My husband jokingly calls me a hippie. Though I argue I’m more of a metal-head, the evidence against my case is a little overwhelming: dreadlocks, nature lover, essential oil user and — you guessed it — little to no soap use.
I grew up using soap “normally” like everyone else; shampoo and body soap in the shower, antibacterial hand soap throughout the day, even triclosan-based soaps when I worked as a veterinary technician. So if I was already assimilated to the norm, how exactly did I get here?
We’re taught to believe soap is healthy.
And we want to be healthy (besides, feeling clean is nice). Up until two years ago I didn’t give it much thought. But once I started doing research into chemical free living, my inquiring mind wanted to know: is soap actually good for you? Does it actually protect you as much as the commercials say?
In short: no. Let’s discuss why.
It’s fair to say we use soap to remove the dirt and bacteria we collect from our environments and playing hard. But don’t forget, our skin is very good at taking care of itself. In fact, it has its own layer of natural bacteria that is necessary for health. And those oils we try so hard to get rid? Yup, part of its self-care mechanism.
Here’s an uncommon fact: showering daily hasn’t always been a thing in our modern world. 90% of Americans didn’t shower daily until the 1980’s. Why? Because the soap industry started paying boucoup-bucks to advertise that daily cleansing is essential for health (Vinikas, 1992). And according to this article from the Business Insider, there really isn’t a recommendation for how often we need to suds up to maintain our health. The goal should be to wash away dirt — that’s it
The issue isn’t only skin-deep
Aside from the obvious issue of over-suds’ing drying out your skin, is there a bigger problem afoot? Well, take a look at how skin works.
Your skin is your largest organ, covering about 20 square feet of your body. Comprised of three layers that constantly shed and regenerate, it serves as a physical barrier between the outside world and your internal structures. And on the molecular level, it is designed to absorb substances.
So to a moderate extent, your skin is going to absorb molecular substances it comes in contact with. Believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing, especially for kids. Remember the old adage, “dirt don’t hurt?” That’s because coming in contact with dirt and natural bacteria actually helps build the immune system, according to that same article from the Business Insider.
Now, the rate in which it absorbs substances — good or bad — is hard to nail down. One study showed skin absorbs an average of 64% of the contaminants in drinking water. It has also been shown that damaged skin such as atopic dermatitis (a.k.a. eczema) absorbs more molecules than healthy skin.
And yes, that also means skin absorbs the chemicals in our soaps.
What is in our soaps?
Here’s a fun exercise: Google “dangers of soap.” (Heck, that might be how you got here.) Needless to say there are scads of posts out there that talk about the nasty chemicals in mainstream soaps. Here are just a few I’m going to highlight:
- Fragrance – by far the most common nastiness. According to this article, it primarily affects endocrine balance and possibly fertility.
- Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate – similar compounds, primarily known as skin irritants
- Triclosan – The Envirnmental Working Group tells us this is actually a pesticide and is known for disrupting hormones.
- Benzaldehyde – is known to depress the immune system.
- Benzyl Acetate – is a known carcinogen.
In a word: yuck. While using mainstream soaps may clean the dirt off our skin, the constant exposure can likely cause more serious issues for our health. Ironic, since soap is supposed to keep us healthy.
Perhaps right now you’re asking, why is this stuff even in our soaps? Great question. Most of these chemicals are used to make soap “work better,” i.e. lather more, break up dirt faster, kill more bacteria, etc. They are cheap to create in a lab, so they save money for soap companies. Only recently has there been increased awareness — and years worth of data to conduct studies — of the harms they cause.
Don’t worry, it’s not all bad for you.
Because I’m a crunchy momma, the only soap we use in my house is entirely organic and plant based. That includes our hand and body soaps. And while I use organic castile soap to make shampoo for my dreads, my husband uses shampoos from Young Living (yes, there are safe commercial options out there).
And don’t knock mechanical means of cleaning. What do I mean by that? Well, we mostly use high-quality microfiber cloths for body washing. That’s right, microfiber. I know, it sounded a little weird when I first tried it too. But our skin has been much happier since making the switch.
Now, I’m not suggesting you go soap free (unless that appeals to you — then go for it). But it is prudent to read ingredient labels and figure out what you’re putting on your body. Because we all know a product boasting “all natural” really probably isn’t. So look for entirely plant-based soaps, usually with an olive-oil base and essential oils for fragrance. Minimize your body burden by avoiding synthetics, dyes, micro-beads and animal byproducts.
Got a favorite natural soap? Share below!
- Vinikas, Vincent. Soft Soap, Hard Sell: American Hygiene in an Age of Advertisement. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1992. Print.
- Brueck, Hillary. How Often you Actually Need to Shower, According to Science. Originally published on Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/showering-how-often-2017-11 December 2018.
- Bishop, Brown, Rowan. The role of skin absorption as a route of exposure for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in drinking water. Am J Public Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1651599/ , May 1984
- Halling-Overgaard and others, Skin absorption through atopic dermatitis skin: a systematic review. Br J Dermatol, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27639188, July 2017
- Rodale, Maria, Five ‘Must-Knows’ on the Dangers of Synthetic Fragrance. Originally published on Huffpost, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/five-mustknows-on-the-dan_b_4737654?guccounter=1, February 2014
- Eisenbraun, Karen, Dangers of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Originally published on Livstrong, https://www.livestrong.com/article/174367-dangers-of-sodium-lauryl-sulfate/.
- Environmental Working Group, PESTICIDE IN SOAP, TOOTHPASTE AND BREAST MILK – IS IT KID-SAFE?. https://www.ewg.org/research/pesticide-soap-toothpaste-and-breast-milk-it-kid-safe, July 2008.
- 3 Reasons Why Soap Is Dangerous. Sebamed, https://www.sebamedusa.com/blog/2016/02/04/3-reasons-why-soap-is-dangerous/, February 2016