What?! Why would anyone wash their hands with detergent, it’s so harsh! We use detergent in the dishwasher and washing machine but who on earth would use it to wash their hands?
Did you know that most commercial “soaps” are actually detergents? Crazy, right? Hand washing “detergents” can come in both bar (Dove Beauty Bar) and liquid (Method Foaming Hand Wash).
Well, what is the difference between soap and detergent and which is better for my health and environmental health?
The very simple difference is that true soap can be made safely in your kitchen with veggie oils or animal fats, but detergent “soaps” are synthesized in a chemistry lab.
Natural soap has been made since 2800 BC and soap making became an art in Italy, Spain and France in the the 600s. Castile soap originated from the area of Castile, Spain and was made from olive oil (of course!) and sodium carbonate (soda ash, washing soda… not baking soda, that is sodium bicarbonate).
During WWI and WWII there was a shortage of oils to make soap so the chemist started making synthetic “soaps” that are actually detergents. A lack of rubber from rubber trees combined with the new popularity of cars during this time also spurred synthetic rubber. War has had many unintended consequences beyond the obvious.
Detergents include many different chemicals, the most popular being surfactants which reduce the surface tension of water to more efficiently remove dirt and oils.
Are soaps “good” because they are natural and all detergents “bad” because they are synthetic?
It’s not that simple. It never is. At our house we use some soaps (sink and shower) and some detergents (dishwasher and washing machine) but choose carefully the brands that will support our personal health and the health of the environment that supports our life.
When choosing a hand wash we consider the strength needed, the ingredients, skin reaction and the packaging.
How strong does my hand wash need to be to remove dirt and germs?
If detergents work more efficiently and are stronger, maybe they are better at eliminating germs? First, let’s remember no soap or detergent kills germs, they just help remove them from your hands… the hands that transfer germs to our mouth, nose or eyes… the portals to our insides. Try not touching your face for 5 minutes or 5 seconds. It’s tough.
Next, more does not equate to better. With germs lets practice LAGOM, the Swedish word that means just the right amount. Natural soap and warm water (cold water doesn’t work as well with natural soap) and rubbing are just enough to wash away everyday dirt and germs. However, if your hands are covered in grease, you’ll need multiple rounds of washing with natural soap combined with warm water or the use of a synthetic hand (or dish) wash detergent (not dishwasher or washing machine detergent, of course). Think “oil covered penguins and Dawn dish soap” because Dawn is actually a detergent and it really does do a better job than natural soap at cutting tough grease.
Are there any ingredients in my hand wash that I should look for and avoid?
Just because the packaging says “natural soap” or detergent and comes in a paper wrapper or cardboard box, doesn’t mean it automatically gets the green light for health.
Whether using soap or detergent to wash your hands, avoid these ingredients in your hand wash:
1. antibacterials like triclosan (similar to agent orange)
2. SLS (sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate)
3. Parabens (methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben)
4. Ureas (diazolidinyl Urea, imidazolidinyl, DMDM hydantoin, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate)
5. Synthetic colors (FD&C, D&C)
6. Diethanolamine (DEA)
7. Propylene glycol (propylene oxide, polyethylene glycol)
8. Synthetic fragrances (fragrance)
9. 1, 4-Dioxane (ingredients ending in “eth” as well as PEG)
10. Ethyl Alcohol
11. Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC germicides)
The other decision is whether or not to use plant or animal ingredients. Although our house is not vegan, I do opt for plants most of the time as they consume fewer resources, produce less toxic waste (ever driven by a feedlot?) and promote peace (factory farms are horribly cruel). I also don’t buy the goat soap from the farmer’s market, even though their little goats are happy and making lovely manure for their plants, mostly because those beautiful bars turn to mush and make a mess of our drains.
For commercially produced soaps and detergents you can assume it includes animal products unless stated otherwise. If it says “sodium tallowate” you’ll know for sure it’s fat from a cow. You can figure out the plant oils/fats… coconut, olive, etc. Look for real ingredients. Many chemicals on the market cannot be labeled as unhealthy simply haven’t been tested beyond an immediate and severe reaction.
Writing this post I finally looked up the ingredients in our favorite bar “Good Soap” from Whole Foods that comes with zero wrapper. I see that they use Titanium Dioxide to lighten the color of the soap. Although titanium dioxide, when used to whiten foods, is a potential carcinogen and not good in sunscreens, at least it is the last ingredient in my fav no-waste bar soap and I am rinsing it off. The moral of the story? Always check ingredients even if it says super-duper natural and organic.
How do soaps react to your skin?
I don’t know about you but there are many hand washes that irritate my skin. The crazy liquid detergent provided in the public bathrooms of hospitals, schools and airports are the worst. However many of the most popular “natural” hand washes–like Mrs. Meyer’s, Method and the gorgeous looking and strong smelling unwrapped, cut soaps are also irritating to my skin. With the 1000 times I wash my hands a day, “Golden Milk” bar from Good Bar is one of the few that is mild enough for me to use on my hands, face and body all day long. Kiss My Face Olive Oil bar and Dr. Bronner’s Baby Unscented bar are my two other favorite mild hand soaps.
Does the packaging of our hand wash matter?
SO much of our packaging is in plastic (bottles, bags, wrappers) and this includes the most popular handwashes. It’s a treasure hunt to find the healthiest products that are both organic AND in glass or paper/cardboard.
In our home we are moving away from plastic, but I’m not going to lie, it’s tough! We all know the many benefits of plastic (cheap, easy to use, doesn’t get soggy, doesn’t break easily, etc) but if you aren’t familiar with the dark side of our plastic use or need an emotional reminder to reduce your use too, check out A Plastic Ocean.
Before the pandemic I was being so much better at reducing our plastic consumption. I only bought loose fruit (apples, oranges, watermelon, etc) and asked for our cheese to be wrapped in paper (although I think that paper might be lined with plastic). Then the pandemic hit and everything was wrapped in plastic and–just like eating one piece of chocolate has lead me to eating everything unhealthy in sight–I just gave up trying to eliminate plastic and went on a plastic binge. For a minute it seemed pointless to reduce our use and gave me an excuse to stop swimming up the plastic stream. Interestingly, at the same time during the pandemic I also gave up trying to eat healthy and you can guess where that got me.
Pulling myself out of an eating frenzy free fall, I continue let go of what Corin Crabtree calls “F#@k It Eating” by saying I don’t need to swim in a sea of food just because I had a little (or even a lot) of unplanned chocolate. With this same philosophy I’m also working on my plastic consumption and saying that if I buy organic berries in an easily recycled plastic container, I can still reduce my plastic consumption elsewhere by bring organic cotton produce bags and finding alternatives for other plastic containers. So, although liquid detergent hand wash keeps my bathroom cleaner, it always comes in a plastic container, is usually made with synthetic chemicals and often irritates my skin . Until liquid castile soap comes in glass, it’s hello bar soap for us (we even use bar shampoo and bar dish soap!).
Watch out, there are beautiful and natural soaps wrapped in plastic. Why? So you can see through the packaging to their loveliness. Let’s just skip those since there are many lovely options sans wrapper or with a paper wrapper. And really, is the beauty of your hand soap what really matters?
So, will you choose soap or detergent for your next hand wash?
Either will help you…