Dirty Little Secrets Soap Makers Don’t Want You to Know

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Everywhere you go, you experience it.  You enter a shop and you know it’s there.  Follow your nose. You will find it. Finally, right before your eyes, you see an eye-catching display of handcrafted soap. Of course, you cave. You touch it. You smell it.

Secrets in Soap Making

Go to the next store and it is the same. Another display, a different company.  You might even find two or three artisans in one store.  Even the mega stores carry the greats of the handcrafted industry like Squatch and Cannon.  

Things have changed in the bath and body industry

It didn’t used to be this way.  In fact, long ago, in a land far away, I began my soap making journey.  Social media did not exist.  YouTube was a few days old. I had only a landline and a few kind souls who talked me through the soap making process.  Giddy with delight, I presented my wares to our farmstead customer base and some local shops.  To my surprise the soaps flew off the shelf. 

Secrets in Soap making Soap stack

Seasons changed.  I left the farm. Yes, I even left the country for three and half years to serve as a missionary in Central America. On my return, I noticed a big change.   Handcrafted soaps were everywhere. There was no end to variety, color, and claims. Yes, claims.  Let’s come back to this later.

The lost art has been found

What happened while I was gone? It’s simple.  People rediscovered the lost art. One maker taught another. Soap making classes took place. Finally, market saturation occurred. 

Benefits of a flooded market place

Is market saturation a bad thing? It depends on who you ask.  In my opinion, it’s good for three reasons.

  • Consumers have endless options to serve their unique skin care needs and preferences.Variety is the spice of life! 
  • Competition pushes businesses to improve quality 
  • Competition urges companies to deliver quality customer service. 

Of course, there are drawbacks.  A flooded marketplace equals a noisy marketplace.  It reminds me of the open air markets in Central America. Vendors clamored to get my attention. Crowds hemmed me in, making it hard to evaluate the products.  Some vendors shouted price breaks. Others sensationalized claims about their product.  My favorite were the cure-alls.  Their product would cure every known disease.  The catch? It never cured my bank account. 

Drawbacks of the flooded bath and body industry

The noise in this space is loud too. Marketing jargon makes it difficult to evaluate the products.  They are secrets soap makers don’t talk about. To stand out, some businesses exploit customers’ lack of industry specific knowledge.  Worse yet, they highlight fears and create suspicion toward other companies as a marketing strategy.

Knowledge is power. And it is important for that power to be in your hands.  Today I want to draw attention to marketing tactics used by companies in the handcrafted industry. 

The truth behind “ Natural”, “All Natural”, “Organic”.

Soap makers often use the words “natural”, “all natural” and “organic” when addressing customers. Further, some emphasize their ingredient list.  Also, companies position their brand excellence through the use of essential oils only and no colorant.   

Is that  good or bad?  

Here is what you need to know as a consumer in this market place:

  1. “Natural”, and All Natural” is not regulated by the FDA
  2. Organic” in cosmetics is not regulated by the FDA.  Although, it is regulated in the food industry.
  3. Soap is defined by the FDA
  4. However, Soap is not regulated by the FDA
  5. The Consumer Safety Protection Act does not have any requirements for soap
  6. There is no regulatory definition of essential oils.

Natural, All Natural, and Organic is not regulated by the FDA.

The FDA is clear it does not have a regulatory definition for “natural” and “organic” for cosmetics.  They define soap.   But, they do not regulate soap. 

Why is there no regulatory definition of all natural in cosmetics?

Regulatory agencies define “all natural”  in the food industry because it is straightforward.  Food grows in the ground or on trees.  Crops are harvested and presented to the consumer sometimes with minimal processing. 

For instance, lettuce seeds are planted in the ground.  Inputs might be added and are measurable.  At harvest, the lettuce is cut, washed, and presented to the consumer.

However, soap and cosmetics do not grow in the ground or on trees.  The products are manufactured by people using raw materials. True, those raw materials might grow on trees. But the raw materials require processing before use in making soap and cosmetics.   For example, Lard and tallow must be cooked down and washed before using in soap.  The same applies to Olive oil or any of the vegetable oils used in soap making.  On the other end of the spectrum, lye is made through processing. Applying “all-natural” to man made products doesn’t work well.   Most of the core ingredients require refining before use.

Scare tactics in our industry

Some companies use the lack of regulation as a scare tactic.  But, don’t let the lack of regulations scare you. Regulatory bodies emphasize soap makers must make safe products. Further, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) prohibits the misrepresentations of ingredients as all natural.   Simply, companies are  responsible for making sure products are safe.  Finally, misrepresenting ingredients will not go unnoticed.  

Still, this topic is hotly debated among those in our industry. Some companies argue that it is wrong to use terms like “All Natural” because it is not regulated.  Follow this logic and you should not even use handcrafted soap. Why?  Yes, you got it.  Soap is not regulated. 

So why do companies use the word “all natural” or “natural” in marketing?

It is common knowledge that mass produced body bars are not soap. Rather they contain synthetic detergents. Read this from the FDA:

Today there are very few true soaps on the market. Most body cleansers, both liquid and solid, are actually synthetic detergent products. 

The number of consumers experiencing negative reactions to commercially produced bath and body products continues to rise. Hence, many people seek alternatives to commercial products. Simply, skin sensitivities are on the rise

Artisans use the words “all natural” and “natural” to distinguish themselves from the mass produced body bars.  Again, it is important for you to understand the limitations and benefits of these  marketing terms. 

 Let’s dig deeper into some of the definitions in the bath and body industry. 

The FDA Definition of Soap

Ordinary soap is made by combining fats or oils and an alkali, such as lye. The fats and oils, which may be from animal, vegetable, or mineral sources, are degraded into free fatty acids, which then combine with the alkali to form crude soap. The lye reacts with the oils, turning what starts out as liquid into blocks of soap. When made properly, no lye remains in the finished product. 

*Author’s note:  Some consumers fear the impact of lye on their skin when using handmade soap.  It is important to note that a balanced formula will NOT have any lye in the product. 

The FDA does not regulate soap

The FDA goes on later to say soap is not regulated by the FDA but  by the Consumer Protection Safety Act (CSPA). 

The CSPA does not have requirements for soap

 A quick review of their site shows that “CSPA does not have specific requirements for soaps.” This includes labeling.

Thankfully, the FDA at least defines soap. We know what it is for the purposes of this discussion. However, they do not regulate it and the CSPA doesn’t do much either.  

Companies are free to set standards defining the phrase  “all natural”.  Elitists distort this freedom using fear as a marketing strategy.  Specifically,  they claim companies are free to set their own rules. 

It’s worth repeating. But don’t be discouraged. 

  • You are free to ask companies about that definition. 
  • Further, you have a choice to purchase or not based on their answer.  The beauty of shopping with a small business is you can quickly access the owner.  No need to wade through an automated menu board. Even better, you don’t have to deal with a third party call center who barely speaks English. 
  • Finally, soap companies must still provide safe products.  They are not exempt from liability in the absence of regulations.

The truth about Essential Oils and Fragrance oils

Do a quick google search for handcrafted soap and you will find companies emphasizing they use essential oils only.  They reason it is the only “natural” way to add scent to soap. 

Problem One: There is no regulatory definition of “Essential Oils”.

The problem with this argument is that there is no regulatory definition of essential oils. The FDA states on their website,

“There is no regulatory definition for “essential oils,” although people commonly use the term to refer to certain oils extracted from plants. The law treats Ingredients from plants the same as those from any other source.

Problem Two:  There is no regulatory definition of “all natural”.

The second problem  with this argument is that there is no regulatory definition of “all natural”. Specifically, it is their company’s opinion used to gain a marketing advantage.

Problem Three:  Not all plant based ingredients are skin safe.

The third problem with this position is that some essential oils irritate the skin.  The FDA says “Sometimes people think that if an “essential oil” or other ingredient comes from a plant, it must be safe. But many plants contain materials that are toxic, irritating, or likely to cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin.

For example, cumin oil is safe in food, but can cause the skin to blister. Certain citrus oils used safely in food can also be harmful in cosmetics, particularly when applied to skin exposed to the sun.”

Specifically, it is important for soap makers to be educated about essential oil properties and usage rates in their products. It is not enough to say that because it is plant based, it is safe.  Think poison ivy.

But, wait aren’t fragrances man made?

Some decry the use of fragrance oils saying they are man made and created in a lab.  Keep in mind that handcrafted soaps fall within this category too. That is, they are man made. Some soap makers even refer to their workspace as a lab.  

Just because something is man made and produced in a lab doesn’t mean it is bad or unsafe.  In fact, it may mean the exact opposite. For example, many colorants for bath and body products are made in a lab to ensure safety and purity.  The FDA issued a list of approved colorants to make sure colors are safe for the skin.

Furthermore, soap makers who employ Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) will endeavor to create a clean work space free of contaminants. This is especially true if they create cosmetics. Essentially, they are creating a lab style environment. 

Confusion around fragrance oil labeling laws

Another complaint about the use of  fragrance oils is the  labeling laws.  Regulatory bodies allow companies trade secret protection.  Meaning, we may list “fragrance” on our ingredient label.  We are not required to list the specific blends of fragrances.  

Marketers use fear to scare consumers because fear sells. They insist that the labeling laws allow them to hide dangerous chemicals from you.  Keep in mind, the trade secret protection is to keep other companies from copycat activity.  Specifically, a company may create their own blend of essential oils. They are not required to list each essential oil.  Instead, they may list “Essential Oils” on the label.  The same applies to fragrance oils.   Bath and body companies must make sure their products are safe for consumer use.  

The Bright Hope Soaps Standard

At Bright Hope Soaps, we have an essential oil only line. Those products do not have colorant. We offer this line for those who have highly sensitive skin.  

Essential oil soaps

We also have a fragrance line because our customers asked us to expand.  After researching the safety of fragrances, we made the change. Fragrance oil suppliers offer Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) on each essential or fragrance oil sold.  This gives us the ability to vet fragrances for more questionable ingredients. We do not use phthalates, parabens or formaldehyde producing ingredients. 

Why? As we work in the studio, we expose ourselves to high levels of fragrances, essential oils, colorants and more. Alternatively, the end user gets much less exposure using a small bar.  It makes sense to vet those ingredients for our own safety as well as yours.  


Knowledge is power when it comes to making decisions about your skin care. Understanding the definitions and regulations empowers you. Finally, don’t forget to reach out to the artisan. You can easily ask them to define quality and standards for their operation.

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