In This Article:
What Is Natural Soap?
Most of what people mistakenly call “soap” sitting pretty on store shelves *is technically not real soap*. Did that blow your mind? It should!
The term “soap” is an FDA-protected term. If it is not true soap, legally the manufacturer cannot call it “soap”. Instead of “soap” they must use other terms such as: “wash”, “cleanser”, “bar”, “washing liquid”, “shampoo”, “body wash”, et cetera.
Only true, natural soap can legally be called “soap”. So, how does the FDA define soap?
To meet the definition of soap in FDA’s regulations, a product has to meet three conditions:
What it’s made of: To be regulated as “soap,” the product must be composed mainly of the “alkali salts of fatty acids,” that is, the material you get when you combine fats or oils with an alkali, such as lye.
What ingredients cause its cleaning action: To be regulated as “soap,” those “alkali salts of fatty acids” must be the only material that results in the product’s cleaning action. If the product contains synthetic detergents, it’s a cosmetic, not a soap. You still can use the word “soap” on the label.
How it’s intended to be used: To be regulated as soap, it must be labeled and marketed only for use as soap. If it is intended for purposes such as moisturizing the skin, making the user smell nice, or deodorizing the user’s body, it’s a cosmetic. Or, if the product is intended to treat or prevent disease, such as by killing germs, or treating skin conditions, such as acne or eczema, it’s a drug. You still can use the word “soap” on the label.You can read the entire regulation at 21 CFR 701.20.
This is exactly why we have to have a disclaimer with any beneficial claims (other than cleansing) on our website that states “These statements are not approved by the FDA. This product is not intended to treat, mitigate, prevent, or cure any disease.”
How are traditional soaps and synthetic detergents different?
Ordinary soap is made by combining fats or oils and an alkali, such as lye. The fats and oils, which may be from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources, are degraded into free fatty acids, which then combine with the alkali to form crude soap. The lye reacts with the oils, turning what starts out as liquid into blocks of soap. When made properly, no lye remains in the finished product. In the past, people commonly made their own soap using animal fats and lye that had been extracted from wood ashes.
Today there are very few true soaps on the market. Most body cleansers, both liquid and solid, are actually synthetic detergent products. Detergent cleansers are popular because they make suds easily in water and don’t form gummy deposits. Some of these detergent products are actually marketed as “soap” but are not true soap according to the regulatory definition of the word.
You can find all of this information here on the FDA’s website: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/cosmetic-products/frequently-asked-questions-soap
What Makes A Tear-Free Cleanser?
The answer lies in a few subtle changes in chemical formulas of detergent cleansers.
Adult and baby detergent shampoos contain surfactants (short for “surface active agents”). One end of the surfactant molecule is attracted to water. The other is repelled by water but attracted to oily substances. Surfactants work by reducing the surface tension of a liquid, allowing the shampoo to spread and penetrate better, and remove the thin layer of oil known as sebum from the hair and scalp [source: Schwarcz]. Baby shampoos use detergents with long chain surfactants, such as sodium trideceth sulfate or nonionic polymers that are less harsh than normal detergents, and they use only small amounts of these cleansers in their shampoos.
Tear-free formulas also leave out surfactants such sodium lauryl sulfate, which can be irritating to the eyes and scalp. This does create a trade-off, though. Sodium lauryl sulfates — formed in part from coconut fat or palm kernel oil — are the chemical agents in shampoos that get hair really clean (and give a nice lather) [source: Schwarcz]. Although tear-free shampoos still clean hair, they don’t remove oil as thoroughly. But since most babies don’t do more than look cute and occasionally smear food into their hair, this usually works out just fine.
You may read more about this here: https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/everyday-myths/tear-free-shampoo-not-sting-eyes.htm
Can You Make Natural Soap Tear-Free?
Due to the very definition and make-up of natural soap, the answer is a resounding and unfortunate no. Because soap is naturally an alkali (this is how it cleanses) – it cannot NOT irritate the eyes when they come into direct contact with soap.
Can you make soap less alkali? Trying to making a soap more acidic would cause it to cease being or acting like a good soap, so it’s a no on that too. Since soap has a hydrophilic (water-attracting) side to it’s saponified molecules, the other half is hydrophobic (water-repelling), this is what makes it great at washing away dirt and grime when mixed with water! If we made soap less of a base and more of an acid by adding more acidic ingredients, it would significantly weaken its cleansing abilities (and cause an icky mess).
We add just enough excess fats (bases) to not dry the skin and hair, and also just enough lye (alkali) to be able to cleanse the skin and hair. This is a very fine balance called a superfat percentage carefully measured with highly sensitive scales each time we make soaps.
How To Use Soap Safely Around Eyes
Can you use soap safely around the eyes? Yes you can! You just have to be careful and patient, especially while washing a baby or toddler. Baths are the safest way to do this since you can dilute the soap in the bathwater first before applying it to the hair or skin around the face. Leaning the child back or asking the child to lean back while seated during the wash and rinse of their hair makes it much easier to avoid getting soap in their eyes. They can also use the edge of the bathtub or baby bathtub for better back and neck support during the wash and rinse. Use the edge of your thumb, palm, and index finger all pressed snugly against their eyebrow area to shield sensitive eyes from the soapy water when you rinse their hair. This looks just like when you are shielding your eyes from the sunlight.
Soap made for the body and hair will not permanently harm or damage the eyes, but it may sting and cause some irritation until it is rinsed off!
Keep this in mind: most bathwater — without the use of tear-free cleansers — could still cause tears to sensitive eyes. It all depends on the pH level of the water, which is a measurement of the free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions in the water. A pH level measures water on a scale of 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral. If the number drops below 7, the water is increasingly more acidic, which means it has a greater amount of free hydrogen ions. Above 7, and the water is increasingly less acidic (or more basic), which means it has a greater number of free hydroxyl ions [source: USGS]. The pH range for human eyes is 6.5 to 7.6, with 7 being optimal. Any variation from neutral may cause your eyes to tear, and it has little to do with the tear-free shampoo [sources: Kiechle, WHO].
Thanks for reading our article about why we can’t have natural tear-free soap – If you have any questions, please leave us a comment below!