What have ethics got to do with soap, isn’t it just something I wash my body with?
Well yes, a lot of people see it that way. You choose the bar you like, unwrap it, throw away the packaging and then it sits by the sink or in the shower waiting for you to use it. But what decisions have you made in purchasing that soap? Maybe it’s that you like the smell, colour, texture, lather, or the way it makes your skin feel. This page is about letting you know some of the other things I have thought about when making my choices in soap making.
Ethical considerations are different for different people. If you were to consider every single one for every purchase you make, you might end up not buying anything at all.
People have been using soap for thousands of years. Records show that it used to be made of all-natural ingredients, often in the home, where it was made from oils and fats mixed with ashes. Once soap became an industrial product some of the natural ingredients were replaced with chemicals such as sodium laurel sulphate, parabens and dioxane, chemicals that have been linked to various conditions, including depression, liver damage, cancer, low sperm count, and, surprisingly, dry skin.
Next time you pick up a bar of soap, read the ingredients list. Decide whether you want those substances on your body.
Firstly, I am not here to criticize any other soap maker or manufacturer. I am not here to tell you that you are making the wrong decisions. The things that I’m considering here are my concerns, things I’ve asked myself on my own journey. They might just give you something to think about.
Some points below are linked to other pages giving you more details about what I do in my soaps. These are just suggestions to think about.
Ethical cosmetic producers hold safety assessments for every product. All my products are assessed and I am a member of The Guild of Craft Soap & Toiletry Makers.
This became such a long subject that I created a page dedicated to it, click the heading to go there.
Oils, butters and other fats
Without going into too much detail, good soap needs the right balance of hard and soft fats. Simplistically, hard fats are solid at room temperatures, such as lard, palm oil and coconut oil and soft oils are liquid such as olive oil, almond oil and castor oil.
Vegetable or animal: Fats might be from vegetable sources such as olive oil, palm oil, castor oil and coconut oil. Or they might be from animal sources such as tallow (beef fat) and lard (pig fat).
Local or imported: This might be a concern if you wish to buy local, reduce your carbon footprint or don’t want to buy from certain countries.
Palm oil or not: For various reasons a lot of people these days try to avoid palm oil; some consider that there are sustainable sources of palm oil, the World Wildlife Fund disagrees but is working to change this. Some people make conscious decisions to avoid it in their food but might not consider that it, or other products, are in soap.
These choices may not be as easy as they appear. If you do not want animal fats in your soap and you want to stay local then which hard fat would you choose?
Natural or synthetic: More vibrant colours are more likely to be synthetic. Vibrant soaps are often coloured with manufactured dyes that are created in a laboratory. These contain ingredients such as phenoxyethanol, benzoic acid and dehydroacetic acid.
Numerous pigments, both natural and synthetic, can be used to colour soaps. The primary pigment in plants is chlorophyll which gives plants their green colour. Some pigments are derived from petrochemicals and others are found naturally as earths.
Micas are all around us these days. Referred to as ‘nature’s glitter’ mica gives a shimmer to colours in paints and cosmetics.
Natural micas are mined from granite rock deposits. The largest deposits are to be found in the Jharkhand state in India, although they can come from many other places. Micas have recently been associated with cheap child labour used for mining the products, sometimes at a risk to their health. This is a very difficult ethical subject. Do you stop buying Mica because you don’t want children in mines? What if that child provides the only source of income for the entire family? Some large cosmetics companies are working to change the Mica industry so that traceability is easier and human rights are promoted.
Cosmetic grade micas are created synthetically and coloured with dyes. They are quality controlled and certified for cosmetic use.
Soap can also be coloured with clays, herbs and other plants. These tend to give more subdued colours which sometimes change over time. The colours are less predictable. Again synthetic colourants are controlled and certified as safe for cosmetic use.
Fragrance oils or essential oils. Fragrance oils are synthetic chemical scent compounds. They last longer in soap than a lot of essential oils. They are also more varied and can produce smells that cannot be made naturally.
Essential oils are steam-distilled or cold-pressed pure plant extracts using blossom, fruit, leaf, stem, bark, wood or resin. Although a fragrance oil can mimic the smell of an essential oil, it cannot mimic the additional benefits. Some critics state that creating essential oils is resource-intensive and not sustainable.
Naked, plastic or paper: If you are buying bar soap, instead of liquid soap or shower gel, you have probably already thought about cutting down on single-use plastics and reducing the thousands of bottles, most of which still end up in landfill sites or in our oceans.
There are recyclable and even compostable plastic type packaging materials available but a lot of the bar soaps sold today are still packaged in single-use plastic.
Some of it is wrapped in paper or cardstock. Is paper any better? Consider the trees that are cut down and the thousands of gallons of water that the paper industry uses. Things are steadily improving in this industry but it still has a way to go.
Naked soap is becoming more popular but regulations on labelling make this difficult. This article concerns the US but the same principles apply in Europe.
When you unwrap your bar of soap do you put the packaging in the bin or in the recycling?
I hope you can see from all the information above that making ethical decisions about soap is a bit of a minefield. I am not attempting to be a paragon of virtue, I just want to do my best and be informed whilst still making soap that people will want to use.