Last month, I received an email from Carmen Drahl, senior correspondent for Chemical & Engineering News, wanting to know if I had heard about the new solid body wash products from Lush and Bomb Cosmetics, and if so, what I thought about them. To be honest, I thought she was just talking about bars of soap. What’s so new about that? But no. Actually, just as I learned that liquid soap and solid soap have different chemistries, so too do soap and shower gel. And as Carmen explained to me the difference between soap and shower gel, I started to get excited… Not for myself, but for my sister and others of her ilk.
A Plastic-Free Solution for the Soap Haters?
See, my sister hates solid bar soap with a passion. I’ve tried various all natural, handmade soaps on her, but she can detect a certain distasteful (to her) soapy smell in any and all bar soaps, no matter how natural they are. And she doesn’t like the squeaky clean way soap makes her skin feel, either. So I haven’t been able to convince her to give up liquid soap and shower gel or body wash in plastic bottles. And apparently, she’s not alone. Back in 2010, I asked the question, “Why are body washes in plastic bottles more popular than bar soap?” And while most respondents professed their love for solid soap bars (the readers of this blog are, after all, a very specific segment of the population), several gave reasons for preferring liquid soaps in bottles. I’ll get to those reasons further on in this post. The point is, could a solid, packaging-free version be the answer these die-hard shower gel fans have been looking for?
What’s the Difference Between Soap and Shower Gel?
In her article in Chemical & Engineering News, Drahl asks the question, “Solid body wash comes without packaging. But does that make it eco-friendly?” (May 9, 2018 online version, May 14, 2018 paper version) First a little chemistry:
Soaps, shower gels, and body washes contain surfactants, compounds that lower the surface tension between substances, helping to emulsify and wash away oily dirt. In soaps, the surfactants come from saponification, i.e. reacting some type of fat (e.g. olive oil, coconut oil, palm kernel oil, animal tallow) with lye (sodium hydroxide for solid soaps and potassium hydroxide for liquid soaps.) In shower gels and body washes, the surfactants come from synthetic detergents (e.g. sodium laureth sulfate), which can be derived from either petroleum or plant sources. Using these detergents gives the finished product a lower pH than soap, which can feel less drying (less “squeaky clean”) to the skin. Sodium stearate is added to create a solid version of shower gel.
Review of Lush Antiope solid shower gel
While I’m happy sticking with my natural solid soap from Aquarian Bath, I did purchase one of the new solid shower gels from Lush so I could review it for this blog. The only option in the store at the time was called Antiope, and while I wasn’t crazy about the smell or the bright yellow color, I coughed up the $10.95 + tax and purchased it anyway so I could share my findings with you. You’re welcome.
Ingredients in Lush solid shower gel
First, let’s look at the ingredients. Lush separates their ingredients into two categories: natural ingredients and “safe” synthetics. Usually, when we hear the word synthetic, we think of petroleum-derived chemicals. But synthetic chemicals can be derived from plant and animal sources, too. As far as I can tell after Googling madly this afternoon, “synthetic” simply refers to products created by humans via purposeful chemical reactions. Synthetic substances don’t exist in nature without human intervention, although they are sometimes created to mimic naturally occurring substances. By that definition, I guess soap could be considered synthetic because of the reaction of fats with lye. That’s not to say that all synthetic ingredients are safe but just that defining something as synthetic doesn’t automatically make it unsafe.
(And by the way, Bomb Cosmetics’s solid shower gels contains similar ingredients as Lush.)
Here are the “Natural Ingredients” in Lush Antiope solid shower gel:
- Suma Root Infusion (Pfaffia Paniculata)
- Pequi Oil (Caryocar Brasiliense)
- Guar Gum (Cyanopsis Tetragonoloba)
- Brazilian Orange Oil (Citrus Sinensis)
- Davana Oil (Artemisia Pallens)
- Galbanum Oil (Ferula Galbaniflua)
- White Amazonian Clay (Kaolin)
- Titanium Dioxide
Here are the ingredients Lush considers to be “Safe Synthetics”:
- Propylene Glycol (derived from coconut or rapeseed oils)
- Sodium Laureth Sulfate (derived from coconut or palm kernel oil)
- Sodium Cocoamphoacetate (derived from coconut oil)
- Sodium Stearate (Lush doesn’t specify, although they do make the claim that all of their products are vegetarian)
- Lauryl Betaine (derived from vegetables)
- Fragrance (Lush doesn’t disclose the ingredients in its fragrance.)
- Yellow 10 Lake (synthetic dye produced from petroleum or coal tar sources, according to EWG.)
The Internet is full of conflicting information about the safety of these ingredients, but the one that stands out to me as the most problematic is actually “Fragrance.” It’s a problem because Lush doesn’t disclose (and doesn’t have to disclose) what ingredients are in it, and yet there are nearly 4,000 different ingredients reportedly used in fragrances, according to the International Fragrance Association, and some of them are chemicals of concern. For example, phthalates — endocrine-disrupting chemicals used to soften plastics and to help scents last longer — are often used in fragrances without disclosure to consumers. So I don’t buy any products that simply list “fragrance” on the label without listing the ingredients in the fragrance. (Read WVW’s report Unpacking the Fragrance Industry for more information.)
Also, here is some information about why palm oil is a problem.
Ingredients in Dial liquid body wash
To be fair, Lush’s solid shower gel ingredients are certainly preferable to those in conventional products. Check out the list of ingredients in Dial Spring Water Hydrating Body Wash:
Water, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, PEG-8, Glycerin, Fragrance, Polyquaternium-10, Cocamidopropyl PG-Dimonium Chloride, Isostearamidopropyl Morpholine Lactate, DMDM Hydantoin, Citric Acid, Tetrasodium EDTA, Sodium Chloride, Blue 1, Red 33.
Whew. Nothing natural about that, is there?
Ingredients in Aquarian Bath soap
While the ingredients in Lush shower gel might be safer than those of conventional shower gel brands, let’s compare them to the ingredients in my favorite brand of solid soap, which doesn’t contain detergents or other synthetic chemicals.
Aquarian Bath’s Lavender Oatmeal Soap contains: lavender essential oil, benzoin resin, saponified castor oil, saponified olive oil pomace, saponified raw unrefined shea butter, saponified Organic extra virgin olive oil, saponified Organic coconut oil, Organic ground oatmeal.
Please note that “saponified” means that sodium hydroxide (lye) has been used to turn the oils into soap. Sodium hydroxide would be the only synthetic ingredient, as Aquarian Bath does not use any synthetic detergents, fragrances, or dyes. This soap is also vegan, nongmo, palm oil-free, and it ships without plastic packaging.
But back to the Lush shower gel bar…
Getting Past the Smell
Okay, this is not really a critique of solid shower gel in general but a comment on Lush’s Antiope fragrance. I brought the bar home and set it next to my computer. For several days, this weird scent would waft past my nostrils. There was something familiar about it that I couldn’t place until finally, it dawned on me. It smells like a freaking ashtray! Like an ashtray the night after a big party. But scented. Botanical Essence of Ashtray, perhaps. So I laughed reading the reviews on Lush’s website and found that several other people had noticed the cigarette butt smell as well. The funniest comment is:
This is the first scent from Lush that I have been disappointed in. The soap smells almost like it is made of ground up cigarettes. Even my partner who is a smoker thought someone had been smoking in the bathroom after I used it.
Now, keep in my mind that I have a very sensitive nose. And if you read the other comments on the site, you will see that not everyone hates the smell. Some people acknowledge the initial cigarette smell but note that it doesn’t smell that way when you actually use it. Which is true. (One woman said it made her feel like a warrior goddess.)
So, let me tell you what it was like to use it.
Using Solid Shower Gel
Yep, I took a picture of myself in the shower. I’m not sure whether to say, “I’m sorry” or “You’re welcome.” But I wanted to see what it was like to use this stuff.
The bottle shape, while clever, makes it a little more difficult to hold onto than a regular soap bar. But unlike body wash in a bottle, which for me, tends to get wasted as I pour it into my hand and then try to slather it on my body, all of the solid shower gel that comes off the bar actually makes it onto your skin.
The consistency of the “gel” is actually not so gel-like. It does feel somewhat different from soap. Perhaps creamier and less… um… soapy? That’s just bad writing, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. The fluorescent color on my skin was a bit shocking. (It’s actually brighter than I could capture in this photo.)
Supposedly, the pH of shower gel is lower and therefore less drying than soap. But the rich, handmade soaps I use have never left my skin feeling dry. And honestly, I think the temperature and frequency of showers is a more important factor than what type of cleanser I use on my skin. Frequent long, hot showers dry out the skin. My solution for dry skin? Turn down the heat and shower less frequently.
So, what did other family members think of the shower gel? My niece tried it and said it definitely feels different from soap. She liked it and said she would use it, so I gave it to her. My sister, on the other hand, had the same problem as I did with the smell. Oh well.
Are Solid Soaps and Body Washes Inherently Icky?
Everything else being equal, solid shower gel is certainly better for the environment than shower gel packaged in plastic (not to mention it’s more energy efficient to ship solid, concentrated products than those that contain water). Still, there are other reasons people cite for choosing bottled soap products over solid. And the makers of Old Spice body wash capitalize on those fears (or create them?) in this 2007 commercial that is both funny-cuz-it’s-true and also frustrating for those of us trying to make better environmental decisions.
For years, I’ve argued with people who feel that sharing a bar of soap is less hygienic than sharing a plastic bottle. My point is that the bar gets rinsed off every time. The bottle does not. But the truth is that germs do accumulate on bar soap (and presumably solid shower gel and body wash.) Even so, the most cited study of the subject demonstrated that even when bar soaps were inoculated with bacteria (E. coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa), those germs did not transfer to the hands of the participants after washing the way they normally would. And a subsequent study found that the bar soaps that tend to harbor the most bacteria are those that are kept wet and not allowed to dry out between uses.
The best way to reduce your exposure to germs on bar soap is to make sure you rinse it off before use and store it in the type of soap dish that will allow it to drain instead of dissolving into gooey slime. When I noticed that my handsoaps were turning to puddles in my soap dish, I got a stainless steel soap saver insert that fits right inside it. I’m pretty sure it saved my marriage.
Similarly, allowing your solid shower gel to drain and dry out between uses will make it last longer and be less likely to harbor bacteria.
But possibly the thing that grosses people out the most is not the idea of bacteria but that stray hair staring you in the face that your kid or roommate or significant other left on the soap for you. All I have to say to that is, People, have some consideration and stop being pigs. Rinse off the soap bar before you get out of the shower. Also, wring out your washcloth, replace the toilet paper roll, and don’t leave your clothes in the middle of the floor for someone to trip over. I’m not your mother!
(Deep cleansing breath.)
So, what do you think? Are you a shower gel person or a soap person? And do you think the new solid shower gels are a good idea despite their synthetic ingredients?