The word “soap” is so ingrained in our everyday language that we rarely realize most of what we refer to as “soap” is actually not soap at all! Many dish soaps, laundry powder, body wash, facial cleansers, shampoo and even bar soaps are actually detergents. This is why many products we consider soap are labelled as a “wash”, “cleanser”, “gel” or “bar”. But before we compare detergents and soaps, we need to answer the question, “How does soap clean?”
As many of you know, water and oil typically don’t like each other. Water would much rather stick to other water molecules. This is why a droplet of water on a countertop stays a droplet and does not spread. Soaps act as a surfactant, which weakens the membrane holding water together and allows it to spread more easily. A surfactant molecule includes an end that is attracted to oil (described as hydrophobic) and another end attracted to water (hydrophilic), allowing oil (and dirt) to mix with water. In this sense, soap can be seen as a middle-man that brings water and oil together and gets dirt off your body.
Real soap is created from a very specific chemical process called saponification. Soap is made by mixing triglycerides (fats from either animals or plants) with an alkali (lye). The end result combines the fatty acid chains with the alkali to make crude soap, with glycerine as a natural by-product.
Detergents, on the other hand, were created during the beginning of the 20th Century, due to a shortage of natural fats and a bountiful source of petroleum. Still today, many detergents are created from petrochemicals derived from petroleum.
Detergents are made up of synthetic surfactants, combined with ingredients that preserve, brighten, foam, build, emulsify or bleach. These synthetic surfactants are intensely engineered and go through rigorous chemical processes to do the same job that soap does naturally.
When choosing body care, it’s important to pay attention to the ingredients. A little bit of research can go a long way in understanding the chemicals you are putting on your body. Detergents are overly processed and super-engineered to look, feel and behave a certain way – but not without consequence. While one ingredient may ensure your detergent does not react to hard water minerals, it may have negative consequences to the environment. Another ingredient may remove oil more effectively, but can dry out your skin in the process. Other ingredients are added to replace the moisture first ingredient removed! It seems as though each ingredient added creates another problem to solve, when all a soap really needs to do is clean. Natural soaps have little consequence to the environment as well as your health, and should be the simple, natural choice for your body – because PU. You stink.