One of the most frequently stated arguments for using handmade soap is that “supermarket soap isn’t soap, it’s synthetic detergent”. On plenty of websites and on soaping forums on social media this categorical statement is presented as if it were a well-known fact. And through frequent repetition it seems to become even more of a fact.
Having seen it said time and time again that supermarket soap isn’t soap, often on American websites, I decided to have a look in my local grocery store here in Cape Town to see what the labels on all those soap bars actually said.
Here in South Africa all soap intended for use on the body is considered cosmetic. And all cosmetics need to have their ingredients labelled and listed in descending order of predominance. In their labeling supermarket soap brands will use INCI (abbreviation for International Nomenclature of Cosmetic Ingredients) names for their ingredients. Chemically soap is alkali salts of fatty acids and in this nomenclature coconut oil soap made with sodium hydroxide is called ’sodium cocoate’, palm oil soap is called ’sodium palmate’, or sodium palmitate’, palm kernel oil soap is called ’sodium palm kernelate’, tallow soap is called ’sodium tallowate’ etc.
Bar soap is popular in South Africa and on the day of my reconnaissance mission my closest local supermarket carried 17 brands of bar soap. Sixteen out of those seventeen brands (94%) listed a salt of a fatty acid (i e soap) first among their ingredients. Only one listed a detergent other than soap first among their ingredients, but even that one brand then continued the list with a variety of alkali salts of fatty acids.
Next to this supermarket is a shop equivalent to Booths in the UK or Walgreens in the US. This shop carried 8 brands of bar soap. Of those eight, two listed detergents first on their list of ingredients and one of them appeared to be a pure detergent bar with no mention of any salts of fatty acids. But six out of eight brands (75%) were unmistakably soap.
Around the corner from my closest supermarket is an outlet for a more high-end supermarket chain. This shop carried 9 brands of soap of which 8 (89%) were regular soap and one listed a detergent first, followed by salts of fatty acids.
Based on this quick overview of the local supermarket offering, the claim that “supermarket soap isn’t soap” clearly does not apply in South Africa. By far the majority of the bar soap on offer here in South Africa is made of alkali salts of fatty acids. These soaps all have various additives like fragrance and colourant and may or may not have added synthetic detergent, but from a chemical point of view they contain soap and in most cases alkali salts of fatty acids make up the bulk of these products.
So, are things very different in the U.S. where many claim that supermarket soap isn’t soap?
I don’t often have the opportunity to browse American supermarkets, but in July I had the great privilege to visit New York. While working very hard at cramming as much sightseeing as possible into a few days, I also took the opportunity to do some local market research.
Irrespective of the true nature of supermarket soap, I’m in awe of Manhattan. The soaring high-risers, the rivers of yellow taxis, the thunder of the subway, the unapologetic face brick everywhere, the beauty vs the ugliness, the sense of boundless opportunity vs tough luck and the feeling of maelstrom gravitation towards the centre of the universe holds you in a spellbinding grip.
Having only just found my feet in the middle of this hustle and bustle on Manhattan I walked into the first supermarket I came across which happened to be a small shop on 6th Avenue. The food offering was high end but the soap offering seemed to be very mid range. Here eight brands were available and out of those, two did not list soap first among the ingredients. But 75% of the brands on offer were definitely soap.
So, maybe the little shop in an upmarket, touristy part of Manhattan had an unusual selection of soap? To broaden the perspective a little I decided to check the soap section in the local supermarket in the not-so-upmarket part of Brooklyn where I was staying for the duration of my visit.
This was a bigger store with a wider soap selection. Twenty brands were on offer and out of those four listed detergent rather than soap first among the ingredients. But again a whopping 80% of the brands on offer listed alkali salts of fatty acids first among their ingredients.
Later on my journey continued to the UK where I stayed in the town of Windsor. There I checked the soap selection in the closest big-chain supermarket and again seven of the nine brands on offer (78%) listed soap first among the ingredients.
If New York was lively and throbbing, England was charming and quaint..
Of course, my bit of market research was neither scientific nor scholarly. Firstly, I only checked bar soap since that’s where my main focus lies. Liquid soap may have a different profile. Second, to go by the first ingredient listed on the packaging is a bit random since that ingredient – albeit predominant – is by no means guaranteed to make up the bulk of the product. It may in theory be a small fraction of the product alongside lots and lots of other ingredients. However, in practice the bars that listed a salt of a fatty acid first would fairly consistently list a variety of salts of fatty acids all the way until ’aqua’, i e water, was listed. Since water will be kept down to a minimum in commercial bar soap, we can assume that the bulk of these bars was soap. And, of the brands that listed a detergent first, the brand with an avian name (which was on offer in all the randomly chosen shops on all three continents) lists salts of fatty acids second and third, ie it contains detergent, but it’s soap too.
I only checked the soap offerings in a handful of shops so no particular power in numbers there. On the other hand I don’t have any reason to doubt that the randomly chosen shops (they happened to be where I happened to be) are representative of supermarkets in general when it comes to bar soap selection.
To sum it up the notion that “supermarket soap isn’t soap” seems to be a myth, not just in Cape Town, but in New York and Windsor too.
So what about all the claims then that supermarket soap isn’t soap? Surely it can’t just be a question of handcrafters trying to denigrate supermarket products on false pretenses to promote their own products instead?
What lies behind the confusion could be the fact that soap has several definitions in the U.S. On the one hand there is the universal chemical definition of soap as alkali salts of fatty acids. On the other hand there are a number of U.S.-specific regulatory definitions of soap which can be found on the web pages of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
According to the regulatory definition a product can be labeled, marketed and sold as non-cosmetic soap if
- the bulk of the nonvolatile matter in the product consists of an alkali salt of fatty acids and the product’s detergent properties are due to the alkali-fatty acid compounds, and
- the product is labeled, sold, and represented solely as soap
A product may be labelled, marketed and sold as cosmetic soap if the product
- is intended solely for cleansing the human body, or
- is intended not only for cleansing but also for other cosmetic uses,
- has the characteristics consumers generally associate with soap, and
- does not consist primarily of alkali salts of fatty acids.
By the regulatory definition for cosmetic soap the brand with the avian name, along with all the other brands I came across, are soap. And as far as the chemical definition goes, if the product contains alkali salts of fatty acids it contains soap.
So, various supermarket soaps may not be non-cosmetic soap – not so much because they would contain synthetic detergents, which many of them don’t, but because they are marketed as e g skin-softening, rejuvenating, energizing or any number of other things that can be interpreted as cosmetic claims. But, they are still cosmetic soaps by U.S. regulatory definition and in a large majority of cases they are alkali salts of fatty acids as well. By the same regulatory definition a handmade soap made from oils, butters, lye and water that is said to have e g exfoliating or conditioning effect, is cosmetic rather than non-cosmetic soap. Instead of saying “supermarket soap isn’t soap” it would be more correct to say that some supermarket bar soap brands contain synthetic detergent as well as alkali salts of fatty acids and that a small minority of brands on offer contain no salts of fatty acids at all. But – that wouldn’t sound quite as catchy.
Well, having made my observations about supermarket soap on different continents I relaxed and stuck to sightseeing. This time around I had promised the family that I wouldn’t make soap while on vacation so I didn’t. But, I made up for that by taking plenty of soap pictures. The Travel Soap tin which always tagged along, either in my bag or pocket, was frequently hauled out and made to pose in likely and unlikely places. It saw more public rest rooms than it cares to remember, it got rained on in London, it almost dropped off the top of the Rockefeller Center in New York and I very nearly lost it to a peckish swan in Windsor. But it withstood all that and kept its contents nice and dry. And yes, it does feel great to be able to wash your hands with well-crafted artisan soap wherever your travels take you.