Soap, surfectants, phalates, essentials oils and how soap affects the skin

Soap, surfectants, phalates, essentials oils and how soap affects the skin

In this blog post we will be exploring the world of soap, fragrance oils, essential oils and leave on products such as creams and lotions. I felt this subject needs some clarity. I consider myself a naturalist through and through living off the fat of the land so to speak. I dont use harsh chemicals on myself or around my kids. We eat mostly animal based with fresh fruits and veggies, and I dont use big corporate types of body products. I make the majority of what we use at home. So can someone like me who is that type of person use fragrance oils and call themselves a naturalist? Yes. Why not? There is a science behind soap that I dont think many people understand. So, let's go over a few things and learn some new stuff.




Soap is a beautiful thing. It really is. Created long, long ago originally from Babylon, well at least that's what history tells us. There is evidence dating back to 2800 B.C. that archeologists have found soap like material in clay cylinders. Supposedly inscribed in their language saying fats boiled with ashes! Ashes? Why were they boiling fats with ashes? Because wood ashes naturally contain Lye. 

There is also evidence to show that ancient Rome would use natural soap that came from rainwater running down the mountains mixing with animal fat and ashes which would result in a clay like mixture used for cleaning. How cool is that! 

So how did detergents come to be? During World War 1 and 2 animal fats and vegetable oils were scarce so chemists had to create synthetic detergents for soap. Detergents are soap created with synthetic ingredients rather than naturally occurring ingredients. A surfactant is similar also, its an agent that lowers the surface tension of water. An example is emulsifiers like glycerin.  Sodium cocoyl isethionate is a surfectant made from of a type of sulphonic acid called Isethionic Acid as well as the fatty acid sodium salt ester, obtained from Coconut Oil. Cocamidopropyl betaine is another surfectant type derived from coconut oil. These are the two main ingredients I use in my body polishes, which are seasonal due to them melting in the summertime and being so expensive to purchase. These two types of surfectants although gentle can cause allergies not due to the surfectants themself, but from the byproducts that can emerge during the manufacturing process. Which is why it's important to buy these surfactants from reputable producers. 


 The lye that most soap makers use to make their soap is created synthetically. The only people I know of using naturally occurring lye is the lovely ladies in Africa making that wonderful African black soap. Which is made from wood ash from a certain tree there. 

***African Black Soap***

Most of the rest of us don't have that luxury and must purchase synthetic lye. Which is not natural in any way, but without it you won't get soap. You cannot create soap without using Sodium Hydroxide. Sodium Hydroxide is made from salt water. It is created by the electrolysis of brine, during the process the water is reduced to hydrogen gas, and hydroxide ions. The hydroxide ions bonds with the sodium to make sodium hydroxide. Also known as caustic soda. Sodium hydroxide can be dangerous to work with due to being so corrosive. It can cause burns, and major skin damage and lung damage. Which is why upmost care needs to be taken when using it. Protective goggles, gloves, the whole nine yards. 

Sodium hydroxide is then mixed with water or some kind of liquid and then mixed with fats and/or whatever oils of your choosing. Then a process takes place called saponification, it is when the lye is reacting with the oils/fats that it causes a chemical reaction. This reaction breaks down the fats/oils into fatty acid chains and the lye mixture is neutralized in the process. Its a very harsh environment during the saponification process, not much can survive it. So when you see a soap business making claims like will heal eczema, or cure yeast infection dont believe the hype. Most of the precious ingredients such as honey, oatmeal or expensive oils get broken down. The temperature rises very high when the soap is saponifying up to and over 200 degrees, it's going to break down whatever benefits these additives may have. I do not doubt that these additives can add a certain lovely lather to the soap and creaminess, but being that soap is a wash off product any type of benefit those additives have prior to being in soap will be obliterated. When the saponifying is finished there is no trace of sodium hydroxide in the soap, unless a soap maker uses too much lye.

So, you see soap really isn't natural at all, it goes through a chemical reaction to achieve being soap in the end. Claims that a soap is all natural because someone used essential oils...well essential oils arent all natural. Theyre highly concentrated volatile portions of plant matter, and not only that soap needs sodium hydroxide which isn't natural either. Using soap with no fragrance oils, or colorants if you have very sensitive skin would be best. This includes essential oils. We'll get into that more further down in this blog.

The purpose of soap is to clean, soap cleans by acting as an agent between water and dirt, it soaks into the surface of what is being cleaned allowing the water to wash away dirt. We need soap to not only clean ourselves, but surfaces, and many other things. Just because a company claims it's all natural doesn't mean it's better, or that it is natural at all. There seems to be much more serious consequences to what we put on our skin as a leave on product.


When talking about how soap affects the skin, we must talk about the chemical make-up of soap and the biological makeup of our skin's barrier. Our skin has a barrier referred to as the acid mantle, which is a thin slightly acidic film on the surface of the skin that acts as a barrier to bacteria, viruses, environmental pollutants and other potential contaminants. ( A healthy mantle is made up of lipids, ceramides and fatty acids which help to maintain healthy bacteria and flora for the skin to remain balanced and protected. The acid mantle can have a pH of 4.5 to 6.2. Side note: SHORT TERM EXPOSURE TO SLIGHTLY ALKALINE MATERIAL SUCH AS BAR SOAP DOES NOT HARM THE ACID MANTLE.  Healthy skin will rebalance itself very quickly after.

Even Tap water can affect the pH of the skin. It is the long-term exposure to a high pH in a leave on product that can damage and impact the acid mantle. (

Soap is naturally alkaline with a pH ranging from 8 to 11 or higher. A soap's alkaline being higher isn't going to determine if you're going to have dry skin afterwards. Anything below a pH of 7 is going to be acidic. Our skins pH is between 5 and 6. Soaps pH level must be higher than our pH level or else it wouldn't remove dirt.

Surfactants arent technically soap, they are surfactants. They perform similarly to soap as they act as an agent between water and skin and trap and remove dirt similar to soap. The main difference in surfactants and actual soap made with Lye is that a surfactants pH value is closer to that of our skins so it is a very gentle cleansing agent. They arent made with sodium hydroxide either. You'll notice that most surfactants are liquid or cream based and that is due to not being alkaline enough to hold a solid shape as a bar soap would. Most surfactants are in jars or bottles, examples are shampoo, baby wash, and cream soaps but most of these have a gazillion other ingredients in them that are questionable at best.

When you make soap, you determine what your "super fat" percentage is going to be. So, a zero percent super fat would mean that the lye has reacted and changed all the oils completely into soap and there are no oils free floating in your bar of soap which would end up be very stripping to the skin and can leave that dry tight feeling. Soap with a zero super fat is mostly used for cleaning surfaces. Most soap makers super fat to at least 5% to prevent this. So the lye is calculated to only react with 95% of the oils leaving 5% free floating oils in your bar of soap which means you will have a more moisturizing bar of soap. Some soap makers even super fat up to 20%!


Now let's get into the synthetic ingredients in soap and how they may affect the skin. Im no chemist but riddle me this, if Sodium Hydroxide is reacting with all the oils in your soap including whatever fragrance oils you have and turning it into soap, and soap is a surfactant which means it's being washed off the skin then how is it going to really penetrate your skins barrier? Unless it has a very high super fat which most soaps don't. Soaps with a very high super fat have a lot of the oils leftover which in turn can leave your skin feeling not very clean and leave residuals. In most instances this isn't going to happen because most people don't want soaps that don't ultimately clean them. If after you get out of your shower and you still feel oily then that may be a problem.

Fragrance oils are created synthetically versus essential oils which are created by distilling and extracting large amounts of volatile portions of plant matter. One is not better than the other! In soap it's not going to make a difference trust me! Soap is so alkaline that not much survives the saponification process, and what does end up on your skin is going to be washed down the drain.

Synthetic fragrance oil companies must abide by the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) requirements in regard to every fragrance oil and its usage rate. They have created a code of practice that provides recommendations for safe practices and guidelines for fragrance ingredient safety assessment. Essential oils must abide by the FDA regulations. Although the FDA doesnt require their approval before a product goes on the market but it must be safe for comsumers. 

I dont put much weight on things like the FDA and IFRA, they approve chemicals and ingredients that should be nowhere in our food or cosmetic products. When it comes to leave on skin products such as body butters or face creams etc, they are different then soap. Soap is in a loophole (my personal opinion) due to its surfactant properties, leave on products sit on your skin and will most definitly break down your protective barrier. So, when I read the IFRA usage rates when Im using a certain fragrance, I usually happen to glance at the usage rates for other uses like lotions, and would you believe the usage rate can be higher than it is for use in soap!?!? It also can be as high as 30% for Aerosole sprays. Now why is that? Why are fragrance oil usage rates for soap lower than a leave on product that's going to sit on your skin or be sprayed into the air to breath in? Thats a good question and one I can't answer. When you go to look at the complete ingredient list of a fragrance oil, you aren't able to see every ingredient because the IFRA is not required to put every single ingredient. I have a suspicion that due to there being so many synthetic ingredients they have just stated that they aren't required to put every ingredient down for the consumer to see and nobody can argue with them. Or they don't know every ingredient that is in a fragrance oil, and only test for the allergens that are present as seen in this image below for Coco Butter cashmere Fragrance oil.

This image is from a fragrance oil I've used several times and it shows only from the list of allergens what has been identified. The second picture below is an excerpt from the same IFRA statement. Europe seems much stricter than the U.S. when it comes to their allergens and what's acceptable.

This image below is a list of the classes for the types of applications the Fragrance oils can be used for. (, Spiced Mahogany)

This second image is the percentages this specific fragrance oil, spiced mahogany (bescented) and what it can be used at for different applications. According to the IFRA.

NOTICE ANYTHING? Look at category 5A which applies to lotions which is a leave on product-the percentage is up to 7.31%. Look at category 9 which is a wash off product-3.23% Why is the leave on higher than the wash off percentage. I dont know! Its one of the things that bugs me a bit about these fragrance oils. I love them in my soap, but when the IFRA is saying they're safer at higher amounts in leave on products than wash off products it makes me scratch my head a bit. 

What are Phalates? Phalates are chemical compounds that make plastic more durable, and they're everywhere. Lots of skincare companies use fragrances containing phalates. Phalates are no bueno because they've been proven to be endocrine disruptures which in turn affect the reproductive and neurological development. Most of my fragrance oils are phalate free so to speak, but Ive included a link at the bottom with a list of phalates mostly used in skincare that way you can check and see if they're present in the product you're using. Again these are much more damaging if theyre in leave on products versus a wash off product, but either way they should probably be avoided.


Essential oils have their own usage rates in soap also. I'm not sure what they are because I don't use essential oils in my soap. Some of my fragrance oils could contain essential oils but most of the descriptions don't say that. 

So, what do you do if you're a skincare business?

The truth is our society loves to smell pretty, fragrance and scent is a powerful tool for a product that can increase sales majorly. I find the majority of big companies are using some kind of fragrance in their products. 

What's laughable to me is that there are skincare businesses out there that claim to be all natural, but they contain essential oils. Essential oils aren't all natural. They come from removing at high concentration volatile portions of plant matter, and that same plant matter has even the same allergens as some of these fragrance oils such as Linalool, Limonene, Carvone, Cinnamaldehyde all of which are allergens and very damaging to the epidermis. Essential oils are in no way any better than fragrance oils and in some cases can be worse.

So, what is one to do if they love smelling nice but don't want to damage their skin? My personal opinion on this matter is that you follow your convictions with the information you have. The more you know the better you can make an informed decision.

I use fragrance oils in my soap, and I may use essential oils in my soap at some point, but I will never use synthetic fragrances or essential oils in my leave on products. I do not feel right about selling a product no matter how amazing it smells to the public that will sit on their skin and end up damaging it over time. If a person doesn't want anything synthetic in anything they own then they can use unscented plain handmade bar soap, and unscented moisturizers. If you want to be even more natural use tallow as your only moisturizer, or organic low PUFA oils such as jojoba with no scents. 

It really comes down to the person and their personal preferences, some people are completely fine with using synthetic fragrances/chemicals and they have no idea what's in them. One way that i like to achieve a natural fragrance in my leave on products is by infusing natural herbs and botanicals directly into my tallow or jojoba oil which is all I use for my leave on skincare. It can bring a wonderful natural non damaging component to the product and have even more benefits.

Well thats my big talk for this week. If you have anything to add that I may have missed feel free to comment. I understand that these are very hot topics not only in the soaping world but the skincare world. There are folks who would die on the hill that essential oils are the best most natural thing in the world and have healed them of all their trauma. Which perhaps they have who am I to say they can't be beneficial for someone, but there are better more natural ways to achieve something. All I can do is share the info I've found and bring some awareness not only to others but myself! I'm still learning and still have much to learn. 




How do you Identify Phthalates in Skin Care Products? - Previse DermApothecary (

Cocamidopropyl Betaine: Side Effects of the Personal Care Ingredient (

Essential Oil Allergic Reaction: Symptoms, Treatments, and Prevention (

Saponification in the Soap Making Process (

What are Detergents and Surfactants? - CP Lab Safety (

Soap History - All About History of Soap Making

The TRUTH About Yoni Bars: A Soaper's Guide to Safe Personal Cleansing and Loving Your Flora (

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