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Natural Bar Soap – The Mystery Revealed

Written by Irina Webb

Natural Bar Soap - The Mystery Revealed A photo of a white coffee cup filled with beans. There is a green soap bar on top of the cup and a green pear on the left.One of my blog readers said that she wanted to buy a nice soap without harmful chemicals, but she did not know how to look for it because ingredients were too confusing.  “What do I type into Google?” She asked. “Natural bar soap?  Hand-made soap?  Organic soap?”  I thought that it was time to clarify what a natural bar soap is and suggest the best options.



Reading soap ingredients can be a daunting task.  I started reading ingredients when I was pregnant.  I was so confused that I spent a lot of time researching them and following up with manufacturers.  Now, thousands of research hours later, reading labels has become my full-time occupation.  As consumers we deserve more guidance than we get from manufacturers and the government.  I’d like to think I am helping to fulfill that need.



What soap is



I started understanding soap ingredients after I had learned how soap was made.  The theory of soap making is not that complicated.  Natural bar soap is made by saponifying fat or oil with an alkali, also called lye.  The alkali or lye is typically either sodium hydroxide (for bar soap) or potassium hydroxide (for liquid soap).  Saponification is a process in which alkali diluted with water goes into reaction with animal fat or plant oil.  The end result is soap and glycerin.



Although no unreacted lye remains in the final product, soaps can’t be certified organic.  It is because alkali, or lye, without which soap does not exist is a must-have ingredient and is a chemical.



What “natural” soap is



There is no officially accepted definition of the term “natural.”  “Natural” can be pretty much everything.  Besides, “natural” does not necessarily mean good for you.  (After all, even crude oil is natural.)  However, when people say “natural soap,” I believe they mean soap that is good for the skin and healthy for you.  And that would mean soap made by the traditional process of saponification in which alkali reacts with fat or oil.



To me, a “healthy” natural bar soap means one that is made with organic plant oils and is free of artificial colorants and synthetic fragrance.



How to read natural bar soap labels



Now you can learn how to make sure that a bar soap is natural, in other words, is made by the process of saponification.  There are five ways that manufactures list the ingredients of natural bar soap.  The last method is not in compliance with the law.  But since soap makers sometimes use the last method anyway, you should know about it.  I also encourage you to contact the soap maker to verify that their bar soap is made by the process of saponification, just to be sure.  (In fact, you should contact the manufacturers of every product you are considering to buy even if you think the website is clear.  You will be surprised what you’ll find out.)



Here are the five ways manufacturers list their ingredients.



  1. Saponified plant oils (e.g. olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil), sodium hydroxide
  2. Saponified plant oils
  3. Plant oils, sodium hydroxide
  4. Sodium ____-ate (e.g. sodium cocoate, which means saponified coconut oil)
  5. Plant oils



That said, let’s look at the way several different manufacturers list the ingredients of their soaps.



Natural bar soap – castile soap



Historically, the first soap was made simply with olive oil, lye, and some water.  Castile soap is the name for this type of soap.  Olive oil is moisturizing and healing for the skin.  Castile soap is good for people with sensitive and problematic skin and for newborn babies.



The downside of true castile soap is that it doesn’t produce rich lather.  It may be considered slimy by some people, and it comes with a price tag.  To prevent sogginess, you should keep it in a well-drained soap dish after use.  This soap dish that I found after long research works best for us.



But if you want peace of mind for your newborn, or if you have dry or sensitive skin, I recommend trying this castile natural bar soap.



I found two companies that make true castile soap with organic ingredients.



By Valenti Organics



Apple Valley Natural Soap This company carries a variety of castile bar soaps.  Please know that they also carry lots of different soap bars.  Ten of them contain phthalate-free synthetic fragrance that I don’t recommend.  However, none of the castile soap bars have any synthetic fragrance, so I prefer them.



A quick guide to oils



Most natural bar soap consists of a combination of different oils.  The oils serve different purposes.  When choosing a natural bar soap, it is helpful to understand the pros and cons of the oils used in the soaps.  Here is a quick guide to oils.



Olive oil: has unique moisturizing and skin conditioning properties and produces a mild lather with minimal bubbles.



Coconut oil: produces a rich bubbly lather and hard soap.  With high amounts of coconut oil and not superfatted natural bar soap (ask the manufacturer if they superfat their bar soap), it can be drying.



Castor oil: produces a rich creamy lather and attracts moisture to the skin.  Even just a little of it in the soap will make a difference.  It also has anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anti-fungal qualities (source).  If you have heard that castor oil is toxic, please know that the ricin toxin of the castor plant does not partition into the oil (source).



Hemp seed oil: gives a light creamy and silky lather and has luxury healing and moisturizing properties.



Palm oil: is a very popular kind of oil for natural bar soap making.  It produces a rich creamy lather and hardens soap.  From an environmental standpoint, it is important to make sure that the palm oil is sustainable because of a problem with over logging of palm trees.  For more information, visit here.



Sunflower oil:  like olive oil it is moisturizing but does not produce a lot of lather.



Conclusion about natural bar soap



Here is a list of natural bar soap makers.  I picked them because of organic ingredients, no artificial colorants or fragrance.



By Valenti Organics  (there is no palm oil in their soap)



Meliora Cleans Better (There is no palm oil.  This is my favorite soap right now because it does not get soggy.  It is also moisturizing for the skin, and it lathers very well.)



Please remember that it is very important to get a soap dish that drains water well, so your soap won’t get soggy.  We had tried a few different soap dishes before we found this one that we like a lot.  And be sure to drain it daily because the higher humidity will soften your soap.



In conclusion, don’t be afraid of sodium hydroxide.  Without it, natural bar soap does not exist.  Check with the manufacturer to make sure their soap is made by the process of saponification, and they use essential oils only for the scent.  To learn why I think bar soap is better than liquid soap, please visit here.  Please let us know in the comments what your favorite natural bar soap is.



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13 thoughts on “Natural Bar Soap – The Mystery Revealed”

  1. Avatar

    Just wanted to say how much I LOVE the Sylverleaf frankincense and myrrh soap! I so enjoyed it. Thanks, you guys!

  2. Avatar

    A few points I think is important to clarify in your article.

    “The process of saponification is a process in which an alkali is added to fat or oil and the end result is soap, glycerin, and water.”
    Not quite correct. There is no water being produced during the saponification process, only glycerin. Water is necessary to dilute the sodium or potassium hydroxide and this highly alkaline mix is then added to the oils.

    Soaps cannot be certified organic, not because they contain lye, but because even if all the ingredients are certified organic, because at least 10% of lye is required to saponify the oils the count of organic ingredients would never be more than 90%. For any product to be certified organic the count of organic ingredients must be over 95%. Because of this a soap always classifies a Made with Organic ingredients by the USDA and never Organic.

  3. Avatar

    I am a soap maker and what I don’t understand is that once a soap is soponified there is no sodium hydroxide left in it ? This is leached out of the product. I leave mine for three months to be completely sure

    So technically it is 100% organic soap if you are using 100% certified organic olive oil to begin with or any other organic oil for that matter.

    I make Seabuckhorn soap which is far superior to olive oil soap and sells for $130 a bar. So at the end of the day you get what you pay for depending on your personal needs and your skins sensitivity



    1. Irina Webb

      Hi Michael: That’s a good point. Are soap makers required to disclose sodium hydroxide? As I said in the post, soap makers list ingredients differently. I had no idea that Seabuckhorn soap is so expensive. Thank you. ~Irina

    2. Avatar

      @Michael The sodium Hydroxide (lye) doesn’t get “leached out” of the final product. I’m amazed a soap maker would make such statement. When an acid (fatty acids in the oils) and a base (sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide), combine they neutralize each other and make a salt (soap). This process is called saponification.

      Whatever soap makers put in the formula, stays in the formula, or reacts within the process, whether hot, cold or any other soap making process. Depending on the formula, and soap-maker skills, or lack of, a soap could have lye left unreacted in the soap. This happens when the formula is faulty and more lye than required is added to manufacture the soap (lye-heavy) or no “superfatting” was taken into consideration for artisanal soap. Leaving a soap “to cure” only ensures the water content completely evaporates rendering a harder soap as it’s intended these soaps were made with too much water, but the lye doesn’t go away nor leaches out during the curing period. Lye can remain active for months even years if it didn’t react completely with the oils, chemistry 101. The only way to dilute or eliminate excess lye is by adding more oils and water (if necessary) during a rebatching process, but that’s an entirely different process not necessary if the soap maker knows its trade.

      As for soap been 100% organic, it cannot legally be called that. According to USDA NOP Standards, a product qualifies for organic certification IF and only IF the count of organic ingredients is 100% – meaning all ingredients used in the formula are certified organic – or 95% – meaning 95% of the ingredients in the formula are certified organic while 5% are ingredients approved by the standard. To make soap at least 10% of lye is required to saponify the oils, therefore even if all the rest of the ingredients are certified organic, the total count of organic ingredients in the final product (soap) drops to 90% not meeting USDA standards to be legally called Organic. The highest standard a soap can reach is “Made with Organic Ingredients” as per USDA NOP regulations which requires at least 70% of organic ingredients in the final product as per this standard.

      Irina, soap makers are required to either disclose sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide as the reactant followed by the list of ingredients (saponified with sodium hydroxide so and so oils), or disclose these ingredients as “saponified so and so oils” and add the sodium hydroxide on the list as we do, which you can verify on our website. The only way to make true soap is with sodium hydroxide, for solid bars, or potassium hydroxide, for liquid soap. A soap that’s not manufactured in this manner isn’t technically considered a soap, but a beauty bar or similar and it’s regulated by the FDA. A true soap, those intended for cleansing without any other claims, is regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), not by FDA, therefore a different set of rules need to be met. A soap that is also a moisturizer, cures acne or makes any other claims other than cleansing is considered a cosmetic, therefore the FDA regulations apply.

      1. Avatar

        Hi MV,

        Does MV stand for anything?

        You are very pedantic . . .

        But thank you for your very detailed and informative explanation on the subject. I’m sure my clients will be able to live with the fact that their products are at least 91% organic now that we stand, sit, or lay corrected.

        I did have it explained to me back in the ‘Ye Old’ Soap making school days that the finished product did not contain sodium hydroxide once it had been left to sit in quarantine for months before sale . . .

        So now I suppose I should go back there and demand my money back for leading me astray all these years ?

        I have noticed that there are web sites out there that also claim there is no sodium hydroxide in the finished product. Here is one I found earlier for you

        Kind regards.


        1. Avatar

          Mike. If refuting your false statements makes me “pedantic”, by all means I am pedantic, but that doesn’t make you less uninformed.

          The ‘Ye Old’ Soap making schooling is by no means the most infallible, scientific or accurate school of all times. Totally the opposite I come to find as I own one of the oldest (over 100 year old) recipes for Castile Soap which I had to “bring to better standards”. I’m the formulator behind the castile soap mentioned in the article you so graciously qualified as “not so good” compared to your “superior Seabuckhorn soap”, which I hope you’re not manufacturing using the CO2 extracted oil version?…

          Most soap makers learn the trade from someone who learn the trade from someone and so on, passing on the same bad habits with no scientific base, over and over again. One of those so called myths in soap making is the “leave a lye heavy soap to cure and the lye will go away” or as you’ve put it, “leached out”. Noting farther from the truth. The “quarantine” method’s only purpose is to allow for the water to evaporate as most artisanal soap makers use an excessive amount of water for the dilution of lye, the reason why artisanal soaps shrink after the curing period. I’m sure it would be a surprise for you to know most soap formulas (with exceptions of course) can be ready to use within 24-48 hours, with no unreacted lye or shrinkage of the soap.

          Contrary to what you were told, no amount of “curing” would remove, wash away or leach out the excess lye of a Lye-heavy soap. A lye heavy soap will have unreacted lye within the soap, freely “floating” while the one on the surface of the soap will convert to sodium carbonate commonly known as soda ash through a chemical reaction within days, both quite drying and harmful especially for babies and newborns and mucous membranes. I’ve used soaps made the artisanal way that have been left for a month “curing” that have burned my skin and my daughter’s. The only way to not have free floating lye in the soap is with a lye discount also known as superfatting. Then and only then no sodium hydroxide remains in the finished soap as per the article you’ve shared. This can only be accomplished when the formula itself is accurate.

          Organic in the US is regulated by the USDA, which I’m very familiar with as my brand was USDA Organic Certified until 2014. Calling a product Organic that doesn’t even meet the standard is ILLEGAL. If as a business owner you’re ok violating the law, then disregard what I wrote and continue doing as you wish, just don’t publicly state a product that merely contains a 91% of organic ingredients is organic, because it isn’t. One of the things the cosmetic industry has is lots of misinformation passed as absolute truths mostly for marketing purposes. Wouldn’t you agree consumers deserve transparency and the truth from manufacturers?…

          MV my a.k.a. stands for Manuela Valenti, formal psychopedagogist, chemist and formulator with over 10 years in the cosmetic industry, CEO and founder of By Valenti Organics, member of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and Champion of the EWG.

          Have a good day.

  4. Avatar

    Hello, just came across this thread.
    Castile soap needs a long cure from 6 – 12mths depending on the soaper, this makes a harder bar but lets it continue to become even gentler. Castile can also produce great natural bubble and a creamer lather.
    All soap needs to be out of streams of water or sitting in water otherwise they become soft and soggy, they need to dry out per se.
    The cost of a castile bar can vary, mine are $5 but some soapers will add more cost if they use the long curing process and the extra storage room, depends… I dont.

    Coconut oil can be drying but it depends on the skin of the user, some find a higher amount wonderful, others not so.

    As far as Natural Soap you are right there are no real guidelines, in saying that a true Natural Soap is very important to the Natural Soaper .
    So colours from plants, spices,purees and so on.
    It has to do with using ingredients that are not created in a lab but found in Nature. While we cannot control the use of lye its something we accept as part of the soap making process we cannot get away from.
    As said if a recipe is formulated correctly there is NO lye left in the final bars.
    If there is theres a problem, scales recipe ?

    Bar soap does NOT need a preserative, citric acid is added by some to bring the ph level down but it shouldnt be needed.

    Essential oils can also be used for the Traditional benefits for the skin not just scent.
    While a wash off product these oils certainly do make a difference in facial blends.

    I would put MOST well made handmade soap above any other, the soaper takes a lot of time to formulate a blend/recipe that is benefical for the skin. Its not about filler ingredients, its not about cheap ingredients either.
    Its about a great balance between ingredients, this takes time, money and a lot of hard work.
    Firstly we make soap for the love of the craft, for some of us its the way we earn our living so its not to be taken lightly.

    We want to make the very best product we can, each oil, butter or such is important, we put our name to it so it must be the very best it can be.

    On the label it can read and is correct to say – saponified oil/s of or list each ingredient, the oils, water, lye and so on in order of amount used.

    If the label does not say Soap its a detergent, its as simple as that.
    Soap making has come such a long way, very much so in the last 10yrs.

    MV has provided lots of valuable and correct info, thank-you MV for that, cheers soapmaker

      1. Avatar

        Not a true Castile Soap because it uses more than Olive Oil right? Do you have any ideas why a lot of people have an issue with it being drying on the skin? Would that be the other oils used in addition to olive oil?

        1. Irina Webb

          Yes – the true castile soap is made only with olive oil. It might be drying because there is no superfatting, meaning no free oils left in the soap. I recommend diluting it with water. ~Irina

  5. Avatar

    Hi there, thanks so much for your work, i am finding it helpful. Have you heard of The Indigenous Soap company? That is the soap i am currently using and wondered if you thought it was a good soap or not?

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