How to Shop for Soap

How to shop for soap?  What do you mean how to shop for soap?  Go to the grocery store and go to the soap aisle!  Haha oh you silly non-existent nay-sayer, it’s not that easy.

First of all, most of what you find in a grocery store or drugstore “soap” aisle is going to be detergent based.  They’re cheaper and faster to manufacture with less fuss.  If you’re fine with that, fine. The rest of this article isn’t for you.

If you want soap soap, really actual real soap, you’re going to need to read ingredients.  But before that, you’re going to need eyes.  Using your eyes, look at the product.  Is it solid or liquid?  Liquid?  Probably a detergent.  Not true in all cases, don’t yell at me Dr Bronner’s fans.  You can find liquid soap, but that means the soap has been diluted in water.  If convenience is your demand, go for it.  I like concentrated block soaps.  I’ll dilute it my damn self, thankyouverymuch!


So take those big bottles of liquid cleansers and chuck them out.  Find bar soaps.  You’re probably staring vacantly at a 6-pack of Dial Gold.  Look at the ingredients.  Hm… wait a second, that’s not soap at all!  That’s a detergent bar!  Remember the slogan from my previous entry: Soap: It’s 2 Things.  Neither of those 2 things is listed.  No sodium hydroxide, no oil, NO SOAP!  Right?

Now, to be fair (and I’m editing to be fair because I felt a little guilty about skimming over this information) the ingredients list sodium tallowate and sodium coconate.  That’s another way of indicating the results of saponified tallow and coconut oil.  Yeah, it’s soap, but the addition of the remaining items in the list make it less soap and more soap-ish.  It’s soapish.

Allow me to draw your attention to one particular giveaway: sodium laureth sulfate. That right there is a foaming agent.  It literally exists to do nothing but make foam.  Sodium laureth sulfate is in tons of stuff.  It makes your shampoo bubble, it makes your toothpaste foamy and actiony feeling, it’s basically there to make you feel like the product is doing something because it gets whipped up and the sensation changes.  You don’t need sodium laureth sulfate.  It’s a mind game.  And if you see sodium laureth sulfate, you’re surely not looking at soap.

Should you care about sodium laureth sulfate?  I mean, if it’s in everything and you’ve never had a bad reaction, who cares?  You’re right, maybe you don’t need to care.  But if you’ve experienced redness or itching or discomfort in your hygiene routine you might be interested to know that sodium laureth sulfate is a common irritant.  Sensitive skinned individuals might want to experiment with eliminating it from their routines.

Okay back to the grocery aisle.  Most of these things are detergents.  Some of them might be actual factual soaps.  But wait!  There’s another pitfall.  Most large scale commercial soap manufacturers do one additional production step you should be aware of.  Let me explain.

Glycerine.  We’re all aware of the existence of glycerine soap.  Highly recommended for its soapy performance, it’s a wonderful thing.  It’s a natural humectant, which means it draws moisture to itself.  If you’re soaping up with it, the idea is that it draws moisture into itself and, by proximity, your skin.  But too much glycerine can get greedy and draw moisture out of your skin by the same proximity.

Interestingly, glycerine is created during the process of traditional soapmaking.  Natural actual factual soaps contain glycerine and possess that humectant property.  Sometimes you’ll see glycerine specifically called out as the base of artisan soaps, or a product will claim to contain more glycerine.  This is good.  Glycerine is good.  But commercial soap operations typically extract the glycerine from their end products.  That’s right, the commercially manufactured soap in your grocery store was probably robbed of its lovely glycerine.  Why?  Why would they do such a thing??  SO THEY CAN PACKAGE IT AND SELL IT AS PURE GLYCERINE SOAP!  That’s right, they make beautiful, nourishing natural soap, extract some of the good stuff, and sell the good stuff to you separately.  Buyer beware.

If you’re lucky or if you’re at a Whole Foods or a Trader Joes you might find actual factual soap crafted by small operations.  Hooray!  If not you might try a bath shop at the mall or something.  Better yet, you can shop online.  But buyer beware, soapmaking isn’t error-proof.  You need to buy from someone who can do math.  And put your skeptic cap on, because you’re about to see a lot of absurd claims.

Soap: It’s 2 things.  Make that your mantra. As you look for soaps ask yourself what each of the additional ingredients are intended to achieve.  Want help?  Why sure.  A couple of entries ago I listed one of my recipes.  Here it is again:

Ingredients: Olive Oil, Canola Oil, Coconut Oil, Lavender Tea, Sodium Hydroxide, Wildflower Honey, Grapeseed Oil, Salt, Lavender Buds, Lavender Essential Oil

To break it down again, it contains oils (olive, canola, coconut), lavender tea (the water the lye is dissolved in), honey (sugar promotes lather), salt (salt promotes hardness), lavender buds (exfoliators) and lavender essential oil (smells good).

Why three oils?  Because different oils have different saponification values and yield different results.  Blending them can give you the best of multiple worlds together in one product.  A pure olive-oil soap (castile soap) is lovely stuff, but it’s very soft.  A pure coconut oil soap lathers like the dickens but can be very drying.  I personally looked at each oil I selected and thought about what qualities it would bring to the party before finalizing my calculations.  I wanted a hard bar, so I used coconut oil and added salt.  I wanted to mitigate the drying quality of coconut oil so I added in olive and canola oil.  To make sure I didn’t kill my latherability factor I included honey to give it a boost.  Every soapmaker should consider these qualities, but educating yourself about the basic ingredients helps.

Understand that saponification is a chemical dance.  Lye likes fatty acids.  But oils aren’t simply fatty acids.  There are additional compounds suspended in the oils that give them their individual characteristics.  Compare a bottle of grapeseed oil to a bottle of hempseed oil.  Give them a sniff and a swirl.  Very different.  These other things are technically impurities.  Impurities we like, some of them very beneficial, but impurities nonetheless.  Essentially what a soapmaker is trying to do is saponify a quantity of oil and leave the impurities behind in the body of the product.  These impurities lend performance variations among the various results.

Anyway, what else is in there?  Lavender tea.  Does that really do anything?  Up for debate.  Lavender is great for your skin and promotes new skin cell growth.  However, lye heats up significantly during soapmaking and it’s unclear whether those beneficial compounds survive the chemical cook process.  Basically when you see water solutions like that on a soap ingredient list, the soapmaker is telling you, “I hope the impurities I’ve introduced to this water survive and pass along some benefit to your skin.”  I experimented quite a bit with my water.  In some cases I used diluted mango or pear nectar.  The outcome was definitely impacted and the soaps behaved differently.  The sensation of the soaps was quite pleasurable, but it would take significant scientific study to know whether any actual skin benefits resulted.

Let’s look at the last ingredient.  Essential Oil.  Note that Essential Oil is not the same thing as fragrance.  Essential oil is literally oil extracted from a source.  Lavender essential oil is oil extracted from lavender.  Smells good, man.  Fragrance oil is a synthetic chemical concoction that smells pretty.  Manufacturers are not required to report the chemical makeup of fragrances.  Soapmakers who use fragrance oils may not even know the chemical ingredients because the wholesalers they purchased them from are under no obligation to report them.  If you’re having a skin reaction to a product, look for fragrances first.  And if you’re the type to be concerned about product safety, you might note that cosmetic product activists have expressed significant concern about the potential use of unreported carcinogens in fragrances. It’s up to you to do your own research and decide where you want to land on that issue.

Some more additives to consider: Clay, silk protein, nut butters and goat’s milk.

  • Clay is a common ingredient in shaving soaps.  Clay results in a smooth, silky, rich lather. The two most commonly used clays in soap are kaolin or bentonite.  Clays are also claimed to draw impurities out of the skin, although in a soap application it seems unlikely it would remain on the skin long enough to do so.
  • Silk proteins are literally derived from pulverized silkworm cocoons.  The idea is that they impart a silky and luxurious feel to the product.  Note the word “feel.”  Silk proteins are a perception additive, like scent.  How a product feels is important, of course, but adds little to the performance or effect on your skin.
  • Nut butters like shea, cocoa and mango are dense oils expressed from pressed kernels.  They are extremely rich emollients.  That means they improve the softness, flexibility and pliability of your skin.  Their dense natures make them coat your skin and promote the retention of moisture. Typically included for superfatting purposes.
  • Goat’s milk is extremely common in soap and has been used for hundreds of years.  Goat’s milk is highly fatty with very small fat globules that make it naturally homogenized. The fat content of goat’s milk is not typically calculated for saponification and thus results in a superfatted product.  Note that goat’s milk contains naturally occurring sugar, which can scorch during the lye chemical “cook” phase, yielding an orange color.  There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just what happens when you use milk in your lye solution.  Expect it.

Nut butters and goat’s milk bring me to the last thing I want to mention: Superfatting: Superfatted soap contains more oil than the lye requires to fully saponify.  If it requires 1 part lye to saponify 1 part oil, a superfatted soap might include 1.25 parts oil, with the goal of leaving some unconverted oil suspended in the body of the final product.

Benefit to you? Some oil remains on your skin to protect it as your acid mantle regenerates.  Is this benefit real?  Absolutely, no doubt about it.  Superfatting is important to any good soap recipe to ensure you’re not totally stripped clean.  That “squeaky clean” feeling is a lack of oil.  Washing removes your natrual ooze, superfatted soap puts some back.  When nut butter or goat’s milk or other fatty ingredients are included in a soap recipe, they’re typically not calculated into the saponification equation.  The lye is calculated against the base oils, expecting the fatty acids to be completely consumed in the process, and the extra butters or fatty products are expected to remain.

Word to the wise: Superfatting should never exceed 20%.  If you find a soap that claims a superfatted value you might want to stick closer to 10-15%.  The reason is that the oil can go rancid eventually.  You want enough oil to produce desired results, but not so much that the bar can go bad.  I typically superfatted conservatively at 5%.

So that’s soap.  That’s all I have to say about it for now.  I might say more later, particularly shaving soap, but that’s enough for today.


2 responses to “How to Shop for Soap

  1. Pingback: The Art of Leg Shaving « That Thing I Like

  2. Do you have a recommendation for a good brand of pure soap for shaving? We have discovered a detergent allergy in the family and have to go completely detergent free. I am having difficulty find a pure soap shaving product. Thank you

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