Surfactants are the chemicals responsible for the cleansing properties of a particular product. Surfactants are made of long molecules with two different ends. One end of the molecule sticks to water, while the other sticks to dirt and oil. Surfactants, as a category aren’t automatically bad for you. Soap is technically a surfactant. But you have to be careful about which surfactants you put on your body. One of the most common surfactants in personal cleansers and shampoos is sodium lauryl sulfate. Sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS, is made from coconuts, but it is contaminated with toxic byproducts when it is manufactured. SLS has been linked to skin irritation, toxicity, endocrine disruption, and cancer. Another unsettling fact about SLS and many other synthetic substances is that your body doesn’t have the enzymes to break them down, so they may accumulate in your tissues over time.
Parabens are a specific type of preservative used in a wide range of cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. More specifically they prevent growth of mold and bacteria. Paraben is actually short for “parahydroxybenzoate.” The reason we should avoid parabens is because they act like estrogen in the body. Too much estrogen can lead to breast cancer and reproductive issues. One piece of good news is that there are a lot of newer safer preservatives available, so a company that is still using parabens is really just being lazy. When inspecting labels on cosmetic products you should look out for the three most common parabens: butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. Or you can just opt for a simple, natural product such as organic soap!
Let me tell you a story about artificial fragrances. Back in the early days of Metaphor Organic, we used some of them. (Hangs head in shame.) We bought all our essential oils down the street at a little bulk herb shop, and the artificial fragrance oil was right next to the essential oils. We didn’t know any better! But the more research we did, the more we realized we should phase them out. For example, there was an artificial vanilla that we used in some of our scent blends. Then we tried to find natural vanilla, but it was very expensive and it didn’t smell very distinctly. So we wrote to the manufacturer of the artificial vanilla to try to find out what was in it, because maybe then we could justify putting it in the soap. But they wouldn’t tell us! Artificial fragrances recipes are protected as trade secrets. So maybe they are fine, but other sources report that the majority of artificial fragrances are derived from petroleum.
There is a long list of other synthetic ingredients that may be found in mass market cleansing bars, but listing them would make this article way too long. The best place to look for info on just about every additive to personal care products (and food) is the Environmental Working Group, or EWG. It’s their job to stay up to date on all the latest research on potentially harmful chemicals.
Why do companies use chemicals?
Ok, technically everything is made of chemicals, but you know what I mean. Why do large skin care companies use synthetic ingredients? For one, they’re cheaper than natural ingredients. For another, they’re easier to process and store. And finally, it’s easier to get them to produce exactly the desired result, such as super intense colors and scents. Remember that artificial vanilla we found at the herb store? It smelled like an hyper-natural BLAST of vanilla. Unfortunately, a lot of natural scents aren’t able to translate into soap. You can distill the essential oil out of a certain number of plants, mostly strong-smelling herbs, but I’ll bet that blueberry-ice-cream-scented soap is synthetic. Likewise, many flower scents are incredibly expensive to distill in their natural form, so, for example, if you want a jasmine bar of soap that costs less than $25, you have to use synthetic.
Soap that isn’t soap
As a final note on artificial soap, you might have noticed that a couple paragraphs ago I used the term “cleansing bars.” That’s because, legally, soap has to be made out of mostly oil, water, and lye. If it’s not, they have to call it something else, such as a detergent or “syndet” bar. That doesn’t mean that some companies don’t make actual soap and then put a bunch of other stuff in it. Dove soap is a great example. One ingredient is listed as “sodium tallowate,” which is just another way of saying tallow, or beef fat, that has reacted with the lye catalyst. Maybe not very delicious, but it is natural. But Dove also contains cocamidopropyl betaine, a synthetic surfactant. Likewise, Lush soap, even though we love its minimal packaging, contains SLS and parabens.
Organic soap has many other benefits
In the last part of this article, I’m going to talk about why organic soap is the best choice if you’re concerned not only about what sort of products you put on your skin, but also, the greater impacts of the production and disposal of those products. Organic soap is generally better for the environment, for animals, and for the local economy.
One reason organic soap is better for the environment is that its plant-based ingredients are grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. There is a ton of writing on why these substances are harmful so I’m just going to give a couple examples. Pesticides and artificial fertilizers can kill beneficial insects along with the ones that damage crops, they can harm other animals and plants, they can contaminate soil and water, and they can make people sick if they are exposed directly.
Another reason organic soap is better for the environment is that it breaks down easily after it is washed down the drain. Some of the ingredients that are bad for you in mass-market soap are also bad for fish and other organisms. Compounds such as parabens that mimic hormones are especially harmful, as they can disrupt these creatures’ life cycle.
Better for animals
Organic soap is better if you’re concerned about animals for a couple different reasons. For one, most organic soap is not made out of animals! There are some natural soaps that do use animal fat such as lard or tallow. If you’re looking to avoid these ingredients, check the labels, and look up the ingredients if you’re not sure. Sometimes ingredients are listed under names such as sodium lardate or sodium tallowate, which are the technical names for the free fatty acid salts that make up soap. Organic soap is also better for animals because usually, no animal testing is required. Organic soap ingredients are listed by the FDA as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, and most new recipes are simply variations on older ones.
Better for the economy
Finally, organic soap has greater social benefits beyond personal safety and the environment. Most organic soap is made in small batches by local crafters. Studies have shown that the majority of money spent in local businesses stays within the community. At farmer or crafter markets, you can buy directly from the producer and attach a face to the product. And even if they don’t sell directly at markets, usually small-batch makers are more accessible than their corporate counterparts in case you have questions or suggestions for improvement.