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Handcrafted Soap vs. Commercial

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At a time not so long ago, I was completely ignorant to the handcrafted soap industry.  If I ever came across an artisan bar of soap I’d wonder why it costs more than commercial and what the differences were.  Now full of “knowledge” and passion I would like to share what I’ve learned.

It all started with goats.  Yep my love of handcrafted soap started with goats.  Let me just say I don’t have goats, I want them but don’t actually have them.  At the time, in my search of all things goats I wondered what I could do with the extra goat milk of my imaginative goats.  Then I read about goat’s milk soap. 

Handmade soap varieties
Handmade soaps

In my research I was amazed at the process of how to make soap from scratch.  The more I read the more I thought “I can do this.”  Then the question became but “why do I want to do this?”  I knew then that I needed to look up ingredients and get to the bottom of what they were.

Commercial Soap Ingredients

Prior to my handcrafted soap love, I pretty much was a Dove soap girl.  I never suffered from overly dry or oily skin but I was under the impression that Dove was a better product to use.

I read over every ingredient listed in Dove’s fragrance free bar and did a quick google search of what each one was.  By the way the fact that I had to google every ingredient should say something alone because the average person has no idea what these chemically names are.  Here’s what I found:

  • Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate-A surfactant used to break down the dirt on your skin which acts as an detergent.  Surfactant- surface active agent.
  • Stearic Acid-Saturated fatty acid that comes from animal fats, vegetable fats and oils.  Creates that hard bar of soap.
  • Sodium Tallowate or Sodium Palmitate-Surfactant cleansing agent-The saponification of sheep and or cattle fat with lye creates sodium tallowate.  Saponificaton of palm oil is sodium palmitate.  Salts and fats that create a cleansing agent much like in traditional soaping.
  • Lauric Acid-A saturdated fatty chain acid that is derived from coconut or palm oils.  Helps cleanses skin.
  • Sodium Isethionate-A sodium salt derived from isethionate acid.  Used a skin conditioning agent.
  • Water– I know finally an ingredient you recognize!
  • Sodium Stearate-A sodium salt derived from stearate acid-I’m seeing a pattern here.  It’s an emulsifier-thickening agent- sourced from a variety of products but mainly from coconut and palm oils.  
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine-A surfactant made from coconut oil and dimethylaminopropylamine.  Abbreviated CAPB, it was named allergen of the year in 2004 due to it’s association to skin irritations.
  • Sodium Cocoate or Sodium Palm Kernelate-Both a surfactant cleansing agent derived from taking the fatty acids of palm oil and coconut oil and mixing with sodium hydroxide.
  • Sodium Chloride-A binding agent, one part salt one part chloride.
  • Tetrasodium Edta-A preservative that is the combination of a few questionable compounds, such as formaldehyde.  It prevents mold growth and allows the bar to have better lather.
  • Tetrasodium Etidronate– The same as the above mentioned chemical, another preservative.
  • Maltol-A naturally occurring organic compound used a flavor enhancer/sweetener; Say what? A natural ingredient in Dove soap?!  Well lets not get too excited it is next to last on the ingredient list and has no purpose for your skin.
  • Titanium Dioxide-A synthesized white powder that gives the soap it’s white complexion.  Hmm wait the creamy white color doesn’t come from it’s 1/4 moisturizing cream claim?

In fact I’m confused as to what ingredient actually contributes to Dove’s “1/4 moisturizing cream” claim.  Maybe lauritc acid because it’s derived from coconut oil but that could be a stretch.  Nonetheless, what I see is a very extensive list of chemicals that has no place in soap.

This example is derived from Dove’s fragrance free bar but should you choose a soap with a scent, this adds another few hundred or so ingredients.  Fragrances are made up of many chemicals including phthalates.  Due to federal trade laws, companies do not have to disclose their fragrance ingredients to the consumer.  

Phthalates are a gray area because there are those who believe they are cancer causing, hormone alternating chemicals.  Truth be told, there’s just not a lot of evidence to prove these points.  According to the FDA, “It’s not clear what effect, if any, phthalates have on human health.”  As a personal choice, these answers just aren’t good enough.

Natural Soap Ingredients

According to the FDA, soap is the combination of fatty acids found in oils and an alkaline, such as lye.  Without the two you cannot have true soap.  Here’s a direct quote from the FDA’s website: “Today there are very few true soaps on the market. Most body cleansers, both liquid and solid, are actually synthetic detergent products.”

Handmade soap

In natural soap, soapers use lye and combine it with water, milk, or another base to easily saponify the oils.  There are a variety of oils and butters to use, so let’s talk about a few of them.

  • Olive oil-Used in many soap recipes, adds hardness to the bar.
  • Coconut oil-Used in most if not all soaping recipes, cleansing oil that has great lather.
  • Almond oil-An emollient oil that can be added for dry skin; rich in Vitamins E and A.
  • Avocado oil-Skin softener, has vitamins A, D, B1, B2.
  • Shea butter–Moisturizes skin, good for scars.  Adds some hardness to soap.
  • Cocoa butter-Add hardness to soap, creamy lather and nourishes skin.
  • Castor oil-Excellent choice to add lather to soap.
  • Jojoba oil- Called an oil but really a wax that conditions hair and skin well due to it’s natural sebum content.
  • Sunflower oil-Has vitamins A, E and D, and makes for a silky lather.

This is not an exclusive list of soaping oils and butters but this gives you an idea of the type of materials used and why.  In comparison to commercial soap, the ingredients in handmade soap are added for both skin nourishment and to add a positive characteristic to the finished soap product.

Why are commercial soaps made so differently than handmade?

You probably guessed this one, cost.  The fact is to make truly handmade soap it costs way more money than the commercially produced products.  Oils and butters can be quite costly not to mention the essentials oils used to scent the handmade soaps.

The commercially known soap we have today was introduced in WWI to compensate for the decreased in fat supply.  The discovery of synthetic detergents lead to a more efficient production time of soaps.  Mass production often comes with the price of reduced quality.

Mass produced synthetic detergents

Another fact to realize, glycerin a natural byproduct of handmade soap is removed from commercial soaps to place into other products.  Glycerin is a natural emollient which is beneficial to the skin.

Where to Purchase Handmade Soap

You can find handmade soap in many marketplaces these days.  From Amazon to good old fashion farmers markets, handmade soap can be easily found.  Prices of handmade soap can range from $4-$10 a bar, depending on size and ingredients.

Just like any product, you should always refer to the ingredient list to ensure you are buying a quality item.  We must be our own advocates for products that we intend to use on our most precious and largest organ, our skin.

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