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How “Clean” and Green Are Your Cleansers?

Buy “Cleaner” Body Soaps and Lotions

Written by guest blogger Brenna Mannion

If the body care aisle at my local CVS is any indication, we all must smell amazing. Soaps, body washes, and body lotions come in every scent (and color) imaginable. In the roughly 100 years since Palmolive and Ivory became two of the first mass-produced soaps available in the US, the amount of body care products on the market has increased thousands-fold. With new ingredients and products hitting the shelves almost daily, and knowing the FDA has little control over what manufacturers put in their products (covered in my last blog), here are a few tips to identify what ingredients to avoid while shopping for soaps and lotions.

Soap and Body Wash

Soap making in its purest form, is combining fats, lye and water to create saponification. This makes something akin to the bars of soap you buy in the supermarket. However, in an effort to create very cheap product, the fats used in soap production can now include animal fat byproducts from slaughtering facilities, and the like.

We've come a long way

Usually, if a soap is very, very inexpensive, it was probably made using sodium tallowate (aka, tallow…which may sound familiar) and can be contaminated with other harmful chemicals. Vegetable fat based soaps, soaps with coconut oil, glycerin, etc, listed as the first ingredients are a good alternative – and those ingredients are also moisturizing. Often they have very little unnecessary additives. Which bring us to body washes and shower gels, soap’s very unnatural cousins. To achieve the foamy lather so many consumers correlate with cleanliness, manufacturers almost exclusively rely on sodium lauryl sulfate, or SLS. SLS is a known irritant and should be avoided. This is also true for liquid soaps.Body washes that tout their moisturizing properties, use petrolatum or other petroleum bi-products, which just give the illusion of moisture – and sit atop the skin’s surface, keeping water and other impurities trapped in your skin.

Allow me to quote the best movie of the last decade: “You smell like a baby prostitute.” When did we decide it was appealing to smell like “scarlet blossom” or “twilight woods”? I don’t even know what those smell like! The harsh dyes and synthetic fragrances found in those products are irritating.

A good rule of thumb would be to avoid any body wash that is brightly colored and strongly perfumed, as they are often chock full of other unnatural ingredients. Oh, and anything with glitter.

To add an environmental bent, remember these products don’t magically disappear after they wash down the drain. They pass through a wastewater treatment plant, and can sometimes flow into the nearest river, lake or ocean.

One good example: You know those little plastic beads you find in some face and body washes (“Exfoliate!”, “Bursts of freshness!”)? Well, recently, there has been wide media coverage about how those microbeads in your body wash are being found in waterways across the country. Plastic microbeads are as small as sand, but much less dense, so they pass through traditional water treatment processes and can become coated in other contaminants once in the waterway. Due to their miniscule size, the microbeads are easily incorporated into the food chain. Which means fish you eat, eat them. Amazing to think your Olay Body Wash has consequences all the way in the Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes.


Spring is mercifully on the horizon in DC. Which gives little solace to those of us fighting dry, itchy skin for months on end. That being said, some of the things we spread all over our body under the auspices of “moisturizing” boggles the mind. Lest you get disheartened, of all personal care products on the market, lotions probably offer the widest range of safe, natural alternatives. It helps that tons of natural ingredients can offer superb moisture properties, like colloidal oatmeal and shea butter; naturally derived fragrances, like vanilla, lavender, and sandalwood are in demand and smell amazing. The easiest way to shop for lotion is to avoid the following:

  1. Petrolatum or mineral oil (Canada recognizes its organ system toxicity – and it is highly prone to contamination by potent carcinogens such as PAH)

  2. Preservatives known to be carcinogenic and toxic (BHT, ethyl-, methyl-, or propyl paraben)

  3. Chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, oxybenzone, oxycrylene, etc.)

Look for lotions with ingredient lists topped with things like shea butter, vegetable based oils (such as jojoba, almond, etc) glycerin, and panthenol. These compounds, while significantly moisturizing, are also naturally derived. If those ingredients are buried toward the bottom of the list, likely they are only present in trace amounts and the rest is chemical fillers. Good brands to look for are Desert EssenceEveryday Shea, Caudalie, Alba, and Everyone Lotion, many of which are widely available. Avoid anything where “Fragrance or Parfum” is one of the first couple of ingredients – ahem, I’m looking at you Bath and Body Works. These days, natural lotions are often not even more expensive than their mainstream counterparts.

Remember, we slather these things on our body day-in and day-out. Even harsh chemicals in small amounts add up. Happy shopping!

Brenna works in domestic clean water policy in DC. When she’s not annoying her friends about safe body products, she can be found in the yoga studio or eating gummy bears.


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