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Last updated on May 17th, 2019
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.
- Saponified plant oils (e.g. olive oil, coconut oil, castor oil), sodium hydroxide
- Saponified plant oils
- Plant oils, sodium hydroxide
- Sodium ____-ate (e.g. sodium cocoate, which means saponified coconut oil)
- 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.
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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