The Dirt On Hand Soap

We use it on a daily basis (or should), yet how many understand what exactly is in it?

The reason for this post is that this year we decided to evaluate our soap needs, and try to stay away from animal products. And in doing so, I learned a bit more about how soap is made. The result has changed my soap purchasing forever – and if you think I’m being overly dramatic, think again after you’ve read this…

At its simplest, soap is a molecule that is oil-attractive at one end, and water-attractive at the other – so using it, we can combine water and oil (sorta) allowing us to wash away both – a rare case of oil and water mixing…

This magic happens when fats are combined with sodium hydroxide (lye). Nothing else is necessary, although typically colors and aromas are added, and of course, fancier versions are possible by using fancier oils (coconut, olive, etc.)

At its simplest, soap is a balance of lye and fats/oils. Too much lye in the soap is caustic, which is dangerous. So soap makers err on the side of too much fat, which means not all fats are consumed in the chemical reaction.

Sometimes this is great. Called superfatting, a recipe might deliberately have way too much oil so some of it remains to provide a richer experience. But even at its simplest, some of the original fats will remain in a soap recipe for safety.

But what if that fat is animal based?

  • Animal lard or tallow is a traditional way to make soap – no problem, unless you’re a vegetarian. Then the idea of rubbing animal fat on your skin that you wouldn’t put in your mouth seems a bit hypocritical.
  • Even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, the quality of the lard leaves much to be desired. After all, if the lard is high quality, why wouldn’t it be sold to restaurants like McDonald’s? Although I have no proof, it seems to me that the lard that makes its way to soaps is unlikely to be the ‘top drawer’ animal fat.
  • Finally, even if I’m wrong, and it’s the best animal fat possible, it’s still rubbing animal fat into your skin.

Of course, this may not worry most people, which is fine. But it worried me, so we made some changes. In the end, rather than making my own, we experimented with Method brand soap (which advertised being environmentally friendly and non-animal) for hands at the sink, and vegetable-based oil soaps for showering. And while it’s not scientific, I believe the result has been cleaner and better-smelling skin after a wash.

Another interesting fact: We are actually using less soap. It turns out those soaps that float in water do so because they entrain a lot of air in the mix – so you’re actually paying for less soap. In contrast, the dense blocks of soap we’ve been buying last a lot longer, which means that while at first they are much more expensive, in the end it’s much closer to equal (not that price is the deciding factor – now that we are limiting ourselves to vegetable-based soaps, Gwen has found a specialty soap that is so good we order it over the Internet – called Hint of Mint, it includes Oil of Peppermint, as well as Peppermint leaf – and smells radically better than the ‘peppermint’ we get in most commercial products).

So please take a moment to consider that the average bar of soap is part lard. It may not make a difference to you, but it it does, consider a better bar. I firmly believe the quality of food we put into our bodies affects us a great deal – and the quality of what gets in via our skin can have an effect as well…

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