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.




Tips for Evaluating Product Safety & Reading Ingredient Labels

Reading ingredient labels is an essential part of switching to non-toxic products. You have to be careful to not make assumptions that a product is safe based on its label claims, like “all natural” or “dermatologist recommended”. That does not necessarily guarantee a product is safe. Here are a few tips that I found to be helpful in making decisions about products:

  • Scan the bottle first. What you’re looking for:
    • Are there any certifications on the product? USDA, leaping bunny, Oregon Tilth, etc… (I’ll do a blog post on these at some point)
    • Does it tout “all natural” or something to that effect and have no apparent evidence that support this claim?
    • Face-wash specific: does it say “oil-free” – that is a bad sign
  • Scan the ingredient list. What you’re looking for:
    • How long is the ingredient list? Are ALL the active AND inactive ingredients disclosed, if applicable?
    • What are the first five ingredients?
    • Are ingredients labeled organic?
    • Do you recognize the ingredient names as plants or fruits?
  • Learn the basic toxic chemicals to avoid and what is normal to expect in different products (like a lotion is usually a mix of water and a bunch of oils; shampoo will have some kind of foaming agent or soap in it)

I have discovered, after years of looking at different ingredient lists, that there are patterns to the words that are usually the toxic ingredients. There are similarities that you can use in your initial assessment to determine if an ingredient is worth a second look. These are some of the things that catch my eye when I scan a list of ingredients:

  • Words or parts of words: e.g., Butyl, propyl, methyl, lauryl, -ic, –ene, -ate, carbomer, petrolatum, paraffin
  • Numbers:  e.g., 1,4- or -120
  • Capitalized abbreviations: e.g., PEG, EDTA
  • Numerical prefixes or parts: e.g., penta, poly, deca, abbreviations (like EDTA),
  • Artificial dyes: (colors with numbers or the word “lake”) e.g., red 40
  • Fragrance or parfum (unless from essential oils or botanicals)

This image below nicely lays out how to identify petrochemicals in your products. I got this from a Canadian company called Cocoon Apothecary.  

Remember that this is a constant process, and even I continually agonize over comparing products, determining safety of ingredients, and sometimes fail to catch that one little deal-breaking chemical in the long ingredient list of a product. My bottom line recommendation is just be patient, take a few minutes to look carefully at products, and don’t be too disheartened if you think a product is safe and then find out it probably isn’t.

Other resources: