Soaps: reading labels and recognizing safe or unsafe soaps

When you’re trying to find safer products, it’s often helpful to understand how the product is made and what ingredients are common or expected to be found in that product. This is true for soaps and soap-related products like body or face wash.

So, in this post, I’m going to go over how soap is made and what ingredients you should look for or avoid in your soapy products.

Soap is made through a process called saponification, which is the chemical reaction of oil/fat, lye, and water. Lye, also called sodium hydroxide, dissolves in water, and is extremely dangerous. It’s capable of causing severe burns within seconds of skin contact. However, during the process of saponification, when the right proportions of ingredients are used, the chemical is neutralized and you’re left with a completely safe substance!
If you’re switching away from toxic chemicals, you want to find a soap that has natural moisturizers, is free of petrochemical fillers, and made from real vegetable/plant oil, not petroleum based surfactants. (Surfactants dissolve oils on your skin).

Petrochemicals in soap
Sodium Lauryl or Laureth Sulfate (SLS or SLES): Surfactants
Propylene/ethylene/butylene/ polyethylene glycol: Solvents to help soap dissolve in water and allow it to penetrate the skin
Di-, Mono-, Tri-, ethanolamines (DEA, MEA, TEA): Foaming agents

Soap that doesn’t have the glycerin removed is best, or at least, one that doesn’t have the glycerin replaced by nasty synthetic chemicals. If you want to learn the more intricate details about glycerin in soap, go to the bottom of this post.

When you’re looking for a good soap, you want to avoid petrochemicals that are harsh surfactants and detergents. The box to the right here shows some of these types of ingredients that are good to avoid. So what should you look for? Think about these questions when evaluating soap:

  • Is the soap made from natural oils like coconut oil or olive oil?
  • If there are colors or fragrances, are they artificial or derived from natural sources?
  • Are the extra ingredients lots of petrochemicals or naturally derived substances?

Additionally, it’s helpful to know what ingredients are common in safe soaps. You may find any of these following things listed on the label:

  • Sodium hydroxide (or potassium hydroxide): Lye
  • Saponified [oils]: This is another way of expressing oils/butters that have been through the soap making process
  • Sodium palmate/ sodium palm kernelate: Saponified palm oils
  • Sodium cocoate: Saponified coconut oil
  • Citric acid: Natural preservative that comes from citrus fruits
  • Tocopherol: This is a form of Vitamin E
  • Oils/butters, honey, glycerin: Natural moisturizers
  • Botanicals, extracts, essential oils:  Natural sources for fragrance and color
  • Sea salt, clay, mud, sea kelp: Usually used for exfoliating or mineral content
  • Sodium chloride: AKA table salt; used to remove glycerin from soap or to make the bar harder

Check out my post Tips for Evaluating Product Safety and Reading Ingredient Labels for more comprehensive information on spotting and avoiding petrochemicals in products.

I recommend checking out soaps at local natural stores, craft fairs, or farmers markets. There’s a world of difference between a good handmade soap and Dove or Lever soap. My sister makes her own soap, so I’m pretty lucky to get awesome handmade soap from her. She sells her soap once a year at a holiday craft fair in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle. You can check out her website here: Anna’s Homemade Soap. She may eventually start selling online, but for now you need to contact her directly about purchasing her soap.

To start, I would suggest checking out these companies:

*Palm oil has a significant ecological impact: its cultivation requires clearing large patches of land, making it a significant contributor to deforestation in the regions its grown. Desert Essence uses only certified sustainable palm oil, which isn’t perfect, but it’s probably better than conventional.

A note about glycerin

One byproduct of the soap making process is glycerin, which is a humectant. This means it draws moisture from the air and helps the skin retain moisture. Many companies choose to remove glycerin from soap, because they can make more money by selling it as a separate product. Glycerin itself has a wide range of applications from cosmetics to pharmaceuticals. I have a big bottle of vegetable glycerin I use in many DIY projects.

In commercial soaps, the glycerin is usually replaced with petrochemical emollients or “moisturizers”, which is why these soaps often dry out your skin. Thus, the connection between dry skin and soap became ingrained into our culture and our perception of personal care. Soap is not inherently drying though, and handmade, or non-petroleum soaps, are actually very moisturizing and great for shaving and washing your face.

I’ve noticed the many non-toxic or “natural” soaps also have glycerin removed. I think the ingredient “sodium chloride” is how you spot this practice, especially when it’s listed in conjunction with glycerin, indicating they had to add glycerin back into the product. However, sodium chloride is sometimes used to just increase the hardness of the soap bar. Sodium chloride, or table salt, is used to separate the glycerin from the soap – but what I’ve noticed is that when salt is added for mineral or exfoliating purposes, it’s listed as salt or sea salt, not sodium chloride. My deduction is that salt referred to by its chemical name in an ingredient label indicates its use in a chemical process. With these soaps though, the replacements are plant-based moisturizers like shea butter or olive oil, so you don’t have the problem of dry skin. I don’t know why these companies do this, especially if they just add glycerin back into the product.

Soaps labeled as “glycerin soaps” are ones with significantly high glycerin content, specially designed to be moisturizing.

I would advise caution when it comes to commercially made soaps, even if they contain glycerin and saponified palm/coconut oil. Synthetic glycerin from petroleum could be used as a replacement for naturally created glycerin, and I don’t think there are requirements for labelling where it comes from. If you’re vegan, this is also an issue because many companies use a mix of vegetable and animal derived glycerin; unless the product is vegan, or is clearly made from saponified plant oils, or the glycerin is listed as vegetable glycerin, it might be difficult to tell its source.




Product decisions: BUY or DIY?

When switching away from toxic products, you can buy safer products or go the DIY route. In my years of doing both, I’ve found that some products are better suited for DIY projects and some you’re just better off buying from a company.

The determining factors that I use are product quality (how well it works), time investment to make it, and the cost of purchasing the different ingredients to make something good.

Here is, in my opinion, how different personal care items rank:

Soap: BUY

Homemade soap is awesome; my sister makes her own soap. However, there are risks with using lye, an unavoidable part of soap making, and from watching my sister make soap, there seems to be a heavy time and money investment. If you want a new hobby or a DIY project, time and money not a problem, then soap making could be a fun endeavor. However, if you just want a simple non-toxic soap to use, I suggest just buying one – there are lots of options on the market today.

Hair styling products: BUY

Some might disagree, but I feel like DIY styling products are difficult. Especially when it comes to gels, creams, and volume sprays. I like doing DIY sea salt spray, but that’s only after I got real ocean water from Hawaii. If I didn’t have that, I’d never make it myself.

Shampoo/condition: BUY

Same as above, it’s hard to get the product just right the way professionals do. DIY conditioner is great for moisture, but it’s not going to wash out fully. Professional conditioners are meant to be rinsed out without leftover residue. Same goes with shampoo unless you’re going really simple and doing an apple cider vinegar wash.

Eyeliner: BUY

I’ve done DIY eyeliner and it’s a huuuge pain in the ass! There are recipes for simple ones, but they never work. The only thing close to a good one will be with oils, beeswax, black oxide, and the right supplies. I think they have special molds you can get now, but when I did it, it was a slow and patience-testing process of dripping the mixture into an empty pencil casing. It was messy and took about 5 hours. Some of my pencils worked pretty well, but it takes time to get the recipe just right and you really need all the different ingredients and supplies to do it right. I say, just skip it and buy it unless you’re looking for a challenge and time is not a constraint!

Sunscreen: BUY

Don’t mess around with this kind of stuff, just buy it. I add oils with natural SPF to my moisturizers for everyday use, but if I’m slathering up to be in the sun (like going to the beach), I just use the professional product.

Deodorant: BUY

I guess you can make this, the ingredients are pretty simple, and there’s plenty of recipes out there. But after trying the DIY route myself, I found that buying from a company was just easier and better.

Shaving gel/soap: BUY

I found it easier to just buy something made for shaving, especially since I have sensitive skin. Homemade ones run the risk of not providing enough moisture to the area or creating an imbalanced product, leading to clogged razors and an unsmooth surface to run the blade over.

Toothpaste: BUY

Just buy it. That’s it.

Face wash: DIY or BUY

Depending on how you like to wash your face it can be fun to make a DIY project out of it or it can be easier to just buy something. I tend to be on the buying side for this one. But many people like doing the oil cleansing method. For face treatments and masques, I recommend just doing DIY. It can be fun and there’re some awesome recipes out there using household items and food.

Eye shadow: DIY or BUY

Depending on what you like, it can be fun to experiment with making your own mineral eye shadow. I’ve had difficulty getting pressed ones to come out right, but I’ve had success with creating heavy powders (with a few drops of oil). Micas and oxides are cheap, as are the other ingredients you might need, like kaolin clay or liquid glycerin. Just be careful working with loose powders – I always use a simple mask when I mix eye shadow.

Clay face masks: DIY

Clay is not expensive. It takes a little time and effort to get a smooth clay mixture, but nothing too intensive. You can customize adding oils and other ingredients depending on your needs.

Moisturizers: DIY               (lotion: BUY)

If you like simple body oils and butters, just mix your own. It’s not a huge investment to buy a few different oils and butters, and those supplies last a decent amount of time. Professional ones can be pricey for what they are sometimes, so I suggest if you do want to buy a body oil or butter, check the ingredients to ensure that you’re actually getting a product that is much more complex than anything you’d want to make at home.

One exception to the DIY recommendation is if you’re hesitant about using or investing the money in essential oils but love fragranced body moisturizers.

For lotion specifically, I recommend buying since it can be tricky to get the consistency just right and you need more ingredients.

Sugar scrubs: DIY

It’s literally just sugar and oil/butter – super easy to make and you can customize it depending on the sugar you buy and the oils/butters you want to use.


If anything is missing from this list and you’re curious my stance on it, please contact me or comment on this post!

Ditch your Baby Powder and use totally tubular Arrowroot Powder

Tubular is slang for awesome or cool, originating in Southern California during the 1970s/1980s. A Tuber is also a root vegetable. Like a potato.

I think many of us grew up with that smooth blue-tinged bottle of baby powder sitting on our bathroom shelf. It was a staple in my house, for our bums as babies, for sweaty feet, and for awkwardly chafing teenage thighs. Have you ever stopped to think about what is actually in that miracle powder? I finally did and now that bottle sits unused, shoved to the back of the closet.

The alternative? ARROWROOT POWDER! It’s amazing and it’s way better than talcum/talc powder*. Here’s the bottom line, and look below this chart for the gritty details.

Talc powder Arrowroot powder
― Mineral that is mined from ore.
― Mining damages ecosystems, and threatens wildlife like India’s tigers.
― Needs to be processed to remove asbestos and contaminants.
― May be linked to cancer if contaminated with asbestos.
― Occupational exposure increases risk of lung cancers and respiratory issues.
― Products contain toxic fillers and fragrance.
― Pro: keeps you dry and chafe-free.
― Plant based.
― Easy to grow and process.
― Simple, no extra chemicals.
― Powder is extracted using traditional low-heat methods.
― Can add your own scent with essential oils easily.
― Pro: keeps you dry and chafe-free.

Why do I love arrowroot powder so much?

It serves the same function as baby powder, but it’s simple, cheaper, and free of fragrance and toxic fillers.

Arrowroot powder is a starchy white powder extracted from the tropical plant species of Maranta arundinacea, originating from South America. Arrowroot is a tuber, similar to potatoes. Arrowroot cultivation dates back to between 8200 BCE and 5600 BCE, making it one of the oldest domesticated crops. Arrowroot plants are hardy, easy to grow, and require few external inputs to grow. From my research, it seems that plants yield a reasonable amount of final product so there is not issue with needing to plant massive crops to keep up with demand. Additionally, I could not find any information about issues concerning energy or toxic chemical use to assist in processing. On the contrary, it seems that arrowroot powder is still extracted using traditional low-heat methods, making it a pretty sustainable alternative to baby powder.

Old timey plant biology diagram of Arrowroot.

I read in a few places that sometimes arrowroot powder is combined with potato starch and marketed as simply arrowroot powder, but I’m skeptical of these claims given regulations on food labels and my inability to find concrete evidence of this practice. I will continue to look into this.

Arrowroot is used not just for personal care products, but it’s also a common replacement for cornstarch in foods (it’s gluten free). It’s a popular thickener for jams, soups, and sauces.

Where can you buy arrowroot powder? Literally everywhere! I buy mine in bulk at PCC Natural Markets, but Bob’s Red Mill makes some and their products are sold in the baking aisle of most grocery stores. You can also find it on Amazon, Vitacost, and other online stores.

Arrowroot is so much more interesting because it’s so simple:

Baby powder appeals to some people because of the fragrance, but as we learned in previous posts fragrance is something to avoid in personal care products. If you want a nice body powder with a fragrance, you can easily buy essential oils, botanical fragrance oils, and extracts to add to your arrowroot powder. You have flexibility to choose your own scent – you’re no longer constrained by the marketing gods of Johnson & Johnson!

DIY projects for all-over body powders are becoming more popular and arrowroot is a great base for these. You can add cocoa powder, cinnamon, and micas to give your powder some color or shimmer. I like adding citrus essential oils and a light silver mica to my body powder during the summer.

Then, if you’re feeling really adventurous and DIYing it up, you can even grow arrowroot plants and make your own powder! Here are a couple resources I found about this:


The problem with talc:

Talc ore is the softest mineral in the world, composed primarily of magnesium, silicon, and oxygen. As an ore, it contains asbestos. Commercially sold talcum powder is supposed to be asbestos free, but the risk of contamination is a concern. A study in 2011 found that approximately 60% of baby powder in Korea contained asbestos. Multiple agencies, including the EPA and the NTPˆ consider asbestos a known human carcinogen. That means it’s linked to cancers, primarily lung and ovarian cancer.

The cancer risk of talc powder is unclear, with many agencies suggesting that asbestos in talc is not a big concern. Maybe that’s true? I don’t know for sure, and they are still conducting tests on this issue. But, do you really love your baby powder that much to risk the possibility if there’s a perfectly good alternative?

The possible link between baby powder and ovarian cancer gained widespread media attention last year when Johnson & Johnson lost three court cases over the issue starting in 2014. Some new research indicated a link between talc-containing baby powders and ovarian cancer. The data was not 100% conclusive, but it was enough to raise suspicions and concern.

Risk of contamination was significant enough to cause the European Commission to restrict the use of talc in consumer products.

Additionally, there is concern over the ecological impact of mining and the health risk to miners and factory workers in processing plants. Talc powder is a possible occupational hazard linked to lung irritation, respiratory problems, and cancer.

Another alternative to baby powder is cornstarch. It’s simple and affordable, although corn has it’s own plethora of issues being a major industrial monocrop. Partly for those reasons, and because I just like doing the different thing, I’ve always been a huge fan of arrowroot powder.


Safety note: It’s always important to be careful when handling any loose powder that has a chance of floating all over. I use a mask when handling my mineral cosmetics and mixing powders.

*Talc has many applications, and some might be just fine, but I’m focusing specifically on personal care products here.



ˆ Denotes a term that is defined/explained under the terms/concepts/glossary page of blog. Symbol found following the word the first time it’s used in a post.

Sea Salt Texturizing Hair Spray for that Summer Beach Look

I love sea salt hair sprays – I like the crunchy, beachy, wavy texture. But, many of the products I’ve found haven’t been great ingredient wise (I do list a few good ones at the bottom though). I’ve seen a lot of formal DIY recipes online, so based on researching those and comparing with the Hippie Homemaker’s one on Etsy that I bought, I’ve created a template for how to make a great sea salt spray that can be customized based on your own preference.

My first tip for a good homemade product is to use sea salt or real ocean water if you have access to it. Table salt is pure Sodium Chloride, what we know as just “regular salt.” But sea salt, and salt water, have a lot more going on. They contain potassium, magnesium, and other trace minerals like manganese, calcium, zinc, iron, and silicon. There are also different kinds of sea salt with varying mineral compositions depending on where it’s from in the world.  Texturizing spray is not just about the salt, it’s also about the minerals and extras that help create that authentic beach babe wavy and tousled hair look.

This is the super simple DIY sea salt spray recipe that I use and will improve on later this summer:

  • Ocean water (that I brought home from Hawaii)
  • Coconut oil (unrefined)
  • Lime essential oil

This is simple, but it has the four basic components of texturizing sprays: water, salt, oils, essential oils. I mixed this in a 4 oz bottle; I think I used 1 tbsp coconut oil and a few drops of lime essential oil until it had just a hint of fragrance. Now, I’m going to expand on these ingredients to you can choose what you want to use.

Water: People recommend using distilled water, because tap water is often treated with various minerals that might change the effectiveness of the spray. Since I used ocean water, I didn’t have to think about this part.

Salt: Choose the right salt is important, as I noted above. Based on my research, it looks like lots of people use Epsom salt in combination with a finely ground Celtic sea salt, Himalayan sea salt, or a sea salt blend. Most recipes suggest using 1 Tbsp salt in 1 cup of water; the Hippie Homemaker suggests 2 tbsp Epsom and 1½ tsp Dead Sea salt (she has a recipe on her blog).

Oils: Adding an emollient of some kind is important so your hair doesn’t dry out too much. I like using coconut oil since it feels beachy and I like the scent. You can also add aloe vera gel, argan oil, vegetable glycerin, jojoba oil, or avocado oil.

Essential oils: These aren’t *essential* to the product (haha), but they add a nice fragrance and some are beneficial to hair. I like using lime because again, it’s summery and beachy to me and I love the smell! It really depends on personal preference, but I think any of these would be fitting: lavender, rosemary, grapefruit, lemon, vanilla, or orange. Just remember to check that you’re using the proper concentration for essential oils, as they shouldn’t be used undiluted.

Other ingredients: In researching other DIY recipes and store bought products, there’s other stuff you can add to give the spray a little boost. These include sugar, sea kelp extract, and Vitamin E. Some people also add conditioner, which probably acts as an emulsifying agent (since conditioner is a mix of water and oils). I’m not crazy about this idea for some inexplicable reason, but it may be a good idea if you’re having issues with ingredients separating. (This is just an educated guess, I don’t know this for a fact).

I turned to DIY recipes for sea salt sprays, because I couldn’t find one that had safe ingredients. There may be more options on the market since I last checked, since it seems like they’re gaining popularity. From my knowledge at this point, if you’re interested in just buying a spray, I suggest looking into these three products:

Herbivore Botanicals Sea Mist Texturizing Salt Spray (I haven’t used this, but ingredients look good to me)

SheaMoisture Zanzibar Marine Complex Sea Salt Texture Spray (I haven’t used this, but I generally like SheaMoisture’s products)

Hippie Homemaker Gidget’s Ocean Waves Texturizing Spray (This one I bought on Etsy and I really liked it)

You can also try looking for others on Etsy.

Side note: I found an interesting article that talks about the science behind the classic beach hair. Although she does caution against bottling your own ocean water because it will go bad quickly, which I disagree with. I took home a water bottle full of ocean water when I was in Hawaii and it survived the plane ride just fine. I’ve kept it in the fridge and it’s been good for over a year now.