Two hundred years ago, soap was something Grandma boiled up from meat scraps mixed with lye. With a nod to keeping it that simple, modern-day liquid shower gels have still come a long way from Granny's day.
Most natural soaps contain moisturizers, oils and few or no preservatives. Liquid soaps, made popular in the 1970s, have embellished these standard ingredients with plant oils and other moisturizing agents, as well as botanical substances for health and well-being.
Soap is a simple molecule, and natural body-care customers want to keep it that way. Soaps are merely the sodium or potassium salt of a fatty acid. When a fatty acid comes in contact with an alkali, the result is called saponification. (Campers may notice the foaming byproduct of saponification when campfire ash gets into a hot pan recently used for cooking meat).
Much like Grandma's, only on a larger scale, mass-produced soaps are still boiled, dried and cut into bars. Liquid shower gels, however, are not dried, and natural oils or botanicals are added as moisturizing agents.
Many mainstream liquid soaps on the market today contain synthetic preservatives and petroleum-based detergents. Detergents emulsify oils and dirt on the skin and make it possible for the soap to clean the skin. Natural soaps and gels are much more likely to use plant-based preservatives, such as rosemary extract, and milder detergents to clean the skin.
"We've eliminated the skin-irritating detergents in our shower gels," says Susan Szewczyk at Ecco Bella in Wayne, N.J. "Our gels contain extra-gentle corn and coconut oils as well as a special ginger extract—ingredients that moisturize and soothe."
A close look at labels on mainstream brands will indicate botanical derivatives and semi-synthetic fragrances. To ensure that botanicals are pure, look for the Latin genus and species names on ingredients labels—for instance, Rosmarinus officinalis for rosemary. Natural fragrances contain essential oils with recognizable names such as sweet orange, lavender and peppermint. When in doubt, ask the distributor or manufacturer—most companies have customer-service representatives who answer questions by phone and on Web sites.
Gels As Moisturizers
The plant-based oils in natural shower gels more closely mimic the natural oils of the skin. This is important in keeping a balanced pH level, which reflects the degree of acidity on the skin.
Skin has a natural pH level between 4.5 and 5.5 (the pH scale goes from an acid 0 to an alkaline 14). To cleanse the skin, soaps are alkaline, ranging from a pH of 7 to 9.5 to penetrate the protective top layer of skin, called the acid mantle. Some mainstream liquid soaps have a pH of 10 or more, which may irritate and chemically burn skin. Natural bar or cake soaps, with lower alkalinity (closer to a pH of 7), tend to be more suitable for people who have extremely dry, chapped skin. Mildly dry skin may benefit from the oil ingredients in shower gels that reduce evaporative water loss and provide a protective layer on the skin surface.
"We add coconut oil and olive oil to an aloe liquid soap in a 500-gallon pot called 'Big Bertha,' " says Angie Unwin, sales associate at Vermont Soapworks in Middlebury, Vt. "The mixture is constantly stirred and cooks down for two weeks to lower the pH. Then we add a vegetable glycerin so soap has a consistency similar to honey."
For extra moisturizing, ShiKai products go beyond plant oils and contain colloidal oatmeal—oats ground down to a very fine powder.
"We mix in the colloidal oatmeal like you would in cooking a fine roux," says Dennis Sepp, organic chemist and president and founder of ShiKai, based in Santa Rosa, Calif. "The pulverized oats attract and hold the water. Protein components in the oats, such as cellulose and fiber, anchor moisturizers on the skin. When your mother was young and got sunburned or maybe had poison ivy, her mother probably gave her a bath in oatmeal. It's extremely gentle and soothing."
Once customers have made the switch from mainstream to natural brands, the preference for liquid shower gel instead of cake soap is purely personal. Shower gel users, both men and women, are often influenced by a product's herbal properties, smell and manufacturing policies that demonstrate a conscience.
Vermont Soapworks' castile gels come in scents of lavender, sweet orange, peppermint and tea tree oil. Cucumber-melon is ShiKai's most popular shower gel. Ecco Bella sells anything vanilla, and lemon verbena is another top seller.
Soothing herbs in shower gels include lavender, helichrysum and myrtle, which helps irritated skin caused by psoriasis, eczema or overexposure to the sun. Refreshing and stimulating herbs include lemon verbena, rose and mint. Calming herbs include chamomile, melissa and orange blossom.
Some shower gels contain antimicrobial agents to kill or inhibit bacteria that can cause odor or disease. Gels with natural antimicrobials such as rosemary extract, tea tree oil and grape seed extract are popular with sports enthusiasts.
Myriad chemical and petroleum-based additives, high pH levels and questionable botanical claims in mainstream shower gels will send customers to the natural health and beauty section. The quality of the natural shower gels will keep customers coming back for more.
"I'm an organic chemist, but I don't want my customers to have to use a chemical dictionary when they're looking at the ingredients label on my products," says Sepp.
Pamela Wyngate is a freelance health and science writer in Seattle.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 28, 32
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 7/p. 32