Commercial Soap Ingredients – What Are They?

There has been a lot of talk about cosmetic and hygiene products ingredients, namely, about commercial soaps and shower gels. Some dangerous, carcinogenic and toxic, some newly called as “endocrine disruptors”, some allergens… But what exactly do those names on a label mean? And how to identify what are the “good” ones and the “bad” ones?

To make it clear I am not graduated in chemistry. This is just based on internet research, but I always try to go deep into the sources, double-checking what I read in some articles, checking Wikipedia constantly and even Wikipedia references, and trusting more internationally recognized institutional websites (like than any other.

On the other hand, I make soaps, I know exactly what I use to make them, and I know how they feel when I wash myself with them. I’ve also used commercial soaps and gels for a long time and I know they are harsher to your skin compared to natural soaps, unbalancing its sebum production, drying your skin, etc.

I hope this articles helps to shed some light about the cryptic labels of the hygiene products we use in a daily basis, and to make you a better informed consumer. I’m not defending you should reject commercial soaps and only use natural. I’m not defending otherwise. 

I simply wish to give all the information to you, so that you are able to make an educated choise. 

So let’s get to the point.

Ingredients in Commercial Soaps and Gels, What Are They?

It is important to know that it is MANDATORY by European regulation that ALL cosmetics must list their ingredients. They are basically english and latin designations that must follow a code called INCI code, which basically, stands for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients. That is why you know exactly what sort of lavander (lavandula angustifolia) your essential oil is made of, because these designations are unique. 

Another aspect to have in mind about cosmetic labels is that they list ingredients from the one with biggest percentage, to the one with lowest percentage. Usually the first ingredient is around 40%-80% of the total quantity of the cosmetic, so you know that, most likely, the first 4 or 5 ingredients are basically most of your cosmetic. You will find water (aqua) to always be one of them. So beware that most of the time you are buying a product with a big water content 🙂

This is a list of the most common ingredients used in bath soaps and gels, and also other cosmetics (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.): 

  • Sodium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate (SLS): A inexpensive detergent with an irritating factor rated ‘Moderate’. One of the most irritating ingredients found in personal care products, it cleans by corrosion. It is used commercially to clean floors, carpets, cars and degrease engines. Really! It eats away skin protection and may denature skin and hair proteins. (Denature: to destroy the characteristic properties of (a protein or other macromolecule) by heat, acidity or other effects that disrupt it’s molecular conformation.) SLS may cause potentially carcinogenic compounds, nitrates and dioxins, to form in plastic bottles. These compounds can enter the bloodstream from just one shampooing or bathing. It may cause epidermal changes in the skin and may damage hair follicles
  • Sodium Tallowate (Tallow): A natural soap produced from animal fats. In all, not a bad soap, if naturally made. It would be mild with a thin lather. In manufacturing, however, whatever beneficial compounds are in the soap (glycerine, for example) are removed to sell to the medical or cosmetic industry. 
  • Sodium Palmitate (Palm Oil : Always Choose Sustainable Oils): This ingredient is the result of  the chemical transformation between palm oil and lye. It consists of a cleansing salt with similar characteristics of palm oil fatty acids profile and natural glycerin. Basically, it makes the soap bar hard, makes foam, and cleanses your skin. 
  • Sodium Cocoate (Coconut Oil): Sodium cocoate is a generic name for the mixture of fatty acid salts derived by reacting coconut oil with lye. Package labels refer to sodium cocoate using the names coconut oil, fatty acids, coco and sodium salts. Like sodium palmate, it is a critical ingredient in soap making. It makes lots of foam, a hard bar, and is a deep cleanser, somehow feeling “dry” if there’s too much coconut oil in soap.
  • Sodium Palm Kernelate (Palm Kernel Oil): Similar to the ones above. This ingredient makes the soap bar hard, makes foam, and cleanses your skin. 
  • Sodium (Lauroyl or Cocoyl) Isethionate: This ingredient is a detergent or surfactant, softer than SLS’s therefore mild on the skin and non-drying. Another Sodium Salt derived from coconut oil. It’s used in “dove” type products.
  • Sodium Chloride: This ingredient is sea salt. It is used in natural soaps, along with sodium lactate, as a soap hardener, especially for soft soaps like olive oil soap. It has no effect on your skin.
  • Stearic Acid: It’s an ingredient that contributes to soap with added hardness, creamy texture, and stable foam. It’s also a skin conditioner. It’s a natural fatty acid, and in natural soaps, it’s naturally present. To obtain it as a single ingredient, it needs to be processed. Still, it’s a good ingredient.
  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine: This ingredient cleanses your skin, but it’s not a soap, it’s a surfactant. Cocamidopropyl betaine is a chemical found in many personal care products, including shampoo, toothpaste, and body wash. The chemical is derived from coconuts and is used to make products produce more foam. Although the government regards the ingredient as safe, some people do have negative reactions after exposure to it. It may be an allergen
  • Propylene Glycol: Propylene glycol is a synthetic, colorless, odorless, tasteless liquid that belongs to the same chemical class as alcohol. It is used as a humectant in cosmetics (keeps water on your skin) because it attracts water. However, it is an allergen to 0.8% to 3.5% of people. It causes contact dermatitis: rash on the face or body.
  • Polyethylene glycol or PEGs: Polyethylene is a common form of plastic. Combined with glycol, it becomes a thick, sticky liquid. The abbreviation PEG is often followed by a number, for example, PEG-8 or PEG-100. The lower the number, the lower the molecular weight and more easily it is absorbed by the skin. If soaps and skincare products contain undesirable ingredients, PEGs make it easier for them to enter your body. Remember the dioxins and nitrates mentioned above? They may also alter the surface tension of the skin, upsetting the natural moisture balance. Used to emulsify the ingredients in soaps. Mixes well with oils so that it aids in cleaning.
  • Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate(EHMC): It’s an organic compound, with UV-filter properties, therefore, widely used in sunscreens. Firstly tested unchanged, EHMC has been tested after being exposed to sun rays, and was found to be genotoxic (meaning that can damage DNA and cause genome mutations) and is a potential endocrine disruptor.
  • Cocamide MEA (Cocamide monoethanolamine): A good moisturizer and conditioner, increasing foaming capacity and stability. Made from coconut oil reacted with Monoethanolamine (MEA). MEA is made by reacting Ethaline oxide with aqueous ammonia. It often contains Cocamide DEA, which has high irritation potential and is known to lead to the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines. Used to replace the moisturizers created naturally in saponification that were removed because they are worth more in other products.
  • Tetrasodium EDTA: Tetrasodium ETDA (which stands for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) is a water-soluble ingredient used as a “chelator,” which means it binds to certain mineral ions to inactivate them. Through this action, it can prevent the deterioration of cosmetic and personal care products, as it stops the growth of mold and other microorganisms. Tetrasodium EDTA also helps maintain clarity, protect fragrance compounds, and prevent rancidity. One of its main uses it to help personal care products work better in hard water. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel evaluated the scientific data and concluded that disodium ETDA and related ingredients (including tetrasodium EDTA) were safe as used in cosmetic ingredients and personal care products. The panel also said the ingredient was not well absorbed in the skin. They did note, however, that since the ingredients are penetration enhancers, formulators should be careful when combining these preservatives with other ingredients that may be hazardous if absorbed.
    This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin.
  • Tetrasodium Etidronate: This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin.
  • Benzyl Benzoate: according to Wikipedia, it’s used as a medicine to treat scabies. It’s also used in cosmetics as a scent fixator. It’s toxic but only in high doses. “Benzyl benzoate is not classified as a skin irritant or sensitiser. (…) Repeated exposure to high concentrations of benzyl benzoate should therefore be avoided, as a precautionary approach. This is achieved by limiting the maximum concentration of benzyl benzoate in consumer products to 3%.”  
  • Titanium Dioxide: This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin. It may cause skin irritation. The most important application areas are paints and varnishes as well as paper and plastics, which account for about 80% of the world’s titanium dioxide consumption. Other pigment applications such as printing inks, fibers, rubber, cosmetic products and foodstuffs account for another 8%. The rest is used in other applications, for instance the production of technical pure titanium, glass and glass ceramics, electrical ceramics, catalysts, electric conductors and chemical intermediates.[24] It also is in most red-coloured candy. It’s very used in soap, even natural soap.
  • Azo dyes: a lot of cosmetic colorants are azo dyes. These have been probably the scariest ingredients that I found so far, and even if they are used in very low percentages, with other ways to dye a soap (or, why not leave the soap with its natural color?) I simply don’t understand why they are used…. Azo dyes are organic compounds, dyes used in textile industry since late 19th century. It’s toxicity have been studied since then, when dye workers were found to suffer from cancer and other diseases. Some oragen azo dye are mutagenic/carcinogenic. Benzidine azo dye are carcinogenic. Many others are harmless. Still, please, check this list from the EU Commission and the EU regulation about cosmetics and check if the dye of your cosmetic product is there in the “bad guys” list. If yes, you should consider… just not using it. So, if you think already that titanium dioxide is bad, azo dye is the cartel drug lord of soap ingredients…

Alergenics and Forbidden Subtances

At this point in the article, I believe it’s essential to leave some documents where you can consult about allergens and banned/forbidden substances for cosmetics:

  • Allergens: check this list from the European Commission on allergenic substances
  • Endocrine disruptors: the newest “evil” for cosmetics, these substances can cause endocrine disorders, a subject still under study. Check the Eruropean Commission webpage and the corresponding Regulatory document.
  • Forbidden substances: the EU regulation about cosmetics lists in Annex II all substances prohibited for cosmetics

What About Natural Soaps?

Natural soaps also have chemical compounds, let’s not be mistaken. Soap making is chemistry, it’s changing oils and lye into cleansing salts, and glycerin. These salts are referred to as Sodium <oil word> . Some of them are on the list above.

The main difference between commercial and handmade, natural soaps is the amount of processing, and the need by the cosmetic industry to remove the natural glycerin from soap. Natural soaps keep the natural glycerin and suffer just one chemical reaction (oils with lye). They are not processed, and processed again and processed again…

  • Sodium Olivate (Olive Oil): This ingredient is the result of  the chemical transformation between olive oil and lye. It consists of a cleansing salt with similar characteristics of olive oil fatty acids profile and natural glycerin. It gives very good conditioning, moisturizing properties to soaps, being very soft as a cleanser. Castille soaps are 100% olive oil soaps (or  with olive oil in a very high percentage),i.e., consisting of 100% sodium olivate, and are very often adequate people with allergic issues. Sodium olivate is a must-have ingredient for any natural soap.
  • Sodium Palmitate (Palm Oil : Always Choose Sustainable Oils): This ingredient is the result of  the chemical transformation between palm oil and lye. It consists of a cleansing salt with similar characteristics of palm oil fatty acids profile and natural glycerin. Basically, it makes the soap bar hard, makes foam, and cleanses your skin. 
  • Sodium Cocoate (Coconut Oil): Sodium cocoate is a generic name for the mixture of fatty acid salts derived by reacting coconut oil with lye. Package labels refer to sodium cocoate using the names coconut oil, fatty acids, coco and sodium salts. Like sodium palmate, it is a critical ingredient in soap making. It makes lots of foam, a hard bar, and is a deep cleanser, somehow feeling “dry” if there’s too much coconut oil in soap. This is also a very common ingredient in natural soaps.
  • Sodium Sunflowerate (Sunflower Oil): Similar to the ones above. It’s the result of mixing lye with sunflower oil. It provides conditioning properties to soap and the ability to slide smoothly.
  • Sodium Castorate (Castor Oil): Similar to the ones above. It’s the result of mixing lye with castor oil. Castor oil contributes with a very nice, stable foam and conditioning properties.
  • Sodium Lardate (Lard): A natural soap produced from animal fats. In all, not a bad soap, if naturally made. It’s mild with a thin lather. 
  • Tocopherol: Vitamin E in the form of an oil. It’s an anti-oxidant, it helps keep the oils to go rancid. But then you say “what oils, didn’t they all turn into sodium-whatever stuff?”. No, most natural soaps for skincare are formulated so that a small percentage of the oils are not turned into salts, making the soap more conditioning (it’s called superfat).
  • Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Extract: It’s Grapeseed Fruit Extract, another oily anti-oxidant, with some added antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
  • Essential oils: essential oils may be the most problematic ingredients in soap making. They are natural oily plant extracts (see “Essential Oils To Make Soap“) with highly concentrated chemical substances, some good and medicinal, some not so good, mostly are allergens. Still, if a soap maker respects the levels of concentration recommended by the EU regulation, and users are able to run a patch-test with the essential oils to be used to see if they are allergic, there are no issues to expect. Or…. only use unscented soap, with its natural saponification scent.
  • Colorants: usually, natural soap uses natural colorants. Ther are many ordinary food-based natural colorants, like several herbs, fruits, vegetables and spices, and some more exotic like seeds or root powders. You can use cosmetic clays, the ones you use to make facial beauty masks (my favorite ones). You can also use ultramarines, iron, and chromium oxides. These are considered “natural-equivalent” as they are based on the described minerals, but are lab treated to be safe. They are not allergens or skin irritants, so they are ok for sensitive skins. I’ve use them in less natural colors like blue or violet and they are ok. Still, the purest ones only use food-based colorants, taking literally the principle: “do not use on your soap ingredients you cannot eat” (of course, they must have forgotten about lye). Which is something you can also do. Natural colored soap is also nice, they are usually withish-cream.

There are many more, and I haven’t put on this list any essential oil. Some soap makers list their blends in full, some just add the “Parfum/Fragrance” designation (as it is not mandatory to discriminate the ingredients of your fragrance). 

Let’s Look At a Label

Let’s now take a look at a label, from a “Dove” soap, the “Purely Pampering Shea Butter” one. About Dove Beauty Bar, the ad says: 

• Dove doesn’t dry skin like soap can

• ¼ moisturising cream and mild cleansers help protect skin’s moisture

• Leaves skin softer, smoother and healthier-looking

• It’s not a soap – it’s a beauty bar

Whoa, the label lists 28 ingredients!! You can make a very nice and conditioning bar of soap with only 4 to 5 ingredients….

INGREDIENTS: 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 (Perfum), Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea Butter) Oil, Propylene Glycol, Sodium Chloride, Glycerin, Zinc Oxide,Tetrasodium EDTA, Tetrasodium Etidronate, Alumina, Benzyl Alcohol, Benzyl Salicylate, Butylphenyl Methylpropional, Coumarin, Hexyl Cinnamal, Limonene, Linalool, CI (15985), CI (19140), CI(77891)

And this is definitely not a soap. It does contain some soap salts (sodium palmitate, sodium palm kernelate), but it’s a detergent, made with surfactants: Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate, Sodium Isethionate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine. All used surfactants are mild, though.

Because it’s a detergent and not a soap, some soap ingredients that are naturally present in a handmade soap (like lauric acid, stearic acid, and sodium stearate) needs to be artificially added to give hardness and texture to the soap. Also, sodium chloride (salt) is present, probably with the same objective.

The “parfum” is the fragrance ingredient, and it can contain many allergens… I am sure it’s not a blend of essential oils, could be a fragrance based on natural ingredients (wishful thinking). 

Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Oil is shea butter. So they are not lying, this beauty bar actually has shea butter! Still, it’s the 11th ingredient on the list, meaning that there are 10 before in bigger %. Natural soaps may add up to 15% of shea butter in their formulations (as butter, not as sodium), making very conditioning, smooth and nourishing soap bars. I leave it to you to guess if we have 15%, 10% or even 5% of shea butter in this beauty bar….

We also have glycerin, in lower quantity than shea butter. Glycerin is a moisturizing agent, capturing the moist in your skin and keeping it there. Natural soap has natural glycerin. This one is probably processed as this is not a soap.

This beauty bar also contains Tetrasodium EDTA and Tetrasodium Etidronate, substances used as preservatives and to allow the bar to work well with hard water.

To resume, so far, we have the cleaning surfactants and soap salts (these soap salts in natural soap are usually conditioning and soft cleaning agents, but here I have no idea how (over) processed they are, therefore, if they possess any of those properties), glycerin and shea butter to condition and moisture your skin, and the rest are all soap enhancers.

The other ingredients again are soap bar enhancers (benzyl alcohol for example, enhances the beauty bar scent) and in very small quantities. They are not good for your skin but are also not harming you.

Except these ones: 

– Butylphenyl Methylpropional (or Lilial): you check this substance out on wikipedia and you get instantly worried. Because it has a chapter called “Safety” (not to mention that is produced by BASF, a well known chemical products company). This substance “cannot be considered as safe” in leave-on or rinse-off cosmetics. It can cause allergies. So why is it in this beauty bar? To use it as perfume…. 

– Propylene Glycol: this one is already listed on our list above. It’s an alcohol, a humectant in cosmetics, meaning that it attracts water and keeps it on your skin. It’s also an allergen to up to 3,5% of people. It causes contact dermatitis. So, you can enjoy this beauty bar as long as you are not allergic to this substance… Otherwise, you will get a rash. 

Benzyl Salicylate: this substance is another fragrance fixator. It’s also a worrying substance as it can cause sensitization:

– Hexyl Cinnamal: another fragrance fixator, and another worrying substance, it can cause allergies to a very low percentage of individuals…

Alumina: is … aluminium oxide. Why would they put any aluminium content on a bar you rub over your skin? Still, you also drink Coke and beer from an aluminium can, so…. why not? 

– Colorants: Not to worry!! CI (15985), CI (19140), CI(77891). When checking the EU Regulation about forbidden substances for cosmetics these colorants were all on the “allowed to use” list. Phew!


I hope you now have a better undertanding of what ingredients are on your hygiene products, and how to read a cosmetic label. I am a completely converted fan of natural soap, so it is possible, and I assume it, that my opinion about commercial cosmetic products is biased. 

I believe that the industry and the public together gave too much enphasis to shelf life, scent and looks for hygiene and cosmetic products, seriously deteriorating its main objective, which is to clean, treat and nourish our skin in a healthy way.

Still the main purpose of this article was to inform. And also to make it clear that we have an option to have better hygiene products – see “Part 1 – How To Make Soap From Scratch” if you want to learn how to make natural soap at home 🙂 . 

The “Dove” bar here analysed is not too bad, but it has some concerning substances. And I am not sure in what they base the “1/4 of moisturizing cream” statement, probably only on the shea butter as I don’t see any other oil present to be part of the “moisturizing cream” (I will explain in another article how to make body creams).

If you have questions or wish to give your opinion, feel free to leave a comment.


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