What is Soap and Are You Using the Real Thing?

What-is-soapIt’s safe to say that cleanliness is very important to us. So important, that in 2016, Americans alone spent over 4.2 billion dollars on shower gels, body washes, and bar soap. This kind of popularity makes marketing companies go wild, making the stroll down the skin and beauty aisle of the drugstore store seem a little overwhelming. Pretty packaging filled with bar soaps, body washes, and shower gels all compete for your attention and your hard earned dollar.  

Many people have strong opinions on the bar vs. liquid debate. The stuff in a bottle can seem safer than the bar, due to the idea of fewer germs and the added convenience. But the subject of soap isn’t just a clean issue; it’s an environmental issue as well. Let’s dig in and find the out the differences between bar soap and body wash and how they affect our bodies and our ecosystem.


Differences Between Soap and Body Wash 

Some people believe the bar transfers germs and bacteria from person to person, but studies show that washing with contaminated bar soap is unlikely to transfer bacteria. The CDC nor the Mayo Clinic make any distinction between bar and liquid soap and recommend using either to protect against germs.

Soap, which is technically a salt, is produced by a chemical process called saponification. In this process, alkali and lye are used to hydrolyze natural animal or vegetable fats which result in a combination of soap, water and glycerin called neat soap. A drying process turns the neat soap into pellets, which are then mixed with fragrances and colors, which are further refined, extruded and cut into bars. True soap can come in liquid form but check the label; if the word soap does not appear in the ingredients, then what you’re washing with is actually a synthetic detergent.

Detergents themselves are highly specialized cleaning agents that can dry out skin and hair, so every product you buy is really a specialized cocktail designed to target any number of needs. For example, in shampoo, it’s detergent that actually cleans the hair, but added ingredients soften, shine and moisturize. Similarly, body wash products often contain extra moisturizers because plain soap or detergents can be drying. Most commercial body washes and gels don’t contain any soap at all.


Production and Environmental Factors

A 2009 study on the environmental impacts of soap, it's packaging, and its production found that bar soaps have a lower environmental impact than liquid soaps in categories including carbon footprint, ecotoxicity, ozone depletion potential, and eutrophication potential.

It requires about five times more energy to produce liquid detergents then it does to create bars of soap. Then there’s the packaging. The humble bar of soap typically comes in paper packaging, which easily breaks down and biodegrades as where body soaps and gels come in bulky plastic containers which can take up to 450 years to decompose. Cut down on plastic waste by reusing the soap container or recycling with your favorite agency.

Soap comes with environmental caveats of its own. The study also found that bar soap has a larger impact on land than that of liquid soap. Ingredients in bar soaps are often derived from the vegetable oils of farmed crops and agriculture has a significant environmental impact.

Curious about how your favorite soap stacks up? Check out the Environmental Working Group to review data in toxicity and regulatory databases, government and health agency assessments and the open scientific literature on the products you use regularly.


What happens when soaps and detergents go down the drain?

The environmental impact of soaps and detergents doesn’t end once they’re produced and distributed. Once we finally have the bottles in our bathrooms, we tend to use much more of it - about seven times more than needed, per use. The chemicals and ingredients of all of these products eventually make their way down the drain and into the water stream.  

Detergents are usually petroleum-based and often include chemicals such as parabens, preservatives, surfactants, and phthalates. Detergents lower the surface tension of the water and can have a poisonous effect on all types of aquatic life when present in sufficient quantities, including biodegradable detergents. All detergents can destroy the external mucus layers that protect fish from bacteria and parasites, as well as cause damage to the gills. Most fish will die when detergent concentrations approach 15 parts per million, though concentrations as low as 5 ppm will kill fish eggs. Surfactant detergents are also implicated in decreasing the breeding ability of aquatic organisms.

Antibacterial soaps and detergents pose a further risk with ingredients like triclosan. Even small quantities of the chemical can persist after treatment at sewage plants, and as a result, USGS surveys have frequently detected it in streams and other bodies of water where it can disrupt algae’s ability to perform photosynthesis.

In 2014 the FDA issued a recommendation that the use of antibacterial hand soaps and washes was no more effective than using regular soap and water. As mentioned in the announcement, 42 years of FDA research and countless independent studies produced no evidence that triclosan provides any health benefits as compared to traditional soap.

Once armed with the knowledge of soap and body washes environmental impact and unique chemical makeup, it really all comes down to personal preference. Both soaps and detergents affect the environment and your body.

Tell us about your favorite products and why you love them!


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