I’ve been making cold-processed handmade natural soap for four years now and I’ve learned a lot in that time. Today I want to share some of the differences between handmade and commercial soaps — so you can decide if handmade bars are worth the investment.
That’s right. I’m calling handmade soap an investment — because a handmade bar typically costs a whole lot more than a commercial, mass-produced bar, sometimes up to ten times more! You have to wonder if the cash outlay is worth it. Soap is soap, and either bar will clean your skin, right?
I would agree that both bars will clean your skin because they both have surfactants (a blended word for surface-active agents), but in my view there’s a big difference between the two.
Let’s take a closer look:
First, Are You Using a True Soap?
- Most of what we call soap isn’t soap at all and you can tell this by reading the label. If it says something like “beauty bar” or “cleansing bar,” there’s a very good chance it’s a detergent, not a soap at all.
In the U.S., the FDA’s legal definition of soap is a product made from the alkali salts of fatty acids — i.e., what you get when you combine fats or oils with lye. In true soap, the surfactant or cleaning properties result from the fats or oils and nothing else. [Manufacturers are not allowed to use the word “soap,” unless it meets the FDA definition…which is why they often use a phrase like “beauty bar.”]
Detergents Are Not Good for Your Skin
- Detergents in commercial soaps have synthetic surfactants, some of them made from petrochemicals. I learned that detergents were first developed during World War I in response to a shortage of the animal and vegetable fats and oils needed to make natural soap.
We could argue that detergents aren’t all bad. They’re useful for cleaning laundry or dishes, but they’re definitely not good for your skin. In fact, they often dry out your skin — leaving you itchy and reaching for lotions.
Why do cosmetics companies persist in using synthetic detergents — even though there’s no shortage of oils and butters today? In a word: profit. Synthetic detergents are cheaper and they also give their products a longer shelf life — which means they don’t lose money from spoiled soaps. [As a side note, handmade soap may lose its scent over time, but it’s rare for it to go bad unless it was made with rancid oils.]
Why Your Skin Loves Glycerin
- There’s another profit-driven decision in commercial soapmaking that’s not good for your skin. When soap is made, glycerin is naturally created as a by-product of the process.
Glycerin is good for your skin because it’s a natural humectant, which means it draws moisture from the air and helps to keep it in. (Read more about glycerin on Paula’s Choice website.)
Most commercial soapmakers extract the glycerin out of their soaps and sell it on the secondary market for use in lotions and other skincare products. Again, it’s all about profits –not about what’s good for your skin.
Handmade Soap Has Extra Oils and Butters
- Finally, when formulating handmade soap, most crafters add an extra bit of oils and butters; it’s called “superfatting” and is usually between 5 to 10 percent of their formula.
We do this because it takes a precise amount of oils and butters to combine with the lye and complete the saponification process. (Note: When made correctly, there is no lye left in the finished product.) But an error in calculation could lead to a soap that’s lye heavy — and no one wants that! Superfatting allows for a margin of error.
Superfatting also means your skin gets to soak up extra beneficial oils and butters and it’s what gives handmade bars a luxury feel. Believe me, no commercial soap producer is adding extra pricey ingredients to their bars!
Compare Ingredient Lists for Dove + a Handmade Bar
Let’s take a look at the ingredients lists for Dove’s gentle bar (taken directly from their website) and my own Lemongrass Patchouli bar. To compare apples to apples — I’m going to use the Latin or INCI (International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient) names for both soaps.
Despite what you might hear or read — you can’t judge the safety of a product by how easy it is to pronounce the ingredients. Latin is not pronounceable or familiar to many of us — it’s just a way to identify something uniformly throughout the world. Are you ready?
Dove Gentle Bar
Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Sodium Tallowate or Sodium Palmitate, Lauric Acid, Sodium Isethionate, Water, Sodium Stearate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Cocoate or Sodium Palm Kernelate, Fragrance, Sodium Chloride, Tetrasodium Edta, Tetrasodium Etidronate,
and Titanium Dioxide.
A couple of notes: I can’t decipher the entire list…but it’s impossible to tell if this bar is vegan or not: they list Sodium Tallowate (fat from cattle or sheep) OR Sodium Palmitate (from vegetable oils). Lauric Acid is used to add hardness and lather, but it’s devoid of glycerin. Cocamidopropyl Betaine is a synthetic surfactant derived from coconut oil, but one that can cause rashes if used in high concentrations.
Honest + Simple Lemongrass Soap
Olea Europea (Olive) Fruit Oil, Distilled Water, Cocus Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Elaeis Guuineensis (Palm) Oil, Sodium Hydroxide, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Oryza sativa (Rice Bran) Oil, Ricinus Communis Seed (Castor) Oil, and Essential Oils of Lemongrass and Patchouli.
Note: It’s a lot easier to understand what’s in the bar by reading the English words in parentheses, of course. This bar — like 99% of mine — is vegan and has no synthetic surfactants or added hardening or lathering agents. Your skin can feel the difference!
It May be Handmade, But is it Natural?
One Final Note: Not all handmade soap is created equal. Some makers use synthetic colors and fragrances — which is not as bad for your skin as synthetic detergents, of course — but also not considered natural.
I choose not to use anything that isn’t plant-or mineral-based in my soaps. My colors come from clays, herbs, and spices and my scents come from essential oils (which are extracted from plants).
With lax cosmetic labeling laws in the U.S., it’s not always easy to tell what’s in a bar of handmade or commercial soap. But if you see the phrase “fragrance oils” on the label, that means it’s a synthetic scent.
Likewise with any neon or brightly colored soaps, which are artificially colored. If your aim is to stay with natural — keep in mind there’s no such thing as “pina colada” or “cherry blossom” essential oils. Sometimes those fancy names can tip you off and sometimes the nose just knows!
Now it’s your turn! Have you tried handmade soap and if so, what do you like/dislike about it? Do you have a favorite commercial brand? What are the main qualities you look for when choosing soap? I’d love to hear any comments.
I am not a licensed nutritionist, medical professional or cosmetics expert. The information provided on Honest + Simple is for general informational purposes only. The statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food + Drug Administration and are not intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease. Before making decisions about your health or other concerns, please consult a qualified professional and do not rely on this website for medical advice.
I sure did learn lot by reading about soap!
So much I never knew.
Thanks for stopping in to comment. I’ve learned a lot from making my own soap, but there’s always more to learn!