• Lourdes Varadé, chemical engineer

    “Handcrafted” soaps: beware!

    5 Oct



    European Parliament

    Who has not bought “handcrafted” soaps? They are to be found everywhere, whether in specialist shops, in street markets and on the Internet. Naturally, we all want the best for our skin. But we are often driven by irrational impulses when we buy and our choices are not always right.


    It seems that what belongs to the past is always better and, right now, handcrafted goods are chic. In a rushed world where we all wear the same clothes, buy the same food and use cloned cosmetics, handcrafted goods seem to reflect a “slow” culture, with products that are meticulously made, unique, very personal and very “healthy”. And this retro movement in the cosmetic sector is waving the “handcraft” flag for products "free from harmful chemicals.” Beware, however, because this powerful marketing claim is not entirely innocuous and its compliance with legislation on cosmetics is borderline.


    What is soap?

    Soap is closely linked to the origins of civilization. Sumerian clay tablets dating from 2250 BC cite a formula consisting of five parts ash to one part oil.

    Soap is manufactured by chemical reaction, unlike other cosmetics, which are usually made by agitating mixtures. This saponification reaction is based on making a fatty acid (coconut oil, olive oil, etc.) react with an alkaline medium (lye or potash). The result is soap and, as a by-product, glycerine.  The alkaline medium was traditionally ash. My grandmother used ash mixed in a bowl with pig lard and stirred using a stick until the soap congealed.  However, there is a small “but” in the traditional process.

    Making soap involves a molecular reaction at the ratio of three parts lye to one part fatty acid. This 3:1 ratio produces a perfect reaction that results in soap and glycerine but with no lye as a by-product.  This soap is neutral for the skin.

    If you add lye or potash in bulk until the mixture congeals, however, the result is a highly alkaline soap that is very detrimental for the skin, which is characterized by a slightly acidic pH. So if we use this kind of soap the skin acquires a diametrically opposite pH and suffers two consequences:


    1. It has to restore its pH.

    2. It will age. Yes, age, because what characterizes ageing skin, in fact, is that it is more alkaline than younger skin.


    “Magical soap”

    These Granny soaps are called “magical” because they remove stains from clothing.  And why wouldn’t they? Alkaline soaps have large amounts of lye or potash, corrosive agents that are used as industrial paint strippers. Surprisingly the clothes survive the wash – but just imagine the effects on the skin.

    Undoubtedly, some handcrafted soap makers manufacture neutral soaps.  But it is still better to buy a manufactured soap with guarantees regarding correct proportions and the application of a Good Manufacturing Practices protocol. The formula should be registered with the national health authority and labelling must be correct (qualitative formula and INCI nomenclature).

    So we should only go to street market as responsible consumers, with our eyes wide open regarding “magical” handcrafted soaps.  Avoid buying:


    - Soap that promises to eliminate psoriasis, because it is illegal to sell this medical product as a cosmetic product.

    - Soap that is not labelled, because it does not comply with cosmetics legislation.

    - Soap that is fruit-shaped, with a fruit topping or with a fruity smell, because it is forbidden to create cosmetics that could be confused with food and accidentally ingested by children.


    This way we can avoid damaging our skin with a potentially corrosive product.