Natural Foods Merchandiser

Shoppers shower dollars on liquid soaps

Liquid soaps and shower gels are all about balance—they're a mix of oil and water, acid and base, cleanser and moisturizer. But natural soap makers find that balance in a different way than conventional manufacturers. Instead of relying on harsh chemicals, they use mild, nourishing ingredients to achieve similar—but gentler—effects.

And it's paying off. Natural liquid soaps saw a 16 percent sales increase over the last year. Natural body wash and bath gel sales went up more than 22 percent in the same period, according to SPINS, a Schaumberg, Ill.-based natural products industry reporting and consulting services firm.

What's in a name?
Liquid soap, shower gel, bath gel—they're all liquids that clean, right? So what's the difference? Truth is they have more similarities than differences, and a large part of what distinguishes them is consistency. Gels, as you might imagine, are more viscous than liquids. This allows them to adhere better to a washcloth or bath puff, and it also makes them go farther in the bath or shower.

Another difference, according to Brad Black, president of EO, a personal care products company based in Corte Madera, Calif., is in moisturizing. "Shower gel is an all-body, more moisturizing product," he says. "Hand soap doesn't have to be as moisturizing."

Good, clean foam
Liquid soaps need to foam, and not just because it makes them fun. The foam is what happens when dirt is being lifted and emulsified so it can be washed away. Conventional liquid soaps and shower gels typically get their foaming properties from sodium lauryl (or laureth) sulfate, a detergent that is used in liquid cleaning products ranging from shampoos to floor cleaners. It's extremely effective and affordable, but natural soap makers maintain that it's far too harsh for skin. To make up for its drying properties, manufacturers must add heavy-duty moisturizers to their products.

Natural soap manufacturers use gentler methods to get their soaps to lather. The simplest way—embraced by companies like Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and Vermont Soap Organics—is to make soaps in the Castile tradition. This venerable method mixes vegetable oils with an alkali in a process called saponification. The oils and alkali neutralize each other in an acid-base reaction, explains Larry Plesant, owner of Vermont Soap Organics in Middlebury, Vt. "Basically, you're making alkaline water and mixing it with acidic oils. These are totally opposites, and they come together and form something new," he says. "When you mix an acid and a base together what you get is called a salt. Soap is a salt. It's a weird salt that foams."

The other way to make liquid soaps and shower gels foam without using sodium laurel sulfate is to use a milder surfactant, such as sodium methyl cocoyl taurate, which is derived from coconuts. This isn't without controversy, though; many purists insist that any chemicals—even the mild, plant-derived ones—have no place in natural cosmetics.

But people like Black, who uses sodium methyl cocoyl taurate as a surfactant in his products, believe it's the gentlest way to go. He maintains that the base used to saponify oils is too high in pH, making a less mild and foamy product.

Keeping it fresh
Another area of debate in liquid soaps and shower gels is preservatives. Since they have a higher liquid content, they need a way to keep from going rancid and to keep microbes out. For the first task, natural soap makers can use antioxidants like vitamins A, C and E. The only organic preservative that can be used in soap making is rosemary extract.

Castile-type soaps are protected against microbes by the pH of the soap. "Soap has an alkaline pH and that's the preservation system against microbes. They don't like environments that are overly acidic or overly alkaline," says Plesant. "So we don't have to worry about parabens or any of that stuff. We're our own preservative."

Soaps that rely on added surfactants for their cleaning power may need additional preservatives to keep from going bad. Parabens preserve effectively, but as public awareness about their potential negative health effects increases, they're being excluded from many ingredient lists. "We think phenoxyethanol benzyl alcohol is a healthier alternative [to parabens]," says EO's Black. "[Other types of] alcohol, sugar and wasabi are also alternatives, but you have to use so much of it that you're not necessarily going to want it on your skin."

The antibacterial debate
One of the biggest struggles for makers of natural soaps is competing with the antibacterial trend in conventional soap manufacturing. Huge marketing dollars have gone into campaigns to convince consumers they need harsh antibacterials in order to get clean, but that's just not true. "Studies have shown that the antibacterial [soaps are] actually less antibacterial than regular hand soap," Black says. "It's a marketing twist. The [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] requires all food handlers to scrub their hands for 20 seconds.

The FDA does not substantiate and/or demand that antibacterial hand soap be used."

For customers looking for hand sanitizers, some natural products manufacturers offer alcohol-based formulations that are milder than triclosan, the chemical used in conventional formulations.

Selling the suds
The best way for retailers to convince their customers of the benefits of natural soaps and shower gels is to use them themselves so they can speak to what works best. Also, it's a good idea to stock the restrooms with items that are for sale in the store.

"One of the things we have done is to offer retailers a hand soap dispenser for their bathroom, so many have replaced the nasty pink stuff with a product that they sell," Black says. "It introduces consumers to a product that [the store sells] and lets them experience firsthand why it's different, and it also raises it up a notch in terms of the store and how the store participates."

Plesant suggests personalizing soap and shower gel recommendations even more by getting the staff involved.

"My advice is to talk to the staff and make up nice little signs that you put next to the products that you really like," he says. People tend to trust people who work in natural products stores, he says, and they take their recommendations to heart. That small personal touch can make all the difference in connecting consumers with the products.

Deirdre Shevlin Bell is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 3/p. 94, 96

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