Soaps and “How to Get Clean”

Did you know that if you’re like the majority of Westerners, most of the products you use to clean aren’t soap? Soap is a cleaning product made by saponifying vegetable oils or animal fat with an alkaline salt (strong base like sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide). Most of the products in the typical home are man-made detergents produced from petroleum products and other chemicals. This wasn’t always the case. From at least as early as ancient Babylon right up until 1916, soaps and natural plant components were our most effective cleaning agents. In 1916, the first synthetic detergent was created, based on a need to find a cleaning product that wouldn’t create “soap curd” or soap scum when mixed with hardness in water.

Today, detergents are used for hand dish washing, laundry, body washes, shampoos, dishwashers, laundry stain treatments, cleaning wipes, liquid hand “soaps,” and more. They clean very thoroughly, work in many water conditions, and are easy to produce in bulk. In fact, new detergents are being developed on a regular basis. Some of the most common ones used in body care are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), and coco betaine.

Twenty-five years ago, body wash was just being introduced to the market in force.  Companies created a “manufactured need” for body wash by convincing people that soap was dirty and covered in bacteria.  I remember seeing commercials for this revolutionary new body care product that didn’t leave soap scum. Back then, body wash was almost never used by men. Now body washes are fashionable and accepted by people from all walks of life. Most people have little noticeable trouble with detergents, but for body cleansing, they do leave a little to be desired. Detergents are very drying. They strip oils from the skin and hair very effectively, leaving undermoisturized skin and hair that require remoisturization by way of lotions, creams, oils, and conditioners – aka more products. The oil stripping effect also causes the skin to go into overdrive to replace the lost oils, leading to more frequent need to bathe with the same detergents as before.

Detergents also tend to have unpleasant odours. Companies cover up these odours by adding fragrances or fragrance-based chemical masking agents, causing problems for fragrance-sensitive individuals. Another concern with detergents is that some are known irritants to the skin. SLS is even used in lab product testing to irritate skin before testing the products, and has been said to cause gum erosion when used in toothpastes.  The bottom line is that detergents contain a host of other chemicals just to make them more appealing to us as consumers, and these chemicals can be allergens.

Lastly, these body washes or shower gels often contain plastic microbeads that are harming our environment, as they make their way into our natural water supplies and end up in the stomachs of fish and other wildlife.  The packaging for a bar of soap can be a small piece of paper or even nothing at all; the packaging for a container of bodywash is considerably more harmful to the environment in both its manufacture  and its disposal.  Detergents themselves are often not quickly biodegradable, unlike the soaps they replaced.   And what’s easier on your wallet?  A $1 bar of soap, or a $4-10 bottle of body wash?   This explains why soap use is still prevalent in high-poverty  countries, and body wash gains traction as incomes rise.

About six months ago, I was using Philosophy Coconut Frosting body wash to wash my body. This product contains isothiazolinones and detergents. Every shower, I would wash and slough off crumbles of skin from all over. While drying, my towel would be covered with more skin. I asked my husband if he was experiencing the same thing, and it was just me.

I tried mixes of clays and muds, but those really aren’t great for use in the shower. They take time to mix into a paste with water, and then are hard to spread and too quick to rinse off. The one good thing about them is that they clean without removing too many oils from the skin when used in moderation. If you have a lot of oils on your skin, like after wearing sunscreen, it might not clean well enough.

Hand WashingWhile pure soaps do produce soap scum, they can be found truly fragrance-free (not just fragrance-masked with other fragrances). They can be found with no artificial preservatives, and don’t have to contain detergents. Hard soaps can even be used to get spots out of clothing by rubbing the bar on the stain. This is my favourite all-purpose spot remover. Pure olive oil soap doesn’t produce many suds, but suds aren’t required to clean, and it cleanses more gently than other soaps, making it ideal for people with sensitive skin or allergies. Hemp oil soaps are also said to be quite good.

My husband finds soap easier to use with a bit of help – a crocheted hemp, cotton, bamboo, or linen drawstring bag provides a bit more exfoliation and holds lather like a bath puff so that you use less soap.   All of our leftover small bits make their way into his soap pouch.

The great thing about soap is that you can easily make your own at home, with any oils you choose. I have just started to experiment with this, but so far I’ve produced one moisturizing soap with lots of creamy lather and moderate cleansing properties. I’m hooked! I’ll definitely be doing this again. Expect to see a soap making post at some point in the future. If soap making is something you’d like to try, a Google search will turn up a wealth of resources and recipes. As soap utilizes some very strong bases, always check any recipe for safety using a soap calculator like to confirm that the quantities of oils, water, and alkali salt will produce a safe soap.

What do you use to wash? Comment below.

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