In my research of tear-free baby shampoos, I stumbled across something that claimed to be a USDA certified organic liquid soap sold by an online retailer. The word “organic” was not only in the name of the product (which often means absolutely nothing), but it was also in the product description. Moreover, the USDA Organic Seal appeared right on the label. I was puzzled to see that, because, as regular readers of this blog know, I had believed that it simply is not possible to create a certified organic liquid soap due to the necessity for lye.
My natural reaction was to revisit what I knew about soap as a result of my humility developed when growing up in Eastern Europe. In American society confidence is cultivated, respected, and promoted. In a capitalist society, there is no time for contemplation – money has to be made. That’s not how it was in Eastern Europe.
Anyway, on the one hand, I was pretty sure that soap, liquid or bar, can’t get a USDA organic certification because an alkali (lye), a chemical of medium toxicity, is used to make soap. Please see my “Natural Bar Soap – The Mystery Revealed” post for more detail on the soap-making process. Had something changed? Had the USDA certification requirements or the soap-making process changed? I wondered.
I first went to the manufacturer’s website. And I saw that the producer sells its products on the website directly. One of the products listed on the site was the liquid soap, but it was not advertised as being USDA certified organic. It was made with 70% certified organic ingredients though (the same ingredients), which was consistent with what I knew about soap. Why did the retailer sell the certified organic liquid soap but the manufacturer did not? I wondered.
My next step was to contact both the retailer and the manufacturer. I emailed the retailer asking them how they were able to meet the organic certification requirements. I am writing this 5 business days later and the retailer has not replied. Further, I wanted to email the manufacturer but it accepted only phone calls during business hours, so I had to wait till the next day.
In the meantime (since I had the whole night ahead of me), I decided to make sure that the USDA organic certification requirements had not changed. As soon as I typed “USDA organic certification personal care products” into Google, no news came up. Instead, thousands of soap makers came up; once I clicked on their websites, they explained USDA organic requirements and confirmed my prior understanding – that there is no such thing as a USDA certified organic liquid soap. But I, as always, wanted to go to the source. I finally found the information from the USDA itself. The USDA had the same requirements and the same four labeling categories:
- 100% organic (excluding water and salt), the USDA Organic Seal may be displayed;
- Organic: the product must contain 95% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt), the USDA Seal may be displayed;
- Made with organic ingredients: at least 70% ingredients have to be organic (excluding water and salt), the USDA Organic Seal may not be displayed but the producer may state that the product is made with at least 70% organic ingredients;
- Less than 70% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt), the word “organic” may not be displayed anywhere on the main label but the manufacturer may specify which ingredients are organic.
It is important to note here that although a personal, body care, or cosmetic product may seek and receive USDA organic certification, the FDA does not define or regulate the term “organic” as it applies to them. In other words, if you see the word “organic” or “organics” in the name of a product or on the label but do not see the USDA Organic Seal, be skeptical, as the product is most likely not organic.
Going back to the certified organic liquid soap, furthermore, I wanted to make sure that I had it right – that it is impossible to make certified organic liquid soap with 95% organic ingredients (excluding water and salt). I knew it from talking to a soap maker earlier and from knowing how soap is made. When I typed “certified organic liquid soap” into Google, a long list of various soaps came up. They were not certified organic though. “Certified organic” was just a keyword, a trick to make a person click on the link. All of them were made with 70% certified organic ingredients. In addition, I typed “certified organic bar soap” into Google and a lot of various bar soaps came up. Were they organic? No. It is a smart way to market the products. The soap makers explain that bar soap can’t be certified organic – certified organic is just a keyword.
Bubble and Bee, a blog and producer/retailer of cosmetics and personal care products, explained why they do not make certified organic soap because… it is impossible. Bubble and Bee says that if you see the USDA Organic Seal on a bar of soap, it is illegal, and if you see the USDA Organic Seal on the liquid soap, it is diluted. That made me wonder.
Subsequently, I decided to find a couple of recipes for liquid soap and do the math. Finally, my financial analyst experience came in handy. Here is a simple recipe I found on www.ourlifesimplified.com
Potassium hydroxide is an alkali that keeps soap from meeting the 95% organic requirement. When water is excluded, potassium hydroxide constitutes 16.2% of the soap (3.1/(3.2+12.8+3.1)). I checked with a couple of other recipes. They all require roughly about 20% Potassium Hydroxide to saponify the oils. Here is a math problem. How much organic aloe vera juice (one of the liquids used to dilute) do you need to add to get to the 95% organic ingredients requirement? The answer is 3.68 times more organic ingredients are needed or 42.9 more ounces. I don’t want to bore you with math, but if you are interested in the calculations, let me know in the comment section.
In the dilution, there is nothing harmful to your health; the harm is done only to your wallet. Often producers charge a premium price for the diluted soap, marketing it as mild, safe, natural, organic, and healthy. Just think about it: you can buy 32 ounces of Dr. Bronner pure castile liquid soap for $15 or the seller of the certified organic liquid soap will charge you at least $16 for 8 oz (I know that from my personal experience). Should we do the math of how much diluted soap you can make yourself from the 32 oz bottle? Yes, at least 117.8 oz. Companies add organic juice or oil to receive the organic certification, but you can use just water.
With that said, I knew that the company did not dilute the certified organic liquid soap in question because the oils listed in the ingredients, were all saponified. And no juice or other oils appeared on the list of ingredients. So by then, I knew that I was right all along – soap can’t be organic. But this did not solve the mystery of the supposedly USDA certified organic soap that started my quest.
The next day, I called the producer of the certified organic liquid soap, and asked about the certified organic product. They were vague. And I do not want to get into any legal trouble here. The company representative informed me that they do not produce or sell a certified organic liquid soap. The label I saw on the retailer’s website is old and has not been updated yet. But how were you able to obtain the USDA certification at one point? I asked. The bottom line of the conversation was that the past was in the past. To the company’s credit, they did not try to make anything up when I spoke to them.
So what conclusions should we make from this write up? First, soap can’t be organic. And it helps to be aware of that fact. Second, I am probably certifiably obsessive-compulsive about the information that goes into my posts, but from your perspective, this is a good thing. Each of my articles is thoroughly researched and re-researched.