05 August 2006
Soap is one of those things we all take for granted. Yet, we’ve used it for thousands of years as part of daily life and in religious ceremonies. These days, the art of making soap has largely died away, overtaken by the trend towards detergent use. Today, most of us use detergents moulded to look like bars of soap.
Genuine soap is made in a one-step process that has changed little over millennia. The Babylonians knew how to do it, as did the Ancient Egyptians. Unlike detergent, soap creates little waste to make and little waste to use. Making soap requires two ingredients: fat or oil; and a strong alkali solution. Once mixed, the fat combines with the alkali solution to form soap. Good-quality soap will be about 70-per-cent oil, such as olive or almond.
Many modern liquid and bar detergents are deceptively labelled ‘soap’ when they contain absolutely no soap whatsoever.
Low-down on detergents
Detergents are ‘surfactants’ (‘surface-active agents’), which can change the properties of water. They can lower water’s surface tension, making it better able to interact with other cleaning agents. They can also add foaming ability.
Detergents and other surfactants can be synthesised from either plant or petroleum material. There ’s no difference between the detergents in your household cleansers and those you use in your bath. It ’s simply a matter of concentration.
Detergents form a major part of most bath and household cleaning products, and were originally developed for industrial use in hard-water areas where they were thought to clean more efficiently. Since then, research shows that soap and detergent are equally effectively in most types of waters, although hard water appears to increase the potential of both to irritate the skin.
Detergent manufacturers also boast that, unlike soap, their products don’t produce precipitates - the scum that floats on the water or sticks to the sides of the tub. Again, this is not strictly true. All washing products produce some precipitates - if not, what exactly have we been scrubbing off the sides of the bath all these years?
The problem may arise during the rinse. In hard-water areas, both types of cleaners are difficult to wash off, but old-fashioned soaps even more so. However, genuine Castile soap, made with a high percentage of coconut oil, appears to rinse equally well in any type of water.
Nevertheless, even among detergents, there’s a wide variation in both effectiveness and ecological impact. Those based on plants are kinder to the body and environment than those based on petroleum. And while for some industrial applications detergent is an appropriate choice, it is totally unnecessary, and potentially unhealthy, to use for cleaning the body.
Bath bar basics
While conventional bath bars are not the most damaging things to use on your body, many can dry and irritate skin. And while they may all look similar, manufacturers claim significant differences in effectiveness and mildness, and there is some basis for such claims. For example, glycerine-based soaps are among the mildest on the market, while deodorant and antibacterial soaps are among the harshest and most irritating to skin.
Most bath bars are made from synthetic and semisynthetic detergents, including sodium tallowate, made from animal fats, and sodium palmate, sodium palm kernelate and sodium cocoate which, although of vegetable origin, are processed substances with little of their original plant characteristics. In addition, an average bar of bath soap may also contain:
* parfum or fragrance derived from petrochemicals. This ingredient is a significant cause of skin irritation.
* colours such as titanium dioxide, a recognised skin-irritant and potential cause of cancer. CI 14700 (FD &C Red 1), includes carcinogenic naphthalene and sometimes, depending on the formulation, aluminium. CI 47005 (quinoline yellow or D &C Yellow 10) can also contain aluminium or CI 74260 (pigment green) for which there are no safety data.
* glycerine, known technically as glycerol, a form of alcohol used as a solvent and humectant (water magnet). It has low toxicity if left on the skin or not rinsed off well but, paradoxically, it can cause dry skin. Glycerine is often added to products like soap and glue to keep them from drying out.
* pentasodium pentetate, an inorganic salt used as a water softener and preservative in products where metals are used. It can be irritating to the skin. Disodium EDTA and tetrasodium EDTA work in a similar way.
* stearic acid, derived from both animal and vegetable sources, and coconut acid are fatty acids, and added as skin softeners.
* sodium chloride, or simple table salt, a water softener added to help the product rinse better in hard water.
We asked 12 PROOF! Panel members to test seven brands of natural soaps and bath bars. These were evaluated according to their packaging, naturalness of ingredients, benefits to the skin, adverse reactions and value for money.
The first thing we noticed was that, except for Oliva, all used blends of semisynthetics such as sodium palmate, sodium cocoate, sodium palm kernelate or sodium olivate. This means that the manufacturers used ready-made soap bases - albeit from vegetable oils - and blended them into a bar. Purists may balk, but the difference to skin is probably minimal. The only problem is that consumers can never really know how processed the starting material is. Organic certification, such as obtained by Organic Options, was taken as a sign of minimal processing.
Packaging information was important to all our panel members. Tom’s of Maine and Faith in Nature came out tops in this category for the comprehensive information on ingredients, and potential benefits included on their packaging. While few doubted the purity of Oliva, about half the panel expressed a desire to see potential benefits listed on the package. As one panellist said, “It’s a good thing that it had the word soap on the packet; otherwise, I may have cooked with it! ”
Except for Dead Sea Spa Magik, none of the soaps were coloured so, for many, the immediate appeal was based on how it smelled and whether the bar felt substantial. Organic Options ’ cardboard packaging included a window that you could see, smell and touch the bar through (though two of our panel members wondered how hygienic this might be).
What was clear from our testers’ reactions to packaging was that consumers, even of natural goods, have become somewhat more sophisticated. In truth, there was little sophistication in any of the packaging, but about half perceived Tom ’s of Maine’s as looking out of date: “I disliked the hippie sandal-wearing image,” said one. Oliva’s “dowdy” packaging was “reminiscent of wartime”, and seemed to influence perception even before use.
For many, the proof was in the using, and only one - Faith in Nature’s Tea Tree Soap - made every tester feel clean and refreshed. Urtekram’s Rose Soap came a close second, with Organic Options and Tom’s right behind. However, many of our panel found Oliva, a low-foaming soap, difficult to use - “didn’t generate enough foam to shave my legs” - and a bit oily. As a pure soap, it tends to form more scum in bathwater than the others - a problem with all natural soaps, so users may need to rinse more thoroughly with these bars.
Overall, 80 per cent of our panel felt they would continue to use Faith in Nature ’s Tea Tree Soap and Organic Options
Our results show the importance of matching the soap to the user. Those with dry skin need to find soaps using a minimum of drying ingredients. Herbs like rosemary, while refreshing to inhale, may be too harsh on the skin for many.
Faith in Nature Tea Tree Oil Soap
Distributor: Faith Products
Price: £1.35 (100 g)
Made with sodium palmate and sodium palm kernelate, this preservative-free bar boasts the antifungal, antiviral and antiseptic properties of tea tree oil. Although tea tree can smell medicinal, most of our testers found this bar ’s scent pleasant. There were no skin reactions and, like Organic Options Calming Soap, it lathered well: “felt enough like supermarket soap that I would definitely buy it for myself”. Good value at just under 1.4 p/g.
Organic Options Calming Soap
Distributor: Dendra Body Care
Price: £2.54 (150 g)
This calming and moisturising bar is Britain’s first certified organic soap. Its base material is sodium palmate and sodium cocoate, and it also uses lavender, aloe and jojoba oil - and the preservatives pentasodium pentetate and tetrasodium EDTA. Users liked its size - the biggest bar in the survey. Although not everyone felt calm or moisturised after using it, there were no adverse skin reactions. Organic certification was a plus.
Price: £1.19 (115 g)
The second least-expensive soap, its base is sodium palmate and sodium palm kernelate, scented with geranium and rose. It also contains tetrasodium EDTA.
Three of our eagle-eyed testers spotted that this soap contained “more geranium than rose - a cheap alternative - and the therapeutic qualities of both are quite different ”. But only one panellist found the soap irritating; the rest found it pleasant to use and felt confident of its naturalness.
Natural Moisturising Soap Calendula
Distributor: Tom’s of Maine/Healthy Sales & Marketing
Price: £2.55 (113 g)
This vegetable soap uses sodium palmate and sodium cocoate as a base, with jojoba and olive oils, Calendula and other natural oils as fragrances, and vitamins E and C, and rosemary as preservatives. Most testers found this a good, but not exceptional, soap. Plus points were a mild fragrance and natural ingredients; minuses were old-fashioned packaging and skin irritation in about a third of our panel.
Price: £3.80 (100 g)
Sodium palmate, sodium cocoate and sodium olivate (from olive oil) form the base of this simple bar, fragranced with rosemary and other essential oils. With no preservatives, all users felt this was a truly natural product. While many found the smell refreshing, just as many complained of skin irritation, so it may be a better choice for those with oily skin.
Distributor: Oliva/George Skoulikas
Price: 59 p (125 g)
The simplest - and least costly - soap in our test, this is made with saponified olive oil by a traditional one-step process using oil and lye; it is also unscented. Although not a favourite among our testers, it may benefit those with chemical sensitivities. Some found its squareness unwieldy until it began to melt, which happened quickly when left in a wet soap dish.
Dead Sea Spa Magik
Distributor: Finders International
Price: £2.95 (100 g)
Although the packaging suggests a natural product derived from Dead Sea minerals, this was not a natural soap at all. It ’s made from potassium/sodium alkyl sulphate and disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate - mild detergents, but not what we ’d like to find in a natural soap. It also uses paraffin and synthetic colours - titanium dioxide, CI 11680 (Pigment Yellow 1) and CI 77499 (iron oxides, red and black). Ironically, its muddy colour put about half the testers off using it. Many also complained of an unpleasant “chemical scent”.