Raising the Bar

Soaps come clean, revealing a lather of luscious ingredient
By Nora Simmons

That bar of soap in your bathroom may seem like the safest part of your beauty regimen, but unfortunately, there may be more to this shower standby than meets the eye. Although soaps don’t normally contain parabens—one of the usual cancer-causing suspects in skincare—they can include some surprisingly toxic ingredients you don’t necessarily want to lather on your body.

Vegetarians in particular may object to animal by-products. Many conventional soaps, including Dial and Dove, contain beef tallow (listed as sodium tallowate), the rendered fat from meat processing. If the idea of scrubbing down with cow fat doesn’t turn your stomach, consider this: Chemical toxins and artificial hormones—epidemic in factory-farmed beef—get stored in that fat, meaning you might be rubbing more than beef tallow on your skin, according to Janice Shade, creator of True Soap.

And the soap scum continues: Phthalates, listed as fragrance, and triclocarban (TCC), an antibacterial agent, may interfere with the way sex hormones function; triclosan, related to TCC, is linked to thyroid dysfunction; and the potentially carcinogenic EDTA, a synthetic preservative and penetration enhancer, all could play a rather unsavory role in your daily cleansing routine.

Thankfully soap makers don’t need a single one of these ingredients to produce a good, clean bar. In fact, most conventional “soaps” aren’t soaps at all, but synthetically derived detergents that use artificial fragrance to mask their chemical odor and problematic preservatives to keep them from “going rancid,” as they say in the soap business. Real soap, on the other hand, comes from a process called saponification, which combines a fat—traditionally animal fat, but more companies now prefer vegetable oils mixed with lye (sodium hydroxide, a type of salt)—to produce glycerin. Simple soaps don’t need artificial preservatives because lye works as a natural preservative, as do essential oils. The glycerin created through saponification acts like a humectant, meaning it draws moisture from the air and binds it to the skin, that helps to preserve the skin’s acid mantel.

The dramatic sounding acid mantel is home to hordes of beneficial bacteria that protect us from infection. The bacteria in the acid mantel need a pH of about 5 (on a scale of zero to 14, zero being acidic and 14 being alkaline) to thrive. “The problem is that conventional soaps and even some natural ones tend to have a very alkaline pH—closer to 9 or 10,” explains Alan Logan, ND, coauthor of The Clear Skin Diet (Cumberland House Publishing, 2007). Just one wash with alkaline soap strips away the acid mantel for six hours. It does regenerate, but if you use these kinds of soaps every day, your skin never has a chance to repair itself. And studies show that alkaline skin pH and reduced beneficial flora may exacerbate chronic conditions like eczema.

Luckily, ingredients like goat’s milk as well as coconut, palm, and olive oils have naturally occurring acids that lower the pH of soap—bringing it closer to neutral. Not many companies advertise the pH of their soaps, but you can always call the manufacturer to ask or look for soaps with the aforementioned ingredients.

Comparison Shop
You only have to put the labels side-by-side to see the difference between conventional soap and one of our good-for-you alternatives.

True Soap
Palm oil, palm kernel oil, water, vegetable glycerine, sodium chloride (salt)

Active Ingredient: Triclocarban
Inactive Ingredients: Soap (sodium cocoate*, sodium palm kernelate*, sodium palmate*, sodium tallowate*), water, talc, coconut acid*, palm acid*, tallow acid*, palm kernel acid*, PEG-6 methyl ether, fragrance, glycerin, sorbitol, sodium chloride, pentasodium pentetate, tetrasodium etidronate, titanium dioxide

*Contains one or more of these ingredients