Earth friendly soaps

March 19th, 2008
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Much of what goes down our drains winds up in the environment and potentially nasty chemicals from common soap residue are no different. There are greener ways to stay clean!

Most of us use “normal” soap on a daily basis, so literally millions of tonnes of soap is flushed the gurgler every year. It’s an added threat to an already stressed aquatic environment.

So many soaps contain a variety of fragrances and chemicals that have the potential to harm the environment. Some chemicals used in soap fragrances have been proven to cause birth defects and liver damage in animals.

It seems that many cleaning fluids and stuff we apply to our skin also carry the “anti-bacterial” label these days. Is this really necessary and what are the effects on the wider environment? We seem to be really fixated on bacteria and these poor little critters really do get a bad rap. Sure, there’s bad bacteria, but there’s also many kinds of good bacteria that we couldn’t live without.

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Some anti-bacterial soaps contain MIT (methylisothiazolinone), which some studies have found to be allergenic, cytotoxic and linked to nerve cell death. Another anti-bacterial chemical commonly used is Triclosan. This chemical is registered with the Environmental Protection Agency as being a pesticide and is believed to destroy fragile aquatic ecosystems. Yet another agent is the similarly named tricloban.

While triclosan and tricloban do play a role in professional health settings, residue from these substances do continue killing bacteria once hands are washed, but at a low rate – which can play a role in making bacterial more resistant.

These chemicals aren’t the type of thing you want to risk using on your body unless absolutely necessary, let alone escape into our waterways.

Even if the potentially toxic chemicals are in minute amounts and they may not build up on or in our bodies, they can accumulate in the environment. What goes around, comes around.

Other ingredients often found in soap include paraffin wax, ozokerite, other crude oil derivatives and animal tallow (fat). This is just scratching the surface; the ingredient list of so many personal care products these days read off like a chemistry lesson.

Added to all that, in most commercial soap making processes, at the end of the process what’s left is the basic soap  product and glycerine. The glycerine, a useful emollient, is often sold separately as a moisturizer. This is rather ironic as soap with glycerine removed can dry out your skin.

Vegetable and castile soaps

Thankfully, there are more natural alternatives to using these chemical cocktails. After my run-in with the ingredient list of my shampoo bottle, I decided to kill two birds with one stone (I know, a rather inappropriate saying) and try out the vegetable soap we had. I’m not too sure how it would be on long or color treated hair, but it’s been great on my hair and I do feel very clean after using it! Even my hairdresser commented on how soft my hair was.

Vegetable soaps such as castile soap contain no animal products, so they are also a great choice for vegans. The types of castile soap available would be far too long to list, but they are made with plant oils and natural fragrances only and the glycerine is usually left in. The soap we buy is actually cheaper than the “normal” brand we used to purchase.

You shouldn’t need to go to a specialty store to buy vegetable soap – I’ve found that most supermarkets now stock it.

As far as I know, sodium hydroxide, also known as lye, is still needed to make any kind of useful bar soap, including vegetable soap; but once the lye has reacted with the plant fats and oils, their chemical structures are changed and there’s no harmful residue. This chemical reaction is called saponification.

I guess the modern methods of creating sodium hydroxide may not be all that earth friendly, but there’s a line for everything and I do like to stay clean :). Soap free alternatives such as scrubbing with sand and hot cloths I’m not quite ready for, nor are our drains.

Anti-bacterial soap is really an overkill it seems. The common sense practice of hand washing with normal soap is sufficient according to many health authorities, including the Center for Disease Control – normal soap dislodges bacteria which can be then washed away with water.

If you’re really adventurous you could try researching the following plants, said to be good soap alternatives:

Philadelphus lewisii
Yucca root
Soap Lily
Horse Chestnut
Bracken
Saponaria officinalis
Christmas Rose
Asparagus fern
Daisies
Ivy

… and the list goes on – search for plants that contain high saponin levels as saponins are natural detergents. Be careful in your experimentation though and research thoroughly!


Michael Bloch
Green Living Tips.com
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