Many people focus on eating organic foods. But if living a more earth-friendly lifestyle is important to you, you may wish to not only change what you use to nourish your insides, but also what you use to clean and nourish your outsides — namely, soap.

But is there a difference between that bar of Irish Spring slowly turning to slime in your soap dish and the hand-made artisan soap Aunt Sue brought you from her vacation in Big Sur?

The basic process for making bar soap base is the same in big companies as it is in little artisan workshops. All soap is surfactant, meaning it reduces the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved, usually water. When soap reacts with water it has a “softening” effect that allows water to work deep into the crevices of your skin and bond with dirt particles. When you rinse the soap off, the dirt comes off too.

Bar soap comes from fat that has gone through a chemical reaction with lye.

Handmade soaps, when made correctly, use rendered fat that is much closer to its natural form than in more refined soap. The more steps a soap base goes through, the more fat is removed and the less moisturizing qualities the bar retains.

A standard bar of commercial soap doesn’t have as many natural fats and the glycerin has been removed. Glycerin is a natural moisturizer and solvent that gives soap its cleaning properties. In industrial soap, the fat and glycerin are replaced with artificial moisturizers and oils, which can be irritating to sensitive skin. The reason companies remove the natural fats is to give the bar a smoother, clearer quality and to aid in preservation. Handmade (supper-fatted) soap has a shorter shelf life than industrial soap because of the fat and glycerin.

“A natural soap is almost 50 percent glycerin, which is a humectant and that will keep your skin hydrated,” Julie Cornelison, a local artisan soap maker, said. “I do believe that certain companies intentionally put things into their products that are harsh on the skin that then forces people to keep coming back to buy moisturizers to replace the natural oils that have been stripped away.”
When glycerin and fat are stripped from soap what is left behind is detergent, which can have a drying effect on the skin. Also, most natural soaps use plant extracts and essential oils rather than synthetic fragrances. Synthetic fragrances often have an alcohol base. Some lotions even use embalming fluid as a preservative. Cornelison said it’s impossible to get away from any kind of preservative when making a cream-based product (as opposed to a bar soap). However, she recently changed her lotion base to an aloe vera extract that doesn’t require a chemical preservative.
Consumers who transition from industrial soaps to “super-fatted” soaps can often stop using any kind of moisturizer, but finding a good soapmaker is important. If supper-fatted soap is not rendered correctly the fat can feel greasy and will leave a film behind. If made correctly it should wash away completely and easily.

“I don’t know for sure if there is a huge difference between artisan soaps and over-the-counter soaps,” Deborah Gall, and ethstetician and skin expert at Silver Falls Dermatology said. “But I can say that if artisan soaps have more fat in them they would be less stripping to a person’s skin. So the skin would be able to retain more of its own natural oils, which would be important to anyone with sensitive or dry skin.”

Gall went on to say that it’s more important for people to know what kind of skin they have and to get soaps that are tailored to treat their specific skin problems. She and her employer, dermatologist Dr. R. John Young agreed that some mainstream, over-the-counter products can be good for a person’s skin, but some can be harsh too. Gall and Young both said if a person has skin issues it’s best to consult an expert who can determine the exact cause of skin irritation. Only then can a person determine which products best fit with their lifestyle choices and skin types.