The shift from soap based detergents to synthetic surfactants has led to major contamination in the environment primarily in the last 102 years, apart from affecting our bodies. Year 2016 marked the completion of 100 years of existence of synthetic cleaners. Even since the consumer psyche relates bubbles with cleansing.
Traditionally the first cleaners in personal care routines used to be naturally occurring clays and home made scrubs. Clays have been used since antiquity to cleanse the body systems externally and internally. Some clays contain natural saponins, compounds that give them that slimy, foaming properties. Some plants also contain natural saponins that act like cleansers, e.g. soap nut (Reetha), Soap Wort, Shikakai, Papaya leaves, Hibiscus, lentils, soybeans etc. No wonder our ancestors made scrubs with nuts, herbs, roots, lentils and clays to cleanse the bodies effectively, minus the risks of skin ailments and hazards of environmental pollution.
Historically Soap was coined after Mount Sapo according to a Roman legend, a place where animals were sacrificed. Earliest soaps in Europe were made with animal fat mixed with ashes. It is believed that a soapy mix was formed when rains washed animal fats with ashes into the clay soil along the river flowing underneath.
Soon soap was being made using wood ashes, water and animal or plant fat,and was rendered an effective in cleansing agent. It could be stored longer and made it easy to cleanse the bodies and wash clothes as well as utensils effectively.
Traditionally ancients used to anoint the body with oils, massage was a daily routine followed by a scrubbing with ashes, clays, grains or pumice to remove the dirt from the body. Not long ago, dishes used to be cleaned with ashes from the coal and wood. It formed soap, naturally mixing with the oily residue left from cooking or eating in them.
Soaps gained popularity thereafter. The first commercial soaps were manufactured in Europe made with animal fat and ashes and later on with olive oil and other vegetable oil followed by the trends in Arabic countries. Castile, traditionally made with only olive oil is one of the most famous soap across the world, came from Castile region of Spain, however Palestine remains the first commercial producer of olive oil soaps with some of the oldest, giant soap factories across Nabulsi. Castile or olive oil soaps are extremely gentle on the skin, often added with therapeutic essential oils they top the chart in bar soaps.
Olive oil soaps lost their popularity once the marketing trends of soaps producing rich lather or suds caught the fancy of the masses. So what are these suds or bubbles or lather or foam?
These are air trapped in the surfactant film when the water in which soap is mixed is agitated. With 100 years of marketing strategies we are made to believe more bubbles mean more cleansing. This of course is not true. It is just a fanciful picture of our favorite movie star or a supermodel sitting in a bathtub full of heavy lather that is impressioned on our minds to make it more appealing to the senses. Attractive visuals and of course when we buy that beautiful bar or liquid or gel, the perfume fragrance that lasts sometimes a couple of hours reminds us how clean and fresh we feel.
So does more bubbles mean more effective cleaning? NO !
Take for example dish liquid and dish washer liquid, both are equally effective in cleaning, but the manual use dish soap produces more lather than the dish washer liquid because the manufacturing companies add foam boosters to make it visually appealing, only for the reason that masses take lots of bubbles to mean extra cleansing. In fact machine wash detergents are often added with foam suppressants, as they contain synthetic surfactants that produce a lot of foam. You can’t have foam overflowing out of your dishwasher or washing machines, can you !
Rich foam or lather is produced by often adding surfactants even to the bar soap. What are these surfactants then? These are generally the synthetic substances like SLS, SLES, Sarcosinates etc, they produce heavy foaming when they are agitated in contact with water and give us that feel good factor. Most of these are listed in the category of carcinogens or harmful for one or more systems of the body. They are harsh on the skin and often disturb the probiotic balance of the skin by removing sebum, the natural oily residue produced by the skin to protect itself from external damage. The result is excessive dryness, flakiness, topical dermatitis and skin irritation on a less dangerous note, for more, anyone can do their personal research on the harmful effects of synthetic surfactants, specially combined with synthetic perfumes and preservatives like formaldehyde, sodium benzoate etc. the list entails of serious diseases like cancer, gene modification, reproductive disorders and a lot more.
Slowly over a period of time with advertisements claiming “yeh jhaag wala hai ( it lathers well), we were convinced to accept such toxic substances as fanciful ingredients in not just our cleansers but also in our toothpastes. If you are not sure of what this means, you can read the list of ingredients in your foaming toothpaste to know what you are putting in your and your children’s or family’s mouth every day. Most of our toothpastes contain the same carcinogenic ingredient SLS to clean our teeth and gums.
A regular handmade cold processed soap bar produces good amount of bubbles with fairly good amount of fatty acids present in the oils and fats that go into making the bar. A good quality handmade herbal bath soap consisting of coconut, castor or palm oil is rich in lather, often these are added with extra oils or plant fats that do not convert into soap to save the skin from dehydration.
Often we hear people say that a liquid soap is more hygienic than a bar soap. In their 1988 study Dial corporation tested the bar soap to find out if bacteria transferred from a used bar soap to different people who washed their hands with it, they even inoculated the used bar soap with E. Coli and other bacteria to make it 70 times more contaminated than normally a used bar soap would be, specially within a household. A group of volunteers then washed their hands with contaminated bar soaps and test found out that no bacteria was transferred on to the hands of the volunteers from the used soap. A regular bar soap is an effective cleanser for a simple reason, the molecules of soap are both hydrophobic and hydrophilic. They stick to the particles like dust and grease on the skin and also to the water molecules that rinses them. In the process they carry away the germs and dirt that stick to the skin quite effectively.
In fact there is no scientific evidence that certain washes claiming to be antiseptic or antibacterial actually do what they promise. In September 2016 an FDA announcement raised concern over the so called antiseptic and germicidal claims in hand or personal hygiene washes as the manufacturers could not establish their efficacy in killing the germs or their safety in their long term usage, amounting to actually understanding that such products maybe harmful to use in the long run with active ingredients like tricolsan and triclocarbon and other specific active ingredients that are considered harmful.
I am definitely a fan of handmade soap bars for many reasons. Most of the naturally fragranced handmade soap bars are primarily saponified oils, nourishing for the skin. To color and enhance the quality of handmade soap bars herbs and clays are added giving them extra skin nurturing and healing properties. The essential oils used to manufacture natural soaps lend them benefits of aromatherapy, a very potent and pleasant way of benefitting from pure plant extracts. A mature/fully cured soap bar lasts much longer and gives more value for money than liquid soap or gel.
And all this with no harmful effects on the skin as well as the ecosystem.
Now, if you are a vegetarian or a vegan it becomes imperative to go through the list of ingredients in your soap ( and or other personal care products) now more than ever. Some of the very popular brands featuring our highest paid film actors as symbols of eternal beauty or our modest moisturizing sensitive skin bars often contain an ingredient called “Sodium Tallowate” aka saponified tallow of beef fat. Yes you read it right, the age old beauty bars are made with cheap animal fats than more expensive plant oils/fats to please the masses with low costs and high performance.
If cleanliness is your concern, and also looking from a larger perspective, you may find that by using a bar soap you are significantly reducing environmental contamination and carbon footprint by eliminating plastic dispensers and dispensing of other hazardous toxins in the environment. The non-biodegradable residual sludge from synthetic surfactants passes through sewage treatment plants and is discharged into natural waters causing degradation of soil and adding a threat to marine life.
Visual marketing is the most effective tool running maximum big businesses across the world and often consumers are shown a flowery picture making them into believing what they see on screen or hear on radio or an audio clip is the truth. The truth here is far from reality, reality is we are living in a make believe environment, blindly following what others are doing, or picking what comes cheap and easy. Times are changing, we not only need to wake but we need to really shake ourselves from the dreamy slumber to see the facts as they really are.