Food & Fitness

Reading Soap Labels

In conducting research on the ingredients in cosmetics and household products, I was fascinated to find that many ingredients are not listed on household products. Lysol, for example, only says “Active ingredient: Hydrochloric acid 9.5%”, but that doesn’t explain what the blue colour is. Looking briefly online, I was unable to determine what exactly the blue colour is, so I e-mailed Reckitt Benckiser (Canada) Inc with my query. I will let you all know as soon as I hear back from them.

One product that does include all ingredients on the product label was my container of liquid soap (the brand Softsoap in Ultra Rich Shea Butter). On the list:

Aqua: Water (it is a legal requirement that products use the scientific names for ingredients).

Sodium Laureth Sulfate: A commonly-used foaming agent in many household products. It is often used in shampoos. To a lesser degree, it has been used in toothpastes. According to several different sources (which you can view here, here, and here), sodium laureth sulfate is likely not the healthiest ingredient that we can use. Some research has shown that it is a dangerous chemical which irritates and dries the skin, and may even be toxic to some of our organ systems.

Although there has been speculation that sodium laureth sulfate is a carcinogen, there appears to be conflicting information across the board. Most sources seem to agree that sodium laureth sulfate does not cause cancer.

When I first began reading about sodium laureth sulfate, I couldn’t help but think of hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils (AKA trans fats) and how they are used in products to achieve a creamy consistency. Judging from the basic research that I have done, it does not appear as though sodium laureth sulfate is nearly as dangerous or as toxic as hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are, but it’s the same kind of idea: we use the ingredient because it has properties which serve our purposes (foaming from sodium laureth sulfate; creaminess from hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils), rather than because the ingredient is truly necessary and good for us.

Acrylates copolymer: A stabilizing ingredient. Some sources describe it as being an irritant to the skin. And yet we use it to wash our hands? Other sources show that we do not have very much information about the ingredient.

Cocamidopropyl Betaine: Used for its foaming and stabilizing properties. Some sources note that it, too, may irritate the skin. Other sources also look at it as being toxic to the environment.

Sodium Chloride: Salt! It’s pretty safe for us to use.

Methyl Gluceth-10: Has moisturizing properties; it is derived from sugars. It appears to be fairly safe from several sources.

Glycol Distearate: Stabilizer and skin conditioning agent. Sources suggest that it is not harmful, even in large quantities.

Sodium Hydroxide: A cheap base and cleanser added to many products. It is recognized as a poisonous ingredient.

Parfum: Used for fragrance. Sources that I found didn’t seem to discuss the issue of health related to this ingredient.

PPG-10 Methyl Glucose Ether: Does not appear to currently have any toxicity concerns for either humans or the environment, but this may also be because not much research appears to have been completed with regards to this ingredient.

Laureth-4: Cleansing and stabilizing agent. Does not appear to be harmful in cosmetics, however it is recognized as a major irritant in other sources.

DMDM Hydantoin: A preservative. Restricted in cosmetics; known to be an irritant and an allergen.

Butyrospermum Parkii: Shea Butter! A natural product. Works as an emollient and is common in household products.

Tetrasodium EDTA: Chelating agent. Only allowed in low doses due to organ toxicity, and irritants. According to one source, it may even cause burning.

Gelatin: Surprise, surprise! Animal products can be found anywhere. Even in a bottle of liquid hand soap, we’ve got boiled animal bones and skins.

Acacia Senegal Gum: Used as an adhesive. One source says its a carcinogen. Another source says its a small plant. Hmm. More research is needed on my part.

Mica: Shiny minerals 🙂 …which also may cause mild abrasions or cystic acne (eep). It is used for its sparkly properties. The FDA says that small amounts are safe to use in cosmetics.

Citric Acid: Natural preservative and organic acid.

Iron Oxides: Used for colour. Considered to be non-toxic.

Titanium Dioxide: A whitener. Some sources suggest it may be a carcinogen, though small amounts may be safe.

Overall, there are many ingredients used in a common product like liquid hand soap which appear to be safe in small doses. But that makes me feel uncomfortable. If I’m using the product on a multiple-times-daily basis for months or years at a time, wouldn’t that eventually become harmful? It’s not like eating a piece of chocolate on occasion; with a treat like that, it is eaten in moderation. But using liquid hand soap day after day means that we’re using a small amount, day after day, on a very long-term basis. And I don’t know quite what to make of that.

How does it make you feel? Do you use products that contain these ingredients? Do you know what is in your liquid hand soap?


  1. Mimi (Damn the Freshman 15)

    Maybe I’d be more scared if I used more soap…

    Lol, just kidding. But I don’t think I use as much soap as most people do. I think America is kind of over-antibacterialized. I mean, how are our immune systems expected to do their jobs if they never get any practise? Yes, this is totally my bullshit science talk going off…but I never get colds, either.

    But as for the ingredients…as long as my hands aren’t erupting with oozing boils, I’m pretty chill with a few odd-sounding ingredients. Science-based does not always equal bad. Arsenic is totally natural but will still kill you.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      Oh for sure, I think that we WAY over-sanitize. I grew up in a vet clinic, surrounded by sick animals – and I think it did wonders for my immune system.

      “Science-based does not always equal bad. Arsenic is totally natural but will still kill you.” Precisely. Just because an ingredient is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s safe – after all, there are plenty of natural poisons and toxins. Even that acacia plant listed above has controversy. I guess my point is that we use products without thinking about what’s going into them at all… we don’t look into the potential side effects and problems associated with different ingredients that we use every day. And I think that it’s worth at least KNOWING what is in the products that we use, regardless if we choose to stop using them or not.

  2. Mary Anne in Kentucky

    I was thinking, as you described sodium laureth sulfate as “irritating to the skin” that lye is pretty irritating to the skin (!) by itself, but necessary for soap. In combination with fat, it’s not irritating at all, but when you make soap you must be Very Careful not to get it on you, or on anything metal.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Sagan Morrow

      Excellent point. You’re right; there ARE many things that are irritating to the skin, and many people with sensitive skin. I wonder if it is a result of trying to over-sanitize that this happens? Or because most of us continue to use products that are mild irritants? Hmm.

  3. the Bag Lady

    Hmmm. Perhaps we need to weigh the consequences of not washing with soap against the consequences of long-term use of soap with these ingredients. I think the brief amount of time you actually have the soap on your hands, regardless of the number of times you wash in a day, may not be enough exposure to worry about.

    On the other hand (snicker – couldn’t help myself) we could start making our own soap…. which I have actually given some consideration to, but haven’t found a source of lye (mind you, I haven’t looked very hard yet, either).

    1. Sagan Morrow

      You’re right, it probably isn’t enough exposure to worry about – but I still think it’s interesting that we put stuff on our hands to CLEAN them that could potentially cause our skin to be irritated and could actually have harmful effects.

      And OOH YES to making our own soap 😀 (I can’t even begin to imagine what a complicated and difficult process that would be… gah).

  4. Emergefit

    One of my little quirks; I exclusively use Camp Soap as a soap, hand soap, and shampoo. I like it because it breaks down in colder water, pollutes less after the fact, and has fewer ingredients than most soaps. Doesn’t smell real good, but it doesn’t smell too bad either. So, my hair doesn’t have a full-body radiance — oh well.

  5. charlotte

    I’ve always wondered what sodium laureth sulfide was! From teaching chemistry, I have a basic distrust of all sulphides and sulphates but that might have just been because I could never remember their ionic charge which made my equations really hard to balance. Anyhow. This stuff is in everything! And I have to say that I do not feel better about that after having read this now… hmmmm.

    1. Sagan Morrow

      “that might have just been because I could never remember their ionic charge which made my equations really hard to balance.” I have a basic distrust of most things related to math. Probably because figuring out equations always stumped me. 🙂 But it IS very interesting how the same ingredients do seem to crop up in just about everything!

  6. JavaChick

    I admit that I only skimmed the first few ingredients you listed, don’t think my brain is up to all those definitions right now, but that was enough to make me think that it’s no wonder I have chronic eczema on my hands! All those skin irritating substances! Maybe I should go back to buying baby soap – which I have done in the past. Hopefully there are less of those irritating ingredients?

    1. Sagan Morrow

      I’ve written down baby soap as another product to research more! I would assume that it PROBABLY has fewer irritating ingredients… I’ll check into it 🙂

      It occurred to me when I read your comment that I haven’t had eczema for a while; I used to have it really bad. Now that’s got me wondering what I’ve changed doing that has helped with the eczema. I find that Jergen’s hand and body lotion works awesome with my skin, maybe you could try it? I haven’t taken a look at the ingredients in it yet but I shall!

      1. JavaChick

        I think eczema is one of those things that can have many causes. I try to be careful of products, because it can make it worse (or better), but the underlying cause could be so many things – allergies, stress, diet, climate. I find mine is worse in the winter, but it rarely goes away 100%.

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