The horror! Your avergae bar of soap is more harmful than you think. What are you being exposed to? Us? We are soap. Real soap. Them? They are actually detergent. So what is the difference?
One of the major controversies of the cleaning world is soap vs detergents. Both sides like to make blanket statements like soap is drying, or detergents are toxic and irritating. So which side is right? What should you use? As always it’s important to know what all the facts before you decide. Let’s start with a little history on each.
Soap has been around for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years, and is formed by the mixing of a fat (it could be animal fat or vegetable oil) with a caustic soda (lye or potassium hydroxide). The chemical reaction that occurs is called “saponification” and results in soap.
Detergents or surfactants on the other hand were introduced around the late 1930’s early 1940’s. During World War I there was a shortage of fats needed for creating cleaning products because many of the fats were being used to manufacture nitro-glycerin for explosives. Fast forward to World War II when the shortages were fast becoming an issue for the average population. There was a need for a cheap, easily manufactured, synthetic cleanser (necessity is the mother of invention) and detergents were introduced to the world. Being a chemical compound detergents can take on many different forms, the most recognizable and widely used is sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). It is created by reacting cholorosulfuric acid or sulfur trioxide gas with lauryl alcohol (a fatty alcohol), it is then processed again for neutralization by adding sodium hydroxide. The end product is then heated and reprocessed again and again (roughly 10-15 times) with other compounds to ultimately derive sodium lauryl sulfate.
Okay, with that out of the way let’s explore how you can differentiate between soap and detergent when you purchase an off the shelf product. It can be tough trying to determine if you’re buying a true soap or a detergent as detergents often times are packaged like soaps. Both soaps and detergents can be liquids or solids. One way to tell is how the product labels itself. Legally detergents cannot call themselves soap so on the packaging it will say “beauty bar”, “cleansing bar”, “facial bar”, or “body bar”. Reading the ingredients can also help you determine what you’re buying. If the label contains a list of chemicals, including common ones like cocomidopropyl betaine or sodium laureth sulfate, it is a detergent. If the ingredients list oils and saponified oils, it is soap.
Now comes the million dollar question- which is better for you? I was able to gain some perspective on how each one impacts us with the indirect help of my canine crew.
We have the privilege of being owned by four feisty canines. Two French bulldogs who think they’re comedians, an ninety pound Olde English Bulldog that thinks he’s a Chihuahua and a bossy three pound Chihuahua that thinks she’s a bulldog. As you can imagine with all of those drooly jowls and muddy feet we wash our hands a lot in our house. We have always used natural bar soap, but it can be messy with the frequency that we wash our hands, so we’re constantly on the lookout for a good liquid wash that we can put in a pump. A couple of years ago we noticed that a popular brand of hand wash had come out with a moisturizing formula. We purchased a few to put in our bathrooms. After a couple of days what started out as a slight itch in the palm of my hand became an all-consuming itchy dryness that came up to my wrist, and my cuticles were also getting dried and cracked. It felt like I had a face lift done on my hands, everything was stretched tight and taut. At first I blamed the added use of the heater as it was winter, so I increased my use of lotion after washing my hands. When my husband and other members of my family started complaining and lotion consumption had reached new highs I realized that it was a bigger problem than I had first thought. We all sat down and figured out the only thing that had changed in our regimen was the switch from natural bar soap to the hand wash. After a little research we realized that although the hand wash was marketed as moisturizing it was a detergent and it was drying out our skin. Once we switched back to the natural bar soap, within a couple of days of adjustment, lotion use returned to regular levels and the itchy redness stopped.
Based on that one experience it would seem that I would tell you that soap is gentler than detergent. But unfortunately the answer’s not that simple.
Fast forward to six months later, as a much savvier consumer and budding soapmaker, we were still on the hunt for a liquid wash that would help us simplify the fight against slobbery (although well intentioned)hands. Seeing an organic Castile liquid soap we were ecstatic and eagerly purchased it. We meticulously filled up each of our pump dispensers and celebrated the fact that we could have the best of both worlds- natural soap in liquid form! Unfortunately after the first wash we were discouraged, our hands were bow string tight, and I was sure if we had the use of a microscope we could actually see the fissures and cracks starting in our skin.
So that brings us to the cross roads once again. Soap or detergent? Which one is better for your skin?
The answer unfortunately is not black and white. What really determines how gentle a cleanser is lies in the ingredients and the formulation. While soap is definitely the more natural and tried and true product it is important to carefully scrutinize the ingredients that go into soap you’re choosing. Vegetable oil based soaps (such as coconut, palm, safflower, and olive) are gentler and tend not to clog pores. Animal fat soaps are cheaper to produce and tend to produce a harsher and harder soap (Dial soaps are made from animal fat sourced from commercial rendering plants). Soaps that use “super fatting” formulas will also be gentler and more moisturizing. Another ingredient that helps with the mildness and moisturizing effect in soap is added glycerin. Glycerin is a by-product of saponification and most natural soaps retain all of its glycerin, while many commercial soapmakers remove the glycerin and sell it lotion makers or other industries, reducing the positive effects it normally would have in soap. Soaps with added glycerin and oils tend to be on the softer side, and although they may not last as long as a commercial soap, the benefits outweigh the slight downside.
There are detergents that are gentle as well. While some of the more questionable detergents that you may have heard of, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) being the most famous, have been proven to be detrimental to your health, there is one that is gentle on skin and is derived from corn sugars- decyl polyglucose. There are times in the development of products where the versatility of a detergent is useful, in those cases decyl polyglucose is the only detergent that we would consider.
Hopefully we’ve been able to give you some insight on the soap vs detergent dilemma. Just remember which ever you chose to use, pay attention to the process and the ingredients that go into each product. The health and happiness of your skin will let you know you’re going in the right direction.