What is Natural Soap? Is It Different vs Organic?

what is natural soap

Natural soap means all ingredients are derived from plants. That’s the standard we use when calling our own soap “all natural.”

We also define our soap as herbal, and in defining what natural soap is, we also define what it’s not. It’s definitely not what the body-care industry calls “natural” on the labels of products containing synthetic fragrances, synthetic colorants, and synthetic preservatives.

It’s no surprise, though, that “natural” is one of the most deceptively used terms in product marketing. It might be a surprise to find out how effective the deception still is, despite not being much of a secret.

Compared to What’s on the Shelves

Most of the soap you see on the shelf isn’t natural. Most of it’s not even soap. But there are lots of good, true soapmakers, committed to all natural products. And most follow a similar process to ours.

  • Our base mix is made with 100% certified organic oils.
  • Our soap is scented with essential oils.
  • It’s colored with organic herbs and plant extracts.
  • We add no artificial substances to our soaps.
  • Whenever possible, we use organically grown products.

Take a look at our ingredients list to see what we mean by “natural soap.” Then compare our ingredients to a cleansing bar on the shelves, or to any of number of liquid soaps. Trust us on what would happen if you followed through and used them both. Your skin would know the difference.

Selective Chemistry

The problem with wading through skincare marketing and labeling is that cosmetic-industry chemistry is selective and, frequently, far-fetched. No one would actually claim that adding just a bit of natural ingredients to a fragrance or a product changes the synthetic nature of all other ingredients. Nor would they claim that “contains essential oils” means all other scent ingredients become more natural.

And yet, those are the premises behind commercial skincare marketing. In fact, it’s the true magic of marketing to make the ridiculous attainable. By splashing “Paraben-Free” or “Contains Shea Butter” on product labels, perceptions of products are changed. And manufacturers get to leave the banned list and join the good guys fighting for a healthier world. The lesson to be learned from this type of marketing is, if you want to make impossible, deceptive claims, don’t make them directly.

How It Works

Marketing is never intended to work on a rational level. Its intention is irrational, to trigger emotional responses that would never pass the reason test. It’s why there are commercials connecting overall quality of life to the brand of salad dressing you buy.

The key to navigating skincare marketing is to familiarize yourself with what a truly natural soap is, and then use that as your standard. Lucky for you, you’re only a click away from what you need. See our soap ingredients here.

Organic is the Real Natural

natural ingredients

For consumers who want fewer synthetics in their lives, natural raises as many questions as it answers. There’s help, though. In the absence of natural standards, there are great web resources to help consumers sort through the fog and make their own choices. But the job is huge, the burden is on consumers, and many manufacturers do all they can to make good information hard to find.

The good news is, certified organic answers the questions natural can’t. Products that are certified organic must adhere to strict ingredient and manufacturing standards, and their continued compliance is overseen by an official third party.

Exceeding Standards

In pursuit of all-natural, the good news for consumers is that organic products meet natural standards by exceeding them. There have been some efforts on the part of non-organic producers to weaken organic standards, but for now organic still means what it should. Standards can apply to both agriculture and manufacturing. Here’s how they apply to soap:

  • Organic Soap can contain no artificial colors or scents. In the language of labeling, this means nothing labeled “colorant,” “yellow number 1,” nothing with “D&C” or “FD&C” in the name. It also means no fragrance oils, no absolutes, no synthetic preservatives.
  • Organic Certification requires documenting all ingredients back to their sources. None of the ingredients used in making organic soap can have been grown or produced using irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic pesticides or genetic engineering.
  • All ingredients used in manufacturing must themselves be certified organic, except where specified on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.
  • Non-organic ingredients allowed per the National List are limited to a non-organic total of five percent of overall ingredients (excluding salt and water).

Organic Standards Also Apply to Processing

The ways in which products are handled and made – the integrity of processes – is at the heart of organic certification. Most of the attention certification gets has to do with the requirements themselves. What gets lost, frequently, is the spirit and ethics behind the regulations. The National Organic Program describes organic food as being produced “by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations.” The processes used in handling and manufacturing must ensure:

  • no contamination of organic products during processing;
  • the implementation of an Organic Handling Plan;
  • proper use of approved label claims, as well as proper use of the word “organic” in ingredient lists.

The Nature of Natural Ingredients

natural ingredients

We work with them every day, and yet even we need to be reminded occasionally that nothing is certain with natural ingredients. Not the color or quantity, not the potency or price.

Evidence of Truly Natural

Whether it’s the linoleic content of this year’s safflower harvest or the sudden disappearance of madder root powder from the world market, natural ingredients are – before they’re anything else – crops and commodities.

As crops, they’re susceptible to weather and growing conditions. As commodities, they’re subject to price spikes and shortages. This is always true, and while some people consider the uncertainty of natural ingredients to be a drawback, for others it’s confirmation of their non-synthetic identity. As the ground-breaking British natural products manufacturer faith in nature says on its website, “variations are your guarantee that the materials we use are truly natural.”

Not So Orange

There are times when the nature of natural ingredients is more of an issue than others. Sometimes an ingredient is so popular and used for so many things that competition for just what you want – or what you’ve always had – gets too fierce to be successful. That’s the case with annatto seed powder and our citrus lavender bar soap.

Annatto seed powder is an ingredient, like bergamot essential oil, that you know very well even if you don’t know it by name. It’s used as a light-to-deep-orange food coloring in hundreds of products. Among these products are cheddar and American cheeses, most crackers, nearly all cereals, light-colored ice creams, commercial potato salad, sugar-free Jell-O, gourmet mustards, and ready-to-eat chicken from grocery stores.

What About the Soap?

Our citrus lavender soap is in competition with the makers of all these foods, and sometimes the upshot of competition is not getting what you’ve been accustomed to having. That’s the case with the annatto seed powder we’ve used for years. The newest version of our organic, ready-to-ship Citrus Lavender soap isn’t the same popsicle-orange color it’s always been, because we haven’t been able to source the annatto seed powder we’ve always used.

Our Citrus Lavender soap is darker, now, less summery, but also richer and deeper. It’s still the same great soap, but it’s also a good example of how natural ingredients can vary due to conditions, evidence that despite all our knowledge and skills, we’re never really in control of the natural world.

Beware of the Fake Natural Soap

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.”

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.

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