Thoughts from The Queen Bee

The dictionary gives us several options for defining ‘natural’, but there is no official definition for its use in describing cosmetics or skin care products. To some people it’s natural if it comes from the earth. Others go further, and insist that it must be used in its’ unprocessed form. Some people say it must be green and growing to be natural, while others say it must contain nothing synthetic, or does it mean no chemicals?

There is really no right or wrong answer here. Everyone has their own definition of what natural means to them, and this applies to people who make handmade bath and body products as well. The trick is finding a manufacturer whose definition of natural is in line with your own.

So how do you do this?

The first step is defining it for yourself. I am going to speak specifically about handmade soap, but you can apply this to all handmade bath and beauty products.

The truth about soap is that in order to have a cleansing product, it needs to contain one of two things: lye, also known as sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, or synthetic detergents, which are defined as “A cleansing substance that acts similarly to soap but is made from chemical compounds rather than fats and lye.” ( Without one of these two substances, you’re doomed to be dirty, unless you are prepared to hunt down a soapwort plant, chop up the leaves and roots and boil it with water to produce a liquid cleansing solution.

Some soapmakers will tell you that they make “lye-free” soap. This is impossible. The alternatives to traditional cold (CP) or hot (HP) processed soap are 1) Melt and pour soap, or 2) glycerin soap. Melt and pour soap is made by purchasing a soap base from a supplier, melting it down and putting it in molds. All melt and pour soap bases are made using either CP or HP, and therefore were produced by combining lye and oils. Glycerin is a substance which is produced during the traditional soapmaking process. Large commercial manufacturers realized many years ago that they could double their revenue by siphoning off the highly moisturizing glycerin and selling it separately, rather than leaving it in the soap. So glycerin is also produced by combining oils and lye.

So what are sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide? They are chemical compounds created by passing an electrical current through sodium chloride (common table salt) or potassium chloride. They would look a little less scary on the label if we could just list them as salt, but Canada, the United States, and Europe have all adopted legislation requiring standard INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) in an attempt to ensure transparency in labeling.

So salt is not a bad thing to have in your soap, but if you’re still leery of it, rest assured that there is no active lye remaining in a well crafted and cured bar of soap. Soap and glycerin are what’s left after the lye and the oils go through the chemical reaction known as saponification. Remember your high school chemistry with the cute little diagrams of molecules with two ends which run around looking for another end to attach themselves to? If you are buying from a careful soapmaker who has taken the time to properly learn the craft, they have ensured that their recipe contains the correct amount of oils to ensure that each and every molecule of the lye has found it’s little mate and become a happy soap couple!

Back to the INCI that I mentioned above. There are 2 legally acceptable methods of listing lye on a soap label. The easiest and most transparent method, that we have chosen to use at BumbleBee Lane SoapWorks, is to simply list either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, along with the various oils. The other method is to list sodium palmitate ( the fatty acid produced by the saponification of palm oil) sodium cocoate (the fatty acid produced by the saponification of coconut oil), etc. Anytime you see sodium or potassium cocoate, olivate, palmitate etc., it indicates the presence of both lye and the respective vegetable oil.

Sometimes you will see ingredients as containing saponified oils of palm, olive, coconut, etc. While this does not comply with labeling laws, it is just another way of saying there is lye in the product without having to put those scary, chemical words on the label. Saponified oil of palm is palm oil which has gone through the saponification process produced by adding it to lye. So no matter how its listed, they all mean the same thing.

So we’ve seen that the ingredients for making soap are pretty basic and natural. how did we end up with the explosion of cleansing products packed full of chemicals that we have today? Post World War II saw great changes in our lives for various reasons. Many women who had gone to work in the factories to support the war effort chose not to return to their traditional housewife roles. This was the start of our ongoing constant struggle to balance work outside the house with work at home, and led to manufacturers looking for ways to make things easier and faster. Chemists who had been working flat out to produce better weapons, were now coming back to the commercial world, and looking for ways to put their knowledge and experience to use at home. Coming out of the austerity of the war years, people were looking for more luxury and beauty in their lives. All of these factors combined to fuel the race to make things, easier, faster, cheaper and prettier.

How does this apply to soap? Well, someone decided that we didn’t have time to be scrubbing soap residue off of bathtubs, discovered that they could make cheaper, synthetic substitutes for soap, and had the bright idea of convincing the consumer that more bubbles equated to better cleansing power. Manufacturers were looking for something to set their product apart from all of the others, so they started selling us on fantasies….they used chemistry to fix non-existent problems, and here we are!

So now we know what goes into a basic bar of soap, tomorrow we’ll start looking at the rest of those mysterious ingredients you might find on the label.

Comments on: "What is natural? (Part One)" (3)

  1. Thank you for your very well thought out article – your explanation of ‘natural’ is exactly right; there is no ‘exact’ definition of natural in our industry AND personal perception is everything. As an Australian soap maker I use “saponified oils of…” on my soap labelling, which is fully compliant with our labelling laws and is the exact definition of the components of the finished product, written in plain English.

    I love how you explained the development of surfactants and the historical impact of World War II on the cleaning and personal care industries. Even today so much advertising is aimed at removing soap scum or preventing the same. Isn’t it lovely that hand made soap actually leaves less scum behind than commercially manufactured bars – got to love glycerine and free oil molecules for that! …. Tanya 🙂

    • Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂 I’m very new at blogging, but hopefully I can keep my posts interesting and informative….there is so much to talk about in our industry! Thank you as well for letting me know about the difference in labeling requirements in Australia; I wasn’t aware of that. Happy Easter!

  2. […] Today’s commercial bars contain synthetic detergents (syndets) because they are cheaper, resulting in higher profits for the manufacturer, and because they produce massive amounts of lather and less residue, not because they are easier to manipulate, or better for your skin! You can read more about synthetic detergents in my earlier post, What is Natural, Part 1. […]

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Mike Michalowicz

Thoughts from The Queen Bee


Thoughts from The Queen Bee

Indie Business Blog

Leadership and Personal Development For Small Business Owners

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