When I’m washing my hands with soap, I’m not thinking too much. If I am experiencing a moment of mindfulness during the process, I may spend an extra few seconds to scrub between the fingers, but that’s about the extent of my interest in the process.
I spend hours researching restaurants and must-watch movies. I visit innumerable stores to find attractive clothes and shoes. But when it comes to choosing a product that I use every few hours in the day, I have done zero research on hand soaps and, even worse, unconditionally accepted commercials as the authority on the topic.
So today, I decided to take a hard look at my hand soap. It’s green, smells of “Nature” (as indicated by the label) and seems to get the job done. But when I turn to the back of the bottle, I am suddenly frozen with that all too familiar panic of attempting to make sense of the paragraph of ingredients that might as well be gibberish.
42. That is the total number of ingredients in my soap. However much I love having a personal platoon to fight my germs, 42 seems a bit excessive. How do these ingredients affect my health and environment? I know these ingredients are valued for being cheaper alternatives to traditional ingredients, but what consequences have been ignored as a result?
As a result of my time spent online, I have one major issue: a lot of ingredients are only there to make the soap look “pretty.” Half my army is just polishing the artillery. Not only are these ingredients not necessary towards my hygiene goals, they are not nourishing ingredients and thereby require other ingredient to compensate for the negative effect. For example, glycol distearate is an emollient that gives soap its pearly effect. Except that it’s made from ethylene glycol, which is also used to make anti-freeze, brake fluids and wood stains. As much as I love looking at pretty things, I love my skin more and don’t want to rub such chemical all over my hands.
Other ingredients are or have known carcinogens (those cancer causing things). For example, Sodium Laureth Sulfate can become contaminated with ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane during its processing. Dioxane is a suspected carcinogen that lasts in our bodies because the liver cannot effectively metabolize it and persists in our environment (i.e. shower, sink) because it doesn’t easily degrade. Ethylene Oxide is a known human carcinogen that can also harm the nervous system.
The more toxic ingredients are allowed in soaps because the quantities aren’t considered large enough to pose a risk. A lot of sources conclude that limited exposure is not harmful. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to spend too much time testing the long term effects of these chemicals. But when every second product in my everyday routine like hand soap, shampoo, detergent, body gel and face wash have tiny bits of each chemical, is my exposure really limited? I am not a scientist and cannot make any definite conclusions but when it comes to my body, I don’t want to look back and wish I had taken preventative measures when so many alternatives are easily available in the market.
Overall, what worries me the most is how little information is available regarding these ingredients. For example, Sodium Laureth Sulfate can be made from petroleum oil and Potassium Sorbate can damage DNA. A lot of the ingredients can be skin irritants. Even after hours of research, I am left confused and unsatisfied with the information I have gained.
I know that I can dig deeper on each ingredient. I also know that I can find articles screaming from rooftops warning me to stay away and an equal number of articles telling me to not worry. But it’s a personal decision. I want to use products that are nourishing for my skin, that don’t punish it for being dirty, but help it become cleaner and stronger. And with all the less complex options available in my local stores, I am comfortable walking away from my “Nature” scented hand soap.