Testing Liquid Hand Soap

Bringing usability to sustainability

Usability Test reveal at Cafe Pyrus in Kitchener

There are a lot of liquid hand soaps out there — we could’ve run product tests for months and still only scratched the surface. When we reached out to volunteers for testing, we started by taking suggestions on their favourite green hand-washing products to help narrow the field.

We set out not only to explore potential new products for Avocado, but also to introduce our testers to alternatives that might function differently from what they’re used to, and find out what barriers exist for consumers when buying more sustainable products.

We ended up testing products in two categories: green liquid hand soaps, and Castile liquid hand soaps. To understand the difference we need to know a bit about soap making.

Soap making 101

The first bar soaps were lye — a chemically basic substance like sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH) usually made from ashes — mixed with a fat — traditionally an animal fat — to make a surfactant. Surfactants are what make soap able to wash out oil-based stains or dirt stuck in the oil on our hands. Castile soaps were later developed using plant-based oils, including liquid forms made with palm oil.

Eventually, new surfactants made from petrochemical sources were used to make liquid hand soaps which don’t produce as much soap scum in hard water. The newest “green” versions of liquid hand soaps have surfactants made from ingredients that are chemically derived from plant-based sources — such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) from coconut oil instead of from petroleum.

The products

We narrowed our options to these four choices:

1) Live Clean — Fresh Water scent: Live Clean is a Canadian brand that does all of its manufacturing within Canada. They use “plant-based ingredients,” which they claim are biodegradable.

2) Method — Sweet Water scent: This is a product we already carry! One reason we chose to do a test of scented soaps is that we wanted to test this one in particular and it seemed unfair to pit unscented soaps against scented ones. Part of what drew us to Method is the fact that it is a B-Corp. Becoming a certified B-Corp means that a company has undergone third-party certification to demonstrate that they maintain the highest standards of social and environmental responsibility, while also being transparent and accountable. Method does this by using renewable energy at their plant, gathering ocean plastic to make packaging for their products, working towards 0-waste manufacturing, and having a third party program provide feedback on improving their manufacturing processes. Being manufactured in Chicago means that although it is produced outside of Canada, it still uses minimal fuel to transport.

3) Dr. Bronner’s — Peppermint: Dr. Bronner’s was the most highly recommended brand from our prospective product testers. It is from another B-Corp, and is a Castile soap. Dr. Bronner’s has a number of environmentally friendly certifications such as organic, fair-trade, and vegan. They are conscientious of their supply chain by sourcing their palm oil and coconut oil sustainably from long-standing farms in Sri Lanka and Ghana that do not contribute to habitat loss for wildlife.

4) Green Beaver — Frosty Mint: Green Beaver is another Canadian company that also produces Castile soap. We like that they use sunflower oil sourced from farms in and around Quebec and Ontario in their Castile soaps. They also hold an Ecocert organic certification, and provide tips on green living through their website.

The feedback

At first we asked everyone to simply rank each of the soaps out of 5, but we found that everyone was using very different criteria to evaluate the soaps. So, instead, we asked everyone to rank the products in order of which they liked best. The results for that are here, where 4 is the one they liked best and 1 is the one they liked least:

As you can see, there was a lot of variability! Overall, most people liked Method hand soap the best for its light scent, good cleaning ability, and low residue. (Interestingly, those who preferred the Castile soaps disliked Method and Live Clean for the overly strong scent that lingered on their hands well after washing.)

This was great news for us, as we already carry the Method brand, and like the Method company. But we are still interested in providing a Castile alternative as we know there are many people in the community who prefer the lighter scent and great environmental sustainability. Overall, Dr. Bronner’s was the more popular of the Castile soaps (and the second-favourite soap overall). Our testers felt that Dr. Bronner’s had a good lather and consistency, whereas Green Beaver was very runny and watery — likely due to the fact that it is sold as a concentrate, and the suggested dilution may not be the best.

However, once we revealed that Green Beaver was a Canadian company that sourced many of its ingredients locally, our testers were disappointed that they had been so dissatisfied. Luckily product testing gives us the chance to brainstorm, and we came up with a possible solution: a foaming hand soap pump. With the very thin consistency, a foaming hand soap pump may promote Green Beaver to a popular Canadian Castile soap within the co-op, but more testing will be required!

The results

Overall, this product testing was a great learning experience. We confirmed that most people are happy with our existing liquid hand soap brand, and intend to start carrying Dr. Bronner’s soon. We will also do some testing within the organization to figure out if Green Beaver soap will work in a foaming hand soap pump.

Finally, at least three out of eight of our product testers actually said that they tend to use bar soap more often than liquid, and gave us some names of their favourite local suppliers! We will be carrying some bar soap options as well. The test results seem to pose more questions than answers, but that is all part of discovery and we’re excited to continue the journey.

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Written by Leah Blechschmidt and edited by myself and Laura McDonald.