Writings

In a Lather - Roundabout Magazine (16 October 2007)

Soap is big business. Everyone uses it on an extremely regular basis. If they didn’t, they’d soon discover people giving them a wide berth on public transport. There is even a Health and Safety Executive illustrated pamphlet with 10 step instructions on the correct way to wash. I think there are three categories of soap user – the Traditional -encompassing a large proportion of the male population, who believe that the economy 4 pack will suffice for all their cleaning needs. Your Moderate– ordinary soap for body and ‘nice’ (read expensive) stuff for the face. Lastly, the Extravagant - who will purchase exquisite hand-made concoctions which read like the contents of a kitchen store cupboard.
I never gave much thought to what was in my cleansing agent until a few years ago. I’d bought a mint shower gel, largely because of the nice green hue. In its one use, it brought tears to my eyes, not to mention my other sensitive bits. I wrote to the manufacturer and received an extremely long, scientific letter back which explained all the rigorous testing undergone (perhaps they were fearing legal action) mentioning that some people were susceptible to certain properties.
But just what is in our soap?

Soaps, as we think of them, were first used about 600 BC by the Phoenicians who combined goat fat, water, and potassium carbonate ash to form a solid soap. More recently, in 1878, Harley Procter developed a soap in collaboration with his cousin, James Gamble. It was produced by whipping air into a soap solution resulting in Ivory Soap, which is still used today.
Soap is basically made from a combination of an animal or vegetable fat and the mineral sodium hydroxide (lye).  Neat sodium hydroxide is extremely dangerous, but once it has been processed, all the molecules have broken down and recombined into something that won’t eat your face off.

Soaps decrease the oil on the surface of the skin and this removal of the protective fat layer can lead to drying of the skin. In addition, they may contain synthetic fragrance, preservatives and artificial colours to make them more appealing, which affect the natural acidity of the skin. Mild soaps usually don’t contain synthetics, but accustomed as we are to a perfumed age, the odours of the raw ingredients can be off-putting.

So, what other alternatives are there to the traditional soap? You can buy lipid (fat) free liquid cleansers, useful for eczema sufferers and those with drier skins, cold creams that you wash off, or if you want something a bit more hardcore, astringent scrubbers, which I thought was a character you found in Eastenders. However a quick perusal down the ingredients list of a range of soaps reveals quite a number of chemicals. If you want to avoid these you can seek out some of the natural soaps, available from shops selling health foods/products. Goats’ milk is still a popular ingredient and good for dry skin. Just add a teabag and your basin can become a giant mug. Soaps containing oats are good for exfoliations, lavender as a ‘destresser’, honey for oily skin. If you want something to pep you up try peppermint. My own experience tells me I won’t be joining in that one but I did like the sound of Buffy the Backside Slayer.

Natural soaps use oils such as palm or sunflower to bind them rather than chemicals. The only caution is if they don’t have any preservatives, they will not last indefinitely. All the more reason to pamper yourself with a luxurious soak on a regular basis. Or if you’re feeling adventurous, try making some yourself. All you need is white wood ash, rain or spring water, animal fats, plant oils and salt. What are you waiting for?! The soapnaturally.org website lists over 160 recipes that you could try, including Thunder Egg Swirl, Chocolate Addiction and, I kid you not, Gardener’s Scrubby Stick. Sounds a good match for the Abrasive Scrubber any day.

Breakout box for babies

When looking for baby soap, aim for one that is

  • gentle
  • hypoallergenic 
  • non-toxic 
  • sls free

You don’t want the product to be irritating to your baby’s skin during or after bath time. It should be hypoallergenic since babies are more susceptible at this age. It needs to be non-toxic since young babies like to put their hands in their mouth. Quite a lot of baby washes are all the above but many are not Sodium Laurel Sulfate (SLS) free.  SLS is a harsh chemical that is used as the chief foaming agent in soaps, including some baby soaps. It might be worth splashing out on a natural product containing plant extracts, such as calendula, which will be better for their delicate skin.

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