What is Soap?

So what, exactly, is soap?

It's something we use multiple times a day, every day, and don't really think about. It's just there, has always been there, and is just part of our lives.

Unfortunately, some of us have been using “soap” that's not...well...soap.

Do not be fooled by these impostors! They lurk in the soap aisle, but go by names such as “body bar”, “shower gel”, “body wash”, and “beauty bar”. None of these are soaps- they are detergents!

Soap, in its simplest description, is the product of a chemical reaction between fat (animal or plant) and an alkali (otherwise referred to here as “lye”). Lye can be either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide, but, in the case of bar soap, it would most likely be sodium hydroxide. This reaction is called saponification.

 Just some pumice soap...

Just some pumice soap...

When you wash with soap, the molecules in the soap bind with both the water you're using and the oils on your skin (either your own or in whatever grossness you need to wash off) and allows the oils to mix with water. The combination of this binding, plus the actual physical act of washing, allows for the removal of dirt from your skin, washing it down the drain.

Detergents, on the other hand, are made with synthetic ingredients. Some of them are chemicals that create foaming or lather, some are antibacterial, and some are simply fragrance and dyes (your “pomegranate” hand wash is the farthest thing from an actual pomegranate). Not only are these ingredients harmful to your body, but they're harmful to the environment as well. What's not being absorbed by your skin is washing down the drain and ending up in your drinking water. I don't know about you, but personally I'm not a huge fan of drinking phthalates and triclosan.

How do you know if you're using actual soap? Take a look at what it's called. If it's called “soap”, then you're fine. If it's called something that's a bit evasive (“body wash”, for example) then what you have is definitely not soap. Also, always be sure to look at the ingredients! Even if it's soap, you should know what it is you are putting on your body and why!

I'll Never Get My Sandalwood Soap (and I'm ok with that)

I would absolutely love it if we had a sandalwood soap. Sandalwood is one of my favorite scents and, years ago, I not only used sandalwood soap, but I also wore a sandalwood perfume.

Yes, I was all about the sandalwood but, alas, we will never carry our own sandalwood soap.

The reason for this is that we only use essential oils in our soaps and some of these oils, such as sandalwood, are incredibly expensive. If we used these more expensive oils, we would have to charge what we feel would be an unreasonable amount per bar of soap and that's not something we're willing to do.

So what's the difference between essential oils and fragrance oils? Essential oils are oils that are directly extracted from plants through distillation, whereas fragrance oils are chemical mock-ups. For example, if you purchase a product that uses lavender essential oil, you know that the scent is actually lavender. If you get the fragrance oil version of lavender, you have no idea what combination of chemicals you are actually putting on your body to achieve that scent. Also, many fragrance oils contain phthalates- known endocrine disrupters (for more on phthalates, read: http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=290).

It can seem quite overwhelming at first when you start the switch to truly natural products, but once you do, you'll definitely notice a difference in quality and in the way your body responds to them.

A Bit About Tallow and Lye

     One of the questions that Darlene and I frequently get asked at farmers' markets is, “what is tallow?” For those of you who don't know, tallow is rendered beef suet, and suet is the fat that lines the kidneys of a cow. If you use commercial soaps, you've probably already used tallow without even realizing it. Unfortunately, that tallow most likely comes from industrial feed lots where the cows aren't treated the way cows, or any animal, should be treated. On top of that, the commercial soaps have so many other added chemicals, that the benefits of tallow (even poor quality feed-lot tallow) in their products are completely destroyed.

     We use grass-fed tallow because of how wonderfully it binds with our skin, the higher vitamin content (A,D, E, and Omega-3's), and the higher levels of CLA. We also use only locally sourced suet which means that we get to go directly to the farms and see how happy and healthy the cows are- something that is extremely important to us.

     Another question we get asked quite often is, “Do you use lye?” and the answer to that is always “yes” because that is exactly what makes soap, well...soap. Without lye, there would be no chemical reaction and therefore the lye and the fats/oils wouldn't combine and we wouldn't end up with a wonderful bar of soap. We might be able to create something that is soap-esque by adding a bunch of chemicals together, but it wouldn't be soap (and it might not be all that great for you). Don't worry, though, all lye that is used in soap-making is gone by the end of the process and there is absolutely no lye contained in the final product!

     We feel it is extremely important for people to know what, exactly, it is that they're buying. As always, feel free to comment here, send us an email, or find us at one of our markets if you have any questions about our products!