Soap is one of those things that seamlessly fit into our everyday lives. If you think about it, it’s everywhere – in the shower, on your sink, in the kitchen, bathroom, laundry… But most of the time, we don’t think about it. It’s justthere.
But as something we use so often, shouldn’t we know a little bit more about the ones we take home? After all, there are thousands of formulas out there, all with their own proposed miracle effects. But more than a few of them have less-than-healthy ingredients snuck in – and do you know how to spot them?
Not to worry. In today’s article, we’re breaking down everything you need to know about soap – from the science behind an effective one, to which ingredients to look for and which ones to avoid, as well as how your sudsy choices affect the planet, our furry friends, and your own health.
Yup – settle in, friend. You’re about to become a soap expert.
What is Soap, and How Does it Work? A Quick Chemistry Lesson
In order to understand why most soaps aren’t as effective as the marketing would like you to believe, we need to first understand how soap actually works, and why. So, let’s break it down.
As you probably know, your skin has a natural barrier of oils that moisturizes and protects your skin. But as you move through your day, dirt and sweat mix with this oil barrier, inconveniently creating the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
And unfortunately, water alone can’t get rid of this oily buildup, because water and oils don’t mix. You can scrub and scrub to your heart’s content, but the method is pretty ineffective.
And this is where soap comes in.
True soap is made through a chemical process called saponification, which creates a molecule with two key parts. One end is lipophilic, which means it’s attracted to oils, and one end is hydrophilic, which means it’s attracted to water.
As you soap up your skin, the lipophilic end of the soap molecule binds to the dirty, bacterial oils that sit on your skin. The hydrophilic end, on the other hand, follows the water. So as you rinse your soap off, the dirty oils and bacteria follow the suds right down the drain.
Easy, peasy, and it all happens in seconds. Don’t you just love it when chemistry does all the work for you?
The saponification method has been used to make soap in civilizations around the world for thousands of years, which spoils our next point – soap doesn’t require any harsh chemicals or complicated ingredients to work. All it needs is an acid (in this case, a fatty acid) and a base. And there are plenty of natural ones out there.
Why Choose a Bar Soap? 6 Benefits that Blow Liquid Soap Out of the Water (Literally)
Now that we understand the principles of an effective soap, let’s check out some of the benefits of choosing a solid, natural soap bar over a liquid one at the grocery store.
1. No Harsh Chemicals to Damage Your Skin
Most liquid soaps use the same basic principles as bar soap to clean your skin, but a quick glance at the ingredient list reveals what we all know – commercial soaps add a bunch of other chemicals to your soap, too.
Some are added to make your suds more dramatic, which, as we’ve just learned, isn’t actually necessary for the soap to be effective. Others include artificial fragrances, harsh anti-bacterial compounds (which, again, isn’t necessary, since soap molecules bind to the bacteria). Sometimes, they’re just added to replace the natural ingredients with something cheaper.
But your skin is a living, breathing organ, and it absorbs what you put on it through your pores. This is why we should be mindful of what we use on our skin – it goes right into your body and can affect your hormones, disrupt your skin barrier, and create a buildup of toxins that are very difficult to get rid of.
A natural bar soap is an effective, gentle cleaner that won’t harm or disrupt the balance in your body.
2. No Harsh Chemicals to Damage Ecosystems
These chemicals aren’t just bad for your body’s internal balance – they also disrupt the balance in nature.
Marine ecosystems are notoriously complex and sensitive to pollution, which is a growing concern as the climate emergency progresses. And when those suds disappear down your drain, it’s easy to apply the out-of-sight, out-of-mind principle. But the reality is that those harsh chemicals wash right out into our waterways and oceans, where they harm marine life and disrupt critical ecosystems that we all rely on for the planet’s survival.
Bar soap uses only natural ingredients that nature can easily break down and take care of, which makes it an environmentally friendly choice.
3. Minimizes Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution is one of the biggest concerns for the planet, and an issue that keeps getting worse. Plastic isn’t something that nature can take care of – it can break it down into smaller pieces, sure, but every little piece of plastic ever created is still out there, polluting our oceans, forests, and the very air we breathe.
This is bad news, because plastic can affect our hormones, damage our ecosystems, and leads to the death of countless animals around the world every single year.
Liquid soap is almost always packaged in plastic, and every time you run out, the replacement comes packaged in another plastic bottle. And while some plastics can be recycled, the process degrades the quality of the material so much that it can only go through the recycling process once or twice.
And liquid soaps don’t stop there – many of them also contain microplastics in their formulas, used to make them sparkle or sometimes as exfoliants. These are virtually impossible to catch in our oceans and are one of the worst forms of marine pollution.
Natural soap bars contain only natural ingredients – meaning, nomicroplastics – and don’t require any packaging, plastic or otherwise. This is an effective way to minimize plastic pollution.
4. Less Waste of Water and Resources
Water is a precious resource, and clean water is sorely lacking in many countries around the world. The process of making water clean also uses a lot of energy, which means that while it may seem like you have an endless, free supply running from your tap, each liter comes with a footprint.
Preserving water where we can is essential to minimizing our impact on the planet. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise that liquid formula often contains part water.
Bar soap limits the use of water to what actually comes out of your showerhead, which preserves a precious resource and helps the planet with every wash.
5. More Environmentally-Friendly Shipping
There are a lot of factors to consider when looking at the environmental impact of shipping. A major one is distance, of course. But two others we talk less about are size and weight.
The heavier a shipment is, the more fuel it consumes on the trip. And the larger a product is, the fewer products will fit in a single load, meaning more shipments are needed to transport all the products.
Natural bar soap is much more compact than liquid soap, and most of the time, it also weighs less. This means the environmental impact of shipping a soap bar is lower.
6. Bar Soap is Cheaper than Liquid Soap
To add to the previous point, liquid soap also runs out much quicker than soap bars. If stored properly out of the direct spray of water, a bar of soap can last you for months – most people find that they only run out a couple of times a year, even with daily use.
Which means that even though a soap bar comes out to about $6-9 per bar, it’s actually cheaper than liquid soap, because it doesn’t need to be replaced as often.
Red-flag Ingredients in Soaps
There are thousands of soap formulas out there, and even bar soaps can sometimes contain sneaky, red-flag chemicals. But let’s face it – ingredient lists mostly read like an alien language, and decoding them takes time that most of us just don’t have.
So, to make it easier for you, here’s a breakdown of which ingredients you should avoid in a soap, and why.
Sulfates are a very common and controversial ingredient in soaps and shampoos. They are mostly added to create extra suds, in order to give the impression of a more powerful cleaner – which, as we’ve learned above, is a myth. So, why avoid sulfates?
First of all, sulfates come from petroleum, which is the same type of oil used to make plastic and associated with both greenhouse gases and pollution. There are some natural sources of sulfates too, but the most common one is palm oil, which means deforestation of rainforests as well as a range of humanitarian issues. The long-term production of sulfates, at the scale it is being produced today, is a big concern in the climate crisis.
Sulfates can also irritate eyes, skin, and lungs with long-term use. It has an even bigger impact on animals, since it can disrupt marine life and the manufacturing process creates a substance called 1,4 dioxane, which can cause cancer in animals. And because of the health concerns for humans, most sulfates are animal tested first.
Sulfates often appear on ingredient lists as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). There may be variations or other ingredients with similar names, so if you’re unsure, type the full ingredient name into Google and you’ll quickly be able to gauge if it’s harmful or not.
You’ve probably heard of parabens, and that they are something to avoid. But what are they, and how can you spot them?
Parabens are actually preservatives, meant to extend the shelf life of a soap or another cosmetic product. The only problem is that parabens have also been linked to health conditions like breast cancer and endocrine system dysfunction, and it’s advised to avoid them whenever you can.
Because natural bar soaps are made solely from natural ingredients that don’t go bad over time, they don’t need added chemical preservatives – but some commercial bar soaps may still add in parabens.
Luckily, they’re easy to spot on a label, since all parabens’ names end with -paraben. Examples are methylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben.
Phthalates are chemical solvents that are often added to soaps and other cosmetic products to bind the various compounds together. They are colorless, odorless, and worse, associated with liver, lung, and kidney damage.
Phthalates can also damage reproductive systems, especially in men, with recent studies showing both lower testosterone levels and sperm abnormalities as a result of exposure. Even more, being exposed to phthalates before birth can also affect neurodevelopment in various ways, so pregnant women should be very careful with phthalates in products.
The names of phthalates always end with the word phthalate, but on ingredient lists they are often written in acronyms, which can make them harder to spot. Common ones include Diethyl phthalate (DEP), Dibutyl phthalate (DBP), Di-n-octyl phthalate (DNOP), Benzyl butyl phthalate (BBP), Diisononyl phthalate (DINP), and Dimethyl phthalate (DMP).
It can be tempting to look for anti-bacterial agents in your soap. After all, you want to feel clean, and there’s no such thing as good bacteria… right?
Wrong. Not all bacteria are created equal, and good bacteria are actually essential to maintaining a healthy skin barrier. Even more, good bacteria protect you from bad bacteria.
But anti-bacterial agents kill allbacteria, which makes you more vulnerable and throws your skin out of balance. Besides, these are usually pretty harsh chemicals that aren’t healthy for your skin. A common one is triclosan, which was even banned by the FDA in 2016.
Still, some soaps manufactured overseas still contain this harsh anti-bacterial agent, so scan the label before you click buy.
We’ve already established why microplastics are bad for the environment, and why plastic in general is bad for you. But if you want to learn even more about how microplastics wreak havoc on your body and surroundings, check out our full breakdown here.
But in regards to ingredient lists, how can you spot microplastics in a soap? Since microplastics have actually been banned from use in cosmetics, commercial brands are now very tricky with how they sneak them in, and with about a hundred different, creative names, they can be difficult to spot.
Luckily, there’s an app to help you out. Beat the Microbead can scan any ingredient list and will let you know within seconds if it contains microplastics.
If you have sensitive skin or allergies, look for “fragrance” or “perfume” on the ingredient list. The FDA doesn’t require companies to write out what the fragrance in their products is made from, and they often include hidden allergens.
Ingredients to Look for In Soap:
For every villain, there’s a good guy waiting somewhere in the wings – here’s what to look for in a high-quality, natural soap bar.
This is a common ingredient in soap bars, and nothing to fear. Glycerine is an entirely natural, plant-based cleanser that helps to seal moisture into your skin.
Essential oils are premier ingredients in natural skincare, and as versatile as they are effective. They add a natural fragrance, and each one comes with different benefits for your skin. Lavender oil can calm your skin, cedarwood hydrates, and eucalyptus has anti-inflammatory effects, to mention a few.
Who says natural ingredients can’t make for excellent exfoliators? Whoever hasn’t tried them, that’s who.
Ground apricot pits, oatmeal, and milled walnut shells are examples of entirely natural ingredients that can add some scrubbing power to your natural soap bar. Look for them if you want an exfoliating natural soap bar.
Organic, Fair-Trade, Cruelty-Free, and Vegan Ingredients
It might sound like a tall order, but with natural soap bars, it really doesn’t have to be.
There are a range of effective, all-natural ingredients to be found in soap bars, like those mentioned above. But we recommend looking for ingredients that aren’t just natural, but also have minimal environmental footprints and have done no harm throughout the production chain.
Organic refers to how an ingredient is grown and harvested. Organic farming uses only natural fertilizers, such as compost manure, and techniques like crop rotation that benefit natural ecosystems and helps preserve the future of agriculture. Learn more about the benefits of organic farming here.
Fair-Trade is a certification that controls not only that an ingredient is grown organically, but also that no people are harmed or taken advantage of during production.
Cruelty-free ensures that no animals were harmed during manufacturing. A product marked cruelty-free has not been animal-tested, or in other ways led to the suffering of our animal friends. Avegan product is one that doesn’t contain any ingredients derived from animals, such as keratin. Ideally, for a truly animal-kind product, you’d want both.
And for a truly great soap bar, you’d want all four. After all, why settle? And, speaking of…
Lochtree’s Brand-New Natural, Vegan, and Cruelty-Free Soap Bar
And last but not least, we’re proud to have recently launched our very first branded product, the all-natural Lochtree Vegan Body Soap.
The all-natural Lochtree soap bar is both cruelty-free and vegan, and handcrafted locally in Boston using only 100% organic and Fair-trade certified ingredients. It effectively cleanses and moisturizes your skin, and the ingredient list is short and uncomplicated, just as it should be. We may be biased, but we think you’ll love it.
It comes in four wonderful fragrances – soothing Lavender, cheerful Lemongrass & Poppyseed, fresh Tea Tree & Mint, or woodsy Cedarwood & Eucalyptus. Or, if you prefer, there’s an entirely scent-free option that is extra kind on sensitive skin.
Not sure which scent is for you? Let us surprise you with our 3-pack of mixed bars, and save 11% by stocking up. As a thank you, we’ll also plant a tree in honor of your environmentally friendly choice!
And make sure to let us know what you think – this product is made for you, and we’re always curious to hear your opinions!