It is said that Cleopatra bathed in milk, honey, and essential oils followed by gentle abrasion with fine white sand. How did we get from such a wholesome and luxurious cleansing ritual to today’s bar soaps that bubble with toxic and irritating substances, including petroleum-based ingredients? I don’t know, I just can’t picture Cleopatra cleaning herself with crude oil. Find out here what to look for on bar soap labels to ensure safe and soothing suds.
While ancient Egyptian-style peeled grapes and bare-chested men with palm fronds might make a positive contribution to our beauty routines, toxic and irritating bar soaps most certainly don’t. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act, personal care products and their ingredients are not required to undergo approval before they are sold to the public. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned 11 ingredients—meanwhile the European Union has made a list of 1,100 ingredients deemed too hazardous for use in personal care products. It has become the American consumer’s responsibility to read the labels: to make sense of the gobbledygook listed there and make an informed choice.
Although there are plenty of lovely soaps available, the majority of commercial brands contain one or more of these three synthetic components that you should try to avoid.
Prior to the 20th century, fragrance was made from natural ingredients derived from plants and animals. After World War II a chemical revolution occurred and synthetic fragrance bloomed. Natural fragrances are more expensive and more elusive than synthetic ones, and were quickly replaced. How does one capture the scent of ‘morning dew,’ after all, without some laboratory wizardry?
The National Academy of Sciences reports that 95 percent of the chemicals used in fragrances today are petroleum-based synthetic compounds, including known toxins capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. So while our brain is registering ‘lavender’ our bodies are absorbing petroleum—isn’t that a nifty little trick?!
Manufacturers are only required to print “fragrance” on the label—it’s their free pass to tuck in some secret ingredients. As well, a product marked “unscented” might contain a masking fragrance, it must be marked “without perfume” or “fragrance free” to indicate no fragrance has been added.
Since fragrance is anonymous on most labels, the best thing to do is to buy soap made from responsible manufacturers. See our favorites below, also check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for a list of companies that have signed a compact pledging not to use hazardous chemicals in their products.
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
SLS is used not only for products to clean hands and body, but in products used to clean garage floors, greasy auto engines, and for carwash soaps as well. Also regulated as a pesticide, SLS is a suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, and according to the National Toxicology Program it has shown moderate reproductive effects in experiments.
SLS is not a recognized carcinogen. However, the chemical is frequently combined with other substances can cause the formation of the carcinogenic substances nitrosames. SLS is the predominant chemical used for clinical testing as a skin irritant—that is, they use it to hurt the skin to test healing solutions.
In the United States, 75 percent of liquid soaps and nearly 30 percent of bar soaps are antibacterial. The main ingredient used to make a product antibacterial is triclosan—a chlorophenol compound from a class of chemicals that is suspected of causing cancer in humans. The structure of triclosan is similar to that of some very poisonous chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, and has been shown to both depress the central nervous system and be hypothermic. The EPA claims triclosan can be a risk to both human health and the environment.
The EPA has registered triclosan as a pesticide. (And last time I checked, my hands weren’t infested with insects.) But let’s face it, we are a highly germophobic country. Perhaps we suffer from a collective unconscious memory of the Black Plague—or maybe we just believe the ads and think that using antibacterial soap really will keep those insufferable cold germs at bay. Yet more than one study has shown that antibacterial soaps are not significantly more effective at combating germs than regular soaps. Cleanliness is incredibly important—and plain old soap wages an admirably potent fight against germs.
More than just ineffective, these products are dangerous—triclosan has been linked to a variety of health and environmental problems. When washed down residential drains (as 95 percent of it is) it is delivered to streams and rivers, where it destroys aquatic ecosystems by killing beneficial bacteria in soil and waterways. (Antimicrobials can’t differentiate between good and bad bacteria.) Triclosan is persistent in the environment– and has now even been found in 3 out of 5 women’s breast milk.
So as it turns out, the superhero antibacterial soap is actually bad for you, bad for the environment, and potentially bad for the population as a whole. Laboratory evidence suggests that if the widespread use of anti-bacterial soap continues, stronger strains of bacteria can emerge—and we could be introduced to antibiotic-resistant super germs. In fact, the World Health Organization has launched a global campaign against the overuse of antimicrobials. By trying to avoid a cold, we could be faced with something much worse. On that note, let’s follow Cleopatra’s lead and cleanse with natural, luxurious ingredients. In addition to being all-around healthier products, makers of natural soaps do not remove the glycerine (as is done with many commercial soaps), resulting in a much gentler and less drying soap.
Some of our favorite soaps:
All of the soaps from A Wild Soap Bar are humdingers—big chunks of natural, homemade, olive oil soap that are just yummy—but their Honey Oat Fragrance Free soap is rich with goat’s milk, has a subtle honey scent, and is gentle enough for small babies.
If you’ve never used the very perfect Pangea Organics bar soaps, I have three things to say to you:
1.Indian Green Tea with Mint and Rose Petals Soap
2.Italian White Sage, Geranium and Yarrow Soap
3.Tunisia Olive Oil and Coconut Soap
(And make sure to throw out the box…in your garden: the packaging is made of 100% post-consumer paper and organic flower seeds and is meant to be planted.)
The heavenly Lemon Calendula bar from Earth Dance is flecked with organic calendula petals infused in olive oil, with sweet almond oil and citrus essential oils of bergamot, lemon and Litsea Cubeba.