Soap vs. Detergent: What Is the Difference?

soap vs detergent

Soaps and detergents are cleaning agents that help remove dirt, bacteria, and other unwanted particles from human skin, textiles, and other solid surfaces. People often use the words “soap” and “detergent” interchangeably since both of these products serve cleaning purposes. Moreover, many detergents are marketed as soaps to appear more natural nowadays.

But in fact, there are significant differences between these two types of cleaners. If we compare soap vs. detergent, we’ll notice that these substances differ in composition, structure, uses, and properties.

Difference Between Soap and Detergent

Although soaps and detergents are both surfactants (surface active agents, which means a washing compound that mixes with grease and water), they are not the same. The major difference between soap and detergent is that soap is produced from natural ingredients such as vegetable oils and animal fats. In contrast, detergent is made from synthetic sources (petroleum fractions). As a result, soap is biodegradable and less harmful to the environment than regular, mainstream detergents.

Traditional soaps are made by mixing fats or oils and an alkali, such as lye. The lye reacts with the oils and turns the mixture that starts as a liquid into blocks of soap (the reaction is known as saponification). However, commercially produced soaps may contain added chemicals for particular colors and fragrances.

At Botanie Soap, we never add chemicals and use only natural ingredients to produce soap bars and liquid soaps that we offer for private-label use. That’s why our products are great for skin care and friendly to the environment. For example, our Oatmeal Spice Bar Soap is made from saponified organic sunflower, coconut, palm, and safflower oils, oats, and essential oils of clove bud and cassia.

Scientists believe that soap has been known for at least 2,300 years. Soap making is mentioned in ancient Roman documents written as early as 70 CE. According to Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder, who first used the word “soap” (Latin sapo) in his works, the Phoenicians prepared it from goat’s tallow and wood ashes in 600 BCE. But the only use he mentions for soap is as a pomade for hair.

Apparently, the importance of soap for cleaning and washing was not recognized until the 2nd century CE. In Medieval Europe, soap-making production was centered first in France, Spain, and Italy, but soap was a luxury during that time. Castile soap, made from olive oil, was produced in Europe as early as the 16th century.

Widespread use of soap in Europe and the US began in the 19th century when manufactured bar soaps became available. That can be attributed to advertising campaigns that helped increase awareness of the relationship between good personal hygiene and health.

The Germans produced the first synthetic detergents for general use in about 1916 due to the shortage of animal fats caused by World War I. Manufacturers developed synthetic cleaners as a substitute for fat-based soap to meet the demand for cleaning products so that available fats could be used for other purposes. By the 1950s, detergents had developed into sophisticated products and had overtaken traditional soap products in homes across America and Europe.

Detergents contain synthetic ingredients—manmade sulfates, usually derived from petrochemicals, which clean hands, hair, clothes, and dishes when they come in contact with water. Detergents can include many other ingredients to suit specific cleaning tasks, such as fillers, abrasives, optical brighteners, enzymes, colors, artificial fragrances, etc. Because of this versatility, detergents can be used in everything from shampoo to multi-purpose cleaners to hand cleansers and stain removers.

What is Non-detergent Soap?

The truth is there are very few true all-natural soaps on the market. Most commercially manufactured liquid and solid body cleansers are synthetic detergent products. And although some of these detergent products are marketed as “soap” by their manufacturers, they are not true soap according to the regulatory definition made by the FDA.

So what is non-detergent soap? According to the FDA, the product can be defined and regulated as soap only if it meets the following conditions:

  • It must be made mainly of the “alkali salts of fatty acids,” which is what you get when you combine animal fats or vegetable oils with lye.
  • The “alkali salts of fatty acids” must be the only ingredients that cause the product’s cleaning action. If the product contains synthetic detergents, it’s considered a cosmetic. Still, manufacturers can use the word “soap” on the label.
  • The product must be labeled and marketed only to be used as soap. If it’s intended to moisturize the skin, deodorize the body, or make the skin smell nice, it’s a cosmetic. And if the product is intended to kill germs to prevent disease or treat a skin condition, such as eczema or acne, it’s a drug. But manufacturers can use the word “soap” on the label.

Products that meet these criteria are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). And if a cleanser does not meet all of these criteria, it’s either a cosmetic or a drug and is regulated by the FDA.

At Botanie Soap, we make products that meet all criteria of the regulatory definition of soap. We only use the cold-process method that allows us to have complete control over the ingredients and offers many possibilities to create customized bar soap and liquid soap. We can develop custom soap solutions for your brand if you are looking for custom production.

Detergent-Free Soap: What Are the Advantages?

Detergent-free soap made using the traditional cold-process method, which we use at Botanie Soap, is eco-friendly. It is produced with natural products (plant oil base, lye, and essential oils) and requires less energy during manufacturing.

These detergent-free soaps have a pH of 8 to 10 (alkaline), which makes them effective cleansing agents and eliminates the need for harmful antibacterial chemicals and preservatives. At the same time, traditional all-natural soaps don’t cause allergies and are gentle on the skin as they retain all the natural glycerin.

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