What is soap? Are you really using soap, or something else?

Many of us know what we think of when someone says soap; it may be a solid bar, liquid soap, or foaming soap.  But is it really?

[box type=”info”] According to the FDA definition, “…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. The lye reacts with the oils, turning what starts out as liquid into blocks of soap. When made properly, no lye remains in the finished product.“[/box]

Make note of the final sentence. “When made properly, no lye remains in the finished product.“  Often times, makers will use any of the following methods in their labeling:

  • Saponified oils of …
  • Sodium _________ (i.e. Sodium Cocoate)
  • Potassium _________ (i.e. Potassium Cocoate)
  • Potassium Hydroxide
  • Sodium Hydroxide
  • Lye

What this really means is one thing: Lye was used to create the chemical reaction required to transform the oils into soap.  (We could go into labeling regulations, but that is an entirely different rabbit hole.  The only thing we will mention is that if the only claim for a true soap is that it cleans, no ingredients are required to be listed.)

If someone claims no lye was used in the process of making the soap, it means one of the following:

  • They are lying to you. NO LYE = NO SOAP.
  • They aren’t making it themselves.
  • They are using Melt & Pour soap, which is a premade base that simply needs to be melted down and color and/or scent can be added to it before pouring it into molds again. Lye was used to make the base, although it is often omitted from the label.

Most of the products you find on shelves in large retailers are not really soap.

To meet the definition of soap in FDA’s regulations, a product has to meet three conditions:

  • What it’s made of: To be regulated as “soap,” the product must be composed mainly of the “alkali salts of fatty acids,” that is, the material you get when you combine fats or oils with an alkali, such as lye.
  • What ingredients cause its cleaning action: To be regulated as “soap,” those “alkali salts of fatty acids” must be the only material that results in the product’s cleaning action. If the product contains synthetic detergents, it’s a cosmetic, not a soap. You still can use the word “soap” on the label.
  • How it’s intended to be used: To be regulated as soap, it must be labeled and marketed only for use as soap. If it is intended for purposes such as moisturizing the skin, making the user smell nice, or deodorizing the user’s body, it’s a cosmetic. Or, if the product is intended to treat or prevent disease, such as by killing germs, or treating skin conditions, such as acne or eczema, it’s a drug. You still can use the word “soap” on the label.

So if it isn’t soap, what is it?

The FDA has two classifications, soap (as previously defined) or detergent.  Most body cleansers, both liquid and solid, are actually synthetic detergent products.  Detergent products utilize surfactants, usually made in a laboratory.  You will often see these kinds of products labeled as moisturizing bars, beauty bars, or some other descriptive term.  But they should not be labeled as “soap.”  Detergent cleansers are popular because they produce suds easily in water and are less prone to gummy textures and residue being left behind in your shower.

Some detergents include some deceptive labeling, which may lead consumers to believe it is soap because of the ingredients.  Often times soap is combined with surfactants, but once the marrying of the two occurs, it is no longer true soap according to the FDA definition.  Most of the “soap” lining the shelves are retailers are actually detergents, regardless of whether they are in a solid or liquid form.

Why does any of this matter?

Many of us grew up in an age of body wash, liquid shampoo and conditioner, liquid hand “soap,” and similar.  Bars of soap were not used in our bathrooms, especially not in the bath or shower (other than maybe the guys out there).

Our skin is our largest organ, a fact we often overlook.  It is a permeable surface, we absorb many things, both good and bad, through our skin.  It enters our bodies, at which point it can either be harmful, helpful, or neutral.  What we put on our skin matters, even if it is intended to be washed off.  It takes, on average, about 26 seconds for our skin to absorb what we put on it.  We don’t suds up our body, scrub clean, and rinse off soap in under 26 seconds (and if you do, did you really clean your skin?).  Think about that for just a minute.

What you put on your skin really does matter!  While we can’t avoid airborne contaminants, we do have a choice about what we put directly on our skin and how it impacts our bodies.  The choice is yours.  Most products you will find at farmers’ markets and in local health food stores will be better for you than anything you find at a big retailer.

People are becoming educated and changing how they think about their health, both from what they put in their bodies and what they put on their bodies.  What choice will you make?  You can find our current soap offerings here.

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