Is Soap Actually Making Our Skin Dirtier? Plus: 5 Eco-Friendly Soap Options

A woman bathes in nature
A woman bathes in nature | Courtesy Taryn Elliott via Pexels

From soap to detergent, are we cleaning ourselves into unhealthy skin? What are the most sustainable and non-toxic soap and body wash options?

James Hamblin, Yale School of Public Health lecturer and podcast host for The Atlantic, says soap destroys our skin’s microbiome. He should know. The author of the 2020 book Clean: The New Science of Skin and the Beauty of Doing Less, stopped using soap about seven years ago. He’s never looked back.

And while handwashing is critical for preventing the spread of disease, it’s not necessarily the best approach for the rest of your body, says Hamblin.

Maybe we’re actually meant to be dirty hippies after all.

Are Soaps and Detergents Making Us Dirtier? Plus: 3 Sustainable and Nontoxic Options
Courtesy Matthew Tkocz via Unsplash

As Hamblin learned about the body’s external microbiome, he decided to forego the soap for a bit. He found he could be clean and odor-free without soap, especially as his skin’s microbiome became healthier—the bacteria did the work of the soap.

Hamblin queried our modern understanding and expectations around cleanliness. After all, humans survived millennia without Axe body wash. By the 1920s, body odor was stigmatized. Advertising for soap further divorced us from our animal nature: you smell and you need to do something about it. This same approach led to the shampoo industry boom and our habitual overwashing of hair.

What Is ‘clean,’ anyway?

Just how clean do we really need to be?

“We know from historical writings that certainly people smelled bad. We didn’t just accept all smells,” Hamblin told The Guardian. “Now, if someone smells sweaty or of anything less than soap, perfume or cologne, we think of that as being unclean.”

And that aversion has led to a rise in harmful chemical fragrances that permeate every aspect of our lives. From body care to laundry detergent to candles and air fresheners, we’re bombarding our lives with toxic chemical fragrances.

Are Fragrances Dangerous?

Synthetic fragrances often contain chemicals called phthalates that extend the life of a scent. It’s why you can smell laundry detergent on clothes days, and even weeks, after they came out of the dryer.

Phthalates have been linked to numerous health issues including reproductive and developmental toxicity, endocrine disruption, birth defects, respiratory problems, and some forms of cancer.

Are Soaps and Detergents Making Us Dirtier? Plus: 3 Sustainable and Nontoxic Options
Photo by Jakayla Toney on Unsplash

These chemicals can also exacerbate skin issues. And Hamblin suggests the rise in chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, rosacea, and acne may also be the result of the constant attempts at prevention and removal of the skin’s microbiome.

Scrubbing away the bacteria designed to protect the body and neutralize odors makes it come back stronger and more imbalanced, creating a cycle of skin issues and odors.

“As I gradually used less and less [soap], I started to need less and less,” Hamblin writes. “My skin slowly became less oily, and I got fewer patches of eczema. I didn’t smell like pine trees or lavender, but I also didn’t smell like the oniony body odour that I used to get when my armpits, used to being plastered with deodorant, suddenly went a day without it.” He smelled “like a person,” his girlfriend explained.

Should You Stop Using Soap?

There’s no question that handwashing is needed for preventing the spread of infectious diseases. It’s also necessary after using the bathroom and before preparing or eating food.

Are Soaps and Detergents Making Us Dirtier? Plus: 3 Sustainable and Nontoxic Options
Courtesy Sincerely Media via Unsplash

But as for the rest of it? That may be optional. But to be clear, foregoing soap doesn’t mean foregoing washing—water and elbow grease are important to do regularly.

But just like our scalp benefits with days (even weeks) without hair washing, skin quality may improve by reducing the use of soap, especially the chemical-laden mainstream products. At the very least, use a natural soap. But if you skip it, don’t worry. No one on your Zoom call will ever know.

Sustainable, Nontoxic Soaps

Can’t go entirely soap-free just yet? Give these nontoxic, environmentally friendly soaps a lather. They eschew the toxic chemicals in many conventional soaps and some companies, like Dr. Bronner’s, are deeply vested in social justice and environmental issues.

Are Soaps and Detergents Making Us Dirtier? Plus: 3 Sustainable and Nontoxic Options

1. Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap

The OG organic, natural, and sustainable soap brand is also keen on supporting Fair Trade across its supply chain. It works with producers and growers committed to ethical practices, such as protecting the rainforests from deforestation. The brand is also an advocate for psychedelic medicine and is a vocal proponent of animal rights. You can get clean with organic oil soaps from hemp seeds, olives, and coconuts. And a little bit of magic, of course.

2. Herbivore Bar Soap

Cleanse gently with the healing power of French clay, an exceptional option for blemish-prone skin. Use it all over for a silky, smooth clean and a delicate fragrance from essential oils of geranium and blood orange. Like all of Herbivore’s bar soaps (and its other products), the clean ingredient list is free from synthetic fragrances and other ingredients. The cruelty-free soap bar is meant to last, too, making it a more sustainable investment as well.

Are Soaps and Detergents Making Us Dirtier? Plus: 3 Sustainable and Nontoxic Options

3. Alaffia Good Soap

Next time you’re at Whole Foods, pick the longest checkout line. Why? Because it’s where the store often merchandises the Good Soap collection made by Alaffia. This body care brand focuses on African ingredients, including a range of triple-milled soaps sold exclusively at Whole Foods Markets. Ten percent of proceeds go to support the Whole Planet Foundation, which provides microfinancing around the world. The soaps are packaging-free and for the most sustainable option, be sure to grab the vegan scents like Cedarwood, Coastal Breeze, or Vanilla Haze.

4. Corpus Natural Body Wash

Hydrate and cleanse with the vegan body wash from Corpus. Perfect for all skin types, extra generous to dehydrated skin. The plant-based formula relies on coconut-derived emulsion to gently cleanse and help moisturize the skin. The body wash comes in three drool-worthy scents: Nº Green, which marries citrus plants and spice; Santalum, a sandalwood-amber blend; and Third Rose, a subtle rose with hints of citrus. All are free from synthetics and come in a recyclable aluminum container.

5. Sade Baron

Minimalist to its core, the Sade Baron bar soaps are a revelation. Made with pure plant oils and natural exfoliants like coffee grounds, this soap is preventing waste and cleans your body at the same time. The rich, fatty cocoa butter provides long-lasting skin hydration with its fatty acids like oleic acid, palmitic acid and stearic acid, and natural plant oils make it a fragrant aromatherapy session. Free from: Silicones, Mineral oil, Palm oil, Petrochemicals, Parabens, Polyethylene, Sulfates, GMOs, DEA/TEA, Phthalates, Drying Alcohol, Synthetic dyes or fragrances, Gluten, Animal by-products, all you’re left with is pure, natural cleansing goodness.

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