When we stopped making our certified organic liquid soap last year, the response was a flurry of ‘Oh no!’ and ‘Please change your minds!’ from our disappointed customers. We loved our beautiful liquid soap as much as the next person - for its ease of use, neat appearance, long life, absence of palm oil and gorgeous fragrance. So why did we stop? We absolutely hated buying all those plastic containers! Although we did offer the soap in glass bottles as well, a lot of people consider them too dangerous, so most opt for plastic. Our 1 litre refills helped the situation, but these were also in plastic. As sales increased, our studio was filling up with plastic containers, most of them single use. We just couldn’t do it any more!
So it’s been a year, and my own household has made the transition to bar soap for hand-washing too. There were a few non-plussed looks from the kids, but wow - those bar soaps last forever compared to liquid soap, and I’m talking many months per bar. Better still, I sleep better at night dreaming of lovely compostable paper packaging rather than stressing over sending out mountains of single use plastic, most of which won't be recycled.
It's not all about the plastic though. To convince you that bar soaps are in and liquid soaps are out, read on and see if you can come up with a reason to continue to use liquid hand wash in your home…
Isn’t liquid soap more hygienic than bar soap?
Many people thought so! When a study found that bacteria could be isolated from used soap bars, people had the idea that bacteria could be transmitted from one person to the next through bar soap. It turns out this is not the case. When wet bar soap was inoculated with bacteria at a dose 70 times the number previously detected in soap bars, and people then washed their hands with the soap, none of the inoculated bacteria could be detected on hands of those who had washed with the bars (1). So washing hands in bar soap and running water, even when the soap is wet and has been used by other people, is still very effective at killing bacteria.
Which soap lasts longer?
It turns out that washing your hands in liquid soap typically uses 7 times more (2.3g per wash) than bar soap (0.35g per wash) (2). A much longer life for bar soap was my observation too - our bar soaps last months for hand washing, whereas we refilled the liquid soap bottle every 2 or 3 weeks. Just make sure to store your bar soap on a soap rack to allow it to dry between uses.
The palm oil factor
Hand-made bar soaps and true liquid soap like ours are made by mixing lye with plant oils - coconut, olive, cacao and so on (read how we make them here). But a lot of bar soap is made with palm oil, and most liquid soap on the supermarket shelves is not true soap. It’s made using synthetic detergents, derived either from palm/coconut oil or from petroleum. Examples of these synthetic detergents include sodium lauryl/capric/stearic sulphate and a range of other substances - and almost all have some palm oil input, just like almost every shampoo and conditioner on our planet (see our blog about this here). There are very few palm oil-free liquid soaps on the market.
What about the environmental effects of the soaps themselves?
Soaps and most modern detergents are biodegraded eventually. Until then, when they go down the drain they go to a treatment plant where they are biodegraded to varying degrees before they are released into the environment. If they go down a storm drain they enter our waterways. Some detergents contain phosphorus and nitrogen that cause algal overgrowth in river systems, and deoxygenation of the water. The surfactants themselves can act on the skin of creatures living in the water, upsetting their skin's defence mechanisms (summarised in 3). Whether they’re made from plant or petroleum sources, soap and detergent are not particularly friendly to the environment. To our minds, using less soap and detergent is the best policy. Bar soap wins out by a long way (by a factor of 7!).
The dreaded soap scum
Ok, you’ve got me. True soap, whether liquid or solid, is more likely to form soap scum - that nasty film that builds up on the walls of the bath or shower. This happens when calcium and magnesium ions that are present in hard water react with the soap forming an insoluble salt. Soap scum is easy to clean away using the old bicarb soda and vinegar trick - you can read a simple method here.
Don’t even think about using antibacterial soaps in your home
In case you haven’t caught up with it, a range of the ingredients used to make the so-called ‘antibacterial’ bar and liquid soaps have been taken off the market in the USA for health and safety reasons. To date there are no regulations against them in Australia. Two of the commonly used antibacterials - triclosan and tricloban - have been found to promote resistance to antibiotics. What’s more, both these chemicals are potential hormone disrupters. In addition to their risk to human health, they have a potentially severe and insidious environmental impact - in water they are converted to dioxins, a serious environmental pollutant, and can also combine with chlorine to form chloroform, a probable carcinogen (summarised in 4). In the domestic situation they are considered to be no more effective than soap and water - so please don’t use them! Do also be aware that triclosan is used in some toothpastes.
A simpler life
While writing this, I came across a gorgeous post from Instagrammer Steph of @thisbrownwren, who kindly gave us permission to use her photo above. Here is what she wrote about her transition to bar soap:
'When we started making small changes to tread more gently on the earth, soap was one of the very first things we went back to. Body washes were used up, hand soap and even dishwashing liquids were replaced with simple bar soap. It certainly took a bit of time to reacquaint ourselves with this old fashioned staple (and to teach our little people how to lather correctly, not leave it soaking in the bath water nor poke great holes in it). And it's taken some time to hunt out plastic free packaged soap that uses fair trade ingredients with absolutely no palm oil, that lathers well and lasts. The Mokosh soaps from @fairlingscompany have ticked all the boxes. The trick to soap use is to buy quite a few bars at one time and store away so that they can really harden and therefore they don't vanish before your very eyes. Using a soap rack on the side of the basin helps it to dry out between uses too. I truly believe that these small changes made in our day to day lives can create such phenomenal difference as a collective.'
What more can we say? What are your thoughts about moving back to bar soap? What's stopping you from making the change?
(1) Heinze, J.E. and Yackovich, F. (1988) Washing with contaminated bar soap is unlikely to transfer bacteria. Epidemiol Infect. 101: 135–142.
(2) Koehler, A. and Wildbolz, C. (2009) Comparing the Environmental Footprints of Home-Care and Personal-Hygiene Products: The Relevance of Different Life-Cycle Phases Environ. Sci. Technol., 43:8643-8651.