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Natural Handmade Soap – Natural Versus Synthetic Ingredients – What Would You Choose?
Soap has been in use in households around the world for thousands of years, although the soap in use today differs greatly from that which was created many years ago. The first soaps were made using animal fats and vegetable oils. Today’s soaps have many different chemical additives used to increase their marketing appeal. What effects do these additives have on our skin? What are the long term effects? How was soap first created and how has it evolved into what it is today?
Some archaeological finds show that soap was used as early as 2800 BC by the Babylonians, Phoenicians and Egyptians (Garzena 2002). There are different stories about how soap was first created, but the basic theory is the same. It’s not hard to imagine how years ago, when cooking was done over an open fire, left with a pot of grease, the cook would look for something to help mop up the grease. By adding a handful of ash and letting it soak, it is suddenly discovered that the grease washes off easily. Roman legend says that soap was named after Mount Sapo, an area where animals were sacrificed. Rainwater mixed with animal fats and wood ash and was spread over the clay soil of the Tiber River. The women of the local village found that by using the clay it made their washing easier and cleaner.
In the Middle Ages, the first small-scale soap factories were established in France and England. It was not an easy product to make. Making the potash (the water in which the ashes were macerated, also known as the sauce) was a long and complicated process and often gave inconsistent results. In 1791, Nicholas Leblanc discovered a process of making a soda made from common salt to be used instead of ash. This process along with the importation of coconut and palm oils made soap production easier and more and more soap making centers were established. In Britain in the 19th century, taxes were imposed on soap production and soap makers were given a monopoly on soap production in exchange for a guaranteed price per ton. This tax was abolished in 1852 and soap became more widely available.
Many of the original soap makers are now household names. William Colgate’s “Cashmere Bouquet” was introduced in 1872. BJ Johnson created “Palmolive” using palm and olive oil and cocoa butter. Although these soaps retain their original names, they are somewhat different from the original product.
Soaps today are mass produced for economic reasons and at the cost of quality. The natural glycerin that occurs in the soap making process is removed from the soap and used in moisturizers and cosmetics where it commands a higher price. Handmade soaps produced using the cold process method preserve this glycerin as well as the natural properties of the oils used. Many of the additives used today in the production of soaps have no other value than to improve aesthetics and increase their shelf life. EDTA is listed as an ingredient in many soaps. It is a chelating agent that reduces the amount of trace metals in solution giving a clearer product, while preserving colors, flavors and textures, important marketing factors. It is a known skin and eye irritant and is suspected to be mutagenic. Many different synthetic colors are used in soap making, many of which are derived from coal tar. Research has shown that almost all coal tar dyes cause cancer in rats when injected into the skin of rats. Natural dyes such as annatto, carotene, chlorophyll and turmeric are very unstable in soap and therefore not practical from a marketing point of view. Propylene glycol is another additive that is widely used in soap. Much research has been undertaken to create enhancers that will help the skin absorb the active ingredients in skin care products (Rajadhyaksha, VJ & Pfister, WR 1996). Propylene glycol is one such booster. It is said to penetrate the skin better than glycerin and less expensive. The US Food and Drug Administration proposed a ban on propylene glycol in 1992 because it was not shown to be safe and effective for its claims made in head lice formulations. However, based on available data, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel considered it safe for use in concentrations up to 50%. Propylene glycol is also a known skin irritant, as is triclosan which is used in many antiseptic soaps.
It can be argued that the soap is not on the body for a long time and is quickly washed off. However, many people have immediate allergic reactions when using soap, indicating that the chemicals do not need to be on the skin for any length of time to cause a problem. How permeable is our skin? Rubbing fresh garlic on your feet will have you enjoying it in about 20 minutes. Straehli first demonstrated the permeability of human skin in 1940 when he discovered that different essential oils required different periods of time to appear in the breath after application to the skin (Farrow 2002 pp. 46-47).
Although our skin is said to create a barrier, it is a permeable barrier and there is no long-term research available to show what negative effects many of these chemicals can have on the human body. Handmade soaps can be scented with pure essential oils, but they can also be scented with fragrance oils. Many handmade soaps contain natural dyes, but they may also contain synthetic dyes. So it is important that if you decide you want to use a more natural soap, you should find a soap maker who can tell you the exact ingredients in their soaps. What a person chooses to use on their skin is their choice. Having always been interested in natural soaps, I now make and use my own soaps, which are made with plant oils, natural dyes and pure essential oils. This is my choice. What do you choose?
Farrow, K. 2002, Skin Deep, Thomas C. Lothian Pty Ltd, Vic.
Rajadhyaksha, VJ & Pfister, WR 1996Oxazolidinones: optimizing the distribution of active ingredients in skin care products, Vol. 158, Drug & Cosmetic Industry p. 36
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