There has been a lot of talk about cosmetic and hygiene product ingredients, about commercial soap ingredients, shower gels, bath gels and tooth paste ingredients… Some are dangerous, labelled as carcinogenic and toxic, some newly called as “endocrine disruptors”, some are 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 do not have a chemistry graduation. 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, up to scientific sources, or authority websites like wikipedia or ec.europa.eu.
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, …
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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 Palm Kernelate
1. Sodium Tallowate (Tallow Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of animal fats and lye, retaining the same characteristics of animal fatty acid profile. If naturally made, it is a mild soap 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.
2. Sodium Palmitate (Palm Oil Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of palm oil and lye, retaining the same characteristics of palm oil fatty acid profile (see Oil Properties for Soap Making). If naturally made, it provides a hard bar of soap, with good foam and average cleansing properties. In manufacturing, however, if glycerine is removed, this “soap”, or the resulting substance, becomes drying for skin.
The controversy with palm oil soap is due to the way palm oil is produced. With a high yield, it’s very cheap to produce, becoming a major ingredient for many cosmetic products and also food. Therefore, like soy, palm oil is a mass monoculture in developing countries, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to an unsustainable cycle of land depletion and continuous deforestation.
3. Sodium Palm Kernelate (Palm Kernel Oil Soap)
Similar to the previous ingredients, this is a natural soap resulting from saponification of palm kernel oil and lye. It shares the same issues of palm oil soap, and glycerin removal.
4. Sodium Cocoate (Coconut Oil Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of coconut oil and lye, retaining the same characteristics of coconut oil fatty acid profile (see Oil Properties for Soap Making).
If naturally made, it provides a hard bar of soap, with very good and stable foam and very good cleansing properties. In natural soap, it’s an ever-present ingredient, due to being strong in these two properties – it’s the best oil to create foam and cleanse skin. In manufacturing, however, if glycerine is removed, this “soap”, or the resulting substance, becomes quite drying for skin.
5. Sodium Lauryl (or Laureth) Sulfate – SLS
SLS is a synthetic organic compound. It’s an inexpensive and highly effective detergent or surfactant. One of the most irritating ingredients found in personal care products, it is also used commercially to clean floors, carpets, cars and degrease engines (can’t be good for your skin if you use too much of it…).
While not a carcinogenic, it is a skin irritant, especially with prolonged exposure (over one hour). Leave-on products cannot have more than 1% in its composition. In wash-off products it is not considered a problem, since the product is washed away with water. However, it may worsen the condition of people with chronic skin hypersensitivity.
SLS is used in cosmetics as a cleaning agent (surfactant) and foaming agent. Apart from cleaning, it brings no benefits to skin.
6. Sodium (Lauroyl or Cocoyl) Isethionate – SCI
This ingredient is also 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” products.
I use this surfactant on my homemade solid shampoo, since natural soap has a high pH that damages hair folicles with continuous usage (while SCI has a pH of 5.5), with very good results so far.
7. Sodium Chloride
This is just sea salt. It is used in natural soaps, along with sodium lactate, as a soap hardener, especially for soft soaps like olive oil soap. In cosmetics in general, is used as a thickening agent. It has no effect on your skin.
8. 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, naturally present in handmade soap. To obtain it as a single ingredient, it needs to be processed. It looks like a sort of wax, and is also used as hardening agent for candles.
9. Cocamidopropyl Betaine
This ingredient is another synthetic surfactant, derived from coconuts. Cocamidopropyl betaine is a very mild surfactant found in many personal care products, including shampoo, toothpaste, and body wash, working as a foaming agent.
Although the European Union regards the ingredient as safe, it may cause contact dermatitis to sensitive people to its active substances. Apart from cleaning, it offers no benefits to your skin.
10. 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 can be an allergen to 3.5% of people. It may cause contact dermatitis: rash on the face or body.
11. Polyethylene Glycol – PEGs
Polyethylene is a common form of plastic, derived from petroleum. 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 number is associated with molecular weight, therefore the lower the number, the smaller the particle, and more easily it is absorbed by the skin. If soaps and skincare products contain undesirable ingredients (why should they anyway…?), such as SLS, PEGs make it easier for them to enter your body.
PEGs are associated with hypersensitivity problems and antigenic responses – when associated with therapeutical substances, the immune system might simply destroy them. Depending on manufacturing processes, PEG may be contaminated with carcinogenic substances like ethylene oxide. Used as thickner, softtener, or solvent in cosmetics.
12. 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.
13. Cocamide Monoethanolamine – Cocamide MEA
Increases 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.
Cocamide MEA is safe in rinse-off products like soap. In leave-on products, like lotions, only 5% is allowed. Used to replace the moisturizers – glycerin – created naturally in saponification that were removed because they are worth more in other products (does this make any sense…?).
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 standalone was not well absorbed in the skin.
They did note, however, that since this ingredient is a penetration enhancer for some compounds, formulators should be careful when combining these preservatives with other ingredients that may be hazardous if absorbed.
No beneficial properties for your skin.
Benzyl benzoate is 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%.”
16. Titanium Dioxide
This is a white colorant. This ingredient does not appear to have any beneficial properties for your skin, but 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. It also is in most red-coloured candy, and very used in soap, even natural soap.
17. 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 the textile industry since the late 19th century. Its toxicity has been studied since then when dye workers were found to suffer from cancer and other diseases. Some orange azo dyes are mutagenic/carcinogenic. Benzidine azo dye is 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…
Dyes, when not carcinogenic, are usually skin irritants due to its chemical composition: chemicals to create and preserve vivid colors, and more chemicals to keep the first ones active, to keep the final product stable and pretty, to keep microorganisms and fungus away.
Well, it’s the same with perfumes. Even if they are only made with essential oils, they will already contain a few natural allergens present in plants: linalool, geraniol, coumarin, limonene (ironically, these are the active substances responsible for the natural plant scent: citrusy, floral, herbal, etc.), just to name a few.
Parfum, guess what, is one of the few cosmetic ingredients that regulation does not require a detailed composition, so as long as it is there for scent, you can label it under “parfum” and you can put pretty much anything you like. Some perfumes have a list of 100 and something ingredients… So you will have scent fixators, preservatives, scent enhancers, and a few dozen of synthetic fragrances and essential oils to make your parfum.
So, it’s easy to understand that, in the middle of so many chemicals, some will end up being allergens or at least skin irritants. Maybe some are carcinogens or endocrinal disruptors. We can only hope that cosmetic companies have the good sense to follow the rest of regulation and avoid adding forbidden substances and respect the level of toxic ones.
Ok, so, everyone knows what water is. It’s not a synthetic, dangerous or unknown substance, that is true, and there’s no harm in having water in cosmetics. But I want to alert for the fact when this ingredient shows in the first position of a list of ingredients, especially if you are purchasing an expensive cosmetic.
In this case, it’s not what they are adding to the cosmetic but it’s more what they are NOT adding: a big water content means that the active substances that could do any good to your skin are in too low percentage and you’re basically just splashing your face or body with water… Sometimes costing $100/50 ml!
So, be warned that if water is the first ingredient in the list of ingredients, most likely all other ingredients there are not in enough quantity to make any difference. Check this Quora post and How to choose the best skin care products from a cosmetologist.
Alergenics and Forbidden Substances
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, fatty acid salts to be precise, 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, glycerin production, and this driving need induced by the cosmetic industry to sell a long-lasting, stable, colorful, scent-filled product. Natural soaps keep the natural glycerin and suffer just one chemical reaction (oils with lye). They – and its ingredients – are not processed, and processed again and processed again…
|Tocopherol, GSE, ROE
|Sodium Palm Kernelate
1 . Sodium Lardate/Tallowate (Lard/Tallow Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of animal fats and lye, retaining the same characteristics of animal fatty acid profile. It is a mild soap with a thin lather, and it’s not different from natural soap made with vegetable oils.
People that adopt more natural lifestyles usually reject animal products, therefore, rejecting this type of natural soap – and that is fine. However, if animal tallow or lard is a sub-product (in a cattle farm, for example) this is a very sustainable way of making soap.
2. Sodium Palmitate (Palm Oil Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of palm oil and lye, retaining the same characteristics of palm oil fatty acid profile (see Oil Properties for Soap Making). Makes for a soap pretty similar to lard or tallow soap, as the fatty acid profile of both fats are very similar. Hard bar of soap, stable lather, mild and hydrating.
The controversy with palm oil soap is due to the way palm oil is produced. With a high yield, it’s very cheap to produce, becoming a major ingredient for many cosmetic products and also food. Therefore, like soy, palm oil is a mass monoculture in developing countries, namely Indonesia and Malaysia, leading to an unsustainable cycle of land depletion and continuous deforestation (see Oil Properties for Soap Making).
There is however an association of palm oil producers that are committed to ethical and sustainable production practices – RSPO – Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil. Always purchase handmade soap with RSPO palm oil, if you are concerned with palm oil impact in environment.
3. Sodium Palm Kernelate (Palm Kernel Oil Soap)
Similar to the previous ingredients, this is a natural soap resulting from saponification of palm kernel oil and lye. It shares the same issues of palm oil soap.
4. Sodium Cocoate (Coconut Oil Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of coconut oil and lye, retaining the same characteristics of coconut oil fatty acid profile (see Oil Properties for Soap Making). It provides a hard bar of soap, with very good and stable foam and very good cleansing properties, making it a must-have ingredient in natural soap.
5. Sodium Olivate (Olive Oil Soap)
A natural soap resulting from saponification of olive oil and lye, retaining the same characteristics of olive oil fatty acid profile (see Oil Properties for Soap Making). This is another ever-present soap ingredient. Makes for a soft bar (actually, Olive oil soaps are hard soap bars), low cleansing but very mild and very conditioning, making it a very good soap for sensitive skin or skin with mild conditions. Probably better known as Castile soap.
6. Sodium Sunflowerate (Sunflower Oil Soap)
Similar to the ones above. It’s the result of mixing lye with sunflower oil (see Oil Properties for Soap Making). It provides conditioning properties to soap and the ability to slide smoothly.
7. Sodium Castorate (Castor Oil Soap)
Similar to the ones above. It’s the result of mixing lye with castor oil (see Oil Properties for Soap Making). Like coconut oil, castor oil is the other oil best known in soapmaking for foam enhancing: contributes with a very nice, stable foam and conditioning properties.
8. Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Grapefruit Seed Extract (GSE) and Rosemary Oleorresin Extract (ROE)
Vitamin E in the form of an oil. It’s an anti-oxidant, it helps to prevent oil rancidity in soap, namely, it helps to preserve the superfat oils. Some recipes may not need it, but I always use it.
Grapefruit seed extract and rosemary oleorresin excract have exactly the same antioxidant function in soapmaking. Grapeseed fruit extract also has desinfectant properties, making it a mild preservative, but don’t use it as such.
9. Essential Oils
Essential oils may be the most problematic ingredients in soap making. They are natural oily plant extracts (see Are Essential Oils Safe For Soap?) with highly concentrated chemical substances, some good and medicinal, some not so good, mostly are allergens – the allergens are the ones responsible for the good scents.
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. Besides containing allergens, even if natural – natural is not always safe -, they are also expensive.
Still, here is a detailed list of Best Essential Oils for Soap Making.
Normally, natural soap uses natural colorants. There are a good amount of ordinary kitchen ingredients you can use as natural colorants: herbs, flowers, vegetables and spices, seeds or root powders. Activated charcoal is very used for black or blueish-grey.
You can use cosmetic clays (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 – namely, the toxic heavy metals present in its composition are removed. They are not allergens or skin irritants, so they are ok for sensitive skins.
Some soap makers use soap dyes like titanium dioxide. Well, they are usually milder than industrial cosmetic dyes, just colored mica powders, as they are made namely for handmade soaps, but if you want to be on the safe side, keep the natural colorants or just go for uncolored soap.
This is just a small list of the most common ingredients for soap, the conventional and the handmade one. There are many more. Still, you probably noticed that the list of ingredients for commercial soaps is longer that the list for natural soaps.
Well. Look at a label of a store-bought soap and you will be even more overwhelmed. Natural, handmade soap, if stripped to its simplest form, it only needs 3 ingredients: oil, lye and water. Usually it’s made of 8 to 10 ingredients: 4 to 5 oils, lye, water, a colorant, the anti-oxidant, and a blend of essential oils (we also cheat and call it “parfum”). I don’t know what to say of commercial soaps: they have an endless list of ingredients…
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 soap bar (check this Olive Oil Soap Recipe) with only 6 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)
Source: Dove purely pampering shea butter beauty bar (official website)
And this is definitely not a soap. It does contain some soap salts (sodium palmitate, sodium palm kernelate), but its main ingredient is actually a surfactant (used in detergents): Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate. With other surfactants present on the list: 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, or contain some essential oils (wishful thinking).
Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Oil is shea oil. So this beauty bar doesn’t have shea butter but it has shea oil. It’s not that shea oil it’s not good, it’s very good! But it’s not shea butter as it is advertised. But who will notice? And it’s the 11th ingredient on the list, I bet there’s not a lot of it in the beauty bar…
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 preservatives and 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 in enough quantity to pose any harm…. (or are they?)
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 for 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: https://ifrafragrance.org/standards/IFRA_STD48_0163.pdf
– 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 our skin in a safe, healthy way.
The “Dove” bar here analysed is not too bad, but it has some concerning substances. And I am not sure what they mean with “1/4 of moisturizing cream” statement. Do they mean that it has shea oil (not butter!) and so it’s moisturizing? Is it 1/4 of the soap? Nope. Do they mean the shea oil and all added ingredients like glycerin, stearic acid, lauric acid, etc? The ones that are part of any natural soap, that probably is more conditioning just using 1/3 of the ingredients? Probably…
Still, the main purpose of this article is to inform. And also to make it clear that we have an option to have better hygiene products.
If you want to learn how to make natural soap at home:
- Tutorials for Beginners: How To Make Soap For Beginners
- Recipes for Beginners: Homemade Soap Recipes For Beginners
If you prefer to buy natural soaps, you can also check out the Beauty Products section and search for soap, or follow the following links:
- Natural Soaps from Apple Valley Natural Soap: Apple Valley Natural Soap Reviews
- Handmade Soaps from Etsy: Etsy Handmade Soaps
If you have questions or wish to give your opinion, feel free to leave a comment.