Getting Clean About the Word Soap

Two cleansing bars. One is commercially produced and the other is handmade.

There are two cleansing bars depicted above. One is commercially produced in a factory and the other is made by hand. Both of them will get you clean and both will leave you with a lingering fragrance. That’s where the similarity ends. I will talk about the differences and hopefully leave you with a lingering idea of the benefit of one over the other.

A while ago my husband announced out of the blue that he wanted to learn how to make soap. He went out and bought special pots and tools for this new hobby. His project seemed to explode overnight. The equipment started piling up and flowed out onto the back porch. Boxes of ingredients kept appearing on the front porch while he went into production experimenting with oils and fragrances like a mad scientist. Rather than get angry, I chose to try and understand this new obsession. In the process I learned a lot, including some new vocabulary words that I will share as well.

We use soap to remove dirt and oil. But, did you know that soap is made from oil? The process of making soap is called saponification. That is the word for the chemical reaction that takes place when an oil or fat is combined with an alkali. The most commonly used alkali is sodium hydroxide which is the technical word for food-grade Lye.

Historically, fats were used to make soap. (A little trivia is that Dial soap was borne out of a meat packing facility as way to use the trimmings.) Modern soap making uses butters and oils. To start the process, the butters are melted into a liquid form. Then liquid lye gets introduced slowly into the mixture. I say slowly because Lye is very caustic. It’s the same stuff that cuts grease in your drain and yes, it can eat your skin so you must stir it very, very carefully and wear protective gear.

It takes a while for saponification to occur. The mixture gets stirred constantly until it gets what soap makers call a “trace”. I interpret that as the visual sign when the blender leaves a trail that lingers behind it. Once that chemical change is apparent, the mixture gets poured into molds and left to dry overnight. But, it’s not soap yet! The next day the hardened mixture gets sliced into bars that need to cure for 4–6 weeks. During that time, the lye evaporates and what’s left is a mixture of soap and glycerine.

You get the idea that soap making is labor intensive.Then add the fact that you have to wait one and a half months to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Manufactures don’t have all that time to wait for their ROI. So they have figured out that they can add detergents and salts to produce bars that can get into stores faster.

I am going to throw out a new word: Syndet that comes from combining the words synthetic and detergent. That’s the word for a cleansing product that is made by binding synthetic detergents together. The result is a product that is harsher on skin and in some cases has chemicals left intact. The synthetic additives can inhibit the natural moisturizing factors of the skin, and actually prevent it from managing its own pH balance. This can cause dermatitis, which means itchy, red skin. My brother-in-law has eczema. He has had it long enough to notice the role that stress plays in his flare ups. He has also noticed how syndets irritate the flare-ups.

If you ask a natural soap-maker why their soap is better than commercially made, they will say “Because of the natural glycerin” (Among other things because they are so passionate!) Glycerin is a humectant, meaning that it attracts moisture to your skin. And Moisture plays an important role in skin health.

For that reason, some syndets add glycerin back in — and then they make a big deal about it! Think of the Dove campaign. Actually Dove calls their product a “beauty bar” because legally they aren’t allowed to call it soap. As a way to get around that legality, Lever 2000 packaging simply uses the words “Refreshingly Clean.”

Do you know that mantra about chemicals in food that says: “If You Can’t Pronounce It, Don’t Eat It?” Well, Dove contains two ingredients that are hard to pronounce: Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate and Tetrasodium EDTA, which are both on toxic watch-lists. Lever 2000 contains more.

Our skin is the largest organ in our bodies and it absorbs things transdermally. Some commercial soaps use dyes that can seep through pores. Think of the green swirls in Irish Spring. It is made with green dyes number 8 and 3. Dyes can also cause Dermatitis. To avoid that, the natural soap on the right is colored with natural clays that won’t irritate the skin.

Lately there has been a lot of news about hormone disruptors. There are chemicals that can seep into pores and wreak havoc on the endocrine system. Many artificial fragrances contain phthalates, which are used to make fragrances adhere to the skin. Phthalates (DBP, DEHP, DEP and others) have been linked to: “reproductive problems, metabolic issues, cancer, birth defects, and other devastating disorders,” according to Gregg Renfrow.

Often, handmade soaps are scented with essential oils that come from naturally sourced ingredients. Essential oils are the rage right now because they can have healing, anti-microbial or other properties such as mood-enhancement. — all without side effects!

Choosing a good skin cleanser, is important. I began this piece by calling the two products cleansing bars because as you now know, the one on the left cannot legally be called soap. From now on, when you choose a product to get clean with, look for the word soap on the packaging. The same goes for body washes. Read product labels just as you would for food!

You may purchase the luscious, all-natural soaps that my husband has been making here: Tropical Bath and Body.

To read more about the chemicals found in skin care products:
BeautyCounter has a list of chemicals to avoid: The Never List interviewed Gregg Renfrow, the founder of BeautyCounter in an article titled: The Dirty on Getting Clean