Beware of Fake Natural Soap – A Practical Guide to Soap Ingredients

Hands line up freshly made bars of organic soap behind header that reads, "We wish it were as simple as, "If it isn't natural, don't say it is.""

We’d love it if soap and skincare companies did business according to the words above. But they don’t, and if you’re like us, you’re frustrated with companies calling their products natural when they’re not. Whether you’re buying skincare products for your company or for personal use, the only way to know if a product is truly natural is to understand the ingredients it contains.


“Voluntary” Standards Mean Anything Goes

The biggest problem is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never legally defined “natural” for personal care products — and, believe it or not, the only recognized standards are voluntary ones. For food, the administration informally defines “natural” as “that nothing artificial or synthetic (including all color additives regardless of source) has been included in, or has been added to, a food that would not normally be expected to be in that food.” But even this definition isn’t comprehensive — with such a variety of products and circumstances, the FDA finds “natural” and “organic” terminology difficult to define and regulate, especially given the stark, inherent difference between food and personal care products.

For cosmetics, the FDA warns small-time cosmetics producers,

“Don’t use terms such as ‘natural’ as part of an ingredient statement, because ingredients must be listed by their common or usual names, without additional description.

And remember, choosing ingredients from sources you consider ‘organic’ or ‘natural’ is no guarantee that they are safe. You are still responsible for making sure your ingredients are safe when used according to the labeling, or as they are customarily used, no matter what kinds of ingredients you use.”

At the end of the day, however, companies are free to make up their own rules, calling their products “natural” no matter what the ingredients are. You can’t simply trust what it says on a product’s packaging and you can’t assume a product is natural just because it’s sold at a natural products store.



The Importance of Transparent Standards

The highest and truest standard for “natural” is organic certification. For many companies, though, “natural” is a more attainable standard — some companies have developed their own, transparent set of product standards that ensure customers know exactly what ingredients are and where they’re being sourced from. Whole Foods, for example, has developed its own “Premium Body Care” standard to define “natural.”NSF International mark, indicating certified organic personal care products.

Perhaps an even more transparent method, however, is earning certifications from non-biased, third-party organizations. Organizations like NSF International are some of the first to publish in-depth guidelines for personal care products and offer companies special certifications and awards for their compliance with the standards set forth. Two organizations, the Natural Products Association and the Natural Ingredients Resource Council, also provide strong standards for “natural.”

The Whole Foods standard forbids the use of synthetic fragrances in skincare products. Elsewhere, though, synthetic fragrances are commonplace in products marketed as natural. Here’s a simple way to spot synthetic fragrances: If you see any of these terms on a product label — fragrance, fragrance oils, perfume, or parfum, even on a product labeled as natural — you know the product contains synthetic fragrances. The only truly natural scent ingredients are pure essential oils.



Can You Even Trust Unscented?

“Fragrance-free” and “Unscented” can also be tricky label terms to trust. Many products calling themselves Unscented, Fragrance-Free or Sensitive Skin, have “fragrance” listed among their ingredients. Even more deceptive is the use of an ingredient such as “malto” as a fragrance mask. Once you know what to look for, truly natural soap is easy to distinguish from fake. Here are five basic rules of thumb to keep in mind when trying to decide if a soap is natural or not:

  1. It’s made from vegetable oils (if you see “tallow” or “tallowate” in the ingredients, this means animal fats)
  2. It’s scented with essential oils only, or if unscented, is truly absent of scent
  3. It contains no synthetic pigments, dyes, or preservatives
  4. The ingredients sound like plant names, not lengthy names of periodic table concoctions
  5. The soap is certified by an organization you know and trust

Whether you need natural soap for your personal use or wholesale soap for your business, be sure it is truly natural. “Mostly” and “Sort of” don’t count. Soap is either truly natural or it’s not.


Article originally published: August 22, 2016. Updated: April 8, 2019.