Suds or Scrub - that is the question... but what about the chemicals?

Soaps consist chiefly of fatty oils with an alkali - originally it was thought that soap made our hands clean because of the alkali. Now it’s realised there’s too little alkali, and that washing is a physical, rather than chemical action. The soap's lather doesn’t dissolve the dirt but ‘floats’ it in suspension, preventing it from being re-deposited back on the hands.

The effectiveness of soap depends partly upon the concentration of alkali and added chemical ingredients - which may start you thinking that using soap to wash away the grime, germs and bacteria could be doing more harm than good.  Even though you’re washing it off – it may be wise to remember the chemical load is cumulative and your skin is like a sponge.

Common skin irritants include acids, alkalis, detergents and solvents that disrupt the barrier function of the skin.

Chemicals to avoid:


An undisclosed chemical concoction of toxins to create scents capable of causing; skin irritation, allergic reactions, birth defects, cancer and nervous-system disorders from long-term exposure.

Phthalates; dibutyl phthalate (DBP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP)

 Referred to as the "everywhere chemical," because they're literally everywhere, phthalates are endocrine disruptors, damaging the balance in several hormonal systems, including the reproductive system, especially in males.

Formaldehyde (formaldehyde releasers: bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, diazolidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea, and quaternium-15)   

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasing preservatives are widely used in cosmetic and bodycare products, especially liquid soaps to help prevent bacteria from growing in water-based solutions. Absorbed through the skin to cause both short term allergic skin reactions and long term cancers.  Formaldehyde is also synonymous with ‘fragrance’.

Synthetic Dyes & Colouring   

Many FD&C colours (approved for food, drugs and cosmetics) have been linked to allergic reactions, skin irritations, nervous system toxicity, reproductive system disruption and cancer. Although banned in some countries they are still widely used in soaps, cosmetic and bodycare products.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)

Harsh surfactants cause itchy red contact dermatitis on hands also known as ‘jewellery rash’ as the soap or handwash is trapped under rings and left to aggravate the skin.  According to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, SLS is a "moderate hazard" that has been linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, organ toxicity, skin irritation and endocrine disruption.

PEGs also known as Polyethylene Glycol 

Synthetic chemical compounds used as solvents, thickeners, softeners and moisture carriers. They are also a ‘penetration enhancer’, allowing ingredients to be absorbed more readily through the skin and can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation. PEG’s are often manufactured using ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane and are usually followed by a number e.g. PEG-7 or PEG-80, showing how many units of ethylene glycol they contain. The lower the number, the more easily it’s absorbed into the skin. Ethylene oxide is a known human carcinogen, may interfere with human development and can harm the nervous system. 1,4 dioxane is a possible human carcinogen and environmental toxin. It is impossible to know whether the PEG’s in cosmetic products are contaminated by ethylene oxide and 1,4 dioxane.

Parabens (including; Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Butylparaben)

Parabens are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, Methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butylparaben are all used in cosmetics and are potential endocrine disruptors. Found in very low concentrations in breast cancer tumours, (although no direct link between parabens and cancer has been found). Parabens have been shown to mimic oestrogen, which may play a role in the increasing early onset of puberty in girls.

Sodium Benzoate  

A synthetic chemical used as a ‘fixative’ in fragrance and a preservative in cosmetics & foods. Considered ‘safe’ but not %100, many natural brands are using this until a better alternative is found – sodium benzoate can cause skin reactions such as hives.

For further reading see Benzoic Acid  

Cocamidopropyl Betaine 

Skin and eye irritation, chronic allergic skin reactions. ‘CAPB’ replaced Cocamide DEA which was found to be a carcinogen, conclusions are yet to be drawn on CAPB…Notably, coconut derived Cocamidopropyl Betaine was voted contact allergen of the year back in 2004 by a committee of international experts. (1)


Originally registered a pesticide in the 1960s, triclosan & its close cousin triclocarban are used today as antimicrobials. Tricolsan interferes with thyroid hormone function, weakens the immune system, associated with asthma, allergies & eczema.

Sodium Palm Kernelate – Palm Oil 

Like so many unnecessary ingredients, avoid any products with Palm Oil - not for chemical or skin reasons but consciously choose products that don’t further increase the urgent plight of the orangutans, rain forests and planet!

What to look for instead? And no, you won’t smell like an ol’ Goat!

To avoid hands being stripped of all natural oils and having to desperately search your handbag for a moisturizer – looks for a Goat’s Milk soap with no added fragrance and as few ingredients as possible! 

Human skin and hair have an important slightly acidic layer which protects from viral, bacterial and chemical invasions. Goat’s milk has the closest pH to our skin so it doesn’t upset the natural barrier which can overpower the pH with a too strong alkaline base and bombardment of chemicals, potentially doing more harm than good. Alternatively, avoid the suds and get scrubbing!

For ultra sensitives, carefully choose your fragrance-free goat soap that has not been sat on a shelf next to fragranced options!

Recommended options include: milk relief soap

(1) - reactions-to-cosmetics

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