Decoding the “Natural” Ingredients in Soap: Are They Safe?
It’s no secret. Ingredient lists can be complicated and hard to understand! Many people often don't know what's toxic vs what's just a scientific name for a healthy ingredient. Terminology around “natural” ingredients is loose and it seems that anything that comes from some part of nature (which would be almost everything!) can be “naturally derived”.
Here’s a scenario for you to consider:
You’re walking down the soap isle at your favorite store. There are dozens of brands to choose from and each one claims to be natural, organic, or “derived from nature.” You pick one up, read the soap ingredients list, and can’t pronounce a single word. Do you buy this “natural” soap?
Ingredient lists can be complicated, to say the least. Most people can’t determine what’s actually natural, which means they don’t know what’s toxic and bad for their skin either. Let’s take a look at some commonly misunderstood natural ingredients as well as their toxic counterparts to avoid.
🛈 Fact: The European Union has banned more than 1,300 chemicals from being used in beauty products while the US has only banned about 30. (source)
Common Toxic Ingredients Found in “Natural” Products
Here are some of the most common not-so-natural ingredients to look for:
Propylene glycol is a petroleum-based additive that is commonly used in low-quality cosmetic products. It’s also used in antifreeze. (One of these two is not like the other…)
Propylene glycol is primarily used in products for the purposes of extending the shelf life by preventing bacterial buildup and increasing the amount of moisture in the skin.
While it’s deemed as generally safe by the FDA, it’s still an ingredient that should be avoided if you can help it. The problem is that it can be tricky to spot because there are almost two dozen ways to list it on the ingredient label! (source)
Here are the most common ways to list propylene glycol:
- Propane 1,2-diol
- Methyl ethyl glycol
- Rimethyl glycol
Commonly used in sunscreens for its UV rays-blocking benefits, titanium dioxide is also found in soaps, lotions, and other cosmetics.
It’s recently come under fire as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has found titanium dioxide to be potentially carcinogenic or cancer-causing to humans.
Phenoxyethanol is a common toxic preservative that is used in many lotions and cosmetic products to extend shelf life and avoid spoilage.
Similar to propylene glycol, this ingredient can be listed in several ways on labels:
- Phenoxyethyl alcohol
- Beta-hydroxyethyl phenyl ether
- Ethylene glycol monophenyl ether
Is It Really Natural?
You know the good and the bad, but these next two ingredients don’t fit neatly into either category. These ingredients can be good but if low-quality versions of them are used, they can be bad for your skin.
Sourcing is key but rarely ever mentioned on labels, especially when the company doesn’t want you to know. Genetically modified ingredients are everywhere and it’s important to be able to identify these as well.
While this might sound plant-based and wholesome, “vegetable oils” is a generic term that is used to refer to soybean, corn, or canola oil - all of which are usually genetically modified.
A vegetable oil like virgin olive oil, for example, would be an example of a healthy and safe vegetable oil to use.
🛈 What about products that have the “Certified Organic” label? A USDA spokeswoman, Joan Shaffer, stated that people “…Should not interpret even the USDA Organic seal or any organic seal of approval on cosmetics as proof of health benefits or of efficacy. The National Organic Program is a marketing program, not a safety program. [Chocolate cake] may be [natural and/or organic] but that has no bearing on whether it is safe or nutritious to eat”.
Glycerin is a byproduct of the saponification process in soap-making. This byproduct is usually skimmed off the top and used as an additive in creams and lotions to provide extra moisture.
While glycerin can be good for your skin, it all depends on the oils and liquids that were used during soap making.
If low-grade GMO vegetable oils were used like soybean oil and GMO corn oil, this isn’t going to help your skin health the way that it should.
Don’t be shy. Ask the brand you’re using where they source their glycerin. If the glycerin is sourced from organic coconut oil, like it is in our goat milk lotion, you can rest assured you’re using a high-quality product.
Commonly Misunderstood “Natural” Ingredients
Now that you know a few not-so-natural ingredients to avoid, it’s time to review the natural ingredients that are actually all-natural and safe to use.
Believe it or not, there are completely natural soaps that have ingredient lists that look like they were pulled from an advanced chemistry textbook. The trick is to know which of those scientific names are good for your skin.
A natural food preservative, potassium sorbate is also found in cosmetic products such as shampoo, make-up, and soap. It’s placed in cosmetic products as a way to prevent the development of bacteria and mold.
There are studies that show that potassium sorbate is considered generally safe when used appropriately.
As the name suggests, citric acid is derived from citrus fruits such as lemons and limes. It’s a natural food-grade additive that can be used in everything from supplements to cleaning supplies.
Don’t let the word “acid” scare you. This isn’t going to burn your skin! In fact, just the opposite; it’s completely safe for your skin.
Stearic acid is a naturally occurring fatty acid that’s found in both animal and plant sources. However, the highest concentration of stearic acid can be found in cocoa butter and shea butter, which is why these two are so popular in natural soaps.
Outside of being able to remove excess oil, dirt, and bacteria from your skin and hair, stearic acid also makes for a great bar of soap. Some sources show that it even improves the firmness and lathering ability of soap while preventing bacterial buildup.
Chances are, you have some sodium bicarbonate in your fridge. It’s the scientific way of saying “baking soda.” Baking soda is an odor-fighting agent and is used to raise the pH levels in skincare products to more alkaline levels. This balancing often helps reduce bacterial growth as well. As studies have shown, while some may have a sensitivity to sodium bicarbonate, it’s considered generally safe for your skin.
Cocos Nucifera Oil
This is just a technical term for coconut oil. It’s one of over a dozen names including coconut fatty acid triglyceride, copra oil, and cocoanut oil.
Coconut oil is one of the best ingredients you can add to soap for two reasons:
- First, it’s fantastic at cleansing your skin, removing bacteria, and promoting moisture, as long as the soap maker doesn’t overdo it. Otherwise, it can reduce moisture in the skin. You’ll want a soap that has around 20% of coconut oil added to it. (source)
- Second, it makes for a better bar of soap. It hardens the soap while increasing lather and bubbles.
Speaking of coconut oil, capric triglyceride is usually made by combining coconut oil with glycerin. You can also use palm kernel oil in place of coconut oil.
This oily substance is rich in antioxidants and helps to moisturize your skin. This is why you’ll find in bars of soap and lotions that focus on restoring dry and sun-damaged skin.
Like all of the other truly natural ingredients on our list, it’s been shown to be safe when used as directed.
Back to You
Now that you know about some of the key ingredients to avoid and other ingredients that are truly natural, you’re ready to start identifying and tossing the toxins in your home! Learn more about our Toss the Toxins Movement and then sign up to receive regular Toss the Toxins emails with educational information and tips from your friends at Bend Soap Company.
Sign up to receive regular Toss the Toxins emails with educational information and tips from your friends at Bend Soap Company.
More Posts to Enjoy
- Blog Post: Join the Toss the Toxins Movement with Bend Soap Company
- Blog Post: Parabens: What are they and should you care?
- Blog Post: How You Might be Poisoning Your Kids