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Natural Handmade Soap – Natural Versus Synthetic Ingredients – What Would You Choose?
Soap has been used in households around the world for thousands of years, although the soap used today is very different from that created many years ago. The first soaps were made with animal fats and vegetable oils. Today’s soaps have many different chemical additives that are used to enhance their marketing appeal. What effects do these additives have on our skin? What are the long-term effects? How was soap first made and how has it evolved into what it is today?
Several archaeological finds show that soap was used as early as 2800 BC. by the Babylonians, Phoenicians and Egyptians (Garzena 2002). There are various stories about how soap first appeared, but the basic theory is the same. It’s not hard to imagine how years ago when cooking over an open fire, left with an oiled pot, the cook would look for something to help rub off the grease. By adding a handful of ash and letting it soak, it is suddenly discovered that the grease washes off easily. Roman legend states that soap got its name from Mount Sapo, an area where animals were sacrificed. Rainwater mixed with animal fats and wood ash and washed into the clay soil of the Tiber River. The local village women found that using the clay made their washing easier and cleaner.
During the Middle Ages the first small-scale soap factories were established in France and England. It was not easy to make a product. Making potash (water in which the ashes were soaked, also known as lye) was a long and complicated process and often gave inconsistent results. In 1791 Nicholas Leblanc discovered a process for making a soda from common salt to be used in place of ash. This process along with the introduction of coconut and palm oils made soap making easier and more and more soap making centers were established. In 19th century Britain taxes were imposed on soap production and soap makers were granted a monopoly on soap production in exchange for a guaranteed price per ton. This tax was abolished in 1852 and soap became more widely available.
Many of the original soap makers are now household names. William Colgate’s “Cashmere Bouquet” was introduced in 1872. BJ Johnson created “Palmolive” using palm and olive oil and cocoa butter. Although these soaps retain their original names, they are somewhat different from the original product.
Soaps today are mass produced for economic reasons and at the cost of quality. The natural glycerin that occurs in the soap making process is removed from the soap and used in moisturizers and cosmetics where it commands a higher price. Handmade soaps made using the cold process method retain this glycerin as well as the natural properties of the oils used. Many of the additives used in the manufacture of soaps today have no other value than to improve their aesthetics and add to their shelf life. EDTA is listed as an ingredient in many soaps. It is a chelating agent that reduces the amount of trace elements in solution giving a cleaner product, preserving colors, flavors and textures, important marketing factors. It is a known skin and eye irritant and is suspected to be mutagenic. Many different synthetic colors are used in soap making, many of which are derived from coal tar. Research has shown that almost all coal tar paints cause cancer in mice when injected into the skin of mice. Natural colors such as annatto, carotene, chlorophyll and turmeric are very unstable in soap, so they are not practical from a marketing point of view. Propylene glycol is another additive widely used in soap. Much research has been done to create enhancers to help the skin absorb the active ingredients in skin care products (Rajadhyaksha, VJ & Pfister, WR 1996). Propylene glycol is one such enhancer. It is said to penetrate the skin better than glycerin and less expensive. The US Food and Drug Administration proposed banning propylene glycol in 1992 because it was not proven safe and effective for its claims in head lice formulations. However, based on available data, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Committee has deemed it safe for use in concentrations up to 50%. Propylene glycol is also a known skin irritant, as is triclosan used in many antiseptic soaps.
It can be argued that the soap is not on the body for a long time and is quickly washed off. However, many people have immediate allergic reactions when using soap, indicating that the chemicals do not need to be on the skin for a long time to cause a problem. How permeable is our skin? Rub fresh garlic on your feet will make you taste it within about 20 minutes. Straehli first demonstrated the permeability of human skin in 1940 when he found that different essential oils took different periods of time to appear in the breath after application to the skin (Farrow 2002 pp. 46-47).
Although our skin is said to create a barrier, it is a permeable barrier and there is no long-term research available to show what adverse effects many of these chemicals may have on the human body. Handmade soaps can be scented with pure essential oils, but they can also be scented with fragrance oils. Many handmade soaps contain natural colors but may also contain synthetic colors. So it is important that if you decide you want to use a more natural soap, you need to find a soap maker who can tell you the exact ingredients in their soaps. What a person chooses to use on their skin is their choice. Having always been interested in natural soaps, I now make and use my own soaps made with vegetable oils, natural colors and pure essential oils. This is my choice. What do you choose?
Farrow, K. 2002, Skin Deep, Thomas C. Lothian Pty Ltd, Vic.
Rajadhyaksha, VJ & Pfister, WR 1996Oxazolidinones: optimizing the delivery of active ingredients in skin care products, Vol. 158, Drug & Cosmetic Industry p. 36
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