Green Home Experiment: Week 7

Kim Conte
soapy hands

Foamy hands from natural bar soap.

Science_Spot recently made the decision to go green in her household and blog about her green living experiment along the way.

This week she gives us the low-down on natural soap.

I have always loved the catch-phrase that NBC uses for their public service announcements: "The More You Know." It's true. The more you know, the more informed and safer your choices are. I needed to know more about soap so I can decide which soap I should be buying for my family. It is amazing that the natural bar soap choices in my town are extremely limited. I imagine this is true for many people, which is why Burt's Bees is so popular. It is one of the few brands you can find at chain stores.  I have come to the realization that I will have to buy some products online since they just are not available locally. This may cost more due to shipping, but I have found I can spend a little more per product since I am reducing the number of products I am using.

The top three soap bars I would like to try next are:

  1. Dr. Bronner's Classic Fair Trade Bar Soap.
  2. Claycial Soap (by Eco-Logic).
  3. Honey Bar (by Beekman 1802) from Abe's Market (a new natural product storefront I recently found).

My big dog Tela would like to try the Dog-Poo (by Sunfeather Natural Soap Company), also available at Abe's Market. She is currently using some cheap store brand chemical-laden junk I bought in a rush.

Some things I have learned about bar soaps:

  • They really aren't that expensive. I have been buying Tom's of Maine for about $2.50 at WalMart, and it seems to last forever. I would love to get a few specialty handmade soaps in yummy flavors for regular use. My daughter likes to have a selection when visiting the sink, and sniffing the soaps makes washing up more fun!
  • Natural soap lathers really well, as you can see in my picture (the foamy hands belong to Abby).
  • Soap bars can be really slippery, but having the kids use a washcloth helps a lot and saves on soap consumption! I bought a cute little soap bag, too.
  • Bar soap can be used for hands, body, and face! It is just as easy as liquid soap in a pump dispenser.

One of the most important things I learned is that a detergent (otherwise known as body bar, cleansing bar, etc.) is not the same as soap. They both work the same, and you can read about that in my past post. Soap is made up of a specific type of molecule (hydrocarbon chain with polar carboxyl head); everything else used for cleaning is a detergent. See detergents and soaps for more information on the manufacturing processes, chemical makeup, and more. Detergents are made using petroleum base, animal fats (tallow) and additional chemicals. Soap is made with oils (animal or vegetable) and few other ingredients (see below). Detergent works well in hard water; soap will work well there, too, but will leave a scum of soap bound to calcium and magnesium ions.

Some common body bars, such as Dove, Zest, Classic Ivory and Caress, contain a variety of chemicals in their formulation. Check out the Household Products Database for the ingredient lists with links to additional information including the MSDS and associated toxicity data. Among the ingredients listed, the most worrisome to me are:

  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, which is a detergent that is particularly irritating to sensitive individuals.
  • Benzene sulfonates, which are als detergents and are drying to the skin. Also, benzenes break down very slowly in the environment.
  • Tetrasodium EDTA and trisodium etidronate, which are chelating agents and enzymes that assist with cleansing/foaming in hard water while protecting the product from degradation caused by the air. These components are very drying to the skin.
  • Triclosan (in antibacterial soaps), which is an antibiotic currently being overused. In addition to bacteria acquiring resistance, triclosan is not completely cleaned from waste water and it can slowly degrade to toxic chemicals in the environment.
  • Tallow is rendered animal fat used as the soap base. It may contain unidentified hormones, chemicals, and other contaminants.

The common ingredients found in natural soaps such as Kirk's, Burt's Bees, and Tom's of Maine are much simpler:

  • Oils, such as palm, olive, coconut and soybean (and their associated soaps).
  • Extracts, such as rosemary leaf and sage.
  • Glycerin (a natural component of vegetable oils).
  • Fragrance (sometimes).

Understanding the ingredient list makes it really easy to shop for soaps now. All I really have to do is look through the ingredient list, and if I find something from my list of concerns above, I don't buy it. It is as simple as that! And now that I am willing to shop online, there are many more options out there and I am going to have a lot of fun exploring them.

Can anyone else recommend a good natural soap? Where do you buy yours?


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