I have recently become an organic soap convert and I’d like to share the reasons for my sudden love of organic lather.
You see, I spend a lot of time considering what I put into my body…what I feed my family. I’m familiar with the ecological and health benefits of organic food, and when it’s the sustainable choice it’s always my first choice.
However, until recently, I hadn’t really considered things that were passively entering my body – namely, through my skin. Skin is, after all, permeable and whatever you are putting on your skin, will eventually make its way into your body. This is the premise of contraceptive and nicotine patches.
So, when I came across a website the other day that has an online database that rates the toxicity level of beauty products, I suddenly started to give great consideration to my choice in suds! I looked up all my regular soap products and this is what I found out…
Deeply nourishing or deeply disturbing?
The website is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database and it’s their mission to inform consumers so that they can make choices that are safer for their own health as well as the environment. Essentially, their scientists have gone through the ingredient list for over 69,000 products and cross-referenced them with over 60 different toxicity and regulatory databases. They then use this information to rate the toxicity levels of the ingredients and provide an overall health rating to the product. They also give a category to the data ranging from limited through to robust, to give an indication of how confident they are in the rating. So here’s how my soaps rated.
Product#1 is a castile soap made with organic oils. It is not tested on animals and contains certified fair trade ingredients. It received a score of 1 – meaning it is of low health concern. This is what I expected.
Product#2 is a fair trade coconut oil based body wash. It is not tested on animals and the company supports community fair trade. It received a score of 5 – it is of moderate health concern. This surprised me. The ingredient of biggest concern was simply labelled ‘fragrance’, which carried a rating of 8 (high hazard). This is a chemical cocktail that might make us smell nice, but can also contain some nasty things that are known to cause neurotoxicity and allergies. Most importantly, the manufacturers are not required to fully label the ingredients used. Other known felons on the ingredient list included PEG-5 cocamide, which is not safe for use on injured or damaged skin and has limited evidence of sense organ toxicity. Also, benzyl benzoate, which has been associated with endocrine disruption. YIKES!
Product#3 is a body wash and according to PETA, the company does conduct animal tests. It received a score of 4 – moderate health concern. It had two high hazard ingredients, the mysterious ‘fragrance’ again and DMDM hydantoin. This latter chemical is a preservative that is a known human immune system toxicant and skin toxicant. It has a list of restrictions for use. Another YIKES!
Many of the chemicals aren’t likely to cause an issue with limited use, however, if you have a favourite soap, you are likely to be using it daily and this repeated exposure can cause you to develop an allergy and the chemicals can build up in your body (bioaccumulate) and become toxic. My feeling on this is that I’m bombarded daily with an entire suite of nasty chemicals from car exhaust to industrial cleaners and goodness knows what else. I don’t need the chemical assault on my body to begin in my morning shower.
So, with this new information under my belt, I started to do some research into organic soap.
Like food, there can be some confusion around labelling. If the product is USDA organic certified, then 95% of the ingredients are organic. However, most soap is labelled as using certified organic ingredients, or being all natural or vegan. So, like food, read the label!
Some commercially available organic soap products:
- One of my favourites (and incidentally product#1 in the story above) is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps. They use plant-based products, organic oils, and support Fair Trade. They come in a variety of herbal scents (e.g. peppermint, lavender, and tea tree depending on your preference and you can also buy large refill containers (64 oz) that help cut down on packaging.
- Nature’s Gate uses certified organic ingredients
- Kiss My Face makes a grapefruit and lemon organic soap bar.
Making your own organic soap
Of course, there’s always the option of making your own organic soap. Some of the handmade organic soap you see in markets today is positively decadent looking. In fact, I’ve been known to mistake it for fudge from a distance!
Here is a recipe that yields about 5-6 bars of soap (source).
- 5 oz. organic coconut oil
- 5 oz. organic hempseed oil
- 6 oz. organic olive oil
- 2.3 oz. lye (sodium hydroxide)
- 6 oz. water
- 0.7 oz. essential oil of choice
- Line a used shoebox, tea box or other recycled box with freezer paper or wax paper for a mold and set aside.
- Put on a pair of safety glasses and put on some gloves and be sure to wear a long sleeve shirt. It’s also best to work in a well ventilated area.
- Add the lye to the water (it will heat up). Stir it well and set the mixture aside and allow it to cool to about 110F.
- Place the oils in a heavy based stainless steel pot and turn your stove to low. Put a thermometer in the pot and don’t let the temperature exceed 120F. The oils should be a thick liquid.
- Remove from the stove and let it cool to within a few degrees of the lye mixture (110F).
- Once the two mixtures are the same temperature (within 5 degrees), add the lye mixture to the melted oils, carefully and slowly. Stir vigorously until it looks like thin pudding. A hand held stick blender will make this part go much faster as stirring by hand can take up to an hour to get it to this stage.
- Once the mixture has reached a thicker pudding consistency, you can add your essential oil(s) and blend well.
- Then pour the raw soap mixture into your mould(s) making sure it is evenly spread throughout the mold. Smooth out the top of the soap with a spatula if it’s uneven. A couple of taps of the mold on the counter will help remove any trapped air bubbles, then set it in a warm, safe place to begin its curing process. It will take about 24 hours for the soap to set before you can remove it from the mold and cut it into bars. Let it cure as bars for about 4 weeks to ensure saponification is complete.
Here’s a video that shows this basic process and has a few additional tips.
You may have noticed a couple of comments regarding the use of lye in organic soap. Yes, it’s caustic, but it’s necessary in the chemical reaction to produce soap. After the bars have cured and saponification is complete, no lye remains. You can obtain lye for soap making and if you are going to endeavour to make a liquid organic soap, you will likely use potassium hydroxide rather than sodium hydroxide.
You have to be cautious with soap making as you are using lye, which can cause serious burns. So, be sure to do some thorough reading before diving into this new hobby. A good introductory book, which provides an overview of the process, some recipes to get you started and interviews with soap makers, is Elin Criswell’sCreative Soap Making. For those who aren’t entirely new to soap making, Susan Miller Cavitch’s The Soapmaker’s Companion is a very comprehensive book with important sections on natural colorants and troubleshooting as well as soap making chemistry.
Making your own organic soap can be fun and creative, with the added benefit that you are making something that your family can use. Who knows, if you have a talent and passion for it, you could turn it into an eco-friendly business!