm kernelate
  • fragrance
  • sodium chloride
  • tetrasodium EDTA
  • tetrasodium etidronate (another water softener that helps prevent soap scum and helps boost later)
  • titanium dioxide

Dove is actually a less pure soap than Ivory or Yardley’s. Dove contains a lot of synthetic detergents rather than natural oils and fats. Dove is widely considered to be gentle and moisturizing, so what gives?

In fact, if you look at Dove’s packaging, you’ll notice that it’s not even labeled as soap. It’s called a beauty bar, a cream bar, a beauty cream bar, a cream beauty bathing bar, and a number of other variations on the same. They even market the product by deriding pure soap as bad for your skin: “Soap strips your skin of its natural moisture.”

As you can see, however, Yardley’s, Ivory, and Dove all contain synthetic detergents to boost the lather, and all three also contain tallow. There is nothing wrong with tallow per se, but if you are a vegetarian or vegan and avoid other animal products like leather or fur, you should also avoid commercial soaps with beef tallow, which can be difficult, as the vast majority of commercial soaps are tallow-based rather than vegetable oil-based.

Why do commercial soapmakers use tallow? It’s cheap. Vegetable oils like olive oil are more expensive. Tallow is a perfectly fine soap ingredient. It’s been used in handcrafted soap for centuries. The only drawback it really has is that it’s an animal product.

So do any commercial soapmakers make all-vegetable oil soap?

What about Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Buttermilk Soap? Surely that’s gentle and animal-fat free. It’s for babies!

  • vegetable soap base
  • fragrance
  • buttermilk powder
  • oat flour
  • titanium dioxide
  • limonene (a chemical found in citrus peels; used as fragrance and cleanser)

Which vegetable oils? We don’t know, and vegetable soap bases are made with a very wide variety of oils and fats, though we can assume here that there is no tallow or lard, as the base is vegetable. However, some vegetable soap bases contain surfactants and emulsifiers in addition to vegetable oils. I looked at ingredients lists for several vegetable soap bases on the market, and the most common oils appear to be coconut oil, palm oil, and safflower oil. You can buy olive oil bases, but my guess is that Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Buttermilk soap is made from a base of the more common vegetable oils, as they are less expensive than olive oil. Still, the ingredients in the soap are natural enough and are probably familiar to handcrafted soap makers. But you can do better than Burt’s Bees with handmade soap.

Why? What is in handmade soaps like New England Handmade Artisan Soaps?

The ingredients in my soaps vary, but the first ingredient is usually the liquid I use to mix with the lye, whether that’s water (distilled water, though I don’t usually specify that it’s distilled), coconut milk, aloe vera juice, goat milk, buttermilk, tea, or whole milk. If I use yogurt, this ingredient will not be listed first because it must be combined with water, and therefore is not the largest percentage of the soap.

I use olive oil in all of my soaps. I also use coconut oil in all of my soaps and palm oil in most of my soaps. The bulk of my soaps also contain either shea butter or cocoa butter in amounts varying from 5-20%, depending on the recipe. I also use castor oil to boost the lather in my soaps rather than synthetic surfactants and detergents. I also use moisturizing oils like avocado oil, sweet almond oil, and apricot kernel oil, which I was unable to find in the ingredients lists of commercial soaps. All of my soaps are vegetarian-friendly, but some contain milks and honey and are not, therefore, vegan-friendly. However, I have a wide variety of soaps that are vegan-friendly.

After I started using homemade soap for the first time, I could tell the difference. My skin just felt better. I had fewer problems with dryness or oiliness or acne. The tone evened out (I used to be prone to some reddish spots on my face). As a result, I can use less makeup to even out my skin tone.

Homemade soap is a little more expensive than commercial soap—that’s true. But it is affordable as luxuries go. If your skin is the largest organ on your body, and the one that protects you from the outside elements, why not treat yourself and use the good stuff?

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3 thoughts on “Do You Know What’s in Your Soap?

  1. Thanks for posting your research. I was given s bar of Kirk’s Castille from my friend & looked at the label before my shower & decided to write & tell them if they want customers get the parabens & phthalates out and to use grape seed oil to preserve it. Then I looked up EDTA & found you. Will try your soap.

  2. I’ve been doing a great deal of research on ultramarines, micas and oxides and have found they’re no longer truly natural. They haven’t been for decades actually. It was too expensive to mine and produce them, and they were also often contaminated with heavy metals.
    So lab-creating them began.

    And this process (environmentally damaging) includes both synthetic (more so) and natural (less so) components. It drives me crazy when I see these ingredients listed simply as ‘natural’.

    • I probably should have used the term “nature identical,” but the term “natural” is completely unregulated, and no clear definition of it exists. Is it okay to describe “nature-identical” ingredients as “natural”? Some say yes, others say no.

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