Personal Care Detox Challenge – Day 1

Soap seems like such a simple, harmless thing. And yet, we’ve managed to overcomplicate it to the point where much of the soap we buy isn’t simple or harmless anymore. Since soap is the basis for so many of the things we clean in our home, let’s dig in to the topic of clean soap.


Something to learn:

Do you know the difference between soap and detergent? We often use the words interchangeably, but chemically they’re very different. Soap has been around for thousands of years. In its early form, soap was made from combining animal fat and lye, an extremely alkaline solution extracted from wood ashes. The lye triggers a reaction that turns the fat into soap. In more modern times, soap is still made from some sort of oil or fat mixed with some sort of caustic soda, like lye. Today, it’s common to see plant oils on the ingredient lists of natural soaps – things like coconut, palm, or other oils in place of animal fats. This is how you spot a good, natural soap (and don’t forget, it’s best if the ingredients are organically and sustainably sourced!). But soap can also be made from petroleum-based oil. While petroleum has been used in skin care for a long time (think petroleum jelly and mineral oil), there is quite a lot of speculation about contamination in these products as well as questions about their effectiveness in doing anything good for your skin. Bottom line: stick to soap that has natural oils and stay away from unidentified “fragrance”!


Detergents are typically synthetic, human-made cleaning agents. Usually the active ingredients are surfactants – chemicals that reduce the surface tension of water, making it spread better, and bind to dirt and water molecules making them easier to wipe away. They commonly also contain foaming agents, alcohol, and fragrances. Detergents are not always the enemy. They often perform better than soaps do, especially in hard water (water with a high mineral content). Detergents CAN be made out of safe, plant-derived chemicals. All too often, they’re made from the cheaper alternative – petroleum-based chemicals. Again, it comes down to reading the labels.

Let’s get started!

There are MANY forms of soap or detergent in our homes – we use them for laundry, dishes, dishwashers, and hand soap to name a few. In order to keep our evaluation manageable, let’s break it down into just a couple of products today:


  • The product you keep by the sink to wash your hands
  • The product you keep in the shower to wash your body
  • The products you use to clean your dishes, either by hand or in the dishwasher


Here are some chemicals to look for and ditch:


Phosphates. This one can be a bit confusing, because in nature, phosphates come from a naturally occurring mineral (phosphorus) that we and other organisms need to stay healthy. But like so many other things, people have created synthetic phosphates that aren’t good for people or nature. If they’re being put into your detergent, they’re usually the synthetic, bad ones. You may see “phosphates” or something hard to pronounce, like “orthophosphates” or “tripolyphosphates”. These are especially harmful to aquatic ecosystems where they can cause algae blooms that suck up all the ecosystem’s oxygen and kill fish.


Triclosan. This is a known endocrine disruptor (mimics or disrupts hormones), expected to be toxic or harmful to organ systems, has immune or allergenic effects, is a known environmental toxin, it is a skin and eye irritant, and it is known to be persistent (it stays in organisms’ tissues a very long time) and bioaccumulative (it can be passed up the food chain from one organism eating another, like big fish eating small fish and then people eating the big fish).


Fragrance. This is a very broad and very tricky category, because “fragrance” is such a widely used term. Usually this means synthetic fragrance with a wide range of health concerns. These include immune toxicity or allergies, respiratory irritation and toxicity, and wildlife/environmental toxicity.


Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, or Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLS or SLES). These are known irritants to skin, eyes, or lungs and are expected to be toxic or harmful to other organ systems.


Methylisothiazolinone. This is a preservative that’s a known allergen, a known environmental toxin, a suspected neurotoxin, and is banned or highly restricted in Canada, Europe, and Japan.


Cocamide DEA. This is a chemically modified form of coconut oil used as a foaming agent. It is suspected to be a carcinogen and there’s strong evidence that it’s a skin irritant. It’s also expected to be toxic or harmful to organ systems

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