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All Natural! What does that label mean?

Posted on August 14 2016

Go to any outdoor craft fair and you will see stands of vendors marketing “100% natural” , "all natural", or "organic" soaps. But what does that label actually mean? And what is the difference between "natural" soap, and commercial bodywashes and soaps without the " all natural" label?
 
To answer these questions we first need to define soap.
Very simply, soap is the result of treating an oil (or even animal fat) with lye. Going into more detail, oils are solutions of liquid fats.  A "fat" is a chemical made up of glycerine and fatty acids. The lye breaks down the fat, releasing the glycerol, while the fatty acids turn into salts.  Soap is  made of sodium or potassium salts of those fatty acids that originally were part of the oils used.
Basic Soap Formula
Fat or Oil + Lye  =>  Soap + Glycerine
This is always the case: "natural" soap, artisan soap and store bought industrially made soap all have these "fatty acid salts" as their main component.
Most industrially maufactured soaps have other chemicals-meaning, in this case undesirable chemical additives, added to them.  Industrially manufactured soaps (major brands) also have varying amounts of glycerine  removed.  But even among the most "natural" soaps, not all soaps are the same. They can be different in meaningful ways depending on which oils were used to create them.

olive oilS
o, when talking about natural soap it is very important to know about the oils that went into making the soap.This is the primary ingredient used to change the properties of a finished soap. Changing the mix of oils can result in a soap that is bubblier, creamy, deeper cleansing, and conditioning. This has to do with the individual properties of the fatty acids contained in the oil. Castor oil, for example, contains ricinoleic fatty acid.  Castor oil goes in every batch of soap made at Goodness Soaps at between 6-10% of the total weight of oil for a batch. That is because the fatty acid contained in castor oil contributes to large, thick bubble stabilization in the finished soap. Everyone likes a bubbly soap! However, a soap made out of only castor oil wouldn’t be very desirable. It would lack some of the creamy, cleansing, and conditioning properties contributed by other oils. That is where soap making art meets soap making science. The right blend of oils will produce a bar that is hard enough to last, bubbly, creamy, conditioning, and adds essential fatty acids to the skin that the body does not make on its own. Depending on the purpose of the soap, other ingredients like fragrance oil or essential oil may be added to scent the soap or contribute complimentary properties.
 
Currently, there is no FDA or USDA standard labeling definition for “natural” skincare products. There is a separate label for "USDA certified organic" skincare products that requires products be made from varying degrees of organic ingredients.   USDA does not attempt to regulate products labeled "100% organic" if these products do not state "100%USDA certified organic".  So, these labels are over-used and meaningless, as they are not regulated to any standard: 100% Organic, 100% Natural, All Natural.  This is why it is important to understand what goes into making soap from a chemical perspective. If you know the ingredients of a natural soap you will be able to easily spot any unnecessary additives that might be harmful. 
So, now that you know what “natural” soap should contain, what is that stuff in the grocery store? And how do you know if you are really getting a natural product elsewhere?  The list of ingredients on the back of container of Dove moisturizing bodywash (just as an example)is as follows:
"Water (Aqua), Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Hydroxypropyl Starch Phosphate, Lauric Acid, Sodium Lauroyl Glycinate, Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate, Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Glycine Soja (Soybean) Oil Or Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Sodium Chloride, Glycerin, Fragrance (Parfum), Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Dmdm Hydantoin, Stearic Acid, Citric Acid, Bht, Tetrasodium Edta, Methylisothiazolinone, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate."
On the back label (where ingredients are listed), most soap makers have to follow the FDA’s labeling guidelines for cosmetics, which require the ingredients to be listed in order of prominence in standard INCI nomenclature. This is why you see “Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil” instead of just “Sunflower oil”.  So, even natural ingredients have to be listed in a complicated INCI nomenclature. How, then,  can a consumer possibly unravel “good chemicals”-oils, waters, etc…from “bad chemicals”-meaning harmful additives?  Is it important? It may take a bit of education, but it this is important!
Your skin is the largest organ in your body, and many chemicals are able to penetrate the skin and be absorbed into the body-as much as 50% in some cases [3]. Consider that you cover your entire body in a lather containing mysterious ingredients.  You may also apply and reapply lotions to your skin.  It becomes a matter of great importance, then,  to know WHAT exactly you are putting on your skin.
Now go and grab your most used skincare products and use this site to determine if they contain chemicals you are comfortable with. You can search by product for the large brands without entering the individual ingredients:
http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/
You may start to notice some patterns after you go through a few of your shampoos and body washes. There are common chemicals used for certain purposes. Popular foaming additives are common, as well as pearlizing agents and preservatives. If you object to the use of any ingredient, then you are able to purchase products from a source that places more importance on limiting the number of additives, and avoiding harmful additives. There are many websites available to find such products. Goodness soaps is one of them. But wherever you choose to shop, hopefully you have a way to research what is going on your skin now. Do not be fooled by the "all natural" label. Until a standard is enforced it is meaningless in the world of skincare. Always check the ingredients.
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Sources:
[1] U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved August 08, 2016, from http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Industry/ucm388736.htm#7
[2] Li, C., Miki, T., Kakitani, Y., Koyama, Y., & Nagae, H. (2007). Skin Penetration. Chemical Physics Letters, 450(1-3), 112-118. doi:10.1016/j.cplett.2007.10.091



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