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The Selection of Natural Soaps (And Why It All Matters)

It’s funny, soap isn't necessarily something I think about least, not in my daily beauty routine. It’s probably something I care little about, honestly, considering how quick I am to grab for almost the nearest body wash available on the shelf that smells good on those days I’m spending both time and money on things I don't need while in Target. But, just recently, I had a slight epiphany. See, my youngest sister asked for recommendations. She was looking for homemade soaps by black-owned brands during the #BlackOut, and while I had suggestions, I realized that I didn't have many, which might have something to do with the real lack of serious thought I had given to soap as a concept, as an idea, even, as a product.

I’ll be the first to admit, that should really change. Our bodies are temples. And while that may have been one of the most clichéd phrases I could use, it’s still the truth. Not only has the demand for soap increased exponentially since COVID-19 (just ask The Strategist), but we should be mindful of our skin anyway, with or without the stress of viruses spreading. Our bodies house the systems used for our literal survival, and our skin is not only an organ, but it’s also our largest. Just like it’s important to be mindful of the things we ingest; the foods we put into our bodies, so we should give the same care and consideration to the products we put on it. I'm talking about ingredients here, too. I’m partial to certain brands due to their aromatic qualities, but what are the chemicals contributing to those nice smells? What are the chemicals preserving these products on shelves? How long does a typical soap sit on a shelf at Target, anyway?

Well, lucky for all of us, I’ve done some research.

Photo: Amazon/Pre de Provence

Let’s start with the fact that manufacturers are responsible for making sure all of their products are “safe.” What exactly “safe” means to major corporations, well, that definition seems to be pretty loose. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all drugs to have expiration dates--which is why expiration dates are often marked on bar and liquid soaps, they also mandate that shelf life is determined entirely by the manufacturer. So while the FDA has determined that it’s important to note how long an item will last on the shelf, they themselves still don’t regulate the chemical preservatives that go into them.

See, to meet the definition of “soap” in FDA’s regulations, a product must meet these three conditions:

  • What is it made of?

To be regulated as a “soap,” the product must be made mainly of “alkali salts of fatty acids,” which is the material we get when we combine fats or oils with an alkali, like lye.

  • What ingredients cause its cleaning action?

So, this, I can’t lie, blew my mind. In order to even be classified as a “soap,” the “alkali salts of fatty acids” must be the only material that results in the product’s cleaning action, which, if you can’t tell, isn’t the case for many of our favorite products. Most of the soaps on the shelves contain synthetic detergents, which then makes this product a cosmetic, not a soap. However, despite this clear distinction, the word “soap” can still be used in product naming or a product can be called “soap” even if it’s, according to the FDA, technically not a soap.

  • How is it intended to be used?

Finally, to be regulated as soap, the product must be labeled and marketed only for use as a soap. If it is intended for other purposes such as moisturizing the skin, making the user “smell nice,” or “deodorizing” the user’s body, the product is considered a cosmetic again. If the product is intended to treat or prevent disease (such as killing germs or treating skin conditions, like some acne creams or eczema lotions), the product is actually classified as a drug. However, manufacturers in this category may still also label the product as a “soap.”

So there are a lot more to our body washes and “soaps” than meets the eye. Take a big, household-favorite brand like Dove, for example. Owned by Unilever, Dove doesn’t exactly label in its packaging the time stamp for how long its ingredients are active or inactive; because it doesn’t have to. Only products that meet the regulatory definition of soaps (the alkali salts of fatty acids) are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), which has an entirely different set of rules altogether. Dove, because it includes detergents, is considered a cosmetic, and cosmetics are regulated by the FDA, which states that neither the product nor its ingredients need actual approval by the FDA, except for any color additives it contains, to be sold on the market. With that being said, it is then the manufacturer's responsibility to make sure the product is safe for consumers when used, and it’s also the manufacturer's responsibility to make sure it is properly labeled.

We’re back to that loose definition of “safe” again.

And all of this is to say that we’re not exactly privy to a lot of the properties of the ingredients that go into our favorite brands of detergents--I mean, soaps. At least, much of this information isn’t easily accessible until you do your own digging.

A great way to guess the chemical makeup of your favorite soap is to check the shelf life. The longer a product lasts (like food), the more preservatives and chemicals within it (like food). Most commercial store-bought soaps expire after two to three years suggesting their average shelf life, and natural or homemade soaps often expire much sooner, like, within a year’s time, because essential oils and natural fragrances become rancid or moldy.

It’s like the food we buy. We actually want our apples to mold, we want our juice to go rancid, because that’s a telling sign that at least there were limited preservatives to keep it “fresh.”

According to The Insider, soap does, in fact, have an expiration date, but if it still lathers when you wash your hands it should still be effective.

Key emphasis on the “should.”

And I don’t mean to come for Dove today, but it stands out as a prime example for comparison. See, I used to love Dove. I used to love their message; promoting body positivity and self-love...everything I wish to cultivate and promote. But, Dove (and Unilever) have had their fair share of marketing faux-pas, that you can surely read more about here. However, Dove has claimed to be 100% sulfate and paraben-free. But, with no real product regulation, what exactly does that mean? Like, it sounds good. It sounds like the best choice when shopping, but Dove still contains chemicals and preservatives. Peep the ingredients breakdown in the typical Dove Beauty Detergent--I mean, Dove Beauty Bar:

  • Sodium Lauroyl Isethionate - a synthetic detergent

  • Stearic Acid - a saturated fatty acid

  • Sodium Tallowate or Sodium Palmitate - saponified tallow or saponified palm oil

  • Lauric Acid - a saturated fatty acid

  • Sodium Isethionate - a detergent surfactant

  • Water

  • Sodium Stearate - an emulsifier

  • Cocamidopropyl Betaine - a surfactant

  • Sodium Cocoate or Sodium Palm Kernelate - saponified coconut oil or saponified palm kernel oil

  • Sodium Chloride - salt

  • Tetrasodium EDTA - a preservative

  • Tetrasodium Etidronate - a preservative

  • Maltol - a flavoring agent

  • Titanium Dioxide - a coloring agent

Like? Our favorite Dove bar of soap isn’t even soap. It’s considered a cosmetic and a detergent, and it contains two preservatives that keep the product looking and smelling nice for as long as possible. And I’m not suggesting that this is bad, but for those who have sensitive skin or health issues, it's still important to note the things we ingest topically. Dove might be the lesser of evils because it is still missing many of the harmful ingredients that we know can be potentially harmful, but the FDA was created to regulate the products that “change a person’s physical structure or biochemical processes within the body,” according to an article by Healthline. So, how can the FDA even test whether or not these soaps are altering processes within our bodies if our favorite soaps are classified as “cosmetics,” and cosmetics are not regulated?

So, I'm being more mindful of my soaps.

Well, their ingredients, anyway.

See, my gateway into all things “natural soap” began when I stumbled upon Foxie Cosmetics, an amazing, natural bath and body brand specializing in vegan, handcrafted, and cruelty-free products. I fell in love, and I can tell Foxie is a fan favorite because you have to set your notifications for restocks--she’ll sell out of your favorites in a heartbeat. Owner and creator, Kayla Phillips, created the brand to address her own chronic illnesses, and put products on the market gentle enough for her to use herself. She’s even got a blog explaining her personal skincare routine and clear skin journey, where she’s using 100% of her own stuff.

Her products change seasonally--which is so cool especially around holidays--and they’re made of all-natural ingredients. For example, just in comparison to the Dove bar, her “Slice of Summer” bar has an ingredient list of:

  • Sodium Cocoate - a surfactant (cleanser) that is made by combining coconut oil with sodium hydroxide to create soap.

  • Sorbitol - a type of carbohydrate called a sugar alcohol. Sorbitol occurs naturally in some berries and fruits (like apples and blackberries).

  • Sodium Stearate - the sodium salt of stearic acid. This white solid is the most common soap.

  • Glycerin - a natural compound derived from vegetable oils or animal fats. It's a clear, colorless, odorless, and syrupy liquid with a sweet taste.

  • Aloe Barbadensis (Aloe Vera) Leaf Juice

  • Olea (Olive) Europaea Fruit Oil

  • Rice Bran Oil

  • Yellow 6 - a pure dye.

  • Green 5 - a pure dye.

Isn't it nice how some of these ingredients don't need a definition? Like, isn't it nice reading the list and knowing immediately and exactly what these ingredients are? And without hesitation?

In case you didn't know, I'm a fan.

Yes, I am in full support of Foxie Cosmetics, mostly because I’m in support of brands that not only speak to me through their mission but also their values. Our skincare regime can’t just include our faces, and self-care goes beyond a face mask every once and awhile. Taking care of our bodies in totality should be top of mind. And, because I have been a culprit of this exact behavior, I know firsthand how important it is to pay attention to the ingredient lists of your favorite products. The long, confusing names of the chemicals on the backs of things we buy shouldn’t go un-researched if we don’t know offhand what they are. So, because I told you, I’ve been deep in my research to provide you a comprehensive list of natural soaps, here are a few more brands to replace those products specifically formulated to “keep” on a drugstore shelf.

Here I have a list of brands to support, especially now, since COVID-19 has made it especially difficult for small business owners. Next time you’re out of soap, try supporting these Black businesses instead:

Foxie Cosmetics

Right now, the website is having a moving sale! Hurry and grab some vegan must-haves before everything is gone. Seriously, she sells out fast.

Kannie’s Kosmetics

Ethically sourced, all-natural and handmade products, KK has wonderful smelling body washes with ingredients used to protect your skin from damage caused by free radicals.

Try the Papaya and Mango Body Wash. Literally, yum.

Redoux NYC

Redoux is a "line of sophisticated scents and vegan skincare for the modern nostalgic." Their founder, Asia Grant, even offers consulting services in the form of scent design and scent marketing.

Since soap can be used up fast, try their Turmeric Botanical Bar in their new 3-Pack, so you're set for a while.

BreedLove Beauty Co.

Natural, minimalist skin and hair care are what this brand is all about, and let me tell you, I am a major fan and have been for a while. The company sells products with ingredients all chosen for specific therapeutic reasons, and because they're made in small batches, just like Foxie, they sell out fast.

Breedlove has incredible smelling soaps, but two of my favorites are the African Black Soaps and the Black Rose Activated Charcoal Soaps.

Nature’s Beauti Bar

If you're looking for fresh, handmade products made from natural African ingredients, look no further. I tried out two soaps from this company not too long ago and experienced incredible customer service and super fast shipping. Not to mention, they're having a flash sale today! Get 25% off of your entire order with no minimum necessary. Or, if you miss the sale, get 15% on your purchase with my referral. You're welcome.

Try the African Raspberry Soap Bar or the Aburi Lemonade Exfoliator Soap Bar. Seriously. Check out these soaps and don't tell me they don't look good enough to eat.

And finally, if you're looking for more artisanal products by Black-owned companies, follow BLK+GRN on Instagram! It is an e-commerce marketplace for all Black artisans and a one-stop-shop for natural products. Follow here!

Do you have any other brands you love that should be added to the list? Or any others whose ingredients should be researched? Let me know and I’ll update!

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