Soap. It goes nearly everywhere on our bodies and is a fundamental part of proper hygiene, yet somehow seems to go relatively unappreciated. People may have their favourite brands, favourite scents or required functions (moisturizing, super-duper anti-bacterial, etc.), or perhaps favourite prices, but holding the actual chemical make-up of the soap to high standards is still only a practice of few consumers. You may have come across recent criticisms and warnings about the chemicals used in many common brands on the market, but to what extent should you use this information in altering your hygiene and cosmetic habits?
When considering our soap ingredients, we should be concerned about the chemicals used, what they do to our skin and health and even what effect they may have on the environment. There are several harsh chemicals in commercially produced soaps along with fillers and other substances that aren’t necessarily good for us. However, you’ll often be hard pressed to find soaps that do not contain them, so instead of replacing them entirely, be mindful of how you use them. Making sure these chemicals do not sit on our skin for more than a few moments at a time and reducing the frequency of their use can go a long way in preventing harmful effects.
A common yet dangerous chemical used to ‘saponify’ soap is sodium hydroxide, also known as lye. This is actually a highly corrosive and flammable chemical that is used in anti-freeze and drain cleaners, along with propylene glycol and ethylene glycol. When properly saponified, there won’t actually be any remaining sodium hydroxide in the product. But this requires a process of removing the remaining sodium hydroxide impurities by ‘salting it out’ with sodium chloride, commonly known as table salt. Look for ingredients that are called ‘Sodium *ate’. This indicates that the root of the ‘-ate’ word is an ingredient that was saponified with sodium hydroxide. If a soap has gone through sufficient salt purification, the only remaining natural (and safe) detergent agent will be glycerin.
Glycerin, also called glycerol, is a naturally occurring alcohol compound in animals and plants and is a component of many lipids. It is safe for your skin and is the result of a properly saponified animal or plant fat, such as goat’s milk or coconut oil.
The ‘Bad’ Guys
Take a look at the ingredient label on your body wash. If you see any of the following, you’ll need to either be mindful of how you use it (more on this below) or just ditch it. The real danger is in the concentration of these chemicals not only within a singular product but in a collection of products that you might use on a regular basis.
DEA (diethanalomine), including cocomide DEA (chemically altered coconut oil fats)
Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS), also known as sodium dodecyl and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES)
Formaldehyde (sodium hydroxymethylglycinate)
Artificial/synthetic fragrances (often labelled as simply ‘parfum’ or ‘fragrance’)
Chemicals including ‘-eth’ like myreth, oleth, laureth and ceteareth, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, and oxynol
Titanium dioxide (also CL 77891)
What has started all of the fuss over these chemicals in hygiene and cosmetic products? Some of these chemicals have been proven to cause irritation, dermatitis, eye and neurological damage, fertility and thyroid disfunction, asthma and hormone disruption. Many are carcinogenic and linked to increased chances of cancer. What’s particularly disturbing is that research has shown dangerous levels of these chemical substances in parts per million (ppm) in the market. They are not easily and regularly disposed of by the body and build up in the blood stream and organ systems over time, along with many other toxins found in common commercial products including food and packaging. They interact negatively with these other toxins as well environmental factors such as pollution and UV rays.
Because of these potential health risks, the recent consumer outcry against the use of these chemicals is not misplaced. However, you may actually be glad to hear that it is a bit exaggerated. At the moment, some of chemicals under the greatest fire are SLS or SLES (also shorted as SLFS), but you’ll be very hard pressed to find even organic soaps, particularly liquid ones, that do not contain some form of these. Similar substances with slightly different names due to slightly altered chemical processes are common. That’s because when used in very small concentrations and for very brief periods, the chemicals are not considered harmful. Some ingredients, such as coco glucosamide, are added to reduce the irritant effects of other ingredients, but that doesn’t mean it prevents the harmful effects of all chemicals included. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep is a good starting point for determining the level of danger posed by a particular chemical (or it’s relatives). If you do have soaps or shampoos with these chemicals and are reluctant to give up the brand, these practices are important:
1. Do a quick lather and then rinse immediately. Allowing the chemicals to sit on your skin (inlcuding your scalp) can allow the irritative effects to begin.
2. Sometimes, you only need to rinse your hands with warm water rather than giving them an all out scrub. Use soap when you need a more heavy duty clean, such as following a bowel movement, touching objects in public areas (e.g. the support bars on the underground/tube), handling raw meat and poultry and after contact with bacteria or someone who is ill.
3. This goes for your body as well. You can often clean your body effectively just by rinsing with water, which is also healthier for its suppleness and vitality. Detergents strip away natural oils and good bacteria, so alternate between a water-wash and a suds-wash, particularly if you take daily showers.
4. Look for products that have these ingredients lower in the list. This will be indicative of lower concentrations.
Many of these ingredients are used to create foaming action or increase antibacterial power, but are the bubbles worth the health risk? There are enough safe, natural foaming agents used in organic products. Also, these synthetic antibacterial chemicals have been shown to pose environmental hazards and increase bacterial resistance. Even high end products contain them, so read the labels and check the ingredients against online sources (see link for EWG’s Skin Deep below).
The Good Guys
Kiss My Face
Clorox Green Works
These brands are trusted and generally use safe and often organic ingredients. However, you should always read the label. The Environmental Working Group has created a database called Skin Deep which contains information and hazard ratings for many chemicals on the market, so do some research to see if you need to replace your current soap or body wash. What’s excellent about this database is that you can see information regarding both individual chemical safety as well as the overall safety of a particular product or brand.
As cautionary advice, as much as we’d love to trust the worst ‘organic’, not all brands or products that say they are organic are actually safe. They sadly can include a combination of organic ingredients and harmful chemicals, which negates any benefit of the organic element. Check databases and research provided by the Environmental Working Group EWG, PubMed, PubChem and Material Safety and Data Sheet (MSDS) to get clarity on the ingredients in your products. If the ingredient is not listed or is listed as having little information, it’s much better to err on the side of caution and avoid it.
Look for natural antimicrobial, antibacterial, cleansing, foaming and soothing agents, like coconut oil, tea tree oil, glycerin, calendula oil or jojoba oil to name a few.
The ingredients in industrially produced soaps might be the source of constant dryness and irritation for you or someone you know. Share this information with them so that they can either reduce contact with these chemicals or remove them entirely from their hygiene or cosmetic routine. By using pure, truly organic soaps, we cleanse our skin naturally without removing healthy oils, therefore maintaining proper hydration and protection.
There are plenty of safe soaps at reasonable prices, but if you find they’re simply above budget, there are many homemade cleansing recipes available that are effective and safe.
1. Carolyn Butler, Soaps, makeup and other items contain deadly ingredients, say consumer advocates, Washington Post, January 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/soaps-makeup-and-other-items-contain-deadly-ingredients-say-consumer-advocates/2012/01/24/gIQAeJ56cQ_story.html
2. Shawn Radcliffe, Cancer-Causing Chemical Found in 98 Shampoos and Soaps, Healthline, August 2013, http://www.healthline.com/health-news/cancer-dangerous-chemical-found-in-shampoos-and-soaps-082913
3. Coconut oil diethonalomine condensate, International Agency for Research on Cancer, 2012, http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol101/mono101-005.pdf
4. Personal Care and Cleaning Products: Safety Guide, Organic Consumers Association and Green Patriot Working Group, May 2009
5. Skin Deep, Environmental Working Group
6. Dr. Anne Marie Helmenstine, Soap and Saponification: Preparation & Chemical Structure, About.com Chemistry, http://chemistry.about.com/library/weekly/blsapon.htm