We're all used to grabbing a bar of soap at the grocery store without thinking too much. We use them in our daily cleansing, shower our kids with them and even use them on our pets without hesitation. Marketing research says consumers tend to go for the soaps that smell nice first, lather more, have the most commercials on tv or ads in magazines, or are the most recommended by review blogs or "look cute"; but do we really know what they're made of?...
The FDA has a definition for what true soap is:
"Ordinary soap is made by combining fats or oils and an alkali, such as lye. The fats and oils, which may be from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources, are degraded into free fatty acids, which then combine with the alkali to form crude soap. (1)
Today there are very few true soaps on the market.
Most body cleansers on the market today are actually synthetic detergent products that come under the jurisdiction of the FDA. These detergent cleansers are popular because they make suds easily and don't form gummy deposits. Some of these detergent products are actually marketed as "soap" but are not true soap in the common and legal definition of the word."
Saponification is the chemical reaction generated between an alkali (Sodium Hydroxide or Potassium Hydroxide) and a fat.
True soap is only made using Sodium Hydroxide (Lye) and fats for solid bars or Potassium Hydroxide and fats for liquid soap with the addition in both cases of enough water to dissolve the lye. There is just no other way to make true soap and this is the method we use at By Valenti Organics.
True soaps are usually opaque and can contain a myriad of botanical ingredients and oils depending on the purpose of the soap. The best true soaps are made with only vegetable ingredients.
Those made with lard, tallow, or any animal fat, are usually not good for the skin, aside from not being very animal friendly. Animal fat, both ingested and used in soaps and shampoos, have being proven to clog pores and be one of the causes of acne. (2)
Detergent bars, classified by the FDA as synthetic soaps, are the ones that don't use lye to be made, so there isn't per se a saponification process taking place when these soaps are manufactured. Melt and Pour formulas, also known as Clear Glycerine Soap -- those fabulous transparent soaps with decorative elements embedded in them -- are classified as detergent bars or synthetic soaps not true soaps. These detergent bars are formulated with a combination of synthetic ingredients designed to rapidly foam when in the presence of water and are regulated by the FDA.
The following is the list of ingredients of a common melt&pour base for ultra clear synthetic detergent:
"Propylene Glycol, Sorbitol, Water, Sodium Stearate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Laurate, Glycerin, Triethanolamine."
The following is the list of ingredients in our True Castile soap which is manufactured as per the original legitimate recipe that was used in the "Region of Castilla" Spain hundreds of years ago: "Saponified (with sodium hydroxide) Certified Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil and purified water."
Which soap should I use?
When it comes down to picking a soap, the main factor to be considered is biodegradability. Let's face it, we're polluting our bodies of water with every shower we take. If we continue at this pace soon no fresh water would be available, so it makes sense to shop for products that won't cause more damage to our environment.
Hands down true soaps are the most environmentally friendly of the two when made with vegetable or animal ingredients, without any synthetic or artificial ingredients. They're capable of cleansing while being 100% biodegradable, leaving no phosphates or harmful chemicals behind. Detergent soaps or soaps made with synthetic ingredients are not biodegradable nor environmentally friendly.
Look for soaps scented with essential oils and avoid those with artificial fragrances, as these last ones are not biodegradable and can cause, in many instances, severe damage to our environment. (3)
Avoid soaps with artificial colorants, and instead favor soaps naturally colored with botanicals.
Avoid anti-bacterial soaps at all costs. Triclosan and Triclocarban two of the main ingredients in anti-bacterial soaps have being found to be harmful to both the environment and our health. Washing with a regular soap will have the same anti-bacterial effect. (4, 5, 6)