Soap vs. Detergent

What’s the difference between soap and detergent?

One of the first differences when considering soap vs. detergent is the history of these two products.

The history of soap goes back to many of the ancient civilizations. One favorite origin story is about how the fats from sacrificed animals mixed with the lye that was in the wood ashes and then washed into the water below, creating a perfect spot to wash the laundry. Whether this is true or not, soap has definitely been around much longer than detergent, which was created during the First World War due to a scarcity of soap ingredients.

But the differences go much deeper than the history of these two products.

One thing people discovered after detergent was created is that it didn’t leave soap scum behind the way soap does. This quickly became a selling point for washing the laundry and the dishes. For these household tasks detergent continues to be a popular answer for getting that grungy laundry and baked-on dish clean.

However, the interesting part comes when we begin talking about products we put on our skin. Detergents and soap treat our skin very differently. And what many people don’t realize is that many of the products we call soap are actually detergents.



But before we get into that, let’s come back to the basic question. What is the difference when you consider soap vs. detergent?

Here is the simple answer. Soap is made by combining liquid and lye with natural oils from plants or animals, whereas detergents are synthetically created (man-made) from derivatives. This makes soap a more natural choice than detergent.

But how much does the difference matter for your skin?

Good question.

Detergents tend to be more drying to the skin. Whether we are talking about bars or liquid “soap”, using these types of products is more likely to leave you with dry, flaky skin. Or worse, cracked hands and knuckles.

Natural soaps on the other hand maintain the natural glycerin that is created during the soapmaking process. Glycerin is a humectant, which means it attracts water. Overall, a natural soap is less likely to leave your skin dry and cracked. In fact, people who switch from detergent to soap often find that their need for lotion diminishes.

In addition to this glycerin, many natural soaps have an added amount of oils that contribute to keeping skin from drying out because of hand-washing. This just adds to the benefits as these soaps help to keep the skin balanced and healthy.



How do we identify detergent vs. soap in skin care products?

In reality, most bars and liquid soaps are really detergent, which is why we then get some companies trying to come up with creative answers, like adding moisturizing cream back into the “soap” to make up for what they’ve taken out.

Natural soaps are often handcrafted, because large operations have a problem with that sticky glycerin gumming up their rollers. Since soapmakers are not required to put all the ingredients on a label, this leaves any use of ingredients wide open and makes it harder for the consumer to know what they are really purchasing. However, you will find that many true soapmakers are anxious to disclose their ingredients, because they want the consumer to know that they are creating a quality product with natural ingredients.

If you do find a soap product with an ingredient label, you want to make sure they are using either plant-based or animal fats, lye and some kind of liquid (although the liquid dissipates and may not be listed). Lye is also known as sodium hydroxide and when used in the proper amounts is taken up by the oils in the soapmaking process to leave you with a beautiful, skin-loving product. Different oils have different properties. For a long-lasting bar a soapmaker will use a base of palm oil or tallow. Most soapmakers will add coconut oil or apricot kernel oil to give a soap good sudsing capability. Olive oil is a popular oil for soaps that are made for sensitive skin or baby skin. And then there are all those other amazing oils with their multitude of properties that can make a bar of soap feel luxurious on your skin.

You don’t have to understand all the details, but by understanding these few things you can sharpen your skills as a consumer when you are looking for soap products.

Your skin will thank you!