Recognizing a natural soap from its INCI

Hello there! 😀

I have decided to start the new round of posts about recognizing cosmetics by their INCI (International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) talking about SOAP.


It might seem a silly post but it is not at all! Many cosmetic brands sell soaps which are, in reality, not even real soaps 😀 so keep reading! 😉

A soap is made of mainly two things: some kind of fats + an alkaline base.
The most common alkaline base used in soaps is Sodium Hydroxide (that’s also what most of people who make soaps at home use) and fats will react with this base forming salts (“sodium + the name of the fat + ate). There is also another common alkaline base, which is used to make liquid soap and this is Potassium Hydroxide.

Soap is not the best of detergent, to be honest: it has an alkaline pH (which is not compatible with skin) but, after all, if a soap is well made and has a little bit of extra fatting, it is not a very aggressive detergent and our skin doesn’t take too much time to bring the pH back to normality.

When you buy a REAL soap and you read its ingredients, you can find two options.
1) If the soap was made directly by the person who is producing the soap, you will find written the name of the various oils used (should be with their latin name) and the sodium hydroxide.
For example: Olea Europaea, Cocos Nucifera Oil, Ricinus Communis, Sodium Hydroxide (this would be a soap made with olive oil, coconut oil and castor oil).
2) If the producer of the soap bought the “soap paste” to produce its soap, then we will find the name of “sodium + name of the oil + ate”.
For example: Sodium Olivate, Sodium Cocoate, Sodium Ricinoleate (sometimes they write also Sodium Hydroxide and sometimes not: it is because it should all be gone by the time the oils have become salts… and therefore it is actually not present anymore in the soap).

These above are two examples of natural soaps.
There could also be Essential oils (and therefore in the end of the INCI you could find some allergens marked with “*”), or Parfum.
Often there are also Sequestrants substances: don’t panic 😀 I will make it very very easy: a soap is often in contact with water and water might make the oils get rancid very soon. Therefore inside of the soaps are often added substances which are able to “occupy the water” (they are our sequestrants) in order to not make the soap get rancid too easily! 😉
One of the most common is Tetrasodium EDTA or the more biodegradable Disodium Etidronate.

But so far we have only talked about real soaps… so what about the FAKE SOAPS? 😀
Fake soaps are on the market much more easily than you might think 😀
They look like normal soaps, they might make your skin feel even better than using a normal soap BUT they can be more aggressive than a natural soap (because it is not easy to balance the aggressive surfactants they contain).
They are actually called SYNDET and they are simply solid detergents. Which means that the surfactants we normally find diluted in bubble bath, shampoos and shower gels are used in their powder (and more concentrated) form.

How you spot them? Very easily: their INCI has nothing like the above! They have a very long list of ingredients and they are made of:
Surfactants – for example a very common and unfamous one is SLS, Sodium Lauryl SulfateCocamide DEA; Cocamidopropyl betaine: the list would be huge. However they are all concentrated surfactants that need to be balanced in the recipe in order to be less aggressive.
Thickening Agents  – for example Stearic Acid, Cetyl Acid, Cetearyl Acid;
– They might also contain some “saponified” fat like for example “Sodium Palm Kernelate” (salt made from Palm Kernel Oil);
– They usually have also a Sequestrant Agent like in natural soaps.

Syndets are not an awful thing (as long as they don’t feel aggressive to your skin), the only reason why you should know the difference is because they are cheaper to be produced than a natural soap (oils are an expensive ingredient and syndets don’t contain oils 😀 ), therefore it would be silly to be charged too much for a syndet.

I won’t do names, but there is one very very famous brand which likes to “show off” as a natural brand is actually selling Syndets as if they were natural soaps… and they charge a load of money for them as well. It made me go fumes when I discovered about it because I felt cheated (yes, I used to buy from them every now and then, thinking I was buying well made cosmetics).
Well, now you have the tools to understand and make your free choice 😉

I almost forgot!
There is another, small category which doesn’t go precisely under any of the above:
It is the big world of the GLYCERIN SOAPS, the famous “melt and pour”, often sold like natural soaps…
Well, I have checked the INCI of many and apparently they are a kind of Syndet with also added a very big amount of Propylene Glycol (it’s normally the second ingredient), it is the ingredient which makes the soap transparent and also makes it possible to melt it and re-make it again.
Propylene Glycol is considered a safe ingredient from a health point of view, however, I don’t like it much (even though the fact that it makes the soap become transparent feels like magic eheheh 😀 ) because it is a very strong solubilizer. Propylene Glycol is a small molecule and it actually helps other cosmetic ingredients enter the skin quite deeply. Indeed, the fact that here we find it inside a soap (and a soap is normally washed off very briefly after applied) should make it not a problem at all… but I just thought it should be mentioned.
Maybe if you suffer of dermatitis or eczema you should try to avoid Propylene Glycol because it might worsen the symptoms.

For more recipes click HERE 
To learn how to formulate cosmetics click HERE
For a list of online cosmetic ingredients suppliers click HERE 

Hope this was useful!

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