Why I started making my own soaps and lotions — Part 1, the culprits
I get a lot of sideways glances when I start talking to people about the fact that I make my own soaps and lotions. I’m not exactly sure why. I think mostly because of the fact that I’m a guy and it’s just not what you’d expect to hear coming from someone that drops a F-bomb every few words.
A few things first. This isn’t a big ol’ “mass produced products are evil” or anything of that nature. I honestly have never cared much about that or the idea of things being organic, free-range, etc. — I smoke here and there, I drink heavily, I don’t eat right… What this is about, is a guy that has very sensitive skin, psoriasis and a rather picky nose. I made the decision to try making my own stuff after gathering some of my own imperial data.
This first post are the reasons why. I will later get in to the how through a series as I learn more and feel more comfortable making specific products.
The big issues
For starters, I have highly sensitive skin. This has gotten worse as I have gotten older. I’m the guy that wears SPF 90 even if I’m going to be in the sun for 10 minutes. I’m the guy that reads every label on every product on the personal care isle when I can’t find the things that I normally use.
As I’ve gotten older, about 5 years ago, I started getting a lot of very tiny blisters on my skin followed by massive welts of hard, dry skin. After a freak scare thinking it was suffering from scabies, one of the blisters was bored from my skin and tested — to which I found out that I now get psoriasis. Yay!
Since then, I’ve became far more aware of what I was putting on my body. I don’t like the idea that the only way to treat my psoriasis is to smear a strong steroid cream all over my body. From soaps, to lotions, to dish washing soap, to laundry detergent. All of it was hyper analyzed by me to determine what chemicals were actually making my skin to go apeshit.
Mix those two in with the fact that I did not start getting serious acne until my late 20's and I’m also allergic to the sun. If you ever see me, what looks like a sun burn is actually a hard, itchy rash from having a hyperactive immune system (again, I put on a fuck ton of sunscreen — it’s not sun burn).
Let’s start with the basics — soap
When you go in to a grocery store or pharmacy, more likely than not, what you are buying is not soap; it’s actually a detergent. What’s the difference you ask? Well…
Soaps are made from a combination of fatty acids (oils, or triglycerides more specifically. Such as olive, coconut, jojoba, hemp, even animal fats, etc.) mixed with a strong base (e.g. alkaline or what you probably know of as lye [which is typically made from potash — or the ashes of matter that are highly soluble in water and also very caustic]) and when done properly, they go through a process called Saponification. Yes, that is an actual word. There are mainly three methods —a hot and cold method for solid soaps and one for liquid (which is always hot)… but I’m not here to get in to that kind of detail. Soap making can date back as far as ancient Babylon around 2800 B.C.E.
Detergents on the other hand, generally are synthetic. While made in a similar fashion to soap, they typically use propylene instead of fatty acids. Propylene is a waste product from processing crude oil. Detergents are also much harsher cleansers when compared to soaps.
When looking at the cleaning reactions, the major difference is that soaps do not break down oils as easily as detergents do. This is important because your body needs oils and freely produces them.
It’s also important to point out that most store bought “soaps” contain moisturizers that are not natural. The two biggest culprits being petroleum jelly and mineral oil. Petroleum jelly is an easy one to realize it’s a byproduct of crude oil. Mineral oil on the other hand, is also a byproduct of crude oil with a deceiving name. These are both well documented to clog pores. But! You guessed it, they’re usually offset with the detergents that are included with the product. So, in essence what you’re doing it stripping your body’s natural oils from your skin and then replacing them with synthetic ones.
Shampoo is basically the same exact thing but usually with more oils (synthetic and natural) added to replenish the oils stripped from your hair — vitamin E and jojoba oil being the most commonly used.
Lotions really aren’t that much different to soaps. The biggest being is that they do not contain soap/detergents. The ratio is usually kept to >30% oils to water/oils. Oils usually come from butters — shea, almond, coconut, etc. In most commercial products, the oils are mineral and petroleum jelly. As for water — most commercial use just good old distilled water. Liquid aloe is actually a lot better — it’s mostly water and slightly thicker with a ton of natural nutrients. Glycerin is also used as part of the water mixture. It’s a byproduct of soap making and a very thick, oily liquid. When you buy products that are “shear” it’s usually from a higher glycerin content.
Conditioner is basically the same thing as lotion with slightly different ratios and more glycerin and oils. They also typically avoid too much if any petroleum jelly as it is very waxy when it gets wet.
This is another huge issue I have. First we need to start with what exactly makes a product “fragrant”. There are four main parts that make up why a product smells the way it does.
- Base chemicals (be it a soap, butters, etc.). These include (mostly) the oil that is used to make a soap or the detergents. These are the inherent scents attached to the product. Generally speaking, most of these don’t have a smell other than a light, earthy scent; almost stale.
- Moisturizers: This is another one where in a lot of cases, you’re not really adding scent. But a main ingredient, like coconut oil, can have a very strong scent; even if fractionated. What is fractionated oil you ask? Oils like coconut oil are not stable at room temperature — they’re not going to blow up on you or anything, but they’re kind of this quasi solid/liquid state. Fractionated oils have been processed to make them consistently liquid and generally are extremely high in saturated fats (the solid version is usually referred to as a butter — like coconut butter, shea butter, etc.).
- Extracts. This one I debated on. In most cases what they are actually referring to is an essential oil. However! There are many synthetic extractions, and processes for natural ones that are used and it very much depends on the product itself.
- Fragrance. This is a very tricky one. Historically, fragrance was added via plant absolutes — or more commonly known as essential oils. These are VERY expensive to make. Generally, several hundreds of pounds of a plant are needed to make only a few ounces of an absolute (I try to avoid using the term essential oil — while they are oily, they are not technically an oil). It depends on the plant. You can usually find 0.5oz of orange absolute for well under $10 USD. But the same 0.5oz of sandalwood absolute will cost you $70+ USD. Most mass produced products contain synthetic fragrances. You can easily tell the difference if the label goes something like this: “Fragrance” << that’s a synthetic. Vs. “Fragrance (essential oil blend)”. Synthetic blends are man-made chemicals that have a similar molecular structure to the real thing.
This one is a real kicker. Soap inherently will go rancid after some time. Not a few days mind you, but within a few months. Most over the counter products have natural and synthetic preservatives added to them. The most commonly used natural one is citric acid and can be found all over the place in nature. The most common synthetic one is the germaben group (I believe there are three of them for different uses — don’t quote me on that though). This is yet another chemical made from… you guessed it… the byproducts of processing crude oil, formaldehyde and contains parabens.
(addition to original article)
Another popular synthetic preservative are parabens (Butylparaben, Ethylparaben, Heptylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, Nipasept). There is a lot of debate on the toxicity of parabens in general however the known facts are:
- They have been found in breast cancer tumor cells. Since they are a synthetic chemical, they had to get in to the body via products used by a consumer.
- They have estrogenic activity (granted a very weak one). The big issue here is that there are a number of known estrogen that can aid in the growth of cancer.
- In normal skin types they are do not cause allergic reactions, it’s been pretty well documented that they do cause reactions in people with sensitive skin.
- Methylparaben can actually increase the UVB reaction with your body, and can increase skin aging and DNA damage.
When you mix in the other synthetic chemicals with synthetic preservatives, you get a product that can very well last indefinitely.
Two other natural chemicals commonly found
You’ll also frequently see two other chemicals in most any product (natural or not) but kind of look like they may be synthetic.
- Ascorbic Acid. It’s vitamin C. The literal Latin translation is “no scurvy” as a lack of vitamin C is the reason you get scurvy.
- Stearic Acid. This is also natural and usually added a thickening agent to liquids. It’s also what gives shampoo it’s “pearly” appearance.
Now we know what we’re working with
I’m not saying that these synthetic chemicals are bad for us, per se. And for the general population, most people do not have issues with them. I do want to point out however this:
Our bodies have been naturally evolving over millions and millions of years. It hasn’t been but a small, tiny fraction of that time since we’ve introduced synthetic chemicals to our daily lives. Skin is the body’s largest organ and absorbs pretty much anything you put on it. In return, what gets absorbed, eventually gets processed by the liver and kidneys which filter out the bad stuff. Our bodies were not designed to process these kinds of chemicals.
I’ve also been trying to find statistics on cancer rates over the past couple hundred years or so but not many out there really exists in terms of these the rates. I did find a few that show we are getting younger and the age range is getting larger verses people in 1875 moving forward. Anything outside of that, you really start getting a lot of crazy conspiracy theory shit that’s just not reliable.
But there are natural products out there already
This is true, kind of.
- Method: synthetic chemicals.
- Seventh Generation: synthetic chemicals.
- Yes To: many products are 95% natural.
- DHC (a popular Japanese brand growing in the US): Uses many chemicals that are known toxins.
- Burt’s Bees: many of the products say “99% natural”
- (edit/addition) Lush: I forgot about this brand. They’re inexpensive and for the most part are natural. However they use Propylene Glycol which is yet again from the refinement of petroleum. They also use Methylparaben — a paraben.
The problem with these guys is that while they do contain natural plant extracts, many include synthetics (albeit, ones that are Earth friendly).
There are a few good ones that are 100% natural though.
- Dr. Hauschka: but a bottle of shampoo costs $40
- Arbonne: Again, very expensive
- Dr. Bronners: Very inexpensive. Sadly, I do not like their products — they’re always so watery
Moving on to hand making my own stuff
So, I’m left with a rather sad conclusion that I either need to start making my own or really dosh out some cash for products. I like doing things on my own, so I chose that.
Since moving on to purely natural products, I’ve discovered the following:
- My psoriasis flareups are non existent
- My acne is very under control
- You’d be amazed at the number of natural ingredients that are also SPFs — shea butter being the biggest (a SPF around 15–30 depending on the processing used and what you read). You can also use natural zinc oxide (which is in most sun screens).
- My skin and hair feel amazing.
When getting started, it’s actually fairly inexpensive. The biggest cost is the plant absolutes that you purchase to scent whatever it is you make. I found a great book on making liquid soaps. Liquid soaps are much faster to make and more forgiving of mistakes compared to solid soap which is very time consuming and is more like an art.
I have yet to master lotions though. They’re either coming out like water or like a solid chunk of oily wax.
The other big thing I’ve been having a problem with is figuring out good scent combinations that aren’t too floral. I like a clean, slightly earthy scent and while there are hundreds of sites that will tell you basic combinations you find maybe one or two more “masculine” ones compared to the 30 or 40 you may find of the highly floral.
(addition/side note: I do not really like using the term “masculine” as I am a proud supporter of gender equality and removing stimgas associated with something being “girly”. That being said, I cannot find a word that really describes this the way I’d like. You can find many musky/earthy combinations, but generally they are also mixed with highly floral ones to create scents much like “white musk”)
My next article will be how to get started, what you’ll need and where to get it.