There's a lot of confusion out there about detergents and soaps. Some companies say that their detergents "don't dry your skin out like soap" and some soap companies say their products "don't irritate skin like detergents." So who's right? What's better--a soap or a detergent? Let's start out with the basics by looking at how each is made.
Detergents (or surfactants) are synthetic compounds that have been created through a chemical process. The most widely-used detergent, sodium lauryl sulfate, is created by reacting sulfuric acid with dodecanol (a fatty alcohol) adding a few other chemicals, heating it up, adding more chemicals, and so forth. On average, there are about ten steps between the original raw materials and the final detergent. Soaps on the other hand, are created by mixing a fat (usually a vegetable oil) with caustic soda (like lye or potassium hydroxide). Soaps have been created like this for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. Detergents, on the other hand, have only been around for a few decades.
It can be confusing because often detergents are packaged like soaps. Most of the commerically produced "soap" bars out there aren't really soaps at all. Look carefully at their packaging. Do they list a bunch of chemicals? Some common ones would be cocomidopropyl betaine and sodium laureth sulfate. If there are a lot of confusing chemicals listed, you've got a synthetic detergent. Legally, detergents cannot label themselves as soaps. You'll notice their packaging will say "facial bar" or "body cleansing bar." On the other hand, if the package lists oils and "saponified" oils, you're using a true soap, not a detergent. Detergents and true soaps can be both liquid and solid.
So, now that we've established the chemical differences between detergents and soaps, let's get down to the real question: what's better for my skin?
I've been asked this question a lot and a recent roadtrip from Salt Lake to Denver gave me a fresh perspective on the matter.
We drove at night through the cold and windy plateaus of Wyoming. Halfway through the trip, I noticed my hands had become extremely dry and papery. They looked like old witch hands! At first I thought it was my sleep deprivation. I hadn't slept much the night before and when I'm short on sleep my skin feels out of whack. But no, this was something else. The wind? The cold? Utah's just as cold and dry as Wyoming, so that shouldn't be it. Then it hit me: I had washed my hands at the pit stops along the way!
You know what I'm talking about--the gooey pink stuff that comes out of the dispensers at public restrooms. At home I've been exclusively using our bar soaps to wash my hands. But these detergents were stripping my skin! So that gives us our answer, right? Soaps are more gentle than detergents.
Let's rewind two and a half years.
When I first started doing research for Bubble and Bee, I ordered some organic liquid castille soap. I loved how it smelled and how it foamed up. But after using it on my hands, they turned into sandpaper. They were cracked and dry and I had to stop using it.
So, what's the deal? Are they both bad for your skin?
The real answer is that both soaps and detergents can be both harsh and both can be gentle on your skin. The hard part is knowing what to look for.
I've researched a lot of detergents and the only one that I allow in my products is decyl polyglucose. It's made from the sugar extracted from corn and I've used it at full strength on my skin. If you were to pour straight sodium lauryl sulfate on your skin it would burn. But I've poured decyl polyglucose at full strength on my skin and it doesn't irritate it at all. In fact, since I've got a big supply of it here, I use it as my dishwashing soap. It doesn't dry out my hands and gives me plenty of bubbles. I won't pretend that it's a truly natural substance, but as far as detergents go, it's the best out there. It scores a zero risk through the Enivronmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database and is highly biodegradable.
Soaps are the most natural option, however. The only time I use decyl polyglucose is when I can't use a soap. I can't add a soap to our salt scrubs because salt coagulates the soap. So, to get a nice safe lather in our salt scrubs, I use decyl polyglucose.
The key to finding a great soap is to look at the ingredients and the bar itself. Use bars that are made from vegetable oils, not animal fats. Vegetable oils like coconut, palm, and olive oils will be more gentle than animal fats. (Ivory and Dial, by the way, are made from animal fats sourced from rendering plants.) Also look for soaps with retained glycerin and even added glycerin. The more glycerin, the more gentle the soap will be. Glycerin is a natural component of oil that becomes separated from the oil when you make soap. Glycerin will actually draw moisture from the air to your skin, keeping it moist throughout the day. The softer the bar, the better. Softer bars usually mean more glycerin.
If you're looking for a true liquid soap (not a detergent) also look for those with added glycerin. Liquid castille soaps can be harsh, but those with added glycerin and oils will be more gentle on your skin. Formulas like our shower gels are an example of a true liquid soap with added glycerin and oils.
What are your experiences? Do you prefer detergents or soaps? I'd love to read and respond to your comments below.
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