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Saturday
Nov282015

Soap Impossible: Still Doesn't Add Up

In January of this year I wrote this article, exposing a soap product that just didn't add up. A couple months after my article was published, one of the owners wrote to me telling me how I was wrong, and shared her story of her son with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. I told her that I'd be happy to post an update or retraction if they were able to provide further information about the product that addressed my ingredient concerns. I never heard back, but the company quietly changed a few things on their website, in an attempt to answer the concerns that I raised. However, even with those changes, the product still does not add up. 

A Quiet Ingredients Listing Change

Previously they claimed that their product was a "100% plant-based cleaning soap" and that it was created using "minerals and enzymes from seed-bearing plants." In my previous article I questioned how "minerals and enzymes" from plants could combine with the coconut oil they listed to create a soap. Unless they were burning the plants to create ash, and then using the purified ash to saponify the coconut oil (like how African Black Soap is made) they weren't truly making a soap.

Ther website now reads "100% Plant & Mineral Based"--note the addition of "and mineral" based. They also started listing baking soda as an addition to their ingredients list. They claim that their product is a true soap (an oil that has been mixed with an alkali) and contains no synthetic detergents, and that the baking soda is what is used as the alkali. They say that through their special process of alcohol, baking soda, and coconut oil and fatty acids is able to create a soap. It seemed like a subtle way that they were admitting their previous labels were omitting something. 

There are a couple of problems with the idea of saponifying with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).

First of all, sodium bicarbonate is a weak alkali, and not likely "strong" enough to tear apart a molecule of oil and turn it in to soap. But, let's say, for a moment, that they somehow developed a special process, maybe through high pressure or heat, that they were able to use sodium bicarbonate as a saponifying agent. The end result would be sodium cocoate, which is a solid. Their product is a liquid. 

One big component of coconut oil is stearic acid. Saponified, it becomes sodium stearate. A large portion of sodium cocoate is sodium stearate, which is a solid. 

 

So, that's the first thing that didn't add up to me. 

So, I got a hold of the product and put it to the test. 

I created a number of different tests that would compare a true soap vs. what I'm going to call "Product X." These are tests that you too can do at home to verify my findings if you're using this product.

Water Test

If you've ever used a  soap before (true soap) like our shower gels or Dr. Bronner's soap, you know that when you add water to it, the formula gets cloudy. 

Here you can see side-by-side, pure potassium cocoate (liquid coconut oil soap) added with water, vs. "Product X." The potassium cocoate is cloudy, but the "Product X" is crystal clear.

 

Result: FAIL

pH Test

Any true soap is alkaline. So, I did a simple pH test on the product. Here you can see potassium cocoate (the true soap) on the left, and the "Product X" on the right. The "Product X" was indeed alkaline, so it being a true soap based on pH alone is plausible. One interesting note--in order to get a pH reading, water has to be present (as it is a measure of certain ions in water). The pure potassium cocoate hardly registered a pH because it contained such little water. For a product that's marketed as a "concentrate" it certainly contains water. 

 

Result: Inconclusive

Acid Test

When you add an acid to a true soap, the solution neutralizes and is no longer able to act as a soap. It will be milky and lose its cleansing properties. So, I neutralized both my potassium cocoate and "Product X" formulas with citric acid until the overall formula was mildly acidic, at a pH of 6. (It took three times as much citric acid to neutralize the soap, BTW.) 

The "Product X" turned slightly cloudy. 

Pure potassium cocoate turns very cloudy. 

Result: Inconclusive...but it's giving me some thoughts. 

Salt Test

If you add common table salt to true liquid soap, the sodium ion will displace the potassium and sodium cocoate will precipitate out of the solution. (Remember, sodium cocoate is a solid.) So, I added 1/4 teaspoon salt to "Product X" and to the pure coconut oil soap to see the difference. 

For further testing, I dumped salt in the "Product X" to see what would happen. Small chunks started to form. 

 

Result: Hm....

HYPOTHESIS

The slight cloudiness in the salt and the acid tests made me start to think...what if "Product X" contains a little bit of soap, but also synthetic detergent. With a very small amount of soap to detergent ratio, you could create a formula that stayed clear in the water test, but would show a small amount of cloudiness if salt or acid were added.

So, I made a blend of my own: decyl glucoside with a touch of potassium cocoate, and water. (Decyl glucoside is a synthetic detergent of natural origin that's one of the most gentle detergents available. We use decyl glucoside in our products where we can't use soap. For instance in a salt scrub, where a liquid soap would chunk up in the presence of salt. I don't know if this is what they're using in their product or not, but it was the only one I had on hand to test.)

Water Test

I took my formula and put it in a foamer bottle. With the small amount of soap present, the formula remained clear in solution. 

Check out how clear the formula is, just like "Product X." 

Acid test

At a pH of 6, look how similar the formulas are.

Salt Test


My solution acted just like Product X when salt was added. Got slightly cloudy but no chunks formed.

Conclusion:

Product X is most likely a combination of water, a synthetic detergent, and a touch of true soap (likely potassium cocoate). Now, that's not to say that the product is dangerous or "bad." Synthetic detergents can be useful and gentle (as in the case of decyl glucoside.) However, without a full and accurate ingredients listing, there's no way to truly assess the safety of this product.

Now, it's also not to say that the company is intentionally deceiving customers. It may be that they're getting the product made in a contract lab and the lab is misrepresenting the product to them, or the company owners may not have a true understanding of the product they're selling. Either way, from all of the tests I have done, it appears that the ingredients on the label do not match what's in the product. 

Reader Comments (10)

Very interesting, Stephanie. You really know your chemistry. In addition to your soaps, I also use African black soap, which only has 4 ingredients (African wild bee honey, palm kernel oil, plantain skin, and cocoa butter). I think it's a great product, and also use straight shea and/or cocoa butter and your moisturizer. However, my skin is still permanently dry and I can't seem to keep it hydrated longer than a few hours, not to mention it always needs exfoliating. I was thinking of using something with beeswax but am kind of at a loss. Any suggestions?

Sat, November 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke

Thank you Stephanie, keep on with this. I love knowing that when I smell something fishy- it's because it is indeed fishy.
Rock on! :)

Sat, November 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSammy

Can you tell us what the product is?

Sat, November 28, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdonna

Stephanie,

Thank you so much for this post. This was very interesting to read. I have been skeptical of Product X for some time. I actually did buy some, but have never really used it because we just couldn't get comfortable with the idea of using something that we couldn't get full disclosure on. I tried contacting the company, but they wouldn't tell me anything more than what was on the website. So, that was my bad. I should know better. I do think it is wrong for them to not disclose what is in their product, especially when they are claiming to be a company that supports knowing what you are using, and using safe products. How can we truly know if their product is safe if they won't tell us what is in it?

I so appreciate your transparency with your products and your help sorting through everything out there on the market.

So thankful for you guys!

Sat, November 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

@Donna: to find the product, simply highlight and "copy" the ingredients list, then "paste" into a search engine. I use DuckDuckGo and it came up as the first option after an ad.

Sun, November 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKristin

@Kristin, other than the ingredients being mentioned here & there throughout the article, is there a listing altogether? on my ohone & don't see that. Thank you!

Tue, December 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette

Hi there, I am a natural liquid soapmaker. I admire your passion for wanting to get to the truth behing this company's ingredient list. I think you are right in that it definitely does seem like it doesn't add up. We have the right to know what chemicals are being put into our bodies, so product labels need to be truthful! I've been making liquid soap for the past year, so I know I probably have more experience and knowledge than the average person on the subject, but I don't think I could be called an expert. I mean my comments in the nicest and most constructive way I promise! Maybe we can even figure it out together? When I make liquid soap, I first make a soap paste out of USDA certified organic vegetable oils, potassium hydroxide and distilled water. I cook the paste until all of the oil's fatty acids have become neutralized (and then saponification is complete). Some soapmakers formulate their soap to have excess alkali to make sure that absolutely all of the fatty acids have neutralized. In this case, an acid is necessary to "buffer" the excess alkali down to a lower level, preferably to about 9.5-10. So therefore to me, when you said that adding an acid to soap would neutralize it and make it stop being soap, it is incorrect. You are right in that adding too much acid to soap would neutralize it to the point of making it separate into a caustic lye/water pool with the oils separated out. This is supposed to happen with a pH of under 7. But added in small amounts, as long as it isn't enough to make the pH less than 7, it just neutralizes any excess alkali. It's still soap..just with less cleaning power. So, now that I have my soap paste I can dilute it with distilled water, turning it from it's toffee like consistancy into a watery liquid soap. Water used to dilute the paste actually lowers the pH. You said that the pure coconut soap barely registered on the pH because it had so little water, but less water would mean it would have a higher pH, instead of a neutral one. If I want my soap to be "concentrated" I just need to add less distilled water. My point here is that all concentrates will have at least some water in it.. otherwise it would be a sticky paste. Lastly, I just want to add that I thicken my soaps with a little bit of salt diluted in water. It's possible as long as the formulation doesn't have more than 30% coconut oil, and it does not make the potassium precipitate out. My information is from my own experience and trial and error, and I have read Catherine Failor's liquid soapmaking book cover to cover probably too many times. Im sorry, I'm not trying to be a jerk know it all, just trying to help. :)

.

Sat, December 12, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJen Collins

@Jen--no worries! I should have been more clear--when you add an acid to a soap *to the point that it adjusts the pH to 7 or below* it neutralizes the soap. A soap formula will tolerate a small amount of acid as long as the overall formulation is still alkaline. That's why I added enough acid to the formula in my testing so that the overall pH was 6 on both solutions.

As for the water, I do see what you're saying and agree. Would have to show you what I meant by not enough water present--the pure potassium cocoate was thick and didn't really seep in to the pH strip. Adding a little bit of water would have diluted it and adjusted the pH slightly, but it would have broken up the surface tension a bit so the formula could seep in to and react with the pH strip. :)

Thanks for your thoughts!

Mon, December 14, 2015 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

Here is an article about one company who claims they had no idea their household cleaner was not "soap" - https://gogreenct.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/branch-basics-disclosure-notice/

Sun, February 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSueA

Soap berries make an acidic liquid detergent that is a plant extract...

Tue, September 27, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

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