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When you type the phrase “non-toxic soap” into a search engine, a lot of brands come up, including Mrs. Meyer’s. But are they non-toxic just because your search engine thinks they might be? What constitutes non-toxic soap? And what is soap to begin with?
According to the FDA, soap is a product of the process of saponification – a chemical reaction of oil and alkali. If there are other ingredients in the product, namely, synthetic detergents, we can’t consider it soap, although the label may still carry the word “soap.”
In addition to soap, there are “washes.” A wash is like “liquid soap” for washing your body or hands. This article talks about both soaps and washes.
Two types of washes
There are two types of washes on the market: saponified oil soap and washing detergents.
Saponified oil soap
Traditionally, saponified oil soap comes into being through a one-step process where lye reacts with plant oil. This kind of soap is safe for people and the environment. Depending on the actual ingredients, it has a potential to be called “non-toxic soap,” because there is nothing inherently toxic about the product itself or the way it is made.
Washing detergents contain synthetic surfactants (aka cleansing agents) that create lather. They are normally derived from either coconut oil or petroleum. Even though coconut oil sounds healthy, the derivation process consists of several steps and many other chemicals get added along the way.
The surfactants that you can come across more frequently are cocamide DEA and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). You can learn more about them here. Unfortunately, the health data on surfactants in general are not enough to determine whether they are safe or harmful.
Characteristics of non-toxic soap
So far, we have discovered one important characteristic of non-toxic soap – simple ingredients, namely oil and alkali, that join in the process of saponification.
Another characteristic of non-toxic soap is the absence of synthetic fragrance.
Fragrance as an ingredient
The word “fragrance” on a list of ingredients is tricky because it is usually not just one ingredient. Rather, it is a whole mix of various components which the manufacturer chooses not to disclose to the consumer. Do you know how many ingredients may create one aroma mix? About 4,000!
The sad part is that many of them are chemicals linked to allergic reactions, endocrine disruption, and even cancer. The Skin Deep database powered by the Environmental Working Group rates fragrance at 8 (10 being the most toxic). You can read more about fragrances here.
What about “natural” fragrance in non-toxic soap?
The first thing to remember is that according to the International Fragrance Association (IFRA), there is no official definition for the term “natural” in the fragrance industry (source). Another thing to know is what so-called “natural scents” are made of.
To make a natural scent compound, chemists extract a single scent compound from the whole plant and call it an “isolate.” The Environmental Working Group rates isolates (e.g., geraniol, linalool, benzyl benzoate, and limonene) between 5 and 7 on a 10 point scale, where 10 indicates the highest degree of toxicity.
Interestingly enough, it seems unimportant if these isolates are plant-derived or synthetically produced in a lab. Regardless of the origin, they may increase the risk of allergic reactions.
What about fragrance made of essential oils in non-toxic soap?
If you prefer scented soap, make certain the fragrance consists of 100% essential oils and nothing else. Essential oils have powerful healing properties. However, some people can still have allergic reactions to them when used in high concentration amounts (source). In my Shampoo Rating List, I marked 100% essential oil blends as 1 (on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being the safest).
Thus, we can draw a conclusion that non-toxic soap is the soap that is made from oil and lye and has no synthetic fragrance.
Is Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap non-toxic soap?
Mrs. Meyer’s products are an example of hand washing detergents, which are not true soap because they are not made by the process of saponification. First, Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap has three surfactants: cocamidopyl hydroxysultaine, sodium methyl 2-sufolaurate, and disodium 2-sulfolaurate.
Second, Mrs. Meyer’s states that their fragrance is a “mixture of high-quality essential oils and safe synthetic fragrance ingredients.” Hmm… How can we be sure of the safety of their synthetic ingredients when they do not even name the ingredients?
While Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Hand Soap is one of the better hand washing detergents, we definitely cannot call it soap, and even more so, non-toxic soap. You can read more about this product and its ingredients here.
Where to find non-toxic soap?
To find non-toxic soap, let’s go back in time. The first soap makers simply used olive oil, lye, and water. We call this type of soap “castile” soap, because it originated in the Castile region of Spain. People with sensitive and problematic skin and newborn babies can benefit from castile soap. You can learn about it here.
My suggestions about non-toxic soap
See below some recommendations for you of non-toxic soap. I must say that while I think true soap is safe, I personally prefer bar soap. You can learn more about why I prefer bar soap to liquid soap here.
If you choose to try bar soap, remember to get a soap dish that drains water well to prevent your soap from getting soggy. We’d tried a few different soap dishes before we found this one that we like a lot. (If your soap remains soggy, try emptying the water underneath soap; even if the soap is not sitting in water, it can get “soggy” by its proximity to water, which creates a very humid environment as the water evaporates.)
My recommendations for non-toxic soap
MamaSuds sells liquid castile soap. You can buy it on www.mamasuds.com with the coupon IRLFY10 and you will receive 10% off storewide.
Dr. Bronner’s soap (made with organic ingredients, sold in many health food stores)
By Valenti sells bar soap (no palm oil is used, made with organic ingredients)
Meliora Cleans Better (no palm oil is used, this is my favorite soap right now because it does not get soggy, is not drying for the skin, and lathers well)
Conclusion about non-toxic soap
I don’t get tired of reminding my readers of the importance of reading labels. It is crucial that we as consumers make our purchasing decisions not based on hype and advertisement but on a clear understanding of what exactly we are putting on our skin.
I believe that next time you pick up a bottle of liquid soap, you will easily determine whether it is non-toxic soap by taking a quick look at the short list of ingredients. And no one will be able to dupe you.
Your Superpower To Read Ingredients
Imagine looking at the ingredients of any shampoo, conditioner, lotion, or cream and in a matter of seconds being able to decide if it is safe to use!
With this easy unprecendented method, you will be able to spot potentially harmful personal care or skincare products that may cause irritation, an allergic reaction, or increase the risk of endocrine disruption or cancer.