Blowing the lid off the soap bottle

Chemical, natural and nearly natural ingredients in soap products


A press agent asked me recently what the point of difference was for our brand. Whilst we are all for blowing our trumpet, I quickly realised that this simple declaration was not obvious on our website. And that is, that we specialise in what we call ‘Super Natural Soap’ – soap that is made from whole pure base oils - coconut, olive oil and sunflower in our case. We updated the website and decided that I should write this piece to look at production methods and different ingredients in the main three types of soap.


Soap and Water - harmless or harmful?

Many labels (I don’t say producers here for a good reason) market their soap as natural. And many ingredients included in natural soap are derived from nature. For example, decyl glucoside, the ‘natural’ foaming agent in many natural soaps ‘is produced by the reaction of glucose from corn starch with the fatty alcohol decanol which is derived from coconut’ . We might call these 'natural' ingredients, compound derivatives of natural ingredients or ingredients that have been bonded using a chemical reaction.


Cocamidopropyl Betaine, which is often used in conjunction with decyl glucoside for its viscosity and smoother feel, is made using reaction between dimethylaminopropylamine and coconut oil fatty acids followed by an even more complicated sounding reaction of amines using chloroacetic acid. I have included the links for you to click through to Wikipedia (a source trusted more than most due to its open source updating methods) to look more closely at these compounds at your leisure.


In comparison, SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulphate) , another foaming or surfactant agent, is created by a series of chemical reactions. The base ingredient is Lauryl Alcohol, which can be produced either from palm and/or coconut oils or can be synthesized by ‘producing fatty alcohols from ethylene using an organoaluminium catalyst’. The resulting compound is then treated with one of a number of forms of sulphuric acid and then neutralised with sodium hydroxide. This compound has many commercial names. You can find a list here along with lots of other very interesting resource material on this surfactant.


SLES or Sodium Laureth Sulphate is touted by many sources as a more natural version of SLS. Interestingly, on EWG.org it has a higher hazard rating than SLS. Even though the production of SLES is similar to SLS, it includes another step called ethoxylation. The bi-product 1,4 Dioxane, is regarded, in high enough amounts to be toxic and carcinogenic. Whilst much of it is removed in the production of SLES, it is possible to receive excessive exposure for example through a hot bath with a larger than average dose of bubble bath. It is key to note that it is not the one off exposure that is problematic, but the repeated exposure as 1,4 Dioxane is not easily broken down by the liver for excretion, but is pushed to the fatty tissues of the body in an effort to protect the organs. More information on how to identify this compound in soap can be found here.


Natural or synthetic?

We are starting to see that natural is perhaps not so natural after all.


When we make our super natural soap, we also employ a chemical process. However the process does not create toxic compounds or bi-products which need to be cleared from the soap before use. Primarily the reaction is between Potassium hydroxide and water, which creates lye, and then between the lye and the oils. Potassium hydroxide is an alkaline liquor which is leached from wood ash. When we mix the dried hydroxide flakes back with water it creates an exothermic reaction, heating the liquid up. Then we blend our pure vegan base oils with the hot lye solution which in turn splits the oils in to their potassium form, leaving the by-product of glycerol. So we would be left with potassium olivate, potassium cocoate potassium sunflowerate etc. and glycerol. This process is called saponification and is the traditional method of soap making. Whilst there is still a chemical process involved, it does not involve taking extracted compounds and then bonding them to other compounds to create the desired effect.


There are some disadvantages to making soap in this way, in that impurities in base oils, lye and water are very unforgiving. Any impurities will show as a cloud in the soap. As a result we have a very thorough process of assessing the purities of our oils, running numerous tests and eliminating any ingredient batches that are creating a cloud. The big advantage of this testing is that invariably we must use oils and other raw ingredients that are of the highest quality and therefore uncontaminated. This allows us to produce an exceptionally high quality soap.


Read more about the individual scents in our super natural soap here.

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© VIRGINIA CORAM, ENGLAND

Address: Virginia Coram, Boston, Lincolnshire, PE22 8PF, UK.

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